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The Real (Non-Wiccan) Story of Edward III

Author: Zan Fraser
Posted: November 14th. 2010
Times Viewed: 2,254

Edward III (1312-77) is one of the most colorful and dramatic of the English monarchs, not the least for his induction (several centuries after his death) into the Marvelous World of Wicca. Only a teen-ager when he asserted his rights as King by deposing his guardian Rodger Mortimer, he thrilled the patriotic English heart by challenging the French over numerous French lands. (As the Plantagenet kings had made a habit of marrying French noblewomen who arrived in England with titles and land-holdings- beginning with Henry II’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine in the 1100s- Edward concluded that large sections of especially rich French provinces must belong to him.) Edward won great victories at CreƒVcy and Calais (which the English held for another two centuries) , but regrettably started the Hundred Years’ War, an ultimately debilitating affair decisively ended by Joan of Arc. (She is another story altogether; for more on the Maid of Orleans and the still-kind-of Pagan culture in which she lived, please see The Burning Times: the Fifteenth Century.)

Edward is recognized as the most self-consciously chivalric of medieval rulers. A huge fan of King Arthur and his Round Table, Edward modeled his court upon that of the legendary man, hosting Renaissance Fair-like tournaments at Windsor, Canterbury, Reading, Eltham, and Lichfield to celebrate his victories in France. He is notably recalled for his founding of the Order of the Garter, still the most prestigious of English honors; the controversy over his alleged “involvement” in what Margaret Murray called the “Witch Cult of Western Europe” equally stems from his creation of this highly significant organization.

What is said to be the explaining story behind the Order goes thus: whilst the bewitchingly lovely Joan of Kent (Countess of Salisbury and lover to the dashingly handsome Edward) danced at a royal ball, a garter slipped from her comely leg and fell from beneath her skirt. According to Robert Lacey, Great Tales from English History (Back Bay Books, 2007, p. 128) , the king, “in expansive mood”, picked up the garter to tie about his “own well shaped leg”, uttering the famously enigmatic motto of the Order: “Honi soit qui mal y pense”, medieval French for “Shame on him who evil thinks”. Thereafter Edward formed this most prestigious of societies, the distinguishing characteristic of which is of course the wearing of a garter fastened beneath the knee.

The conventional interpretation is that the Countess was embarrassed at having her garter exposed, leaving her vulnerable to the sniggers of rough and rude knights; only the king’s quick-thinking gallantry saved her reputation. Margaret Murray, however, had her own thoughts on the subject, expounded upon in her books The Witch-Cult in Western Europe and The God of the Witches. It was her contention that the garter carried a great importance among Witches, being an “insignia of rank” (The God of the Witches, p.73) : The “chief [Witch] wears the garter in token of his (or her) high position.”

Thus does Murray reinterpret the event: “The confusion of the Countess was not from the shock to her modesty- it took more than a dropped garter to shock a lady of the fourteenth century- but the possession of that garter proved that she was not only a member of the Old Religion but that she held the highest place in it. She therefore stood in imminent danger from the Church, which had already started on its career of persecution. “By donning the garter himself, since ‘the garter was the insignia of the chieftainship of the Old Religion’, he thereby placed himself in the position of the Incarnate God in the eyes of his Pagan subjects” (The God of the Witches, p.77) . This, as Doreen Valiente claims (in An ABC of Witchcraft, p.159) , gives “both the lady’s confusion and the King’s gesture a ‘much deeper meaning’. She stood revealed as a leading witch; and he publicly showed his willingness to protect the Old Religion and its followers.”

An imaginative reading- but ultimately (as any serious historian who has considered the matter has observed) without the foundation to sustain it. (There is a reason that one will search in vain amongst the histories for the story of the Witch-Countess.) Murray’s basic idea of an Across-Europe Witch-Cult has been lain in its grave a thousand times over; as Edward III (and William Rufus and St. Joan) are among the most prominent of Murray’s Witch-Cult, they must count as “blown apart” as the rest of her idiosyncratic thinking.

Elliot Rose, in A Razor for a Goat: A Discussion of Certain Problems in the History of Witchcraft and Diabolism (University of Toronto Press, 1962) , specifically dismantled Murray point by point. He reserved a special scorn for her ‘take’ on Edward’s Order, sarcastically calling it “the Grand Coven of England”. He believes that he has found Murray out on an important point- “every coven, in the Murrayite view, should contain a ‘Maid’, but these [the houses of the Order] for the greater part of their history have contained no women.”

Rose feels that Murray is wrong when she calls the fourteenth century a franker age than our own. “In the first place, it is a complete misconception to suppose that prudery was unknown in the Middle Ages. Fashion was already by this time more daring than it had been, so that ladies of rank were boldly revealing their foreheads and chins; but these are a long way from the knee. There is no particular ground for calling that age franker than ours...Realistic gusto, as distinct from salacity, was not a characteristic of its polite literature...The tradition of courtly love is a tradition of euphemism...The courtly attitude of mind did not correspond to the offends against the economy of hypotheses to reinterpret the incident in terms of an unknown custom” (A Razor for a Goat, p.68) . Basically Rose rejects Murray’s notion of a witchy significance to the Countess of Salisbury’s garter.

