Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Elusive History of the Order of the Garter

By Rosanne E. Lortz

Honi soit qui mal y pense – Shamed be the one who thinks evil of it.” So reads the motto of the famous Order of the Garter, a society of knights established by Edward III, the English king who began the Hundred Years’ War with France. But what does the motto refer to and why did Edward choose it? That question is just one of the many surrounding the foundation of the Garter Order.

According to historian Elizabeth Hallam, the inspiration for chivalric orders like the Order of the Garter came from “the imagination of a 12th-century Norman churchman, Wace, who added the story of the Round Table to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fictional history of King Arthur.” The stories of the Knights of the Round Table spread far and wide as other writers took Wace’s idea and elaborated on it. “During the 13th century knights in tournaments adopted the roles and fictional coats of arms of Arthur and his knights. ‘Round Tables’ were set up at many English tournaments,” and this playacting eventually “led to knights forming more regular tourneying brotherhoods: the golf clubs of their age.”

Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster,
2nd Member of the Order dressed in
Garter robes
Edward III, who was fond of holding these “Round Table” tournaments, eventually moved to create an official society that would mimic King Arthur’s legendary brotherhood of knights. The Order of the Garter was founded in 1344 (if we are to believe Jean Froissart), in 1350 (if we are to believe Geoffrey le Baker), or in 1348 (if we piece together some of the expenditures in the Royal Exchequer). This discrepancy in sources may seem amusing at first, until you realize that the date of establishment is only one of many knots historians must untangle as they weave together a history of the Order.

Froissart, a contemporary of King Edward’s, gives us this glimpse of the establishment:
At that time King Edward of England conceived the idea of altering and rebuilding the great castle of Windsor, originally built by King Arthur, and where had first been established the noble Round Table, from which so many fine men and brave knights had gone forth and performed great deeds throughout the world. King Edward’s intention was to found an order of knights, made up of himself and his sons and the bravest and noblest in England. There would be forty of them in all and they would be called the Knights of the Blue Garter and their feast was to be held every year at Windsor on St George’s Day. To institute the feast, the King called together the earls, barons and knights of the whole country and told them of his intentions and of his great desire to see them carried out. They agreed with him wholeheartedly, because they thought it an honourable undertaking and one which would strengthen the bonds of friendship among them. Forty knights were then chosen from among the most gallant of them all and these swore a solemn oath to the King always to observe the feast and the statutes, as these were agreed and drawn up. 
Henry VIII surrounded by the Garter Knights
Geoffrey le Baker, also a contemporary chronicler, gives his own description of the establishment of the Order and highlights the importance of the garter in their knightly regalia: “All these men, together with the king, were dressed in robes of russet and wore garters of dark blue on their right legs. The robes of the order were completed by a blue mantle, embroidered with the arms of St George.”

Nowadays, the garter is associated almost exclusively with women’s lingerie. How did it come to be the symbol of a chivalric order for an English king and his knights? Here we find yet another confusing tile in the mosaic of the Order’s history.

One legend, written down by Polydore Vergil in 1534, gives this romantic rationale:
[P]opular tradition nowadays declares that Edward at some time picked up from the ground a garter from the stocking of his queen or mistress, which had become unloosed by some chance, and had fallen. As some of the knights began to laugh and jeer on seeing this, he is reputed to have said that in a very little while the same garter would be held by them in the highest honour. And not long after, he is said to have founded this order and given it the title by which he showed those knights who had laughed at him how to judge his actions. Such is popular tradition. 
The romantic elements of the story continued to grow over time. By the end of the sixteenth century, Joan of Kent, the Countess of Salisbury (she who would later marry the Black Prince), had become the celebrated beauty whose garter fell to the floor while dancing with the king. And the chivalrous Edward responded to his jeering courtiers with the same words which he would make the motto of the Order: “Honi soit qui mal y pense – Shamed be the one who thinks evil of it.”

