Musings on the Garter

Lady Mary Peters by Nedkennedy and her armorial achievement by Heralder (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Earlier this year Dame Mary Peters, Gold Medalist in the Pentathlon at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, was appointed a Lady Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter. Last year the same honour was conferred on Dame Mary Fagan, former Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire. The Garter is England’s oldest order of chivalry. Membership is marked by, among other things, a carving of one’s crest atop a stall in the quire of St George’s Chapel Windsor. Here a problem emerges – women don’t have crests!

English heraldry grants crests only to men (“men” includes Queens Regnant), and they are transmissible only through the agnatic line unless by special warrant. This is consistent throughout the armorial traditions of most countries where crests are used at all – Canada being a notable exception, for its heraldic authority was founded relatively recently and is subject to that country’s stringent equality laws. What, then, do Garter ladies put atop their stalls?

Up until this point, the absence of female crests has been worked around by using their coronets instead, though in many cases this leads to a loss of uniqueness. Margaret Thatcher, Mary Soames and Elizabeth Manningham-Buller have been represented by baronial coronets, Lavinia Fitzalan-Howard by a ducal one. Queens Alexandra, Mary and Elizabeth used the royal crown, while the Princess Royal and the Honourable Lady Ogilvy used lesser crowns appropriate to a child or grandchild of the sovereign respectively. It is not just women to whom this applies – many times the Garter has been given to foreign princes (more on them later) to whose native heraldry the crest is unknown, and they too have simply used their crowns or coronets in its place – although Japanese kamon are sufficiently dissimilar that Emperor Akihito had to improvise a little with his chrysanthemum seal.

The challenge that Fagan and Peters present is that they are neither princesses nor peeresses, and thus would not have coronets to put above their shields (or indeed lozenges) either. The solution was to grant them each a badge – a paraheraldic device that is normally worn by the owner’s staff and retainers rather than the owner herself. This is not as revolutionary as may first appear, for in the mists of time the badge may well have been the origin of the crest and they are sometimes used interchangeably. Though a blazon is not readily available, Fagan’s badge shows a blue boar standing on a red cap of maintenance and Peters’s shows a Ulysses butterfly on the dome of Belfast City Hall. Their armorial achievements still omit the helm, torse and mantling which normally go between the crest and the shield.

At this point it is worth a mention of these Marys’ Caledonian counterpart Lady Marion Fraser. In 1996 she was appointed to the Order of the Thistle, essentially Scotland’s equivalent to the Garter, whose members’ crests are similarly displayed at the High Kirk of Edinburgh. As with the Garter, Ladies of the Thistle before Fraser had invariably been peeresses and/or princesses, so could use their coronets instead. Lady Marion was a special exception in receiving a grant to use a helm and crest (A demi-female richly attired holding in her dexter hand at the shoulder a thistle slipped and leaved all Proper and in her sinister hand at the hip a fraise Argent), which are displayed on her stall in the same way as the men’s.

Moving back to the foreign princes, in 1988 King Juan Carlos of Spain was made a Stranger Knight of the Garter. In 1989 Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands was made a Stranger Lady. As monarchs, they bore the undifferenced royal arms of their respective countries. Beatrix abdicated in 2013 and Juan Carlos in 2014, in favour of their sons Willem-Alexander and Felipe VI. The new king of Spain was admitted to the order himself in 2017, and the Dutch king in 2018. The decision to appoint these two monarchs while their predecessors are still alive means that the royal banners of their countries will now appear twice each in the chapel. Beatrix, reverting to Princess, has since adopted a differenced version of her arms (quartering with the arms of the former Principality of Orange, then surmounting them with an inescutcheon of the arms of her father Prince Bernhard), though it remains to be seen if her Garter banner will be updated. Juan Carlos, still styling himself King (though not The King as with British Queens Dowager) has adopted new external ornamentation but his shield remains the same. The only domestic example of this was Edward VIII, whose honours all merged into the crown upon his accession and were granted anew following his abdication. As Duke of Windsor he differenced the royal arms with a label of three points Argent, the centre bearing the Imperial Crown Proper.


UPDATE (April 2021)

I have come across some documentation of the Spanish kings’ banners – that of Juan Carlos has a lion Gules and a pomegranate Gules seeded Or, whereas Felipe’s has a lion Purpure and a pomegranate Proper seeded Gules. There are also subtle differences in the artistic depictions of the castle and the chain orle. In the footage of Prince Philip’s funeral you can see the two versions either side of the banner of King Harald V of Norway.

A Strange Documentary Experience

In recent years several YouTube channels have emerged which play a large number of full-length old documentaries. One might be forgiven for thinking this was too good to be true and that these were pirate channels, but on closer investigation they appear to have been set up by the rights-holders themselves. The economics behind such a move are less than obvious – my best guess is that the content was not likely to be broadcast on television anymore and so there wasn’t much to lose by releasing them online.

