The Order of the Garter and Queen Elizabeth: part 2

As the official public record since 1665, The Gazette has been recording appointments to the Order of the Garter for over three centuries. Part two in a four-part series, British honours expert Russell Malloch looks at the relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and the Most Noble Order of the Garter.

Part 1

Part 3

Part 4

Photograph of King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Elizabeth, Princess Margaret taken by Marcus Adams in 1938

King George VI

Princess Elizabeth of York’s father became the sovereign of the Order of the Garter on 11 December 1936, following royal assent being given to the act that confirmed the abdication of his brother, King Edward VIII (Gazette issue 34349).

King George VI’s reign opened with the new Queen – the former Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon – being made a lady of the Garter under a statute of 14 December 1936, which explained that her husband was “desirous of evincing in a signal manner our abiding sense of the conspicuous virtues and excellent worth of our dearly beloved consort … as well for the greater glory splendour and dignity of our said Most Noble Order”.

The 11 year old princess saw some of the Garter’s business being performed during her parents’ coronation (Gazette issue 34453), as she sat on the front row of the royal box overlooking the main theatre in Westminster Abbey on 12 May 1937, beside Queen Mary and her Bowes-Lyon grandmother, the Countess of Strathmore, whose place as a dame grand cross in the Victorian Order was announced in the coronation honours list (Gazette issue 34396). She also witnessed the moment when four knights of the Garter performed the traditional task of holding a rich canopy of cloth of gold over her father when he was anointed by the archbishop of Canterbury.

The coronation Gazette notified the appointment of the Earl of Strathmore to be an additional knight of the Garter, while his daughter, the Queen Consort, was named as the first lady of the Order of the Thistle. The Gazette also reflected the King’s keen interest in the orders he had inherited from his brother, as it explained that he had placed the Chapel of the Savoy in London at the disposal of the Victorian Order.

The princess was also present when her father revived the Garter’s ceremonial a few weeks after the coronation, as he held a special service in St George’s Chapel on 14 June 1937, when the companions gathered in their blue mantles and gold collars for their first function since 1914.

A few weeks later the King revived the ceremony of installation in the Order of the Thistle, as the Queen took her place in one of the stalls in St Giles’ Cathedral in July 1937, but there was still no revival of that service within the Garter until after the war.

Three notable developments affecting the Garter occurred during the decade between the 1937 service and Princess Elizabeth receiving the Blue Riband in 1947. The first involved the office of chancellor of the order, the person who was responsible for signing formal documents and certain other administrative matters. The position was filled by successive bishops of Oxford from the 1830s until a statute of 1 November 1937 assigned that place to “a knight companion of [the] Order or […] such others person of learning, reputation, and experience not being below the rank of a knight”.

The first lay chancellor was one of the companions, the Duke of Portland (Gazette issue 34452), and he was followed in 1943 by Viscount Halifax, who received the Blue Riband in the 1930s after serving as viceroy of India, but was not presented with the chancellor’s badge until 1946 when he returned from his war-time embassy to the United States of America.

The second point of note was the admission of the first overseas lady, which arose when the Queen of the Netherlands received the Garter on 24 September 1944, while she was in England at the head of the Dutch government in exile, and at a time when news about the fate of the allied airborne division was coming through from Arnhem. Buckingham Palace announced that:

“His Majesty has chosen this appropriate moment for admitting Queen Wilhelmina to the highest and most honourable of the British orders of chivalry in order that he may give expression to the respectful admiration felt by all his subjects for the courage and steadfastness which the Queen has consistently shown since, an honoured and a welcome guest, her majesty came to this country four years ago.”

The Queen had reached London in May 1940, having fled from Holland to avoid being captured by the German invaders, when she was accompanied by her daughter Juliana and granddaughter Beatrix, who would both become queen of the Netherlands and ladies of the Garter.

Photograph of Clement Attlee and King George VI

The King’s Own

Queen Wilhelmina would be the last person to be admitted to the Garter under the old regime, as the third and most important development relating to the order came in 1946 when the prime minister Clement Attlee surrendered the right to nominate new members to the King. One biographer recorded the sequence of events from the King’s perspective:

“By gradual process, therefore, an established but unwritten custom had developed, accepted by both Sovereign and Premier, whereby the one would make no appointment to the Order except on the recommendation of the other.

