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Order of the Garter
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Order of the Garter

The Most Noble Order of the Garter is an English order of chivalry with a history stretching back to mediæval times; today it is Europe's oldest national order of knighthood in continuous existence and the pinnacle of the British honours system. Its membership is extremely limited, consisting of the Sovereign and not more than twenty-five full members, or Companions. Male members are known as Knights Companions, whilst female members are known as Ladies Companions (not Dames, as in most other British chivalric orders). The Order can also include certain extra members (members of the British Royal Family and foreign monarchs), known as "Supernumerary" Knights and Ladies. The Sovereign alone grants membership of the Order; the Prime Minister does not tender binding advice as to appointments, as he does for most other orders.

As the name suggests, the Order's primary emblem is a garter bearing the motto in gold letters. The Garter is an actual accessory worn by the members of the Order during ceremonial occasions; it is also depicted on several insignia.

Most British orders of chivalry cover the entire kingdom, but the three most exalted ones each pertain to one constitutent nation only. The Order of the Garter, which pertains to England, is most senior in both age and precedence; its equivalent in Scotland is The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle. Whilst the Order of the Thistle was certainly in existence by the sixteenth century and possibly has mediæval origins (or even, according to more fanciful legends, dates to the eighth century), the foundation of the institution in its modern form dates only to 1687. In 1783 an Irish equivalent, The Most Illustrious Order of St Patrick, was founded; but since the independence of the greater part of Ireland the Order has fallen dormant (its last surviving knight died in 1974).

Table of contents
1 History
2 Compositon
3 Vestments and accoutrements
4 Chapel
5 Precedence and privileges
6 Current Members and Officers
7 See also
8 References


The Order was founded circa 1348 by Edward III as "a society, fellowship and college of knights." Various more precise dates ranging from 1344 to 1351 have been proposed; the wardrobe account of Edward III first shows Garter habits issued in the autumn of 1348. (At any rate, the Order was most probably not constituted before 1346; the original statutes required that each member admitted to the Order already be a knight [what would today be called a knight bachelor], and several initial members of the Order were first knighted in that year.)

Various legends have been set forth to explain the origin of the Order. The most popular one involves Joan, Countess of Salisbury, whose garter, whilst she was dancing with the King, is said to have slipped from her leg to the floor. When the surrounding courtiers snickered, the King picked it up and tied it to his own leg, exclaiming "Honi soit qui mal y pense." (The French may be loosely translated as "Shame on him who thinks ill of it"; it has become the motto of the Order.) According to another myth, Richard I, whilst fighting in the Crusades, was inspired by St George to tie garters around the legs of his knights; Edward III supposedly recalled the event, which led to victory, when he founded the Order.


Sovereign and Knights

Since its foundation, the Order of the Garter has included the Sovereign and Knights Companions. The Sovereign of the United Kingdom serves as Sovereign of the Order. The
Prince of Wales is explicitly mentioned in the Order's statutes and is by convention created a Knight Companion; aside from him, there may be up to twenty-four other Knights Companions. In the early days of the Order, women (who could of course not be knighted), were sometimes associated with the Order under the name "Ladies of the Garter"; but they were not full companions. Henry VII, however, ended the practice, creating no more Ladies of the Garter after his mother Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Derby (appointed in 1488).

Thereafter, the Order was exclusively male (except, of course, for the occasional female Sovereign) until 1901, when Edward VII created Queen Alexandra (his wife) a Lady of the Garter. Throughout the 20th century women continued to be admitted to the Order, but, except for foreign female monarchs, they were not full members of the Order until 1987, when it became possible, under a statue of Elizabeth II, to appoint "Ladies Companions."

In addition to the regular Knights and Ladies Companions, the Sovereign can also appoint "Supernumerary Knights". This concept was introduced in 1786 by George III so that his many sons would not count towards the limit of twenty-five companions set by the statutes; in 1805, he extended the category so that any descendant of George II could be created a Supernumary Knight. Since 1831, the exception applies to all descendents of George I. Such companions, when appointed, are sometimes known as "Royal Knights."

From time to time, foreign monarchs have also been admitted to the Order; and for two centuries they also have not counted against the limit of twenty-five companions, being (like the Royal Knights aforementioned), supernumerary. Formerly, each such extra creation required the enactment of a special statute; this was first done in 1813, when Alexander I, Emperor of Russia was admitted to the Order. Many European monarchs are in fact descended from George I and can be appointed supernumerarily as such; but a statute of 1954 authorises the regular admission of foreign Knights and Ladies without further special statutes irrespective of descent. The appellation "Stranger Knights," which dates to the middle ages, is sometimes applied to foreign monarchs in the Order of the Garter.

Generally, only foreign monarchs are made Stranger Knights or Ladies; when The Rt Hon. Sir Ninian Stephen (an Australian citizen) and Sir Edmund Hillary (from New Zealand) joined the Order, they did so as Knights Companions in the normal fashion.