One such documentary recently uploaded is the Channel 4 film from August 2012 The Girl Who Became Three Boys (here rebranded to changed “Girl” to “Woman”) about the late-teen aged Gemma Barker who created three online male personas in order to date her slightly-younger platonic female friends Jessica Sayers (who was extensively interviewed) and “Alice” (whose real identity was withheld). These relationships naturally ended badly and Barker herself wound up serving prison time.

I watched this documentary on the night it first aired. It was a confusing experience to say the least, and stuck with me for years afterwards. Almost nothing about the story makes sense: How did Barker’s victims not notice that she and her invented characters looked so similar? Why did Barker herself claim to have been assaulted? Why were all the adults in the girls’ lives (other than Jessica’s grandmother) eerily absent from events? How deep an emotional bond can you form with a man who has neither face nor voice (to say nothing of his other absent attributes)? If Barker had autism and “borderline learning disability” then how was she capable of manipulating her friends to that extent?

It might be expected, indeed hoped, that this film about two girls being abused in this way would be met with pity and grief, but instead the most common responses I found were confused frowns mixed with cackling laughter. The tragedy at the pinnacle of the narrative was greatly overshadowed by the farce of its foundations. The superfluous Sims-esque animated reconstructions did not help in this regard, nor indeed did Jessica’s contribution as a talking head in which, far from a sympathetic wounded victim, she often appeared to delight in milking our attention. Notably, her interviewer occasionally interrupted with incredulous requests to clarify the most especially outlandish points – such as how “Connor” would still communicate solely through text messages even when physically present. In online discussions of the documentary there were many who condemned the two victims for their apparent lack of intelligence or perception. Others found the events as presented to lie beyond plausibility, surmising instead that the documentary makers or the girls themselves were leaving out further details and fabricating their accounts.

What most fascinated me about the discussion, however, was that there were people who didn’t find this story absurd. A few even brought anecdotes from their own social groups in which girls whom they knew had pulled similar tricks. The most common refrain of this faction ran along the lines of “Well, that’s just what you’re like when you’re fifteen.” as if this kind of lunacy is to be expected as a standard part of adolescence! For as long as I can remember I have been fully aware that what most people assert as “normal” life is often sharply different to my own, yet here I cannot suspend my disbelief. Some months after the documentary aired it came up in discussion during an English lesson. I and the rest of my class were about the same age as Barker’s victims had been, yet all of us who had seen the documentary were baffled at the insanity on display. Our teacher’s reaction was little different. If what this documentary depicted is in any way representative of ordinary life then I am glad to be a freak.

UPDATE (December 2020)

The video I originally embedded has now been set to private for some reason, but the same documentary has also been uploaded whole here, and in pieces starting here.

10,000th Place

It was five and a half years ago that I became a registered editor on the English Wikipedia. Through years of small edits to politicians’ post-nominals I gradually climbed through the user ranks, from Signator to Burba, then to Novato. It was in 2017 that I began adding heraldic illustrations, as well as looking for photographs of article subjects if the site did not already display them. It was also in that year that I built a user page for myself, complete with a smattering of userboxes.

Not all of my projects have gone well: Several template ideas, such as life peers or husbands of British princesses, were rejected by other editors. Others, such as British MPs by seniority, turned out to exist already.

Late last month I made my eight thousandth edit to the English Wikipedia, enabling me to claim the rank of a Veteran Editor, or Tutnum. It was at this point that I wondered about the statistics for edits by members, and in particular where I ranked in the grand scheme of things. Eventually I stumbled upon a list of registered members by number of edits made. I will not be breaking into the top ten any time soon, for their counts are in the millions. The article goes much further than that, though, showing the top ten thousand editors. To some that may seem excessive, equivalent to handing out participant medals to otherwise lacklustre child athletes. It must be borne in mind, however, that at present the number of registered users on the English Wikipedia is just shy of thirty-seven million, and so even a list as large as this one represents only the top 0.027% of the community. I was intrigued when I saw that the edit counts at the tail end of the leader board were only a few hundred above my own. The article includes links to archived versions of the list, showing who was where at roughly monthly intervals. From this I could see that while the goalposts were obviously shifting, it was doing so at a stately pace compared to my own edit count, which meant that I would eventually catch up. I decided to step up the pace of my contributions, setting a target of twenty-five edits per day, or 175 per week, in the hopes of making the grade before the summer was over. Last night I made by 8,539th edit, having seen that the most recent version of the list had the lowest member on 8,538. This morning the page was updated and shows that I have just scraped through to the 10k spot. I realise, of course, that this position is tenuous and that the editors immediately below me are likely to make up the difference fairly soon (whether or not they are actively trying to get on there), but the closeness of the counts for the next few hundred members above me suggests that I can easily advance a safe distance beyond the waterline even if I decelerate to my normal rate of activity.

One cannot foresee what the future holds. In a few years I might climb thousands of places, or I may be knocked out of the league altogether by a stampede of hyperactive newcomers. In any case, it will be a long time before I can say my work is done.