The Most Noble Order of the Garter is the highest order of chivalry in the United Kingdom and the oldest of all existing secular orders of knighthood in the world. This highly esteemed Order was founded by King Edward III, possibly in 1348, and it was intended as a symbolic revival of the Round Table of the legendary King Arthur, who Edward III admired.
As for the Order’s name, there is a legend involving the Countess of Salisbury, the King’s mistress. While she was once dancing with Edward, her garter is told to have slipped from her leg to the floor. As the surrounding courtiers sniggered, the King nonchalantly picked the garter up and tied it to his own leg, exclaiming, ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ (Shame on him who thinks this evil). Edward then vowed to ‘make of it ere long the most honourable garter that ever was worn.’ However, the statement: ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense,’ that became the motto of the Order, is more likely related to Edward III’s claim to the French throne and the military campaigns of the Hundred Years’ War he engaged in to increase the borders of his kingdom, while the name and emblem may have been inspired by the straps used to fasten pieces of armor.
The Order was meant to be an award for loyalty and merit. The first Knights of the Garter earned the honour through personal skills and bravery displayed on the battlefield – they had all accompanied the King in his French campaigns in the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War. The original medieval membership of the Order of the Garter consisted of the English King and the Prince of Wales, each with 12 companions, as if at a tournament. Today, membership is still limited to no more than 24 members, or Knight Companions, in addition to the King and the Prince of Wales. Other members of the Royal Family, as well as foreign monarchs, become supernumerary knights and ladies of the Order. The Sovereign personally chooses the 24 Knights of the Garter, without any consultation with the Government.
Women have been included in the Order of the Garter as Ladies Companion since 1987. As a rule, appointments to the Order are announced on 23 April – St. George’s Day. In June, the Knights and Ladies of the Garter gather at Windsor Castle, where newly appointed members are invested with the Order’s insignia – the ceremonial garter and the star. Men wear the garter just below the left knee, while women tie it above their left elbow.