Monday, June 19, 2006


Some interesting details in this Telegraph piece about Britain's Order of the Garter:
The robes are hanging from rails in dust-proof bags, each meticulously labelled. Boxes are stacking up along the walls and marked with different names - Sir John Major, Sir Timothy Colman, The Baroness Thatcher.
Behind the barred door of the strong room, heavy gold and enamel collars are being taken out of their blue-cushioned cases and given a brisk going over with a cloth.
This is the scene at the offices of the Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood in whose capable and experienced hands hangs the success of Garter Day, a celebration of the world's oldest order of chivalry. And the pace is frantic.
Today will be a special day for the Queen. With her birthday announcement that the Duke of York and the Earl of Wessex would be made Royal Knights, it will be the first time all four of her children join the annual Garter procession, an ostentatious display of ostrich plumes, glittering insignia and velvet mantles at Windsor Castle.
Founded by Edward III in 1348, and said to be based on the Arthurian Knights of the Round Table, it is the world's most ancient and exclusive club.
There are, in addition, Royal Knights from the Royal Family, including the Lady the Princess Royal, and Stranger Knights, mainly from European royal families but also, in a post-war act of reconciliation, the Emperor of Japan.
The blue velvet mantles - originally meant to reflect the Middle Ages' idea of heaven - each has a red vestigial hood and is adorned with the Garter heraldic shield. They cost about £4,500 and each new member has the choice of buying a new one or wearing an older one.
Both the Duke of York and Earl of Wessex have opted for new for today's ceremony, and they will foot the bill. Others, such as the Duke of Abercorn who wears his great-grandfather's, prefer family robes. They are usually worn only once a year, and spend the other 364 days locked away in a special climate-controlled room in Cambridge.
The collars are a different matter. Each comprise 30 troy ounces of gold knots alternating with enamelled red roses of St George, the order's patron saint, and are adorned with a hanging three-dimensional figure of him slaying the dragon. They are few in number and would cost at least £12,000 to replace.
Most date from the 1930s, but the oldest, worn by the Duke of Abercorn, dates from the 1750s. For insurance purposes the knights prefer to leave them locked in the chancery's strongroom, taken out only for Garter Day, or designated "Collar Days" when they must be worn at ceremonial occasions on feast days and special royal anniversaries, though never after sunset.
Each knight, or lady, also receives the glittering Garter Star and a blue riband bearing a smaller badge called the Lesser George - most of which they keep at home.
The most incomprehensible piece of kit, however, is the garter itself, in dark blue for the knights and pale blue with a buckle for the ladies. The order's motto, Honi soit qui mal y pense (Shame on him who thinks evil of it), is spelled out in gold lettering.
In keeping with ancient tradition, it will be tied around the left calf of both the duke and earl during their investiture in front of the other knights and ladies in the Throne Room at Windsor Castle.
All insignia and robes must be personally handed back to the Queen on death, a ritual performed by an heir in a private audience. Their banner, which hangs in St George's Chapel, the spiritual home of the order, will then be removed.
No one really knows the reason why the garter was chosen as the order's emblem.
Modern scholars have cast doubt on the tradition that it was inspired by a garter dropped by Joan, Countess of Salisbury, at a ball in Calais which Edward III retrieved and bound to his own leg.
It seems more likely to represent a strap used to attach a sword, as seen on knights on 14th century brasses.

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