The Most Noble Order of the Garter is Britain's most senior order of chivalry. The Scottish equivalent is the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, while the Irish equivalent was the Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick, until Ireland became a free state. Membership in the Order of the Garter is a great honor, and it comes with centuries of tradition which dictate the vestments which Order members may wear, their position in the table of precedence, and which honorifics they may receive.
The Order of the Garter was founded in 1348 by King Edward III. At any given time, the members include the British sovereign, the Prince of Wales, and 24 others, who are known as knights and ladies companion. When a member passes away, the monarch selects a replacement, ensuring that only 24 members are alive simultaneously. Certain others such as foreign royalty may be named "supernumerary members," honoring them without fully bringing them into the order.
The insignia of the Order is an ornamental garter, stamped with Honi soit quil mal y pense, an Old French phrase meaning "shamed be the person who thinks evil of it." The name of this organization might conjure up a dainty lady's leg, but it is probably related to a medieval device used to firmly buckle on pieces of armor. Several fanciful stories about the origin of the name have been circulated; despite featuring beautiful court ladies and romantic ideas, these stories are almost certainly myths.
Among British orders of chivalry, the Order of the Garter is a bit unique because admission to the order is granted only by the sovereign. In other orders, the sovereign takes the advice of the government, creating a political link, and while this practice was briefly in vogue for the Order of the Garter, it was eventually abandoned. Thus, an invitation to join the order is the personal gift of the sovereign of England.
Members of the Order of the Garter are entitled to wear certain garments, including pins and ribbons which signify their membership in the Order. They are also permitted to use the Order's insignia in their heraldic crests, and they maintain stalls at St. George's chapel with their arms and enameled name plates, for the purpose of the Garter Ceremony, which is held in June every year. The individual swords, shields, and crests of members are removed after their deaths and returned to the Crown, while the name plates remain, creating a colorful record of the Order's history.