King Charles I was installed as a Knight of the Order of the Garter on 13 May 1611, at the age of ten. He is the only member of the Order ever to have a stall plate mounted in St George’s Chapel under the title of King of Great Britain.
At the time of his installation, the young prince held the title of Duke of York; he was the younger son of the king and not expected to inherit the throne. However, little more than a year later his elder brother, Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, became very ill and died, elevating his younger brother to the position of heir to the throne. He became king following his father’s death in 1625.
Very unusually, although there is no surviving marker of Charles’s childhood election, a plate hangs in the third stall on the south side of the quire reading (in French, which is the tradition for Garter stall plates), “Charles, by the grace of God King of Great Britain, France and Ireland”. The monarch is a de facto member of the Order of the Garter, not an elected one, and normally would not receive a stall plate, unless elected earlier in life and then it would be inscribed with their title at that time.
This particular plate is known to have been placed in the quire in 1950 by command of the then king, George VI. Prior to that it is thought that no stall plate for Charles I had hung in St George’s Chapel since at least the time of the English Civil War – the conflict which saw him dethroned and imprisoned in Windsor Castle before his execution in January 1649 and subsequent burial in St George’s Chapel.
The plate was not created in the twentieth century, but rather gives every impression of dating from the seventeenth century. Minor Canon Edmund Fellowes examined the plate before it was mounted and found what appeared to be test-inscriptions on the back including dates from the late seventeenth century. The copper is tarnished in a manner that suggests it had been fixed to a wooden panel at some time in the past.
Despite this, after the plate was brought to the Dean and Canons’ attention in the 1920s, it was dismissed for many years as a forgery purely because of the anomaly of being inscribed with the title of king. However, in 1942 it was examined by Harold Soper – a specialist in this art form who cared for many of the Garter stall plates when they were removed from the Chapel during the Second World War. Soper concluded that the engraving had been done by the same artist responsible for other Garter stall plates, including that of Charles’s older brother, the Prince of Wales, and his brother-in-law, Frederick, King of Bohemia. He found nothing to indicate forgery or later imitation. [Fellowes, E.H. in The Society of the Friends of St George’s and the Descendants of the Knights of the Garter, Annual Report 1949, pp. 14-17]
The full history of this plate remains a mystery. When was it created? When was it first mounted in St George’s Chapel and why was it later taken down? Where did it go between that time and 1928? Speculation has been made on all of these points, but the true answers will probably never be known to us.
Kate McQuillian, Assistant Archivist