The venerable Air Chief Marshal Graham “Jock” Stirrup is not short of honours but adding the title of Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter is a feather in anyone’s cap. Of all the weird and ancient orders in England’s old heraldic system, there is none more prestigious than the Order of the Garter, whose numbers are strictly limited.
These days the mysterious order involves little more in practice than an annual invitation to lunch in the Waterloo Chamber of Windsor Castle on St George’s Day, after any new knights have taken the oath.
Given that its membership is decided by the Queen herself, however, outsiders may still have cause to be jealous. Lord Stirrup’s elevation was an implied snub to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. While every Prime Minister from Winston Churchill to John Major was admitted to the Order, the two most recent former PMs have been passed over.
It was not meant to be open to civilians; in the beginning, it was all about prowess in war. The Order was founded during the Hundred Years’ War, when the army of King Edward III defeated a larger French force at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. The King founded the order two years later for those considered to have shown exceptional valour in battle – consisting of himself and 24 knights.
The original line-up was all male, with full female membership allowed only in 1987, and there is currently one woman among the full members – Winston Churchill’s daughter, Lady Soames. Currently, the doyen of the Order is the 93-year-old former Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington. Other members are an odd assortment of hereditary peers, such as the Duke of Wellington, hereditary business leaders, such as Sir Timothy Colman, whose family gave its name to Colman’s mustard, as well as two Field Marshals, a former Sea Lord, a former Cabinet Secretary, one former Labour MP, John Morris, who was Welsh Secretary in the 1970s, and one former Tory PM, John Major.
But why “the Garter”? It is possible that it refers to leather straps used to fasten armour. There is, however, an old story that may be apocryphal: one day a lady was dancing at court when her garter came loose. The King gallantly retrieved the garter and tied it to his own leg, declaring “Honi soit qui mal y pense’ – meaning “shame on he who thinks evil” – which is now the motto of the Order.
There’s nothing like old-fashioned chivalry when garters are involved.