Wanted: Garter robes

In the 1860s Gerald Wellesley, Dean of Windsor, aided by the Chapter Clerk, Mr Thomas Batcheldor, embarked on a campaign to have the blue velvet mantles of former Garter Knights sent to St George’s Chapel.

The earliest known statutes of the Order of the Garter, compiled in 1415, stipulated that Knights of the Garter ought to keep one mantle at Windsor permanently, in case they needed to attend a ceremony at short notice.[1] After a Knight’s death, this mantle was to become the property of the Dean and Canons. There is evidence that these “hand-me-down” mantles were recycled and used to repair vestments and furnishings in the Chapel. Throughout the history of the Order, the Dean and Canons had difficulty persuading Garter Knights to comply with this requirement and it had to be reinforced regularly by decrees and statutes.[2] In 1834 William IV had passed a new statute declaring that the mantles of deceased Garter Knights should be given to the Dean and Canons,[3] but less than thirty years later they were clearly experiencing problems in acquiring them. A number of letters on this subject remain in the St George’s Chapel Archives [SGC I.E.4/171-183].

On receipt of the request from the Dean, most of the families were obliging and agreed to return their relatives’ robes. Henry 4th Marquess of Lansdowne, indeed, was anxious to make it clear in his letter of December 1864 that he would have sent the mantle of the late 3rd Marquess, who had died in January 1863, sooner if he had only known he was supposed to.

A number of the letters speak of the arrangements that were then being put in place to have the mantles and tassels delivered to Windsor. Enquiries were made about the preferred way to package such items, as well as requests for the sender to be notified when the parcel had been safely received by the Dean. In one case, a letter was written to the Chapter Clerk to say that if he would be so good as to “call at the Duke of Bedford’s house, No 6 Belgrave Square when you are next in London, Mr Stratton, his Grace’s valet, will hand to you the blue velvet mantle of the Garter for the Dean of Windsor.”

Not everyone that Wellesley and Batcheldor contacted in the first instance was able to help in the quest to locate the Garter robes. A rather curt note from a son of the late 4th Earl of Aberdeen states that the Dean’s message will be forwarded “to my brother the present Earl, who is the sole Executor to his father.” Likewise, the Marquess of Normanby was not in possession of any of his father’s Garter regalia – in fact he had never seen them and knew nothing about them or where they were. Accordingly, he promised to forward the request to the Dowager Marchioness, although he felt the need to warn Batcheldor that there would be some delay before a reply was received because at that time the Dowager Marchioness was in Italy.

Of all the letters relating to this matter that are now preserved in the St George’s Chapel Archives, only those of the Duke of Sutherland express outright an intention of not returning the requested Garter robes. In a letter dated 7 May 1861 Henry Wright writes on the 3rd Duke’s behalf “to inform you that his Grace declines to send the Mantle and Tassel worn by the late Duke to the Hon. and Very Reverend the Dean of Windsor.” His argument was that the late 2nd Duke had retained the robes that had been worn by his own father “and his Grace considers himself entitled to the same privilege.” This rather high-handed letter is followed a few months later by one written by the Duke himself in which he reasons that he would not have insisted on keeping the robe for himself, but that he knew his mother was very anxious to keep it. However, in this letter he does acknowledge that the right to the robe “has been so clearly established in your favour”. We can only imagine the correspondence that passed between the Dean and the Duke to convince him of this. George Granville Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, 3rd Duke of Sutherland, did eventually go on to be appointed a Garter Knight in his own right and so to be entitled to his own robes and regalia, but not until 1864.

Kate McQuillian, Assistant Archivist

[1] Begent & Chesshyre, The Most Noble Order of the Garter, p. 275

[2] Ibid., p. 275

[3] Ibid., p. 172

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.