Friday, December 12, 2014

The Order of the Garter during the reign of George III

by Jacqui Reiter

On 12 December 1790, King George III issued orders summoning a Chapter of the Order of the Garter at St James's Palace. He then wrote a pointed reminder to his prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, who had just helped avoid war with Spain:
"Having summoned a Chapter of the Garter for Wednesday, and Mr Pitt not having been at St James's in the course of the last week, I think it necessary by this means to remind him of my having offered him one of the vacancies of that Order. When last I mentioned it, he seemed to decline it; but perhaps the conclusion of the dispute with Spain may make him see it ... as a public testominial of my approbation."[1]

Pitt declined again, but requested that his Garter be bestowed instead on his elder brother, the Earl of Chatham, First Lord of the Admiralty. The King agreed, and on Wednesday 15 December 1790 Lord Chatham joined the Foreign Secretary, the Duke of Leeds, to be invested as a Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter.

The Most Noble Order of the Garter (founded 1348) was Britain's most senior Order of Knighthood. Originally a military order, by 1790 it was a significant badge of honour, reserved to members of the royal family and men of high rank and merit. The original Order was limited to twenty-five knights in addition to the sovereign, but in 1786 this was expanded to include all male descendants of George II (because George III had so many sons).[2]

Much pageantry naturally underpinned this ancient and noble Order, although when Lord Chatham acquired his KG in 1790 much of it had fallen into abeyance.

"The habits and ensigns" 

Modern Garter robes, from here

By 1790 the Order's original medieval dress had evolved into six representative parts: the "habits" and the "ensigns". The "habits" were the mantle, the surcoat (or kirtle), and the hood and cap; the "ensigns" were the Garter, the George, and the collar.

2nd Duke of Newcastle in his Garter robes
(Wikimedia Commons)

The mantle and surcoat were patterned on the ancient Roman toga and tunic respectively. Both were made out of silk velvet lined with white taffeta: the mantle, tied loosely with two gold cordons with large tassels, was dark blue, the surcoat crimson. The mantle bore an embroidered Garter, motto ("Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense" – "Shame on him who thinks ill of it") and St George's Cross on the left breast. The crimson hood had evolved into a purely decorative splash of scarlet on the right shoulder, but knights also wore a flat black velvet cap covered in ostrich feathers and an "agrette" of black heron feathers affixed with diamonds. Under all this the knights wore silver satin clothes modelled on 16th century fashions and white leather shoes with red heels.[3]

The collar—30 troy ounces of solid gold fashioned into twenty-six enamelled red roses on a blue background, with an effigy of St George slaying the dragon hanging from the middle—was affixed to the mantle with gold hooks and eyes at the shoulder. The Garter itself, embroidered with gold thread and often picked out with pearls or precious stones, was worn "on the left Leg, a little beneath the Knee".[4]

Collar, Garter and Lesser George
Wikimedia Commons

The "full habit" (mantle, surcoat, collar, George, and Garter) was only to be worn in full at certain prescribed times, normally only installations, the three days surrounding the Feast of St George (22, 23, and 24 April), and other holy days named in the statutes of the Order.[5]

At times when not wearing the full whack, knights wore a blue silk ribband instead, wrapped over their left shoulder. From this ribband hung another effigy of St George, called the "lesser George" to distinguish it from that which hung from the collar, partially concealed under the right arm. Whereas the collar had to be plain, however, "lesser Georges" could be decorated in any way the owner wished. 

Regency-era Garter Star
Wikimedia Commons

Knights also had to display the Star of the Order, known as "the Glory", on their left breast. The points of the star, often decorated with diamonds and other jewels, represented rays of light from the Holy Spirit.[6]

Copy of John Hoppner's portrait
of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham,
wearing the blue ribbon and Star
(from here)

The Garter had to be worn at all times, on pain of a half-mark fine. The only exception was when the knights wore riding boots, and even then they had to wear a band of blue silk under their boots to represent the Garter.[7]

Becoming a knight

Nominations were frequently political, of course, but the ceremonies surrounding becoming a Knight of the Garter were intricate. First, the knight-elect was knighted with the Sword of State, since only "a Knight and [a man] without Reproach" could join the Order.[8] After being elected, the new KG had to be invested and installed before enjoying full privileges.

During the reign of George III there were, however, only three Installations, in 1762, 1771, and 1805.[9] By 1801 several knights had died uninstalled, and there were twenty-one KGs who remained half-in half-out, Lord Chatham amongst them. At the end of May 1801 the King finally issued patents installing everyone "by dispensation". Lord Chatham's patent, dated 29 May 1801, can still be seen at the National Archives.[10]

The only ceremony Chatham underwent, therefore, was that of investiture. This was "Garter lite": participants wore the Garter, mantle and chain only, and it could be held anywhere. The King sat at the head of a table covered in a crimson velvet cloth, with the Privy Council inkstands and silver before him.[11]

After being knighted, the knight-elect was taken out of the room and the election took place. This was a mere formality: each member of the Chapter inscribed nine names for the monarch to consider from all ranks of nobility and gentry. Once elected, the knight-elect was collected by the two most junior knights. Garter King of Arms presented the Garter to the King on a velvet cushion. The King tied it round the knight-elect's leg with the assistance of the two most senior knights, then slipped the blue ribbon over the head of the knight-elect.