Formerly, whenever vacancies arose, the Knights would conduct an "election," wherein each Knight voted for nine candidates (of which three had to be of the rank of Earl or above, three of the rank of Baron or above, and three of the rank of Knight or above). The Sovereign would then choose as many individuals as were necessary to fill the vacancies; he or she was not bound to choose the receivers of the greatest number of votes. Victoria dispensed of the procedure in 1862; thereafter, all appointments were made solely by the Sovereign. From the eighteenth century onwards, the Sovereign made his or her choices upon the advice of the Government. George VI felt that the Orders of the Garter and the Thistle had become too linked with political patronage; in 1946, with the agreement of the Prime Minister (Clement Attlee) and the Leader of the Opposition (Winston Churchill), returned these two orders to the personal gift of the Sovereign.

Knights of the Garter could also be degraded by the Sovereign, who normally took such an action in response to serious crimes such as treason. The last degradation was that of James Butler, 2nd Duke of Ormonde, who had participated in the Jacobite Rebellion and had been convicted upon impeachment, in 1716. During the First World War, Knights who were monarchs of enemy nations were removed by the "annulment" of their creations; Knights Companions who fought against the United Kingdom were "struck off" the Rolls. All such annulments were made in 1915; the Knights who were removed were: Francis Joseph, Emperor of Austria, William II, Emperor of Germany, Ernst August, 3rd Duke of Cumberland, Prince Albert William Henry of Prussia, Ernest, Grand Duke of Hesse and the Rhine, William, Crown Prince of Germany and William II, King of Württemberg. The only Knight Companion to be struck off the Rolls was Prince Charles Edward, 2nd Duke of Albany.

Poor Knights

At the original establishment of the Order, twenty-six "Poor Knights" were appointed and attached to the Order and its chapel at Windsor. The number was not always maintained; by the seventeenth century, there were just thirteen Poor Knights. At his restoration, Charles II increased the number to eighteen. After they objected to being termed "poor", William IV renamed them the Military Knights of Windsor.

Poor Knights were originally impoverished military veterans. They were required to pray daily for the Sovereign and Knights Companions; in return, they were lodged in Windsor Castle. Today the Military Knights, who are no longer necessarily poor, but are still military pensioners, participate in the Order's processions, escorting the Knights and Ladies of the Garter. They are not actually members of the Order itself, nor are they necessarily actual knights.


The Order of the Garter has six officers: the Prelate, the Chancellor, the Registrar, the King of Arms, the Usher and the Secretary. The offices of Prelate, Registrar and Usher were created upon the Order's foundation; the offices of King of Arms and Chancellor were created during the fifteenth century, and that of Secretary during the twentieth.

The office of Prelate is held by the Bishop of Winchester, traditionally one of the senior bishops of the Church of England. The office of Chancellor was formerly held by the Bishop of the diocese within which Windsor fell— at one point, the Bishop of Salisbury, but after boundary changes the Bishop of Oxford. Today, however, one of the companions serves as Chancellor. The Dean of Windsor is, ex officio, the Registrar.

Garter Principal King of Arms is the head of the College of Arms (England's heraldic authority) and thus the "principal" herald for all England (along with Wales and Northern Ireland). As his title suggests, he also has specific duties as the heraldic officer of the Order of the Garter, attending to the companions' crests and coats of arms, which are exhibited in the Order's chapel (see below). In recent years, the office of Secretary has also been filled by a professional herald.

The Order's Usher is the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod. He is also the Serjeant-at-Arms of the House of Lords (although his functions there are more often performed by his deputy, the Yeoman Usher). The title of his office comes from his staff of office, the Black Rod.

Vestments and accoutrements

Sovereign and Knights

For the Order's great occasions, such as its annual service each June in Windsor Castle, as well for coronations, the Companions wear an elaborate costume:

Aside from these special occasions, however, much simpler insignia are used whenever a member of the Order attends an event at which decorations are worn.

However, on certain "collar days" designated by the Sovereign, members attending formal events may wear the Order's collar over their miliary uniform or evening wear. They will then substitute the broad riband of another order to which they belong (if any), since the Order of the Garter is represented by the collar.

Upon the death of a Knight or Lady, the insignia must be returned to the Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood. The badge and star are returned personally to the Sovereign by the nearest male relative of the deceased.

Poor Knights

Poor Knights originally wore red mantles, each of which bore the cross of St George, but did not depict the Garter. Elizabeth I replaced the mantles with blue and purple gowns, but Charles I returned to the old red mantles. When the Poor Knights were renamed Military Knights, the mantles were abandoned. Instead, the Military Knights of Windsor now wear the old military uniform of an "army officer on the unattatched list": black trousers, a scarlet coat, a cocked hat with a plume, and a sword on a white sash.


The officers of the Order also have ceremonial vestments and other accoutrements which they wear and carry for the Order's annual service. The Prelate's and Chancellor's mantles are blue, like that of the knights (but since the Chancellor is now a member of the Order, he simply wears a knight's mantle), those of other officers crimson; all are embroidered with a shield bearing the Cross of St George. Garter King of Arms wears his tabard.

