The Order of Whose Garter?

I remember when history was taught as if all possible questions had been answered. We were to memorize lists of Facts, and those who questioned the received Truth too often were escorted to the principal’s office as troublemakers.

Rosencrantz: I remember when there were no questions.
Guildenstern: There were always questions….
Rosencrantz: Answers, yes. There were answers to everything.
Guildenstern: You’ve forgotten….
Rosencrantz (flaring): I haven’t forgotten…. There were answers everywhere you looked. There was no question about it….
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard

But history is fluid and questions are the tools and inspiration of historians—and writers. Ambiguities, mysteries inspire stories. My friend Ed Yang, a brilliant filmmaker, told me that the Chinese consider real mysteries the only valid subjects for stories. That we call a genre of fiction “mysteries” struck him as absurd. If he were still alive he’d approve of the question I’m batting about.
•Did Edward III intend the garter symbol to represent a knight’s belt/strap or a woman’s garter?

Hugh Collins nicely summarizes the two camps in The Order of the Garter 1348-1461 (Oxford 2007, p. 12):

“The romantic account of the origins of the Garter, propounded initially by Joanot Martorell in his romance, Tirant lo Blanc, and developed later in Polydore Vergil’s Anglica Historia, record how Edward III, in an attempt to defend the honour of a court lady whose fallen garter had provoked the amusement of the assembled company, picked up the object and tied it around his own leg, defying the mockery of those present by announcing that he would found an order of knighthood celebrating the device. Although popular in the fifteenth century [and into the present, I would add], this elaborate version of events lacks credibility. It is hardly likely that Edward III, given the serious intent underlying his conception, would have risked trivializing it by selecting such an inappropriate badge. Thus, Martorell and Vergil have been superseded by a more prosaic understanding of the origins of the badge. Rather than resembling an item of female underwear, the Garter was in fact more reminiscent of a belt or arming buckle, with the ‘knot’ symbolizing the ties of loyalty and affection that bound the companionship of the order together. [D’AJD] Boulton has elaborated upon this view, suggesting that … it was selected as a distinctive and clearly visible item of obsolescent male attire designed to distinguish its wearers easily. The use of blue and gold, the royal colours of France, combined with the preference for a French motto as opposed to the more usual choice of English, suggest that the Garter fraternity and its associated imagery were conceived in the context of Plantagenet ambitions to the French throne; in this respect, the order’s motto, Honi soit qui mal y pense, or ‘Shamed be he who thinks ill of it,’ should be perceived as a defiant retort to those doubting the legitimacy of Edward’s claim rather than the result of an irrational, albeit chivalric gesture in defence of a lady’s honour.” The court lady has been identified as either Catherine Montague, Countess of Salisbury, or her daughter-in-law Joan of Kent, for a brief time Countess of Salisbury. Hence my fascination with this question.”

On the official British government site referring to the Order of the Garter you’ll see the theory of the knight’s belt as the explanation of the symbol. But there are still doubters, perhaps most notably Francis Ingledew, who bases an interpretation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on the garter being a lady’s, specifically Catherine Montague’s, Countess of Salisbury, and revives an old story that King Edward, after a long infatuation with the countess, took advantage of her trust in him during the seige of her castle and raped her (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Order of the Garter, U of Notre Dame 2006). That the great King Edward III raped a woman is damning enough, but that he attacked a countess, and the wife of one of his closest friends and a great knight of the realm, William Montague, Earl of Salisbury—this accusation demands one to question the popularity of this king. The rape story has largely been regarded by modern historians as French propaganda intended to defame the English king who was forcibly claiming his right to the French throne. Ingledew does, however, point to some interesting items—Salisbury died shortly after being injured in the tournaments celebrating Edward’s founding of an order of the Round Table. Months after his death his widow took a vow of celibacy. And less than a year after the founding, after substantial investment in a hall of the round table at Windsor, Edward dropped the project. Ingledew suggests that rumors of his offense against Catherine and William soured the plan. He even tiptoes toward a conspiracy theory regarding Salisbury’s death. Then Edward waited more than four years to establish the Order of the Garter (and this brings me back round to the question, whose garter?). All of this can be explained quite pragmatically, and the rape denied. But juicy considerations for a novelist.

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