Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Gifts of Grandeur: A Badge of the Order of The Garter, 1640

Order of the garter
Lesser George
Gold and Enamel, 1640
The Victoria & Albert Museum

Yay! It’s an insignia of the Order of the Garter! I always like these. I like the garter stars most of all, but these little Georges are always a treat. The Order of the Garter was founded in 1348, on St. George’s Day, by King Edward III. It’s the oldest order of chivalry in Europe. It’s also Britain’s highest order and honor.

When granted the Order of the Garter, the individual is given a set of chivalric insignia. He’s set up with a Greater George (I’ll explain more below) for formal use, a Lesser George for everyday wear, and a star to wear on his cloak. These stars, at first, were embroidered with metallic thread, but, if you were special, yours could be a pin made of gold and diamonds.

By the time of Henry VIII, the badges were designed to be worn on a collar. Henry introduced the collar which consisted of 26 Tudor roses within blue garters, with an image of St George killing the dragon hanging by a gold tassel.

That particular image of George slaying the dragon is known as “The Greater George.” So, any garter badge with that depiction is known as such. The one that we see above is known as a “Lesser George.” This version would have been worn for more informal occasions. The Lesser George depicts St. George and the dragon, pre-kill, surrounded by a garter and the motto of the Order.

The twenty-six Tudor roses on the collar symbolize the twenty-six members of the order. The order consists only of twenty-six living members at a time. The collar was not to be set with precious stones. I’m not sure why, but that was the rule. The stars and other insignia could, however, be adorned with any sort of gems that were in fashion at the time.

While the example we see here is made of gold and enamel, other examples of the period are, in fact, set with gems. Greater Georges usually boasted more gems than their informal brothers, but every once in awhile, a Lesser George sparkled with diamonds and other gems. Charles I, for example, wore one set with over 400 diamonds. He wore it to his execution—as one does.

This particular Lesser George was once owned by Thomas Wentworth, who was knighted by King James I and created Earl of Strafford by Charles I in 1640. The Earl represented Yorkshire in Parliament and though he outwardly fought for more honesty and accountability in government, he was actually a rather nasty, greedy and ruthless bloke who made himself many enemies. He was tried for treason during the war with Scotland, and, executed. Presumably, unlike Charles I, he didn’t wear his insignia to the chopping block.

I should note that since being made in 1640, this insignia has, unavoidably, suffered some damage. At one time, George would have been holding a sword or a spear or some other sharp weapon which one might use to bother a dragon. That’s long gone and he’s just holding his little hand up—empty.

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