Assigned to each officer of the Order is a distinctive badge which he wears on a chain around his neck; each is surrounded by a representation of the garter. The Prelate's badge depicts St George slaying a dragon; the Garter within which it is depicted is surmounted by a bishop's mitre. The Chancellor's badge is a rose encircled by the Garter. The badge of Garter Principal King of Arms depicts the royal arms impaled (side-by-side) with the cross of St George. The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod's badge depicts a knot within the Garter. The Registrar has a badge of a crown above two crossed quills, the Secretary two crossed quills in front of a rose.

The Chancellor of the Order bears a purse, embroidered with the royal arms, containing the Seal of the Order. The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod carries his staff of office, the Black Rod. At the Order's great occasions, Garter Principal King of Arms bears his baton of office as a king of arms; he does not usually wear his crown.


The Chapel of the Order is St. George's Chapel, Windsor, located in the Lower Ward of Windsor Castle. It was founded for the Order in 1475. The order once held frequent services at the Chapel, but they became rare in the eighteenth century. Discontinued after 1805, the ceremony was revived by George VI in 1948 and it has become an annual event. On a certain day each June, the members of the Order (wearing their ceremonial vestments and insignia) meet in the state apartments in the Upper Ward of Windsor Castle, then (preceded by the Military Knights) process on foot down through the castle to St Georges Chapel for the service. If there are any new knights, they are installed on this occasion. After the service, the members of the Order return to the Upper Ward by carriage.

Each member of the Order, including the Sovereign, is allotted a stall in the choir of the chapel, above which his or her heraldic devices are displayed. Perched on the pinnacle of a knight's stall is his helm, decorated with a mantling and topped by his crest. Under English heraldic law, women other than monarchs do not bear helms or crests; instead, the coronet appropriate to the Lady's rank is used (see coronet). The crests of the Sovereign and Stranger Knights who are monarchs sit atop their crowns, which are themselves perched on their helms. Below each helm, a sword is displayed.

Above the crest or coronet, the knight's or lady's heraldic banner is hung, emblazoned with his or her coat of arms. At a considerably smaller scale, to the back of the stall is affixed a piece of brass (a "stall plate") displaying its occupant's name, arms and date of admission into the Order.

Upon the death of a Knight, the banner, helm, mantling, crest (or coronet or crown) and sword are taken down. No other newly admitted Knight may be assigned the stall until (after the funeral of the late Knight or Lady) a ceremony marking his or her death is observed at the chapel, during which Military Knights of Windsor carry the banner of the deceased Knight and offer it to the Dean of Windsor, who places it upon the altar. The stall plates, however, are not removed; rather, they remain permanently affixed somewhere about the stall, so that the stalls of the chapel are festooned with a colourful record of the Order's Knights (and now Ladies) throughout history.

Precedence and privileges

Knights and Ladies of the Garter are assigned positions in the order of precedence, coming before all others of knightly rank, and also above baronets. (See order of precedence in England and Wales for the exact positions.) Wives, sons, daughters and daughters-in-law of Knights of the Garter also feature on the order of precedence; relatives of Ladies of the Garter, however, are not assigned any special precedence. (As a general rule, individuals can derive precedence from their fathers or husbands, but not from their mothers or wives.) The Chancellor of the Order is also assigned a precedence; but this is purely academic since today the Chancellor is always also a Knight Companion, with a higher position by that virtue. (In fact, it is unclear whether the Chancellor's tabled precedence ever came into effect, since under the old system the office was filled by a diocesan bishop of the Church of England, who again had higher intrinsic precedence than any which the Chancellorship could bestow on him.)

Knights Companions prefix "Sir," and Ladies Companions prefix "Lady," to their forenames. Wives of Knights Companions may prefix "Lady" to their surnames, but no equivalent privilege exists for husbands of Ladies Companions. Such forms are not used by peers and princes, except when the names of the former are written out in their fullest forms.

Knights and Ladies use the post-nominal letters "KG" and "LG," respectively. When an individual is entitled to use multiple post-nominal letters, KG or LG appears before all others, except "Bt" (Baronet), "Esq." (Esquire), "VC" (Victoria Cross) and "GC" (George Cross).

The Sovereign, Knights and Ladies Companions and Supernumerary Knights and Ladies may encircle their arms with a representation of the Garter; and since it is Britain's highest order of knighthood, the Garter will tend to be displayed in preference to the insignia of any other order, unless there is special reason to highlight a junior one. Stranger Knights, of course, do not embellish the arms they use at home with foreign decorations such as the Garter; likewise, while the UK Royal Arms as used in England are encircled by the Garter, in Scotland they are surrounded by the circlet of the Order of the Thistle instead. (In Wales and Northern Ireland the English pattern is followed.)

Knights and Ladies are also entitled to recieve heraldic supporters. These are relatively rare among private individuals in the UK; while some families claim supporters by ancient use and others have been granted them as a special reward, only peers, Knights and Ladies of the Garter and Thistle, and Knights and Dames Grand Cross and Knights Grand Commanders of certain junior orders are entitled to claim an automatic grant of supporters (upon payment of the appropriate fees to the College of Arms).

Current Members and Officers

See also