Thus, though the Prime Minister of the day exercised the greatest care in offering his counsel to the Sovereign in order that the high purpose and irreproachable standard of the membership of the Order should be maintai­ned, it was undeniable that the Garter had become a ‘political’ honour bestowed in accordance with party recommendation.” (Wheeler-Bennett, 1965, p756)1

The King’s desire to reform the Garter had been frustrated by the war in Europe and further afield:

“He believed sincerely that this great and oldest of the orders of chivalry, which he had felt so honoured to receive from the hands of his father and of which he was most proud to be the head, should be non-political in character. This was part of his strong belief in the mystique of monarchy, of which the Fount of Honour was so vital an attribute, and, while he fully recognised the necessity of ‘political’ honours, he was equally convinced that the bestowal of membership of the major Orders, the Garter, the Thistle and the Patrick, should, like the Order of Merit, be in the unfettered gift of the Sovereign.

He had it in mind to raise the issue with Mr. Chamberlain but the war intervened. At its close, however, there were seven vacancies in the membership of the Garter and the existing political situation was confede­rate to the fulfilment of the King’s desires in filling them. Apart from the great commanders on sea and land and in the air, many of the possible recipients in the political field were active members of the Conservative Party whom a Labour government could scarcely be expected to recommend. Moreover, the Labour Party were essentially chary of honours as a whole.”

In May 1946 the King “spoke to Attlee about the future K.G.s. His people are against accepting honours & most recipients would have to be of the other party. I want it non-political & in my gift. Naturally I would tell him my ideas.” From this conversation:

“[T]here ensued consulta­tions between the Prime Minister and Mr. Churchill and others of the King’s advisers, with the result that on July 23 Mr. Attlee was enabled to tender advice to the King that not only the Garter but also the Thistle and the Patrick should be conferred by His Majesty on the same basis as that of the Order of Merit, namely without any formal submission by the Prime Minister. This principle had been clearly established in 1902 when the Order of Merit was founded and the new procedure for the great orders of chivalry became similar to that which the Sovereign had always retained in respect of his near relations and members of foreign Royal Families, namely the right to confer after consultation with, but not on advice from, his Ministers.”

This change in control would bring challenges for the King and his advisers, as they became responsible for selecting candidates for what was the highest honour in the land, and the difficult task of maintaining what the King’s biographer described as an “irreproachable standard”.

The Garter has been characterised as an order that “was used to unify and merge different elites” (Cannadine, 2001, p86)2, and so it was clear that it would have to be managed with care in post-war Britain, with a Labour administration in power. There were other limitations on how the King could act and it was, for example, impossible for him to distribute the honour evenly throughout the British Empire, not least in Canada where the government opposed awards that involved the use of titles, or in South Africa, or in India where the order’s strong Christian character would be an obstacle.

Photograph of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in Garter robes on Garter Day in 1948

The names of the first of the “King’s Own” knights were gazetted in December 1946 (Gazette issue 37807), and showed no major break with the past, as the list began with two senior parliamentary figures, Viscount Addison, the Labour government’s secretary of state for dominion affairs and leader of the House of Lords, and his Conservative predecessor in those offices, Viscount Cranborne.

The two politicians were joined by five of the war-time leaders who were all peers and members of the Order of the Bath: Admiral Mountbatten of Burma from the navy, Field-Marshals Alanbrooke, Alexander of Tunis and Montgomery of Alamein from the army, and Marshal of the Royal Air Force Portal of Hungerford.

The Gazette notice about these awards was accompanied by a press release from Downing Street, which explained what had been happening:

“These appointments to the Most Noble Order of the Garter have been made under a procedure similar to that used for awards of the Order of Merit. The Order of Merit is awarded by the King without any formal submission by the Prime Minister or other responsible Minister of the Crown. This position was clearly established in 1902 when the Order was founded. Where appropriate the King is pleased to inform the Prime Minister of his intentions in regard to the award of this Order before conferring it and to consider any private and unofficial suggestions which the Prime Minister may make. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have both accepted the view that the same procedure should apply to appointments of the Most Noble Order of the Garter in future. The King has been pleased to approve.” (The Times, 1946)3

A similar announcement was made in June 1947 when the King nominated his first knights of the Thistle, which continued to focus on candidates with Scottish connections, and as happened with the first sea lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham, who accepted Churchill’s offer of the Green Riband in January 1945 (Gazette issue 36866).

The King’s Own knights were invested at Buckingham Palace on 17 December 1946, and steps were taken to introduce the ceremony of installation, which was last performed in the Garter in 1805, but had the more recent precedent of the Thistle service of 1937. The King intended to combine the revival of the Hanoverian ceremonial with celebrations to mark the 600th anniversary of the institution of the order by Edward III.

