Almost every year since 1948, St George’s Chapel has witnessed the splendid pageantry of a Garter Day procession. The Knights and Ladies of the Order of the Garter walk through the precincts of Windsor Castle for a service in the Chapel that celebrates and gives thanks for the Order. This is also the occasion on which new members are installed.
On this ceremonial occasion, all of the Companions of the Order appear in the robes and regalia of the Order: a blue velvet mantle, or cloak, with a stylized crimson velvet hood draped over the right shoulder, a broad-brimmed black velvet hat with a plume of ostrich feathers and the gold enameled collar with the Great George suspended from it. The Great George is an ornamental pendant depicting the Order of the Garter’s patron, St George, on horseback slaying the dragon. In addition to this, of course, each Companion wears the Garter itself, a blue velvet strap with a gold buckle and gold embroidery. Knights wear it just below their left knee and Ladies just above their left elbow.
Today, it is rare to see the Garter worn on any other occasion. However, when the Order was first established it was in fact expected that a Knight Companion would wear it rather more often. According to the fourteenth-century statutes, a Knight of the Order “shall never appear in public without his garter”. Anyone who was found to do so had to pay a fine of 6s 8d (now well more than £160) to the College of St George.
The statutes were revised in 1421, when it was acknowledged that it was not practical to wear such a garter all the time – when riding, for example. Knights were then permitted to wear a simple black ribbon in place of the Garter on informal occasions. But even to this day it remains in the statutes that Knights and Ladies of the Garter must wear their Garter at formal meetings of the Order or pay a fine to the Dean and Canons of Windsor.
The earliest surviving record of the Garters made for the Knights of the Garter dates to January 1349, when Edward the Black Prince of Wales (eldest son of King Edward III) ordered twenty-four garters to be made and distributed to the Knights Companions. Neither this account nor the early statutes of the Order specify what the Garter was supposed to look like, but historical depictions suggest that the style and design has not changed significantly since the foundation of the Order. All surviving examples, dating from the late-sixteenth century onwards, are made in blue or purple fabric and embroidered with the Order’s motto Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense.
Kate McQuillian, Archivist & Chapter Librarian