King Edward III (r. 1327-1377) instituted the Most Noble Order of the Garter in 1348. He and the Black Prince (Edward's eldest son and Prince of Wales) were the first members of the Order, which is now over 650 years old. It is symbolised by a blue garter. The garter supposedly had its origins at a ball in northern France, attended by the king and a certain Joan, Countess of Salisbury.
The story goes that the Countess dropped her garter, causing much mirth and embarrassment, whereby the king, in a great act of chivalry, picked it up, bound it round his own leg, and uttered the immortal phrase 'Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense', now the motto of the order, and which, translated, means 'Evil be unto him who thinks evil'.
Within two years, the Order consisted of the king and twenty five knights (one of whom was the Black Prince). Not all of these knights owed allegiance to the king as the king of England. Some owed him allegiance in his capacity as Lord of Gascony. Accordingly, these knights were known as 'Stranger Knights'. Over time, foreign rulers were also appointed to the order in this fashion.
In was during the reign of King George III that the numbers began to get confusing. For the king decided that Supernumerary appointments could be made to the order. From 1786, all the sons of the Sovereign were declared eligible to be appointed quite separately to the twenty six. This act alone bumped the numbers considerably, as George had nine sons.
From 1805, it was decided that a Prince of Wales would, immediately upon his creation, become a member of the Order. Then from 1813, all Stranger Knights were appointed as Supernumerary. These changes were codified in a statute of 1954.
Ladies have always been associated with the Order. Initially however, they were never actually members and consequently were not allocated stalls in St. George's Chapel. That changed with the reign of King Edward VII, who very soon after his accession to the throne, appointed his wife, Queen Alexandra, as a Lady of the Order of the Garter.
Since then, a number of ladies have been admitted, including: Queen Mary (1910), Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (1936), Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands (1944), Princess Elizabeth (1947), Queen Juliana of the Netherlands (1958), Queen Margarethe of Denmark (1979), Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands (1989), The Princess Royal (1994), and Princess Alexandra (2003). In 1987, The Queen issued a Garter Statute providing that ladies might be admitted as Companions, that is, to fill vacancies among the twenty six. The first Lady Companion to be admitted was Lavina, Duchess of Norfolk, on 23 April 1990.
Appointments to the Garter are made by Royal Prerogative and are for life unless a Knight Companion offends against certain 'points of reproach'. In recent times, the degradations from the Order have all been Stranger Knights who have had their appointments cancelled by the Sovereign. These include the Austrian and German Sovereigns and Princes in the Great War, and the King of Italy and Emperor of Japan during the Second World War.
The high point of Garter Ceremonial is the Feast Day. In early times, this always coincided with St. George's Day (23 April). Following the Restoration however, feast days were not celebrated in quite the same grand style and between 1805 until the reign of King George V, no Garter Services were held. It was King George VI who restarted the tradition and is most responsible for the form of events and celebration celebrated in modern times on an annual basis.
The Regalia of the Order consists of the Garter, the Collar and the Robes. The Garter is blue, embroidered in gold with the motto of the Order. It is worn by men below the left knee, and by ladies, above the left elbow.
The Collar was introduced towards the end of the fifteenth century and consists of twenty six gold knots. It also carries a representation of St. George slaying the dragon, a device known as the Great George. During the reign of Henry VIII, the Knights Companion were required, when not wearing the collar, to wear a small image of St. George, the Lesser George, suspended from a neck ribbon or a golden chain. The last item is the Star, which was introduced by King Charles I. Today the Lesser George, Riband and Star are worn upon all formal occasions when the Collar is not used.
The Robes consist of the Mantle, Hood and Hat. The Mantle is a large cloak of blue velvet lined with white bearing the Garter Badge upon the left shoulder. Essentially the design has remained unchanged since the fourteenth century. The remnants of the hood, red in colour, are today worn over the right shoulder, the liripipe fastened across the chest. The hat worn in modern times, contains heron's and ostrich's feathers.
St. George's Chapel is associated with the Order, not least as it is where the Garter service is held each year. It was also founded by King Edward III in 1348 and approved by the Pope in 1350. While it was being built and finalised, the Order found its first home in Henry III's Chapel, built between 1240 and 1248 and the place where Edward III was baptised. The current setting for the home of the Order has changed little in over 500 years.
St. George's Chapel and Windsor Castle continue to play a central role in the life of Garter, the oldest surviving Order of chivalry in the world today, and one that looks set to continue long into the future.