Photograph of Princess Elizabeth (future Queen Elizabeth II) and Prince Philip on their wedding day in 1947

Duchess of Edinburgh

Important news about the heir presumptive emerged between the nomination of the first of the King’s knights and the Garter’s anniversary in 1948, as the engagement of Princess Elizabeth to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten was announced in July 1947 (Gazette issue 38030).

The King admitted his daughter and her future husband to the Garter shortly before they were married. The princess was invested on 11 November 1947, while Lieutenant Mountbatten – who became the Duke of Edinburgh – was knighted and invested a few days later and wore his Garter star at their wedding in Westminster Abbey.

The King gave his daughter a diamond star he received from the officers and men of the Royal Navy to celebrate his marriage in 1923, as well as a badge showing St George within a blue garter. The Queen wore her father’s wedding gift on many occasions, and during the final Garter ceremony of her reign in 2022 when she invested the then Duchess of Cornwall.

Princess Elizabeth received a warrant relating to her new dignity, which was signed by her father as sovereign and by the Earl of Halifax as chancellor of the order, and carried the Garter’s red seal showing St George and a dragon on one side, and the saint’s cross impaled with a pre-1801 version of the royal arms on the reverse.

The warrant was supplied in a blue velvet-covered box, which displayed a crowned and gartered St George’s cross on the lid, and contained a volume of the statutes that regulated the order, which was bound in blue and carried a similar gartered cross. The statutes ranged in date from the time of Henry VIII in 1522 to an issue from October 1944, which required “each knight at his first coming in” to pay £150 into the Garter Fee Account, without which his banner and stall plate could not be set up.

The King installed his daughter and son-in-law in St George’s Chapel on 23 April 1948, a day that also saw a chapter being held to invest four more knights: Lord Harlech, a former colonial secretary; the Earl of Scarbrough, who had served as governor of Bombay; and the Duke of Portland and Lord Cranworth, who had more limited and local interests.

No stall plate was placed in the chapel to mark the Queen’s short time as a member of the order, but this reflected the current practice of not setting up memorials for any ladies of the Garter, such as Queen Mary and Queen Wilhelmina. Princess Elizabeth’s banner was, however, hung over one of the royal stalls, and showed the coat of arms she was assigned in 1944, consisting of the sovereign’s arms differenced with a white label of three points charged with a Tudor rose and two crosses of St George.

The front of the red seal of Princess Elizabeth with Garter armsThe reverse of the red seal of Princess Elizabeth with Garter arms

Less than a year after the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh were installed in St George’s Chapel the princess gave birth to their son – Prince Charles of Edinburgh (Gazette issue 38455) – and so the future King Charles became the first sovereign whose parents were both members of the Garter at the time he was born.

Only seven ordinary knights joined the order while Princess Elizabeth was a member, as the four companions of 1948 were followed in 1951 by the Duke of Wellington, Earl Fortescue and Viscount Allendale, the lord lieutenants of Southampton, Devon and Northumberland, and the final knight of the reign was the Danish sovereign Frederick IX, who was nominated in May 1951 during his state visit to the United Kingdom.

No Garter service was held in 1949 as the King was recovering from surgery, although the order’s insignia was on show at his birthday parade in London in June when Princess Elizabeth wore the Garter’s riband with her uniform as colonel of the Grenadier Guards, a position she had held since taking over from the Duke of Connaught in 1942 (Gazette issue 35464).

The King was well enough to attend a service at Windsor in April 1950, and then again on 9 May 1951 when he installed the King of Denmark, during what would prove to be the last Garter ceremony his daughter would attend before she succeeded to the crown. He was also able to witness the only Bath installation of his reign at Westminster Abbey on 24 May 1951, while the next Garter event was planned for the following May, but it never took place as he died at Sandringham on 6 February 1952, when his daughter was transformed into the sovereign of the order (Gazette issue 39458).

King George VI was buried in St George’s Chapel on 15 February 1952, when the Queen heard her father’s style and titles being pronounced by Sir George Bellew, Garter king of arms, who had read her accession proclamation at St James’s Palace only a few days earlier. Sir George ended the declaration at the funeral service with the traditional concluding words about the King’s position as “sovereign of the Most Noble Order of the Garter” (Gazette issue 39575).

About the author

Russell Malloch is a member of the Orders and Medals Research Society and an authority on British honours.

See also

Queen Elizabeth II - In Memoriam


Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2022


Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2022

Keystone Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Russell Malloch

Russell Malloch


  1. John W. Wheeler-Bennett, King George VI (1965), page 756.
  2. David Cannadine, Ornamentalism (2001), page 86.
  3. The Times, 4 December 1946, page 4.

Publication date: 24 October 2022

Any opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and the author alone, and does not necessarily represent that of The Gazette.