Tag Archives: Knights of the Garter

A Knight of the Garter

The Round Table, Great Hall, Winchester

It’s not often that something that happened in the fourteenth century causes controversy in the twenty-first, but that’s exactly what happened this year when the New Year’s Honours List was announced. A word of explanation for those not in the UK. There are two Honours Lists every year, one announced in January and one in June, on the Queen’s official birthday. Another word of explanation. The Queen, like me, was born in April. Her official birthday celebrates the date of her coronation.

The Honours Lists name people who have been awarded honours, that is they become things such as a Companion of Honour, a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, an Officer of the British Empire, a Member of the Order of the British Empire and so on. As you can tell from the word ‘empire’, the honours originated some time ago. Recipients are nominated by the government, but many are nominated by members of the public. They’re usually awarded in recognition of the recipients’ services to a specific area. This year one of the awards went to the Chief Medical Officer for England for services to public health. Others were for services to cycling and sailing, for services to drama, for services to the food supply chain, for services to glaciology and climate change research and for services to literature. I hope you’re starting to get the picture.

It is not with these honours that this year’s controversy arises, however, but with the Queen’s decision to admit ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair to the Order of the Garter. A petition was immediately set up to ask the government to rescind the award, showing that the signatories hadn’t done much research. The government can do nothing about it, since the award is entirely within the Queen’s gift.

The Order of the Garter is one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. It only ever has twenty-four members plus the monarch and the Prince of Wales, if there is one. At the moment it doesn’t even have twenty-four members. Now we’re ready for the history.

The order was instituted by Edward III in 1348 (possibly 1349) after the Black Death arrived in England. Edward was good at uniting those who served him and fought beside him, and the Order of the Garter was very successful in this regard. He had a keen interest in King Arthur and a previous attempt to create an order of chivalry had focused on the Round Table. The Round Table pictured above was not King Arthur’s, but was created at the behest of Edward III’s grandfather, Edward I, probably to be used for feasting during a tournament in Winchester held to celebrate the conquest of Wales.

The founding members of the order were chosen, according to what you believe, either because of their acts on the battlefield or because they were originally the members of two tournament teams, one made up of members of the king’s household and his friends and the other made up of members of the household of the Prince of Wales and his friends. I suspect that it was a mixture of both. Either way, rank wasn’t important at first. One of the founding members was the Prince of Wales’s standard-bearer at the battle of Crécy, who probably saved his life there. Another founding member was Henry Grosmont, second cousin to the king, whose preparation to go and fight in southwest France we learned about here. Not all of them were English, either. Jean de Grailly was a Gascon, Eustace d’Ambrecicourt was a Picard and Henry Eam was Dutch.

Although the original members were knights, the requirements of the order were mainly religious. If they were in Windsor, they had to hear Mass in the Garter Chapel and they were to celebrate the feast of St George together. Sometimes this celebration included a tournament.

A great deal of trust arose between these men that was lacking among the leaders of most of the armies they faced. Many of them were friends and they spent a lot of time together. This enabled them to make decisions when on campaign in the knowledge that they would be supported by one another, and was probably one of the reasons why English armies were so successful in the first few years of the Hundred Years War.

Then, as now, a new member could only be admitted after the death of an existing member, something that happened to three of the original members within a year or so, probably due to the Black Death.

The order was founded at Windsor Castle, birthplace of Edward III. Legend had it that the castle had been built by King Arthur, although this legend is unlikely to predate 1348.

Sources:
A Great and Terrible King by Marc Morris
The Black Prince by Michael Jones
Edward III by W. Mark Ormrod

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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A Garter and Chivalry

Edward III and the garter

Edward III was his father’s son and the early years of his reign, at least, were informed by the disastrous end of his father’s. Edward III was at pains to show that he was a different kind of king in the hope of hanging on to his crown… and his life.

Although far from a coward, Edward II didn’t seem to enjoy fighting as much as his son and he certainly possessed none of Edward III’s military genius. Edward II had little in common with his barons, and his wife and her lover found it fairly easy to depose him and then murder him. Edward III wished to escape a similar fate.

The creation of the Order of the Knights of the Garter was an important step in the process of creating a new kind of kingship for England. Edward had been considering ways in which to bind his knights to one another and to him for some time. He had originally considered something similar to the Round Table. Arthurian legends were popular at the time and it wouldn’t hurt the king to be considered a second Arthur.

In the end he decided to create a chivalric order that included an element of the spiritual.

After the surprising military successes of 1346 (victories against the French at Crécy and the Scots at Neville’s Cross) the king was in a position to his ideas into effect and the Order was created on St George’s Day 1349 (probably).

There are only ever 24 Knights of the Garter, plus the monarch and the Prince of Wales. These days they tend to be rather elderly – 4 are in their 90s and the youngest is 64. When the first Knights of the Garter were created they were much younger, mostly in their 20s. The Black Prince was 18 and the king himself was one of the oldest at 36.

The first knights included men who had fought beside the king and the Prince in France, such as the earl of Lancaster (the king’s most trusted general), the earl of Warwick, the Captal de Buch (a trusted Gascon lord) and the Prince’s friends Sir John Chandos and Sir James Audley, as well as Thomas Holland, first husband of Joan of Kent who later married the Prince.

The Knights would meet on St George’s day, usually at Windsor and their meeting would often be accompanied by a tournament. The tournament provided a spectacular entertainment for those in attendance, but it also had a more serious purpose. The Order of the Garter was an order of chivalry and the tournament allowed its members to demonstrate their chivalry by feats of arms.

Orders of knighthood were being formed in other European countries at the time, as the modern methods of warfare were beginning to make their rôle in it less important. Soldiers were being paid rather than providing their services as a feudal duty and had little personal loyalty to those who paid them.

The Garter Knights have a motto ‘Hony soi qui mal y pense’, which probably refers to Edward III’s claim to the French throne. Since one of the objects of the Order was to bind the members to him so that they would support him in foreign wars, this makes sense. It means ‘Shamed be he who thinks evil of it’.

No one knows why the garter was chosen as the emblem, although there are lots of theories, some of them rather salacious. It probably symbolized something relating, again, to the king’s claim to the French throne.

Windsor was important to Edward III as it was his birthplace. It was also his favorite residence outside London, although Woodstock, where three of his children were born, including the Black Prince, was another place where he liked to stay. It was in Windsor that he chose to institute the Order and where he built their spiritual home, which reflected the increasing attribution of English military success to St George and the cross of St George was used to represent the king as much as his own royal standard.

One of the more surprising things about the institution of the Order is that it happened while England was in the grip of the Black Death. It’s easy to imagine that everything just stopped for the time during which Europe was expecting the world to end, but things did continue, although there were some comments from contemporary chroniclers that this might not be the best time for what many considered frivolity. Since he lost one of his much-loved daughters to the Black Death, Edward III was as aware as anyone else of the impact the plague was having on the country.

The kind of kingship he created certainly worked for him. Unlike his predecessor and his successor, he died a natural death and was king for 50 years.

 

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