April 23 is known for many things, it’s St George’s day in the UK and other countries, it’s the anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, and thanks to an oversight also his birthday. However it is also the date the Order of the Garter was founded.
The Order dates back to King Edward III who was obsessed with the Arthurian legends as most knights of the time were. He planned on reviving the round table and announced it during a tournament in 1344. The order was to contain 300 knights and construction began of a large 200ft circular room to house the table. However the 100 years war intervened which put the plans on hold.
In 1348 Edward founded the college of St George at Windsor Castle, he associated it with a small group of knights -25 in all- who would use the garter as a symbol of being a member. The popular story of the Garter is a pretty good schoolboy story. At a ball in Calais the Countess of Salisbury was dancing with the king when her garter slipped off. The courtiers began to chuckle (easily amused in the middle ages it seems) which prompted the King to do something odd.
He picked up the garter and proceeded to put it on his own leg, scalding the laughing courtiers with the words “Honi soit qui mal y pense” – shame on him who thinks evil of it. In fact that is just a story, the garter in question wasn’t part of a ladies costume it is believed to have referred to the leather straps that hold armour together. The order was itself a military order and they were prosecuting the claim to the French throne by the King.
If a Knight was removed from the order, for example Hirohito* when Japan entered the war the Garter King of Arms, accompanied by the rest of the heralds, proceed to St George’s Chapel. While the Garter King of Arms reads out aloud the Instrument of Degradation, a herald climbs up a ladder and removes the former knight’s banner, crest, helm and sword, throwing them down into the quire. Then the rest of the heralds kick them down the length of the chapel, out of the doors, and into the castle ditch. Although the last time this happened was 1716.
*Hirohito was re-instated during his state visit to the UK in 1971