Bangkok, 19 December 2015
I don’t know what it was, it seems to be happening to me more and more often as I near retirement, but a few days ago my mind wandered off the Worthy but Very Boring Thing I was working on and, light as feather, drifted away on the winds of memory to finally alight in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, which is the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter.
Yes, I know, very strange. What can I say, that’s where my mind went that day.
My wife and I had visited the chapel some nine-ten years ago. For those of my readers who have never been there, I throw in a photo that gives a generalized view of the chapel’s interior.
I could chirrup on about the age of the chapel, its architecture, its history. But I won’t. I invite readers who are interested in these details to go to the relevant websites. Instead, I will focus on the one thing that immediately strikes any sentient being who crosses the chapel’s threshold: the flags hanging from its walls.
I need to explain these flags, which in turn requires me to give a brief background to the Order of the Garter. As any English child of my generation will know, if they didn’t spend all their history classes snoozing, the Order of the Garter was created by King Edward III one evening back in the early 1300s, during a dance, when the Countess of Salisbury lost her garter. As the King picked it up, someone sniggered, and the King pronounced (in French; the English kings didn’t speak English yet) “Honi soit qui mal y pense”, which can be loosely translated as “Only dirty buggers would see anything wrong in my simply picking up a garter”. Now, why this story should have led to the creation of an Order of Chivalry (basically, a club of aristocrats), with the reigning monarchs at its head and the original kingly utterance as its motto, was not clear to me when I was a ten year old boy and is still not clear to me as a sixty-one year old adult. But there you go, it did.
The important point as far as the flags are concerned is that the members of the Order were originally all aristocrats, and as we all know one of the many things which distinguished aristocrats from the vulgar hoi polloi like us was the fact that they had the right to a coat of arms. So what we have hanging from the walls are the heraldic banners of the members of the order (which of course means that when the Order began to let in representatives of the vulgar hoi polloi these vulgar persons had to get themselves double quick a title and a coat of arms).
For the purpose of my story, there is another important point to make about the Order’s membership. From the start, there could only be 24 members in addition to the sovereign and the Prince of Wales, and of course the members were only English (and later British). But George III started adding “supernumerary” members, to deal with the pressing problem of him having a whole bunch of sons who all wanted to be members. Then he had the bright idea of adding the Emperor of Russia as a supernumerary member, after which various other members of European royal families got added, then more exotic royalty like the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and the King of Persia, to finish – importantly for this story – this march to the East with the Emperor of Japan in 1903. The Emperors of Japan have been members ever since (barring, understandably, the World War II years and several decades thereafter when spirits were still bruised by Japanese atrocities).
OK, so what, I hear my readers say. Well, all this allows me to vault onto one of my favourite hobby horses, my insistence that design should be simple. In this case, I am referring to the design of the members’ heraldic banners. To see what I mean, please see below the coat of arms of one of the British members, that of Gerald Grosvenor, 6th Duke of Westminster (I choose him for no other reason than he is stinking rich due to his property holdings around Grosvenor Square in London and elsewhere).
So complicated! So fussy! So busy! The formal heraldic description of the shield, which is what is on the banner, says it all:
“Quarterly, 1st and 4th, Azure a Portcullis with chains pendant Or on a Chief of the last between two united Roses of York and Lancaster a Pale charged with the Arms of King Edward the Confessor; 2nd and 3rd, Azure a Garb Or”.
Aïe! Contorted! Confusing! And this is not the most complicated of the Order’s members’ banners. I mean, look at the one of the good Prince of Wales
with its heraldic description of the shield “Quarterly 1st and 4th Gules three lions passant guardant in pale Or armed and langed Azure 2nd Or a lion rampant Gules armed and langued Azure within a double tressure flory counterflory 3rd Azure a harp Or stringed Argent overall an inescutcheon of the Royal Badge of Wales”. It hurts my eyes just to read this.
Consider, now, the banner of the Emperor of Japan, which responds to the same original need – signaling who you are on the battlefield – but adopts a completely different design principle:
So simple! And simply so beautiful!
The beautiful, essential simplicity of the Japanese banner immediately leapt out at me that summer morning years ago when we visited the chapel. The second photo I’ve inserted shows this, where the Emperor’s banner shines out among all the surrounding fussiness. And I have kept that memory with me ever since, as a vivid reminder of the KISS design principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid (a principle originally enunciated, interestingly enough, by the US Navy in 1960).
It must have been some fussy design which set my mind wandering those few days ago …
St. George’s Chapel interior: https://boothancestry.wordpress.com/booth-profiles/knights-of-the-garter/
Duke of Westminster’s coat of arms: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_the_Garter#List_of_Founder_Knights
Prince of Wales’s coat of arms: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_the_Garter#List_of_Founder_Knights
Emperor of Japan’s standard: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akihito