After the investiture, a Knight was allowed to wear the Garter, ribbon and lesser George; but only after installation was he allowed to display the Star, wear the Collar and participate fully in any Chapters. During this ceremony, the new Knight was "installed" in a stall in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. His "achievements" (banner, crest, and stall plate) were erected there.[12]

The installation of 23 April 1805 

The first installation for over thirty years was particularly interesting because one of the knights-elect, Lord Hardwicke, was absent (he was lord lieutenant of Ireland), so he sent his younger brother Sir Joseph Sydney Yorke as his proxy. I can't help feeling a little sorry for Sir Isaac Heard, Garter King of Arms: appointed in 1784, he managed to miss the only installation that took place under his watch due to an accident.[13]

Six new knights were being installed, along with Hardwicke's proxy. All knights wore their full fig; the knights-elect in their silver underhabits (except for the proxy, who wore normal clothes), and paraded to the sound of kettle drums and trumpets from Windsor's Royal Apartments to the Chapel.

St George's Chapel, Windsor (1818)
Wikimedia Commons

In the Chapter-House the surcoat, girdle and sword were put on the knights-elect, after which the Knights of the Order processed into the Chapel and stood beneath their banners. The achievements of deceased members of the Order (banners, swords, helms and crests) were taken down and laid before the altar.

The senior knight-elect, the Duke of Rutland, was brought in first by the two most senior Knights. Windsor Herald, deputising for Garter King of Arms, carried the mantle, hood, collar, and book of Statutes on a cushion. The Register of the Order took Rutland through the oath, then the two senior Knights took him to his stall and clothed him in the mantle, hood, collar, and cap. They then embraced him and sat him down, and the process was repeated for the next highest-ranking man.

When Hardwicke's proxy arrived the ceremony was slightly different. Instead of clothing Yorke in the mantle, the Knights accompanying him laid it over his left arm so that the embroidered cross was visible. At the end of the ceremony Yorke remained standing with the mantle still over his arm.

After Divine Service the procession returned to the Castle for a grand dinner. The King dined under the state canopy with the princes of royal blood arrayed about him, the Knights at a separate table in order of seniority. At the end of the first course the King drank to the Knights, who stood, uncovered, while trumpets sounded a fanfare and cannons fired a salute outside. At the end of the second course Windsor Herald called "Largesse!" three times, then read out the King's style in Latin, French, and English; he then declared "Largesse" for each new member of the Order, although this time he only read the style in English.[14]


All this must have been very expensive, and I'm only slightly surprised it was only done three times during a sixty-year reign. I do feel slightly sorry for my boy Chatham, though, who never got a proper installation and who was not even permitted to wear the Star or attend a Chapter until May 1801.



[1] Earl Stanhope, The life of William Pitt II (London, 1861), Appendix, xiii

[2] George Frederick Beltz, Memorials of the Order of the Garter (London, 1841), cxxxii

[3] The clothes are described at length in Elias Ashmole, The history of the most noble Order of the Garter... (London, 1715), pp. 156-69; Thomas Robson, The British herald, or cabinet of armorial bearings... I (London, 1830), 95; William Berry, Encyclopaedia Heraldica, I (London, 1828)

[4] Ashmole, pp. 158, 173-5; Robson, 95

[5] Ashmole, pp. 184-6

[6] Ashmole, pp. 169, 180-2; Robson, 95

[7] Ashmole, pp. 136, 188; Robson, 95

[8] Ashmole, p. 133

[9] Francis Townsend, Calendar of Knights ... (London, 1828), p. 133

[10] National Archives Chatham MSS PRO 30/8/371

[11] Charles Taylor, The Literary Panorama, and National Register... II (London, 1807), 1079

[12] The ceremonies of investiture are described in Robson, p. 96. Lord Chatham's installation in December 1790 is described in the Times, 17 December 1790

[13] Robson, 96

[14] The ceremony is described at length in Robson, pp. 96-9; also in Ceremoniale at the Installation of the Knights of the Garter in the Chapel of St George within the Castle of Windsor (London, 1757)


Jacqui Reiter has a Phd in 18th century political history. She believes she is the world expert on the life of the 2nd Earl of Chatham, and is writing a novel about his relationship with his brother Pitt the Younger. When she finds time she blogs about her historical discoveries at

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