English order of knighthood founded
Although April 23 1348 is the most commonly accepted date for the foundation of the Order of the Garter, England’s first order of knighthood, others have been proposed, running from four years prior to that date to three years after it.
The story behind the establishment of the order is equally open to debate. The traditional and naturally most romantic version relates how Edward III gallantly came to the aid of a maiden in distress, though no dragons or ogres were involved in her peril, merely the embarrassment caused by the loss of a garter. Even the lady’s name is unsure: was it Joan of Kent, Edward’s future daughter-in-law, or was it one of her relations? The name of the Countess of Salisbury is often cited, this being the title of Catherine Montacute, Joan’s erstwhile mother-in-law.
This version of the foundation takes place at Eltham Palace , Edward picking up the dropped garter while his courtiers sniggered at the loss of the lady’s dignity, saying to them: “Honi soit qui mal y pense,” loosely equating to: “Shamed be he who thinks ill of this,” as he tied the garter round his own left leg. “Honi soit qui mal y pense” is the motto of the order to this day.
Another version has Edward setting up the order partly in tribute to King Arthur and his knights of the round table, partly as a way of cementing the loyalty of key figures in a time of war with the French, the garter somehow symbolising his claim to the French throne.
Yet another has Edward copying Richard the Lionheart , who had supposedly tied garters round the legs of his greatest knights before a battle during the crusades .
The order was established with strictly limited membership: the King, the Prince of Wales, and 24 companions, whose membership is solely within the gift of the sovereign. To this day the Garter remains the senior order of knighthood in England.
April 23 is St George’s Day, hence the favoured date for the foundation, given the many symbols of the order linked to England’s national saint, and its base of St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle . Traditionally new appointments to the order are announced on April 23.
The lack of clarity about the order results in part from the loss of its records, destroyed in a fire. Its seniority in Britain is as much argued about as the story of its foundation, with claims by the Scots that the Order of the Thistle predates it – Alexander III purportedly having established that order in 1249, with some even claiming that it was set up in the 8th century.
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