The Order of the Garter is the most senior, and oldest, British Order of Chivalry. It was founded by Edward III in 1348 and consists of the King and twenty-five knights to be reserved as the highest reward for loyalty and for military merit. Like The Prince of Wales (the Black Prince), the other founder-knights had all served in the French campaigns of the time, including the battle of Crécy – three were foreigners who had previously sworn allegiance to the English king: four of the knights were under the age of 20 and few were much over the age of 30.
The origin of the emblem of the Order, a blue garter, is obscure. It is said to have been inspired by an incident which took place whilst the King danced with Joan, Countess of Salisbury. The Countess’s garter fell to the floor and after the King retrieved it he tied it to his own leg. Those watching this were apparently amused, but the King admonished them saying, ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ (Shame on him who thinks this evil). This then became the motto of the Order. Modern scholars think it is more likely that the Order was inspired by the strap used to attach pieces of armour, and that the motto could well have referred to critics of Edward’s claim to the throne of France.
The patron saint of the Order is St George – the patron saint of soldiers and also of England – and the spiritual home of the Order is St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Every knight is required to display a banner of his arms in the Chapel, together with a helmet, crest and sword and an enamelled stallplate. These ‘achievements’ are taken down on the knight’s death (and the insignia are returned to the Sovereign), but the stallplates remain as a memorial and these now constitute one of the finest collections of heraldry in the world.
Every June the Knights of the Garter gather at Windsor Castle and the new knights take the oath and are then invested with their insignia.
First a Chapter meeting is held in the throne room of the castle, at which The Queen invests new Companions with the Garter insignia. The Queen is accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales, the Princess Royal, the Duke of Gloucester and the Duke of Kent, with Knights Companions and officers of the Order.
After the meeting, The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh entertain members and officers of the Order to lunch in the Waterloo Chamber before the Queen and the other members of the company assemble in St George’s Hall, marshalled by one of the heralds, before walking through the upper, middle and lower wards of the castle to St George’s Chapel. All wear the Garter’s traditional flowing blue velvet robes, hoods of red velvet worn over the right shoulder, and black velvet hats with white feathers.
A lunch follows in the Waterloo Chamber, after which the knights process to a service in St George’s Chapel. They, wear their blue velvet robes and the badge of the Order – St George’s Cross within the Garter surrounded by radiating silver beams – on the left shoulder and black velvet hat with white plumes. The Queen, as Sovereign of the Order, attends the service along with other members of the Royal family in the Order, including the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales and the Queen’s daughter, the Princess Royal.
A fanfare of trumpets announces the arrival on foot of the main procession, led by the Constable and Governor of Windsor Castle and the Military Knights of Windsor. Bands of the Household Division play as the procession passes dismounted squadrons of the Household Cavalry, lining the route in their scarlet ceremonial uniforms.
After the chapel service, which is relayed via loudspeakers to the crowds, there is an open-carriage procession back up the hill.
The Garter Service for 2017 has been cancelled to allow the State Opening of Parliament to take place on Monday 19th June 2017 following the results of the General Election held on Thursday 8th June 2017
The next Garter Service will take place on Monday 11th June 2018.