The premier order of chivalry in Great Britain, the Most Noble Order of the Garter is not a secret society in any sense of the word, but it has more than once been labeled a secret society by conspiracy theorists. It was originally founded by King Edward III sometime between 1344 and 1350, probably in 1348. The Order’s membership was originally limited to the reigning English monarch and 25 knights. This has been expanded somewhat in recent centuries, although the extra members are not counted among the official numbers of Garter Knights. The Order’s traditional patron is St George, its annual meeting is on St George’s Day, and its original badge is a blue garter worn on the left leg, bearing in gold the words Honi soit qui mal y pense, “Shame be on him who thinks evil of it” in medieval French.
The origins of the Order and its emblem are uncertain. The traditional story has it that the king, attending a ball in Calais during his campaigns in France, happened to be nearby when a lady accidentally dropped her garter. The king picked it up, and faced down the onlookers with the words Honi soit qui mal y pense. He then tied the garter around his own knee and said “I will make of this, ere long, the most honourable garter that ever was worn.” The story does not appear in written sources before 1550, when the notoriously inaccurate historian Polydore Vergil mentioned it, and later historians of the Order of the Garter from Elias Ashmole on have rejected it as pure legend. See Ashmole, Elias.
According to the “Old Religion” hypothesis of Margaret Murray, however, this event reveals that the Order of the Garter was originally a witch coven. Murray argued that the witch persecutions of the Middle Ages were an attempt by the Catholic Church to stamp out an ancient Pagan fertility religion that worshipped a horned god of nature. The garter was allegedly one of the emblems of the Old Religion, and its sudden appearance on the floor betrayed the fact that its wearer was a high priestess of the witch cult. By picking it up Edward III indicated that the witch cult was under his personal protection, and the original Order, with its 26 members, was a double coven (2 x 13 members). The fact that its membership was entirely male, in flat contravention of normal practice in a fertility cult, does not seem to have occurred to Murray. See Murray hypothesis; witchcraft persecutions.
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006