Order of the Garter The highest order of knights in Great Britain, founded by king Edward III in 1350, it was linked to the witch cult by British anthropologist Margaret A. Murray. Her evidence is dubious, though there are some curious aspects to this chivalric Order.
Edward conceived the Order in 1344 and formally created it on St. George’s Day, April 23, 1350, in honour of the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary, St. Edward the Confessor and St. George, the patron saint of England. The Order is sometimes called The Order of St. George.
According to legend, the Order resulted from an episode at court. While the king danced with the Countess of Salisbury, her garter fell to the floor. The king swooped it up and placed it on his own leg, saying, “Honi soit qui mal y pense” (“Shame on him who thinks evil of it”). The remark became the Order’s motto. The official emblem was a dark blue ribbon edged in gold, bearing the motto in gold letters; this ribbon was worn below the left knee.
The Order originally numbered 26: 12 knights led by Edward, plus 12 knights led by the Prince of Wales. Beginning in 1786 the Order was opened to admit others. In modern times, the order has a dean and 12 canons.
In The Witch-cult in Western Europe (1921), Murray reads a great deal of significance into the numbers of the Order. The original groups of 13—12 plus a leader—equate with the supposedly traditional number in a witches’ Coven. thIrteen is still represented in the modern structure: a dean plus 12 canons. Murray also points out that Edward’s mantle, as Chief of the Order, bore 168 garters. He wore another garter on his leg, and the total of 169 equals 13 times 13.
According to modern witch lore, garters were worn as a secret means of identification. Gerald B. Gardner, in Witchcraft Today (1954), suggested that the countess of Salisbury was a witch and that Edward immediately recognized her dropped garter as her secret identification and gallantly saved her from being exposed and brought to trial. Garters, however, were in fashion at the time, and it was not unusual for ladies of the court to be wearing them.
Gardner further speculated that a Black Book, containing the Order’s original constitution, was spirited away after Edward’s death in 1377.
Most likely, the purpose of the Order of the Garter was nothing more than what Edward publicly intended it to be: purely one of chivalry. Thanks largely to Murray, a “tradition” of garters for witches was created.
- Murray, Margaret A. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. London: Oxford University Press, 1921.