What's in a Dame? Has Being Knighted Lost Its Prestige?
Receiving an honor from the Queen can make knights and ladies out of Hollywood rebels and rock stars. But as she mulls her New Year's list, there is a rumbling in her court. Has the awarding of medals of the order of the British empire turned into a royal circus? Christopher Mason deciphers all the monarchial hieroglyphics.
Ardent fans of Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch may still be reeling from his defeat in the high-stakes competition of this year's Oscars, when fellow Brit Eddie Redmayne won for his compelling portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. The announcement of the Queen's Birthday Honors in June, however, provided a curious twist: The 38-year- old, Harrow-educated Cumberbatch—an unlikely Hollywood heartthrob—was appointed a Commander of the British Empire (CBE), one rung below a knighthood, whereas Redmayne, his freckle-faced Old Etonian rival, received the one-step-lesser accolade of Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). The reasons for this ostensibly topsy-turvy ranking—humorously described in British tabloids as a Battle Royal—remain shrouded in mystery.
Britain's honors system, with its myriad ranks, snobbish distinctions, and opaque decision-making, may seem absurdly anachronistic and bewildering to outsiders, but it is still regarded in the U.K. with a swelling sense of pride. When Damian Lewis, the British actor famous in the U.S. for his starring role as Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody in Homeland, received an OBE, he observed that people in the United States "don't quite understand our honors." Another recent honoree remarked that Americans are "faintly envious." "They believe in money instead," he sniffed. "They don't need an honors system when they can make another billion on the stock market." That may be so, but the confusion is hardly surprising when you consider that the genteel flow of British honors to the New World was so rudely preempted by the War of Independence.
"I never mention my knighthood in America," says John Richardson, the New York–based art historian and Picasso biographer, of his Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE), bestowed by the queen in 2012. "I think it's rather absurd to go around with a title here. It's not a kingdom! But I'm very grateful. My father had been knighted, and it would have made him so happy that I was knighted too."
Making up for lost time, perhaps, a smattering of distinguished Americans have recently been welcomed into the royal fold. Last year the astonishing sight of Hollywood's own Angelina Jolie curtseying to Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace signaled to the world that the 39-year-old actress had been elevated to the status of dame. In a private midday audience with the sovereign, the star of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was presented with the regalia of Dame Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George "for services to U.K. foreign policy and the campaign to end war zone sexual violence." Fittingly for such valor, the order's blue and pink ribbon comes with a silvery medal depicting St. Michael holding a flaming sword and trampling Satan.
Jolie arrived at the palace with her husband Brad Pitt and the couple's six kids, who met privately with the queen. This somewhat surreal encounter—a film publicist's dream come true—is the stuff People magazine covers are made of, but press cameras were not permitted to chronicle the family's meet-and-greet with the monarch.
The controversial decision to honor Jolie drew some derision from the British press. (As a non- Brit, Jolie cannot be addressed as "Dame Angelina." She is, however, entitled to use the order's post-nominal acronym: Angelina Jolie DCMG.) Calling it an "absurdity," the Daily Mail noted testily, "If she has done some good, that should be reward enough for her. The Government shouldn't be trying to cover itself with Hollywood sparkle." Whatever your sentiment on the subject, it's nearly impossible to decipher the inherent inconsistencies of the system. As Harry Mount of the Telegraph noted, "If you try to base honors on some formally organized hierarchy of merit, the whole stitched-together fabric—of medieval chivalry mixed with faux-democratic, Blairite tinkering—falls apart, through its own internal contradictions."
Remarkably, in Britain's pecking order Jolie's damehood out-ranks that of any other actress, living or deceased. Venerable thespians such as Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, and Helen Mirren are dames of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire—technically two rungs lower than Jolie on the gilded ladder.
Only an ardent snob could relish the distinction, but it is tempting to imagine a spoof episode of Downton Abbey, set in the present, in which Dame Maggie Smith recoils in horror on observing the sylphlike Jolie, DCMG, usurping her prime place at a formal dinner party by being seated, according to protocol, to the right of the host.
Britain's honors system, founded on more rugged battlefields, has been around since the Middle Ages. Norman kings bestowed knighthoods, orders of chivalry, and hereditary titles as part of England's feudal government, replacing the Anglo-Saxon tradition of rewarding faithful service and gallantry in battle with grants of land, money, or weapons. Until the early 19th century British chivalric orders were dispensed only to members of the aristocracy (hereditary dukes, earls, marquises, and barons) and distinguished military figures.
These days Britain's system consists of six main orders of chivalry, each with its own ranks (as many as seven) and two orders of merit. They all have statutes that dictate the size and colors of the corresponding insignia (badges, stars, ribbons, and sashes); how, when, and where they are worn; and post-nominal abbreviations. One of the cardinal rules of the current system is that British titles cannot be bought. Titles were blatantly sold by William the Conqueror during the 11th century, and again in 1917, when the going rate for a knighthood was 10,000 pounds and a hereditary baronetcy could be purchased for a whop- ping 40,000 pounds.
