Most Noble Order of the Garter
Honi Soit qui Mal y Pense
Jean Froissart wrote in his Chronicles that "His like had not been seen since the days of King Arthur".
The truth behind the formation of this noble order is veiled in several stories from the noble to the romantic. The motto; Honi Soit qui Mal y Pense, "Shame to him who thinks ill of it.", leaves room for the imagination. Edward III reveled in the ethos of the Arthurian tales. He desired to bring about a brotherhood of unity bound by a code chivalry.
Froissart's account, tells us:
"The King of England took pleasure to new re-edify the Castle of Windsor, the which was begun by King Arthur, and there first began the Table Round, whereby sprang the fame of so many noble knights throughout all the World. Then King Edward determined to make an Order and a Brotherhood ….. to be called Knights of the Blue Garter, and a feast to be kept yearly on St. George's Day."
In 1344 Edward III inspired by his interest in the Arthurian legends made an announcement during a spectacular jousting tournament. It was a tournament where the King and 19 Knights fought all who would challenge them for 3 days. By the end he proclaimed he was forming a special Order that would renew King Arthur's fraternity of knights with all of the paragons of knightly virtues.
Construction was begun on a massive circular building two hundred feet across as home to his Round Table. But the hand of fate intervened. It wasn't long before war with France brought his dream to a halt were it slumbered for a more peaceful time.
Edward picked up his earlier plans in 1348 of a great hall dedicated to St George at Windsor Castle.
The Most Noble Order of the Garter was born on the feast of St George's day 23rd April 1348. The order dedicated to St. George was housed in
Windsor Castle. The order consisted of the King and 25 knights it was made up of the Sovereign, and the Prince of Wales; each with 12 companions, all having served in the French campaigns.
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.
The first record of a Round Table festive event was in 1223, when the Crusader lord of Beirut held one in Cyprus to celebrate the knighting of his eldest sons. These festivals generally involved jousts and melees to celebrate victories, wedding and other occasions of great meaning. Participants dressed as the legendary knights of King Arthurs Court.
Edward I held two; one for his marriage, and one in 1284 to celebrate his conquest of Wales. The "Winchester Round Table" in the Great Hall at Winchester Castle remains from Edward I time. The timber of this table has been dated by tree-ring dating to 1275, during Edward's reign.
The present "Winchester Round Table" was painted and modified to its current state in 1522 by order of King Henry VIII
What is In a Name......
Many stories have been told regarding the origin and meaning of the name 'The Order of The Garter'. It is an enigma, hidden in elusive stories passed down with no acknowledged answer. The earliest records of the order were destroyed by fire. The stories range from the romantic and scandalous, to simple and mundane. So the best I can offer you dear readers is to lay out the most prominent in the orders of likely hood *in my opinion, least likely to most likely.*
There was a legend at that time: King Richard I fighting in the Crusades. Tied garters around the legs of his knights, who subsequently won the battle. King Edward supposedly recalled the event in the 14th century when he founded the Order. This story is recounted in a letter to the Annual Register in 1774:
"In Rastel's Chronicle, I. vi. under the life of Edward III is the following curious passage: "About the 19 yere of this kinge, he made a solempne feest at Wyndesore, and a greate justes and turnament, where he devysed, and perfyted substanegally, the order of the knyghtes of the garter; howe be it some afferme that this order began fyrst by kynge Rycharde, Cure de Lyon, at the sege of the citye of Acres; where, in his great necessyte, there were but 26 knyghtes that fyrmely and surely abode by the kynge; where he caused all them to were thonges of blew leyther about theyr legges. And afterwarde they were called the knyghtes of the blew thonge." I am obliged for this passage to John Fenn, Esq; a curious and ingenious gentleman of East-Dereham, in Norfolk, who is in possession of the most rare book whence it is taken. Hence some affirm, that the origin of the garter is to be dated from Richard I* and that it owes its pomp and splendor to Edward III.
*Winstanley, in his Life of Edward III says that the original book of the institution deduces the invention from King Richard the First."
This popular story is the one I have the least amount of faith in. This is almost certainly a later fiction. The fable appears to have originated in France and was, perhaps, invented to try and bring discredit on the Order.
The story goes that at a Ball held in Calais, Joan Countess of Salisbury, or Joan the Fair Maid of Kent, dropped her garter and King Edward picked it up and bound it about his own leg remarking; "Honi soit qui mal y pense" (Shame on he who thinks evil of this)
- Scholars have made a connection between the Order of the Garter and the Middle English poem, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight". In "Gawain", a girdle plays a prominent role. A rough version of the Order's motto,"Shamed be the person who thinks evil of it.", also appears in the text. It translates from Old French as "Accursed be a cowardly and covetous heart." Edward III was prone to renovating Arthurian lore.
Historians and scholars have suggested that the garter may have originated with the leather straps used to fasten pieces of armour. The College of St George's states on their page; "This phrase, the motto of the order, actually refers to the king's claim to the French throne, a claim which the Knights of the Garter were created to help prosecute. As to the emblem of the Garter, it may perhaps be less interestingly, derived from the straps used to fasten plates of armour."
While far from romantic, given the military focus of the Order, that seems the most likely answer.
While none of these theories have, nor seem likely to be, proven or unproven. It is left to each ones imagination where it all began.
So what does your heart and mind tell you? I know mine seldom agree
King Edward III's Original Round Table Building Found
In August 2006, Oxford Archaeology (OA) carried out archaeological investigations on behalf of Wildfire TV/Time Team/Channel 4 in the UpperWard at Windsor Castle. Evidence was unearthed for Edward III’s Round Table building. The work was carried on by Oxford Archaeology supervised by Richard Brown.
The report states: "The large curving robber trench in Trench 3 and its associated floor preparation and make up levels recorded in all the trenches can only be the remains of Edward III’s Round Table building. This is supported by pottery dates, architectural fragments and the geophysical survey results. Little can be inferred from the depth of the robber trench which sensibly is cut deep enough to allow foundation of the structure on the geological bedrock. The width of the trench (2.5 m) however does indicate a structure of sufficient size to support a building of some height or more than one-storey."
Richard Barber, in his book Edward III's Round Table at Windsor; writes that 'The discovery of the foundation trench of a great building two hundred feet in diameter in the Upper Ward of Windsor castle has given evidence of the work haven begun.'
The Monarchy Today – Queen and Public – Honours – The Order of the Garter". The Royal Household
College of St George – Windsor Castle – Orders of Chivalry". College of St George – Windsor Castle.
Capon, Brian (2005). Botany for Gardeners (2nd ed.) & Portland Timber Publishing. pp. 66–67
Hope,W St J Windsor Castle, An Architectural History Vols. I and II , London 1913
RICHARD BARBER, RICHARD BROWN, and JULIAN MUNBY, Edward III's Round Table at Windsor. Woodbridge, UK, and Rochester, NY: The Boydell Press, 2007
Anne Marie Bouchard
31 January 2015