Sunday, 24 January 2010

Garter Day

I have discovered a most interesting article by Caroline Davies, about the logistical arrangements leading up to the annual Order of the Garter ceremony at Windsor Castle in 2006:-

"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.

"Who's got the Duke of Wellington's hat?" a voice yells. "Ah, this one's Princess Alexandra's. Stuffed with netting so it sits perfectly," volunteers another.

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.

Aside from the Sovereign and Prince of Wales, there can be only 24 Knights Companion (or Ladies, who were excluded by Henry VII in 1488 and only reinstated with the admission of Queen Alexandra in 1901) at any one time.

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.

It is the greatest honour the Sovereign can bestow - though it is also a matter of dead men's shoes for the Knights Companion. For the others, membership is somewhat dictated by limited "hardware".

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.

In the days leading to the Garter procession, they are delivered to the Central Chancery at St James's Palace where staff match them to their owner's other insignia.

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.

The Queen used to do this herself, but two pages now perform the ritual for her.

Then the garter is taken off straight away and is rarely used again.

Ladies of the order wear theirs at state functions on the left arm, but whether the knights bother under their trousers is open to speculation.

While statute prevents any adornment of the collar, the garters themselves can be set with jewels. "The Queen Mother's was diamonds upon diamonds upon diamonds," recalls one member of the Central Chancery staff.

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.

Today it is purely ceremonial, the highlight of the day being the procession before crowds down to St George's Chapel for the installation service.

By early this morning the robes, hats and insignia will have been married up, brushed, packed up and taken on their journey to Windsor. At the end of the day they will be brought back, and locked up for another year."


James McClements said...

In 2007 I had the privelage of recieving The Queen's command to be present in St. George's Chapel for the Service of the Order of the Garter. The Service was held at 3o'clock in the gracious presence of Her Majesty The Queen (Sovereign of the Order), HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, TRH The Prince of Wales, The Duke of York, The Duke of Gloucester, The Duke of Kent and Princess Alexandra, the Hon. Lady Ogilvy, and their spouses.

The Service began with two verses of the National Anthem and was a very high anglican service (we all faced east to recite the Apostles' Creed) and the hymns were "All creatures of our God and King" and "Now thank we all our God".

The Queen and Knights of the Garter were resplendent in their Robes. I was dressed in my Morning Coat, with top hat etc. as directed and the ladies were in hats and gloves, it was a scence from a bygone age and a wonderful experience.

I was again invited last year but had to apologise at the last minute when I took ill and was in bed for a week.

Those who would like to stand outside and watch the procession can apply to the Superintendent of the Castle betwee January and March, however invitations to be present inside are only issued to Friends of St. George's Chapel and those invited by the Lord Chamberlain's Office at Buckingham Palace.

This years service will be held on Monday, 14th June at 3 o'clock.


Timothy Belmont said...

A wonderful experience, with its sense of pageantry and history.

I have been in St George's Chapel twice; as a visitor, though, not a guest of HM!

I haven't worn my morning-coat and top-hat for years. The hat is in the attic; and the coat, in a wardrobe waiting patiently. Such an occasion would be worthy of blowing away the dust from them!

Anonymous said...

When I was younger I used to wear my morning tails to all weddings and funerals I went to; I've clearly grown a bit self-concious as I haven't had mine out for some time either!


Timothy Belmont said...

Yes, a generation ago they'd have been worn at memorial services too, like Lady Mairi's on sat.

Ah well, c'est la vie.