Several years ago, an English friend let drop he’d been knighted by the Queen and given the highest rank of Most Noble Order of the Garter. I was so impressed, I made Sir Ian Dunbar, my friend, a magistrate in my novel, Gothic Spring, and charged him with the task of conducting the inquest on the possible murder of pastor Flemming’s wife.
Though being knighted is a recognition not to be laughed at, I did smile at the curious title: Most Noble Order of the Garter. Fortunately, writer Christopher Mason can explain the origin and admits the story is a little spicy. During a ball, hosted by Edward 111, his mistress, Joan, Countess of Salisbury, with whom the king was dancing, suffered a technical malfunction. Her garter slipped below her ankle and this display prompted a ripple of laughter among the courtiers. Irritated by the sniggers, the king retrieved the garter, wrapped it around his sleeve and promised that, “Those who laugh at it today will be proud to wear it in the future.” (“What’s in a Dame?” by Christopher Mason, Town&Country, November 2015, pg. 211.) The king was right. The Order of the Garter is the most prized among those royalty bestows upon subjects and gives its possessor full bragging rights.
In modern times, the reigning monarch conducts the ceremony, but has little to say about who is chosen. The list is complied by a government committee Awarding the title takes about 45 seconds, long enough to wave a sword in the air before the next recipient steps forward. The ritual is performed twice a year with up to two thousand people honored at each session. Mason notes that during Queen Elizabeth’s long reign, the longest in British history, she has doled out over 400,000 awards, and remained standing throughout, despite her now nearly 90 years. To her credit, in the brief time she has with each subject, she strives to ask him or her at least one question. When actress Kristin Scott Thomas was honored, the Queen queried the actress about what new roles she might be taking on. “Playing you ma’am,” was Thomas’ reply, referring to her upcoming West End appearance in The Audience. The Monarch didn’t miss a beat. “That’ll be quite a challenge,” she replied. (Ibid, pg 213.)
The Queen’s List, as the honor role is called, has always had its critics and rumbles have grown louder as entertainers rather than statesmen and military figures crowd the field. Even a ‘Lollipop lady,” a long serving crossing guard, was honored. When John Lennon received his knighthood, he was sharp with his critics. Soldiers are honored for killing people, he quipped. Entertainers do no harm. (Ibid pg. 211.)
From an American point of view, the Queen’s List doesn’t make much rhyme on reason, yet stories abound about how people connive to be chosen, enough tales to fill several books. The system will always have its critics, but what’s the harm in thanking individuals for their service to their country, large or small? I agree with the Queen. “People need pats on the back sometimes. It’s a very dingy world otherwise.” (Ibid pg. 212.)