What of Windsor and all the Fuss about Garters?

What is this Windsor?Shakespeare’s Merry Wives draws you down its streets and into its countryside and the Bard himself would have you believe the old village is quite insular and xenophobic, not at all comfortable with the French Caius and Evans’ Welsh accent. The locals in this village along the Thames cannot abide the unfamiliar and the behaviors of the licentious Falstaff.

One can easily find Old Windsor,or Windlesora, as it was called in the 11th century from the Old English, Windles-ore, “winch by the riverside”. Located in south central Englandand 300 years older than New Windsor two miles away, this now famous place is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicleand linked to King Edward the Confessor though it’s said he was rarely there. It washowever future royalty who made use of its woods and good hunting after the Conquest of 1066.The royal household as well would move to a castle there in 1110 and henceforth the land around it would be named Old Windsor. Henry II erected its Round Tower and later, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert would be buried in Frogmore, the royal mausoleum. Several more kings are buried in St. George’s Chapel, where Knights of the Garter are ceremoniously received to this day.

And this brings us to an undercurrent, a subplot, that plays out inMerry Wives…it seems, in the village, a cohort of Germans are stealing horses, a ploy Shakespeare uses to mock the Garter Hierarchy in the person of the tavern owner, the Garter Host.But it is here in the Garter Inn that some scholars believe Shakespeare wrote his play. The establishment would be sadly destroyed by fire in the 17th C.

The Order of the Garter was a medieval institution comprised of the King and twenty-five knights and the giver of the highest reward for loyalty and military prowess. Founded in 1348 by Edward III, the oldest British Order of Chivalrybears a blue garter as its symbol; storiesabound concerning its uncertain origin, but one tale points to the Countess of Salisbury who, while dancing with the King, lost her garter and His Majesty scooped it up and attached it to his leg. When onlookers laughed, he said: Honisoit qui mal y pense! “Shame on him who thinks this is evil!” And thus, was borne the motto for the Order of the Garter. To be invited to the Order would become a mark of royal favor to those who serve in public office or livespecial lives for King and country. Once open only to the upper classes, today it is an honor bestowed on the worthy from all walks of life.

Robert Brazil in his Unpacking Merry Wives of Windsor (October 7, 1999) observes the play “weaves its plot around the Garter activities of Windsor Castle.” He maintains the play “begins and ends with discussions that involve Heraldry.” Interestingly, real events may have inspired Shakespeare to turn them into a farce. Brazil believes “these scenes were added to the play at that time.” However he found it odd that “most of the scenes relating to this incident are missing from the 1602 quarto, but do appear in the text in 1623 (Riverside 315).He points to Shallow’s coat of arms:

SLENDER. All his successors, gone before him, hath done’t; and all his ancestors that come after him, may: they may give the dozen white luces in their coat.

SHALLOW. It is an old coat.

Brazil explains: “In a magnificent piece of detective work, Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn Sr. discovered that the Earl of Leicester’s father, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, possessed coat armor that displayed, in one version, twelve luces. This tends to cement the proper identification of Shallow with Leicester. Moreover, as Leicester’s father lost the Northumberland title before Leicester could inherit it, he himself could not display the luces in his arms. As Shallow says, “it is an old coat.” (Ogburn Sr. 741742) (11)

If you are a student or voracious reader of all things Shakespeare, you may enjoy a few of the references Brazil cites in his extensive bibliography: RodneyDennys’The Heraldic Imagination. (1975); Peter Moore’s “Oxford, the Order of the Garter, and Shame” The Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter, Vol. 32, 2. (Spring 1996) orElisabeth Sears’ “Harts hounds andHedingham.” (1997). And, of course, there is the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Library, 1955