Monday is Garter Day in the UK, when the twelve Knights of the Order of the Garter – the highest order of chivalry whose mebers include Prince William and Prince Charles - process through the grounds of Windsor Castle, to the private chapel, for a special church service.
Thanks to their fabulous attire – black velvet mantles and hats decorated with white Ostrich feathers – the annual event has become one of the highlights of the Royal year for lovers of British pageantry.
To look forward to the showstopping parade next week, the Royalist is pleased to bring you a guest post by Stephanie Trigg, Professor of English Literature at the University of Melbourne, whose new book, Shame and Honor: A Vulgar History of the Order of the Garter, has recently been published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.
The processions and ceremonies of the British monarchy are famous for their military precision and dramatic spectacle and the combination of heraldic tradition and modern celebrity culture. These spectacles are planned with aching attention to detail. The distances between knives, forks and spoons on the banqueting table are measured with a ruler; and even the most casual walk is carefully stage-managed. The Queen prefers not to walk on gravel, and so for a recent visit to the Temple church in London, the gravel paths in the garden were replaced with concrete (which was then duly ripped up after the royal visit).
One of the most elaborate events on the royal calendar is the annual procession and feast of the Order of the Garter at Windsor Castle, which takes place on Monday. Members of the royal family and a small company of the Queen’s hand-picked favorites walk from the main castle to St George’s Chapel. They wear long dark blue velvet robes, lined with white silk and tied with long, hanging gold cords, draped with a red velvet hood, and festooned with white silk bows on their shoulders. They wear a heavy gold and enamelled chain over their shoulders; and black velvet hats, festooned with fluttering white ostrich feathers. After the service, when any new members are formally ‘installed’ and shown to their allocated place in the Chapel, they are driven back up the hill for a formal feast.
And all this is in honor of a piece of woman’s underwear.
The Order of the Garter has had a continuous history since Edward III founded the Order in 1348. Scholars agree that the Order was founded to reward knights who had fought with Edward at the battle of Crécy and to encourage further valor, but there is much disagreement about his choice of motto — Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense — and his emblem: a blue garter, tied below the left knee.
The most persistent story about the Garter was first recorded in the fifteenth century. According to this ‘popular tradition’, the king was dancing with a woman — possibly his mistress — at a court ball when the garter holding up her stocking fell off. While the courtiers snickered at her embarrassment, the king courteously picked up the offending item, tied it around his own leg and swore to found a chivalric order that would pay honor to the occasion, and to the lady and all her descendants. The French-speaking King finished his speech with the words: ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ (Shamed be he who thinks evil of this).
Many heralds dispute this story, unwilling to taint the ‘Most Noble Order of the Garter’ by association with this embarrassing and very female occasion, saying Edward would hardly have founded such a great order on such a trivial event.
But the garter myth actively celebrates the monarchy’s capacity to make something grand out of something trivial, or accidental. It is an example of insouciant royal play, and the fun of something going wrong. In a life so regulated by convention, duty and ceremony, who could blame any monarch, in the fourteenth or the twenty-first century, for enjoying moments of misrule or accident?
It’s not only the origins that are lunatic, of course: the elaborate robes and rituals of the procession can go wrong in many ways. When Prince William made his first appearance in Garter robes in 2009, Prince Harry and Kate Middleton were seen giggling together as William pursed his lips into a thin line of embarrassment, still learning how to walk with dignity in such elaborate clothes. Older members of the Order – and there are plenty of them, for once you are appointed, you remain a member till death - sometimes struggle, too, under their weight.
As the Duke of Edinburgh commented on the Order’s festivities, ‘It’s a nice piece of pageantry which I think a lot of people enjoy. Rationally it’s lunatic but in practice everyone enjoys it I think.’
The Queen enjoys the silliness of it, too. When John Major, former PM, was invested with his Garter insignia, he said, ‘I love the story,’ and the Queen replied, ‘Yes it’s fun, isn’t it?’
The Order of the Garter not only celebrates misrule and accident but also goes to show that wardrobe malfunctions have a part to play in Royal history too.