I just want to take a moment to say that I am not sure the 1300s were as shy as Rose seems to think- in the book on which I am now working, Prelude to the Burning Times (which covers Edward and his fair Countess and the environment in which they dwelt) , I have various instances which suggest that the 1300s was in fact a fairly racy sort of era. However- considering the shattered state of Murray’s Witch-Cult Europe, should one wish to present the story of Edward and the Garter, one must either present persuasive new evidence or a plausible reinterpretation. One cannot re-present a discredited story as genuine historical fact- as a Third Degree Initiatory Tradition High Priest did at a well-known gathering I attended this summer. That’s not only presenting Bad Wiccan History- that’s presenting Bad Wiccan History four decades out of date.

For one thing, the Inquisition was not hunting Witches during the 1300s; Europe had not yet embarked upon the murderous path of the Burning Times. There is no real reason for the Countess to have been endangered as a Witch in the 1300s, as numerous people in the 1300s resort to Magic; Kittredge provides many examples. It is never established why a garter should be associated with Witches, save that Murray says so.

Doreen Valiente does draw attention to an illustration from Erastus’s 1579 Dialogues concerning ‘Des Sorcieres’, which shows a Witch fastening a garter about her leg ere she flies out the chimney; the picture is reproduced by Rosemary Ellen Guiley, in her invaluable Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft (Second Edition, p. 34) . This is intriguing, but a bit slender upon which to assert a medieval custom of Witch-Queens wearing garters as insignias of rank- especially as many, many other people wear garters too.

Finally- the Monarch of England is the Head of the Order, which continues to this day. Are we to believe it continues still as a secret Witches’ Coven- with Her Majesty Elizabeth II its shadowy High Priestess? Are we to imagine that every English Monarch, through the Plantagenets, the War of the Roses, the Tudors- were closet Witches? Was James I (born in Scotland and Elizabeth I’s nearest relative) - a Witch? Was Charles I, who lost his head to Cromwell? Was Charles II, of the Restoration? Was stodgy old George III, the Tyrant of the American Revolution or (perish the thought) Victoria? Can we imagine prim and doughty Victoria presiding sky-clad over a Witches’ Rite, her Garter of Rank firmly about her fleshy leg?

Murray just falls apart when one thinks about her too much.

It is thought curious that the Order’s inception was apparently kept secret; there is no recorded date, and no account (official or non) of the occasion. It is generally thought odd that the inauguration of so significant an organization should not have been heralded. We assume that 1348 is the correct year because it was then that a royal wardrobe-keeper started making notes about garters; on December 18 he purchased twenty-four of them. (There are twenty-four knights in the Order, plus the Monarch and the Prince of Wales; Murray got all psyched over the thought that this represented two Witch-Cult Covens of thirteen apiece. Murray also notes that “the King’s mantle as Chief of the Order was powdered over with one hundred and sixty-eight garters which, with his own Garter worn on the leg, makes 169, or thirteen times thirteen, i.e. thirteen covens”- The God of the Witches, p.77. Elliot Rose notes many examples of monastic orders consisting of thirteen.

Edward clearly meant to establish the Order among the younger generation; the king was the second or third oldest member. It is touching to realize how young people were in the Middle Ages. When the Black Prince (Edward’s son and heir) was born in 1330, Edward was not yet eighteen, and his Queen Philippa, only sixteen. When the Order is founded in 1348 (presumably) , Edward is thirty-six, the queen thirty-four (having borne ten of her eleven children) , and the prince is a seasoned soldier not yet twenty. All of the knights selected for the Order have been in battle with Edward and the prince. The prince’s wardrobe keeper gives the Order’s motto for the first time in his notes: Honi soit qui mal y pense. “Shame on him who evil thinks.”

According to John Harvey, The Black Prince and his Age (Rowman and Littlefield, 1976, p. 85) , the first account of the Order appears in 1534 in the Historia Anglica of Polydore Vergil, an Italian who aroused fury by calling the Arthur stories fiction. This is also the first that the story of the Countess of Salisbury is told- one notes, almost two hundred years after the fact, which does regrettably argue against it as a genuine fact; two centuries can breed some fanciful tales. “But the reason for founding the order is utterly uncertain; popular tradition nowadays declares that Edward at some point picked up from the ground a garter from the stocking of his queen or mistress, which had become unloosened by some chance, and had fallen. As some of the knights began to laugh and jeer on seeing this, he is reputed to have said that in a very little while the same garter would be held by them in the highest honour. And not long after, he is said to have founded this order and given it the title by which he showed those knights who had laughed at him how to judge his actions” (The Black Prince and his Age, p. 85) .

One possible explanation (and the one conceded by modern historians to be the most probable) lies in Edward’s claim (through his mother) to the French throne. (Edward styled himself King of both England and France.) To discredit his ambitions, the French began to put about shameful stories of Edward. One, a popular satire, claimed that Edward had forced himself upon the Countess. Blue and gold are the French colors, and so by incorporating them into his Order, Edward made a statement, as it were, about his slanders.

The affair makes a wonderful story however one looks at it. It would be nice if it were finally about Witches. I am afraid, however, that at the present time- save for some revisionist thinking- that is not possible.


Zan Fraser

Location: New York City, New York


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