Order of the Garter
Honi soit qui mal y pense
Evil to him who thinks evil of it
Edward III established the Order of the Garter on St George’s Day 1349, his aim to bind into a brotherhood a select group of knights, twenty-five in all.
An honourable intent?
The Black Death raged across Europe. The monks in their monasteries, the lords in their manor halls and castles – the king’s own family – the paupers, the hard-working, the idlers, indiscriminate of whom it infected, the plague wiped out between a third and half of all England’s population. Famine and starvation followed. Yet the king ordered a grand tournament – the main event to be a battle to decide which of the countess of Salisbury’s two husbands had the legal right! And for the accompanying festivities the king’s court dressed in their finest. Unsurprising, the monks, clerics and priors objected.
There is a story that the king was inspired to use the Garter as symbol when the countess of Salisbury dropped a garter during a dance. Picking up this blush-worthy item the king declared, “Honi soit qui mal y pense!”
The story arose as criticism of the court’s frivolities while the rest of land suffered, died and rotted. But the story ignores an important fashion note: In 1349 it was the men who wore garters. Gem-encrusted, they were an essential accessory for any knight who wished to cut a figure at court.
Edward III was the seventh Plantagenet king. The first, Henry II, had an empire that stretched from Provence in the south to Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Now Edward III struggled to hold Gascony. Yet he was grandson to King Philip IV of France. He was the legitimate heir when, in 1328, the third of his mother’s brothers died. But he was also a 16 year old boy dominated by a power-hungry mother and her lover. So while he struggled to be free of Queen Isabella’s stranglehold and to establish his rule in England, Philip VI of the House of Valois planted his own derrière upon the French throne.
It was to gain his lost French throne that Edward initiated the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). Yet he battled as much with his barons and earls, reluctant to serve overseas, as with the French. He needed their unfailing support. The Order of the Garter offered a solution. Initiated into this most select order of knighthood, these few at least could not refuse him when thereafter he asked them to fight ‘over the seas’.
Edward was much taken with all things Arthurian. He built St Georges’ Chapel at Windsor to serve as the spiritual home for this ‘Round Table’ of knights he had created. He instigated the Arthurian tournaments. He named his eldest son Lionel after the Arthurian character. So it seems most likely that the symbol of the Garter, far from being an item of feminine attire, was taken from the ‘girdle’ as used in the Middle English poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Though I would disagree with the author of the Wikipedia article on the Order of the Garter who suggests an erotic connection. The girdle was a belt, the baldric upon which the knight’s sword was hung, hence the term ‘girding a knight’. Also, Alfonso of Castile had recently created the Order of the Band which used this very same symbol.
The misunderstanding that surround the birth of the Order of the Garter illustrates well Edward’s chosen motto: Honi soit qui mal y pense: Evil to him who thinks evil of it. Though perhaps it might be better paraphrased as ‘Evil returns to he who plans evil’. I am also minded of a character in Reverend Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies: Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid.