At Windsor Castle, Will, now the Earl of Salisbury, preened in his new robe, powdered with little blue garters. “How do you like it, sister?”
“It suits you well,” Bess said absently, though she was not even looking at her brother but at her wedding ring. Recalling herself, she added, “Particularly with your new beard.”
Will grinned and stroked it.
Bess had a habit these days of talking to Hugh in her head, and she’d had a fine conversation with him about the king’s ridiculous new scheme, which as far as Bess could tell was simply another excuse for men to dress up in matching robes and joust. “Order of the Garter?” she had asked Hugh. “Could he have found a sillier name?”
“Order of the Breech-cloth,” Hugh had suggested. Then, “Now, now, Bess. Remember the motto. Honi soit qui mal y pense.”
Bess scowled. Yet she could not deny that if Hugh had been alive and wearing one of the silly garters on his leg, she’d probably not found it ridiculous at all.
See? I really am writing something else, and that was an excerpt to prove it.
Elizabeth de Montacute and her brother William, of course, are speaking of the founding of the Order of the Garter. Enduring as the order has been, its origins are peculiarly obscure.
The long-cherished story, of course, is that while dancing, the lovely Countess of Salisbury (either Joan the Fair Maid of Kent or her mother-in-law, Katherine de Montacute) lost her garter, to her great embarrassment. Edward III gallantly came to her rescue, holding the garter aloft and proclaiming to all and sundry, “Honi soit qui mal y pense.” (“Shame on he who thinks ill of it.”) Thereafter, the king put the garter and his comment to good use when he decided to form a highly selective chivalric order. Recent historians, those killjoys, have cast doubt on this story and even on whether women wore garters at all in the 1340’s (though I find this latter point unconvincing; surely they had to have something with which to hold up their hose). Instead, they’ve suggested, the motto refers to those who thought ill of Edward III’s claim to the French throne, the garter to an item of knightly apparel. Ian Mortimer, whose biography of Edward III, The Perfect King, contains a thorough discussion of the Order of the Garter (and to whom this modest blog post is heavily indebted), also points out that Edward III had worn pearl garters in the 1330’s and that Henry of Grosmont, later Duke of Lancaster, had a liking for them as well.
If that’s not bad enough, no one’s sure exactly when the order originated. Though at one time it was held to have its origins in the Round Table festivities of 1344, the current consensus seems to be that the order was founded sometime in 1348 and that its first assembly took place on April 23, 1349, at Windsor Castle. To confuse things just a little more, in 1348 there also seems to have been a Companionship of the Garter for the Black Prince and his friends. As Ian Mortimer suggests, Edward III may well have borrowed the idea, and even the motto, from his son, or perhaps from the garter-loving Henry of Grosmont.
Ian Mortimer also makes another important point: the April 23, 1349, ceremony took place while the Black Death was still ravaging England, killing perhaps a third of its population. Those who made the journey to the inaugural tournament at Windsor, including the king himself, did so at a time when the instinct of many must have been to huddle on their estates in a state of despair. Thus, as Mortimer points out, the founding of the order should perhaps be seen as a morale-building measure on the part of the king, a proclamation of “business as usual” (p. 264).
What is clear, at least, are the identities of the twenty-six founding members, most of whom had some connection with the king’s French campaigns. The precise criteria for admission, however, is (you won’t be surprised to hear) obscure. Probably a number of factors were involved. Though several earls or future earls were among the founding members, high rank, though helpful, didn’t ensure inclusion: for instance, Richard Fitzalan, the third Earl of Arundel and a very wealthy man, was never a member. Young William de Montacute, the second Earl of Salisbury, whom we met at the opening of this post, was at the beginning of his career and was probably included mainly as a tribute to his late father, the William de Montacute who had orchestrated Edward III’s seizure of Roger Mortimer. Other men, quite obscure today, were simply members of the king’s household or that of his son the Black Prince
One particularly interesting inclusion was that of the young Roger Mortimer, grandson of the executed Earl of March—another sign of Edward III’s admirable refusal to hold men responsible for the misdeeds of their forebears. I like to think that Hugh le Despenser, son of the notorious Hugh le Despenser the younger, might also have been awarded the garter due to his military achievements in France, but if Edward III had had him in mind as a choice in 1348, Hugh’s death in February 1349 forestalled any such plans. His heir and nephew Edward, however, was made a Knight of the Garter in 1361.