As the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter, St George’s Chapel has witnessed many occasions of celebration and thanksgiving for the extraordinary individuals who have been members of the Order in the 670 years since its foundation.
Less common, and therefore less well known, is the strict procedure established for dealing with any member of the Order no longer deemed worthy of the highest order of chivalry in Britain. Those found guilty of a serious charge such as heresy or treason, for example.
To date, a total of forty men have been removed from the Order of the Garter in disgrace. Thirty of these were subjected to the formal process of degradation, which takes place in the very heart of the Order: the quire of St George’s Chapel.
A vivid description of the degradation in 1521 of Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, survives in the Chapel Archives [SGC M.164/X/5]. The Garter King of Arms published the notice of Buckingham’s degradation at the feast of St George by reading it aloud before the altar in the quire of St George’s. The other officers of the College of Arms were present, along with six Knights of the Garter.
The Garter King of Arms announced that Buckingham was indicted, convicted and attainted for high treason against the Sovereign, King Henry VIII, contrary to his duty and allegiance. For this reason he deserved to be expelled from the Order of the Garter and was not worthy for his arms to remain among those of the noble and virtuous Knights of the Order. The declaration is long and wordy but it comes to a conclusion with the following statement:
Willeth and commandeth that the said Edward late Duke of Buckingham to be degraded of the said noble order and his arms, ensigns and hatchments clearly expelled and put from among the arms, ensigns and hatchments of the other noble knights of the said Order, to the intent that all other noble men thereby may take example hereafter not to commit any such heinous and detestable treason and offence, as God may forbid they should. And God save the King.
We are told that one of the heralds was concealed in the upper level of the quire woodwork, above Buckingham’s former stall, while the declaration was read. As the Garter King of Arms pronounced the words “clearly expelled and put from” this herald violently cast Buckingham’s crest, banner and sword into the quire at the feet of the assembled heralds and Garter Knights.
Once the statement was finished, these men then “spurned the said hatchments with their feet out of the quire.” They proceeded to kick Buckingham’s arms and achievements down the full length of the nave, out of the west door and into the ditch beyond. As they were thus expelled, Buckingham was considered fully degraded from the Order of the Garter.
Kate McQuillian, Archivist and Chapter Librarian