THE ORDER OF THE GARTER
The Order of the Garter is the most senior and the oldest British Order of Chivalry and was founded by Edward III in 1348. The Order, consisting of the King and twenty-five knights, was intended by Edward III to be reserved as the highest reward for loyalty and for military merit. Like The Prince of Wales (the Black Prince), the other founder-knights had all served in the French campaigns of the time, including the battle of Crécy - three were foreigners who had previously sworn allegiance to the English king: four of the knights were under the age of 20 and few were much over the age of 30.
The origin of the emblem of the Order, a blue garter, is obscure. It is said to have been inspired by an incident which took place whilst the King danced with Joan, Countess of Salisbury. The Countess's garter fell to the floor and after the King retrieved it he tied it to his own leg. Those watching this were apparently amused, but the King admonished them saying, 'Honi soit qui mal y pense' (Shame on him who thinks this evil). This then became the motto of the Order. Modern scholars think it is more likely that the Order was inspired by the strap used to attach pieces of armour, and that the motto could well have referred to critics of Edward's claim to the throne of France.
The patron saint of the Order is St
George (patron saint of soldiers and also of England) and the spiritual
home of the Order is St George's Chapel, Windsor. Every knight is required
to display a banner of his arms in the Chapel, together with a helmet,
crest and sword and an enamelled stallplate. These 'achievements' are
taken down on the knight's death (and the insignia are returned to the
Sovereign), but the stallplates remain as a memorial and these now
constitute one of the finest collections of heraldry in the world.
Over the years, a number of knights have been 'degraded' (for the crimes of heresy, treason or cowardice), the most recent example being the Duke of Ormond in 1715, or even executed - such as Lord Scrope of Masham (a childhood friend of Henry V), and the Duke of Buckingham in 1622. Charles I wore his Order (ornamented with over 400 diamonds) to his execution in 1649.
From the eighteenth century to 1946,
appointments to the Order (and to the Order of the Thistle) were made on
advice from government. Today, the Order has returned to its original
function as a mark of royal favour; Knights of the Garter are chosen
personally by the Sovereign to honour those who have held public office,
who have contributed in a particular way to national life or who have
served the Sovereign personally. The number of knights is limited to 24
plus royal knights. For much of its history, the Garter was limited to the
aristocracy, but today the knights are from varied backgrounds. If there
are vacancies in the Order, appointments are announced on St George's Day
Since the early fourteenth century, foreign monarchs have been appointed to the Order, as a means of marking and securing alliances - one of the earliest such appointments was that of the Duke of Urbino by Edward IV in 1474. Such appointments were and are occasionally made to non-Christian rulers (for example, the Shah of Persia in 1902), which prompted some debate over removing Christian imagery (the cross of St George) from the Order when it is given to non-Christian recipients; in the end, the design remained unchanged. Foreign monarchs in the Order are known as 'Stranger Knights'. These knights are in addition to the number allowed by statute, and they include the kings of Spain and Sweden and the emperor of Japan.
From: The Order of the Garter. "The Monarchy Today: The Queen as Fountain of Honor."