The appointment of women to the Garter. (Medieval era).

I have been trying to make sense of the method by which women were appointed to the Garter in the middle ages, and have concluded there was no system.

Of course, as with the knights, who were nominally ‘elected’ by the other knights, it all came down to royal favour. But with the knights, there was a limit as to how many could be appointed. If there wasn’t a vacancy, even if you were the king’s best mate, you had to wait until there was.

For women, though there was no limit. The king could appoint as many as he wanted. Richard II in particular was prodigal with his appointments, far more so than any other sovereign. You get the impression that whatever else may be said about him, he really liked women. Not just young ones either. Some chosen were easily old enough to be his grandma and often were the widows of famous knights.

But logic? You might think that once a man was appointed KG his wife would get robes more or less automatically. No, sorry. Not so. Thomas Holland, 2nd Earl of Kent, was appointed by Edward III as far back as 1375 or 76. He was, of course, Richard II’s half-brother, so highly placed. His wife, Alice Arundel had to wait for her appointment until 1388. The same was true of Mary Bohun, Countess of Derby, also 1388, although her husband, Bolingbroke, got his KG in 1377. Joan or Joanne Holland married Edmund of Langley (a long-standing KG) about 1393 but did not receive Garter robes until 1399. Philippa Mohun Duchess of York married her husband by 1398 at the latest (almost certainly in 1397) but did not receive Garter robes until 1408. In her case, the delay may have been down to Henry IV’s relative reluctance to appoint women, but the other examples show these honours were far from automatic.

On the other hand, a wife might receive robes before her husband became KG. Constance of York got hers in 1386 (when she was 12 at most but quite possibly 10) but Thomas Despenser her husband did not get his KG until 1389 at the earliest and possibly as late as 1399. (Sadly the records are deficient.) Some women got an LG but their husbands never received a KG. An example is Blanche Bradeston (1399) whose second husband, Sir Andrew Hake, an obscure Despenser hanger-on and Scots-born, was about as likely to get a KG as I am.

It seems it all came down to the king’s whim, and whether he liked you or not. Maybe it also had a political aspect as a means of demonstrating favour or withholding it. Katherine Roet-Swynford, John of Gaunt’s friend, got hers in 1387, ahead of many women more senior in rank, and, on the face of it, more obvious choices. Was it that Richard II liked her? Or was her appointment an attempt to please Gaunt, then absent from England? Who can say? I have previously pointed out that none of the Mortimers, male or female, got a sniff. Just to be high-born and closely related to the king was not enough to qualify you.

The Garter was later to become very much a high-class boys’ club – certainly from the reign of Henry VIII if not before. But clearly, the Garter Sorority (if we may call it that) was of some importance under Richard II. What did they do? The truth is we know almost nothing. Obviously, they were not ‘full members’ as the KG knights were. More like ‘associate members’. They would obviously be part of the feasting and probably of the religious ceremonies and processions. Given that there was usually jousting following the Garter ceremonies, it may be they formed the principal spectators and took part in chivalric activities.

‘May I have your favour, madame?’

‘Yes’ (Smiles, tears off veil.) ‘Here you are. Try not to get blood on it.’

‘May I have your favour, madame?’

‘Bog off! Your politics stink!’

They may even have judged who was the worthiest knight and so on. Sadly, we can but guess.


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