How much stock should be put in this story is difficult to say. Some historians partially accept it, but state that the woman referred to was actually Joan of Kent’s mother-in-law (another Countess of Salisbury for whom King Edward was reputed to have a violent passion). Others discount the story altogether as a tale too fantastical and too anachronistic. Richard Barber, a historian of the latter school, writes:
The word ‘garter’ is extremely rare, and indeed only appears once before the foundation of the Order…here it is applied to an item of apparel worn by fashionable squires to keep up their hose…. I have found only one piece of evidence of ladies wearing garters before the fifteenth century: in 1389, the prostitutes of Toulouse were to wear a badge of a garter by royal decree – once again, there is a suggestion of political mockery and propaganda [i.e. the French making fun of Edward III and his already-established Order]. 
After arguing that the garter was not commonly worn by women during the fourteenth century, Barber goes on to say that the garter of this time period was a much different item of dress than we would think of as a garter today.
The form of the garter, as shown in the earliest known representation, is also unusual: it is a miniature belt, with buckle and perforated tongue, hardly a purely practical item of clothing. Later garters were usually a strip of cloth or silk, tied in a knot. I would tentatively suggest that the design is connected with the knight’s belt, one of the insignia used in the ceremony of knighthood. 
Those who accept Barber’s opinion, that the symbol of the Garter was a masculine one, a piece of equipment typically worn by knights, must still find an explanation for the Order’s motto: “Honi soit qui mal y pense – Shamed be the one who thinks evil of it.” If the episode of a lady dropping her garter never occurred, then what motivated Edward to choose this phrase?

Philip IV
A plausible answer to this question can be found in Edward III’s claim to the French throne. In 1328, the last son of the French king Philip IV died, leaving no male heir. Edward III of England, as the son of Philip IV’s daughter Isabella, considered himself next in line for the French crown. The French, however, had already chosen Philip VI, nephew to Philip IV and grandson to Philip III, to be their ruler.

The laws of inheritance during this time period varied by country and were hotly disputed within France itself, but suffice it to say that there were more quibbles with Edward’s claim than the fact that he was English. In 1337, he invaded France in an attempt to take the French crown by force and began the conflict now known as the Hundred Years’ War. The Order of the Garter, whether it was founded in 1344, 1348, or 1350, came onto the scene during the first phase of this war, and all of its founding members were English nobility who would take part in the fight against France. Its motto, “Shamed be the one who thinks evil of it,” could very well be a gauntlet thrown at those naysayers who denied Edward’s claim to the crown.

Although the real events surrounding the founding of this Order may never be totally proved, it is indisputably acknowledged that the Order of the Garter is the most famous and longest lasting society of chivalry in the world. On April 23, 2008, Prince William was appointed the one thousandth member of the group. The video below shows the procession of the Garter Knights on the day Prince William was inducted into the Order. Some of the vestments have changed to accommodate the more modern clothing of our own time, but one can still see the blue mantle described by Geoffrey le Baker. And if you look closely at the circular badge attached to that mantle, you will see that enigmatic motto still in use: “Honi soit qui mal y pense – Shamed be the one who thinks evil of it.”


Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince. Set against the turbulent backdrop of the Hundred Years' War, I Serve chronicles the story of Sir John Potenhale. A young Englishman of lowly birth, Potenhale wins his way to knighthood on the fields of France. He enters the service of Edward, the Black Prince of Wales, and immerses himself in a stormy world of war, politics, and romantic intrigue. The Order of the Garter makes an appearance in the book as the Black Prince is invested by his father as the first member of the society.

You can learn more about Rosanne's books at her Official Author Website where she also blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.


Barber, Richard. Edward, Prince of Wales and Aquitaine: A Biography of the Black Prince. Great Britain: The Boydell Press, 1978.

Froissart, Jean. Chronicles. Translated and edited by Geoffrey Brereton. London: Penguin Books, 1978.

Hallam, Elizabeth, ed. Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry. London: Salamander Books, Ltd., 2002.


  1. Really fascinating blog post - Loved all the different sources you used.

    I have heard of the Countess of Salisbury reason for the Order of the Garter but not the other more plausible reasons.

    The French prostitutes being ordered to wear a blue garter is quite funny and definitely a mocking-the-English move by the French.

    P x

  2. I think there is something in the 'sword belt' theory. I have seen some early depictions of the Garter Emblem on Coats of Arms and it certainly looks like a Belt to me. It has a buckle and everything.
    One Historian came up with the explanation that it might have been a type of Leather Thong used for fastening armour.

  3. I love the humor of the garter being a lady's. Neat stuff!

    Thanks for sharing!


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