It happened today - April 23, 2016
This is the anniversary of the founding of the Order of the Garter on April 23 1348. Unless it was some other year. Perhaps 1344, since one of its founding Members died in 1345. Other years have been suggested. What is not disputed is that the third-highest honour in the UK is named for a piece of women’s underwear.
It would be. And I mean that in a good way, on several grounds. First, the English have a quirky sense of humour. Second, one of the stories about its origin is that when the “Countess of Salisbury” (in this game of historical broken telephone, we’re not sure if that would be Joan of Kent or her ex-mother-in-law Catharine Montacute) was dancing in Calais she had a wardrobe malfunction and King Edward III of England rebuked those who snickered, picked up the garter and handed it back to her with the devastating quip “Honi soit qui mal y pense”. It means “Shame on him who thinks evil of it”. Why anyone would think evil of a person whose garter fell off I can’t imagine, unless it was a snide suggestion that it came off more than it should.
Whether that is true or not I have no idea. Nor is anyone sure that’s the real origin, rather than some episode during the Crusades where that wacky Richard I was inspired by St George the Martyr to tie garters round his knights’ legs and they won the battle, perhaps not wanting to be found dead on the battlefield in ladies’ unmentionables. Or some obscure reference to Edward’s claim to the throne of France, with the garter standing for straps used to fasten armor.
Look, it was a long time ago, they’d had a few drinks, anyway it became a habit and there you are. Seven centuries later. And it still matters.
No really. I haven’t been given one and I don’t think the invitation is just held up in the mail. But imagine doing something noteworthy and being given an award fast approaching 700 years old, symbolising valour and honour over a staggeringly long period.
Not that every recipient was pure as the driven snow beforehand or afterward. People in previous eras were as prone to sin and stupidity as humans always have been and always will. But still there was a standard to which people did look up and it helped make many of them at least a bit better. And if you got it today it would really mean something, I think, and inspire you to try to be worthy of it.
Maybe not. In these tired, cynical and ironic times perhaps we scoff at honour. But if so, surely the appropriate response is, indeed, “Honi soit qui mal y pense.”