I decided to write about Edward III and the foundation of the Order of the Garter to mark the upcoming release of The King's Concubine in the USA on 5th June, 2012, apart from it being a fascinating event in its own right and full of potential scandal. Royal scandals always make good press ...
The years 1348 and 1349 were not good ones for the English royal family or for England. In 1349 plague raged. The Black Death ravaged the population, with 200 people being buried in the London plague pits every day. Nor was the plague a respecter of age or wealth or rank. King Edward III and Queen Philippa lost a daughter to the terrible disease. Only 14 years old, she was on her way to wed Pedro of Castile when news reached her distraught parents that she had died in Bordeaux.
And yet on St George's day, 1349, in the midst of this disaster, King Edward completed the foundation of the Order of the Garter. Twenty six of the greatest knights in the country were invested at a great tournament held at Windsor. They vowed to joust and pray together once a year and conduct themselves in the chivalrous manner of the knights of King Arthur's Round Table. One of the first to be admitted was Edward's much-loved first born son and heir, Edward of Woodstock, later called The Black Prince. This fine illustration shows an intimate scene between father and son.
But why choose a time of such grief to hold an event of this nature?
A new chivalric order had been much in Edward's mind for some years, and it is thought that he chose this exact time to give England and his own family a highly ceremonial and blood-stirring event to over-shadow the sorrows of the plague. The knights became part of the most prestigious and exclusive order of knighthood in Europe. The famous motto of the Order - honi soit qui mal y pense - was deliberately in French, not only because it was a language familiar to most educated members of society but also it signalled that knights from Gascony and Hainault would be admitted too.
And now for the scandal .... Tradition says the Joan, the Fair maid of Kent, Countess of Salisbury and eventual wife of Edward of Woodstock, recognised as the most beautiful woman in England in her day, was there to bestow her favours on the knights. The story goes that she dropped her garter at a ball. King Edward promptly rescued it, with the words 'honi soit qui mal y pense' (evil comes to he who thinks evil) as a warning to anyone who suspected that he was holding a lady's undergarment for all the wrong reasons. It was also suggested that Edward was romantically involved with the Countess. In this splendid artist's impression of the occasion - not contemporary! - we see Edward with the notorious garter, Philippa glowering magnificently at the back, while Joan simpers and looks coy.
This might be a thoroughly scandalous scene - with much to be enjoyed in it - but it is unlikely to be true. The role of the Countess and the addition of her name did not appear until the 15th Century and is thought to have been a French attempt at anti-English propaganda. The motto had nothing to do with Joan, nor were garters a particularly female item of attire. We know that Edward himself wore garters - he ordered some pearl ones for his own use in the early 1330s. A garter was the perfect and obvious choice as a symbol for the Order because it could be worn over plate armour and be highly visible.
But that does not mean that there was no scandal attached to this tournament, and it certainly surrounded the Countess of Salisbury. Young and beautiful, she had two husbands to her name, both of whom were present in the lists. Sir Thomas Holland and the Earl of Salisbury could both legitimately claim marriage with Joan, and neither had been annulled. Furthermore Thomas Holland was acting as steward in the Salisbury household - what an astonishing menage a trois that must have been! So when the knights fought for the honour and recognition of the woman of their choice, at least two of those in the lists would be competing for the wayward attentions of Joan of Kent.
Now, there's a great story worthy of a blog on its own. Another day ...
Today, the blue cloaks with their white linings and the plumed hats need no description since the Order of the Garter still exists as a great honour and the members can be seen parading through Windsor to St George's Chapel. Here are Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip looking suitable majestic in their robes.
The King's Concubine, a novel of Alice Perrers, will be released in the USA on 5th June, 2012.