The Order of Whose Garter? (II)

I skirted the issue of the garter in the first draft of the manuscript, though it’s such an integral part of Edward III’s court in the middle of the 14th century. Fence straddling doesn’t lend itself to passionate, engaging characters, so as I await my editor’s feedback I’ve been discussing the issue with friends in the field and rereading the commentary.

My sticking point is the garter itself (see my previous post for an illustration). I think it looks far more like a buckled strap or belt than a woman’s garter. But a friend who’s rather an expert in medieval clothing and also a skilled seamstress tells me she’s seen women’s garters from the early 20th century that looked quite similar, buckle and all. She warned me that scholars, no matter how careful, often make mistakes by falling into the trap of explaining historical garments by comparing them to contemporary pieces that look similar but have quite different uses. I have no doubt she’s right about that pitfall. But it’s Juliet Vale, for one, who in her highly regarded Edward III and Chivalry (Boydell 1982) writes, “No contemporary basis can be found for the legend associating the foundation with a garter dropped by the Countess of Salisbury. The apocryphal nature of this tale is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that at this period female garters took the form of simple tapes.” She cites: Nevinson, J.L. Nevinson “The earliest dress and insignia of the knights of the Garter”, Apollo, xlvii (1948), pp. 80-3. Still, my colleague might know more about the clothing of the period than Vale.

Even so, I still lean toward the garter in question being that of a knight. In 1348/9 King Edward III was riding the wave of martial victories in France, particularly Crécy, and the roster of original Garter Knights reflected the importance of that victory. That he would choose a woman’s garter—intimate, feminine—over a knight’s belt or strap strikes me as out of character, off his theme. This Order was to unite the powerful and upcoming knights under Edward’s banner. To bond them, on the field and off.

The alternative view is that Edward would choose a woman’s garter as a symbol to honor those who fought at Crécy etc. because chivalry was big on knights fighting to honor the woman loved by individual knights. A friend sees nothing peculiar about it, but acknowledges that modern historians might find it peculiar because we have nothing like that today.  Secular/saintly ladies were regularly honored in single combats and in war. One tradition has Arthur fighting with a shield with his arms on the front and a picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary inside. Gawain (of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) has the Blessed Virgin Mary inside his shield. It’s like fighting for homeland and apple pie—a reminder of all we hold dear. And then, of course, there’s the rape theory (see my previous post) which in my mind makes the lady’s garter even less likely–Edward flaunting the garter of his victim.

And then there’s the motto: Honi soit qui mal y pense (Shamed be he who thinks ill [or evil] of it). Is Edward challenging all who doubt his claim to the French throne? Or all who question his honoring the woman and her garter? Or accusing him of dishonoring her?

2 Comments on “The Order of Whose Garter? (II)

  1. I must admit that my knowledge of the period is, at best, limited. I am, of course, aware of the apocryphal story of the garter and I can also see the logic for the garter being a knight’s belt. However, my own leanings tend towards the feminine garment if only as a symbolic representation of a knightly “favour”. Maybe it is also an acknowledgement of the “power behind the throne” and the unspoken influence of women at the time. Just a thought.

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  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Mark. I was up half the night arguing with myself about this, and your comment inspired me to try out a scene this morning that just might loosen me up on this. I’d say Emma and Candace are battling this out, but the sides are not at all clear. In a pinch, Candace always reaches for the strong, quietly powerful women.

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