The Order of the Garter and England’s Witches

“Avanti, Avanti, Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense!”

One of my favorite Wiccan tales is about the creation of the English Order of the Garter.

A tradition in Wicca is that when a Priestess has hived three covens, she becomes a Witch Queen, and is entitled to wear a green snake-skin garter with a buckle for every coven that she has hived. A Priest earns the title Magus, though he does not get a garter. The S.O. says that Priests just “get to smile and look pretty”. The tradition of the garter was mentioned by Margaret Murray, who said that the garter was historically a “badge of a witch”. Whether Margaret Murray was correct or not is up for much debate. Either way, the green garter is traditional now.

The story goes that the Duchess of Salisbury was dancing with King Edward III when her garter, her green garter mind you, fell to the floor. Supposedly the whole room went silent (which assumes that the rest of the court knew what the green garter symbolized), and waited to see what the King would do. This was the time period when the Inquisition was raging across Europe, though it hadn’t yet made it to England. According to the story, the King picked the garter up and tied it to his own leg, saying “Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense”, or “Evil to those who think evil”. This symbolized to the rest of the court that Edward knew his dancing partner was a Witch, but wasn’t going to allow the Inquisition to come to England. Thus the Order of the Garter was created by the king to protect England’s witches. Again, whether this is true or not, witches weren’t burned in England traditionally until the rule of King James I, who became the King of England in the early 1600’s. (Burnings started happening in the 1400’s, but weren’t quite the overall societal reaction to witches in England. Again, one can probably debate the history of this).

In Witchcraft Today Gerald Gardner cites the story, saying: “The King’s quickness saved the situation and placed him almost in the position of their incarnate god in the eyes of his more pagan subjects. This was followed by the foundation of an Order of twelve Knights for the King and twelve for the Prince of Wales, i.e. twenty -six members in all, or two covens. Froissart’s words imply that Edward understood the underlying meaning of the Garter, for he says, ‘The King told them it should prove an excellent expedient for uniting not only his subjects one with another but all foreigners conjunctively with them in bonds of amity and peace.'” (Gardner, 119-121, Fiftieth Anniversary edition) In The Meaning of Witchcraft, in the chapter titled ‘Significant Dates in the History of the Witch Cult, with Special References to Britain’, Gardner says that this happened in the year 1349.

As the S.O inserts…of course every English school boy knows the tale, but without the Witchcraft references. But as several other writers point out, the more conventional tale of how the Order of the Garter is founded doesn’t quite hold up. It’s not like most ladies of those days couldn’t deal with a garter falling off at an inopportune moment. It probably happened all the time. Why was it necessary for the King to intervene? (And whether or not the Duchess of Salisbury, or in some stories, the Maid of Kent, was the King’s lover, shouldn’t have mattered here one way or another as far as a dropped garter). In the non-Witch version, when the Lady’s garter fell off, the knights jeered at her. King Edward is known for upholding chivalry in his court. The jeering seems somewhat out of character. So what other reason could there have been for Edward III to make such a point of tying the Lady’s garter to his own knee? In the more conventional stories there seems to be a lot of clumsy explanation that suddenly becomes unnecessary when the presence of Witchcraft is inserted.

I’ve been reading Lammas Night by Katherine Kurtz, a fictionalized account of the Grand Coven which was purportedly convened by the magical practitioners of Britain in 1941 to stop Hitler’s invasion. This is another story told by many esoteric traditions. Apparently this Grand Coven was an event that had not been witnessed since the Grand Coven that thwarted the Spanish Armada in 1588 if tales are to be believed. If nothing else, we do know that one day Hitler woke up and decided not to invade England, exactly when he was poised to do just that. The German War Machine was all lined up for invasion. We have no idea why Hitler decided to not cross the channel. In Lammas Night, Kurtz ties the Order of the Garter to both the stopping of the Armada in Elizabeth I’s time and to the Grand Coven which stopped Hitler during WWII. Kurtz involves a prince of the Royal Family in this scenario, which ties the story to the idea of the Seven Year King, or the Sacred King and the notion that every seven years, a “king” needs to be sacrificed to the land for it to prosper and flourish. In the story of the founding of the Order of the Garter, Edward III stands up as the Sacred King. (King Arthur is another traditional Seven Year King, if you want to look at more connections to this idea).

I like to think that, if nothing else, it gives more historical proof of the witch cult in England, whether or not “Wicca” was its actual name. It’s a great story that everyone should know. In Blue Star, we chant Edward’s statement each Beltane, a slogan that celebrates our freedom as witches today. This is yet another great example of being proudly and openly Pagan. If they could do it in the 1300’s, why is it still an issue today? We should use this story as an example of our own modern presence. Some people are willing to stand up to bullies and say that some behavior is not acceptable. Who knows? Maybe someone unexpected will do it at the right time and change the course of history. It seems the Duchess of Salisbury did just that!

5 thoughts on “The Order of the Garter and England’s Witches

  1. Editor B says:

    I’d not heard this version of the old tale before. Fascinating, and it certainly makes the story more sensible.

    I’m curious to know how you like Lammas Night.

    • bluestarowl says:

      I just finished it. I can’t say that the ending wasn’t completely expected, but over all I enjoyed it. I thought that it was a pretty good depiction of witchcraft and I certainly became emotionally involved with the characters. If anything, I thought it was a bit short, I could have seen doing a lot more with everything else that was going on in the book other than the central story. I would recommend it, but I probably won’t pick it up again.

  2. Stephanie says:

    I talked to my father (an English Jew) about this story when I first learned it, and he confirmed that a) he had learned the (witch-free) version of the story as a schoolboy, and b) the witchy version made perfect sense to him and seemed eminently plausible.

  3. That’s a hard book to find–very cool that you have a copy.

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