I don’t know whether or not C.S. Lewis wore garters. And, trust me, I have no interest in learning the answer to that trivia question. Nevertheless, a recent advertisement caught my eye in a 1925 issue of the American Legion Weekly.
Never having worn a garter, it struck me as interesting ad placement—in a veteran’s publication. I attributed the male use of hosiery to the lack of reliable elastic substitutes for stockings a century ago.
Even as I was reading the advertisement, I recalled the peculiar name of one of the United Kingdom’s most distinguished societies, the Most Noble Order of the Garter. Established a few years back, in 1348 it is one of Britain’s most revered orders of knighthood. And, like any lover of adventures, I know knights are pretty cool.
C.S. Lewis was once offered a royal title—albeit, not a knighthood in the prestigious Order of the Garter. Lewis declined the honor. He declined because he believed the politics involved would distract attention from his work as a Christian apologist.
Regular readers of Mere Inkling know that I am not wont to cite Wikipedia as a source, but the following description of their motto is enlightening.
Various legends account for the origin of the Order. The most popular involves the “Countess of Salisbury,” whose garter is said to have slipped from her leg while she was dancing at a court ball at Calais. When the surrounding courtiers sniggered, the king picked it up and returned it to her, exclaiming, Honi soit qui mal y pense! (“Shame on him who thinks ill of it!”), the phrase that has become the motto of the Order.
However, the earliest written version of this story dates from the 1460s, and it seems to have been conceived as a retrospective explanation for the adoption of what was then seen as an item of female underclothing as the symbol of a band of knights.
Times they were a-changin’ and garters had apparently become more associated with feminine wearers during the intervening century.
Fordham University has a delicate medieval “fringed garter” on display at this site.
Despite both sexes utilising the garter, the accessory was more associated with men because it was visible on their bodies. Women wore garters in the same location as men, but their long dresses concealed them, thus giving medieval Londoners the perception that it was more widely used by men. Since women’s garters were not visible to the eye, there is limited information in regards to women’s use of garters.
C.S. Lewis had better things to write about than garters. About knights, for example, he had much to say. He composed stories about them even during his childhood.
As an adult, Lewis’ focus rested on the quintessential attribute of true knighthood—chivalry.
Yes, the very word “chivalry” reeks of a bygone era that has been superseded and relegated to history books. But those who consider the concept outdated impoverish their lives and quite possibly contribute to the violent spirit of our age.
There does exist, however, a passing reference in one of C.S. Lewis’ letters to the fabled Order of the Garter. It was in 1952, and Lewis was illustrating the truth that Christianity is a faith based on grace. It cannot be earned. No one deserves divine forgiveness . . . yet it is freely offered through the miracle of the Atonement.
In his letter, Lewis quotes Lord Melbourne who held an irreverent opinion related to the Order. He considered its bestowal of honor to be arbitrary or political, rather than being based on a recipient’s worthiness.
Of course, none of us have “any right” at the altar. You might as well talk of a non-existent person “having a right” to be created. It is not our right but God’s free bounty. An English peer said, “I like the Order of the Garter because it has no dam’ nonsense about merit.” Nor has Grace. And we must keep on remembering that as a cure for Pride.
Apparently, Lord Melbourne did not take seriously the warning Honi soit qui mal y pense!
Sadly, it does not appear the George Frost Company currently sells garters, but you can find a number of their past products here, including the “Velvet Grip Rubber Button Hose Supporter for Boys and Girls.”
And all hope of garter-joy has not vanished. If you are in the market for medieval style garters—for reenacting, perhaps—you can purchase them here.
Whether you choose to emulate the Order of the Garter or not, please do not “think ill of it!”