Today, in order of seniority and prestige, the chivalric orders are: the Most Noble Order of the Garter (relating to England and Wales); the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle (for Scotland); the Most Honorable Order of the Bath (for senior civil servants and military officers); the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George (diplomats and colonial servants); the Royal Victorian Order (for services to the crown); the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (for miscellaneous military and civil services). For snob value no honor outranks the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Britain's oldest order of chivalry. Founded in 1344, it is awarded at the sovereign's plea- sure, as a personal gift, and is limited to the monarch, the Prince of Wales, and 24 members, known as Knights Companions or Ladies Companions.
To some ears, "Garter" is a rather comical name for such a coveted prize. According to legend it was begun after "a trivial mishap" at a court ball when King Edward III was dancing with his alleged mistress Joan, Countess of Salisbury. When her garter slithered to her ankle, nearby courtiers sniggered at her humiliation. The king, in an act of chivalry, stooped to pick up the garter and affixed it to his own knee, declaring in French, "Honi soit qui mal y pense. Tel qui s'en rit aujourd'hui, s'honorera de la porter," or "Shame on him who thinks evil of it. Those who laugh at it today will be proud to wear it in the future."
The Garter has for centuries been awarded to distinguished statesmen and military figures like the dashing Earl of Mount- batten, who was appointed to the order in 1946. By the mid- 1950s, however, some knights complained that standards were slipping."The trouble with the Order of the Garter these days," the 7th Duke of Wellington remarked, "is that it is full of field marshals and people who do their own washing-up."
Snobbish indignation never seems to go out of style where honors are concerned. In recent years a few proud recipients of the OBE have expressed dismay that MBEs are now being doled out to lollipop ladies, the British idiom for school crossing guards, for long and faithful service. (Irene Reid, Lancashire's longest-serving lollipop lady, was appointed an MBE in the Queen's New Year's Honors list in 2011. "People say I deserve a medal, but I didn't expect to get one," she told a local newspaper. "I'm gobsmacked.")
Similar indignation arose when the Beatles went to Buckingham Palace in 1965 to receive their MBE medals. The controversial decision to pay tribute to the Beatles was made by Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who was accused of trying to harness the Beatles' popularity, and MBEs, for political gain. News reports of delirious fans attempting to climb the palace railings for a glimpse of their idols inspired dozens of previous honorees to return their medals, indignant that raga- muffin pop stars were being dignified with similar honors. Sir Noël Coward, the British entertainer, was appalled, and Princess Margaret, the queen's sister, remarked cattily that the lads from Liverpool probably thought MBE stood for "Mister Brian Epstein," their manager.
"Lots of people who complained about us getting the MBE received theirs for heroism in the war," John Lennon said afterward. "They got them for killing people. We got ours for entertaining. I'd say we deserve ours more." (Lennon subsequently returned his MBE to protest Britain's support of America's role in the Vietnam War. The other Beatles kept theirs.) Ringo Starr later recalled, in impeccable '60s lingo, "It was a groove meeting the queen, and it was far out." Skepticism over the worthiness of showbiz personalities for these rewards continues to rage. When the recipients of 2015's New Year's Honors were announced in December 2014, Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir was inspired to fulminate, "Dame Joan Collins and James Corden OBE? I mean, come off it. What next? A knighthood for Russell Brand and Order of the Garter for [BBC kids puppet] Igglepiggle?"
Harry Mount, too, has derided the "ludicrous acceleration in the number of honors for sports and entertainment" in recent years, "largely driven by the government's desire for favorable headlines." Nevertheless, he observes, "don't expect the honors system to behave like some dull, functional machine, instead of the amateurish, enchanting hodgepodge it has always been."
Taking a more dyspeptic view, the Daily Mail asked, "Why can't we face the truth? The honors system is arbitrary, anachronistic, and in many respects tawdry. The flexible British Establishment may be adept at refashioning old traditions to suit new mores, but the modern awarding of honors is beyond parody."
Still, British monarchs, famously immune to such chatter, have always dispensed orders as they have seen fit. Edward VII, Queen Victoria's son and heir, battled his foreign secretary over the Shah of Persia's Garter, but he distributed the Royal Victorian Order—for personal service to the sovereign— like confetti. George V fought with Prime Minister Lloyd George over who should receive the Order of Merit, while the Duke of Windsor loathed wear- ing honors dispensed by foreign kings, worried that he had not earned them. George VI—the current queen's father—was a stickler for protocol. "He really pounced on people if they got it wrong," says Hugo Vickers, the author of Royal Orders: The Honors and the Honored. Vickers, a best-selling royal biographer and an expert on all things gilded and coroneted, has served as a lay steward at Windsor for four decades. When asked whether he has ever been considered for a royal honor, he replies tactfully, "I would not know if I was recommended. These things are kept secret."
The steps leading up to John Richardson's knighthood remain a mystery even to him. "I'm vaguely aware of who made the nomination, but I don't know who. It must have been high up in the British art world," he says. "I kept right out of it. I didn't want to know."
During her long reign the queen has been relatively stingy in doling out honors to members of her own family, insisting that they perform royal duties to earn them. By contrast, Vickers notes, during Queen Victoria's reign, "royalty were bedecked like Christmas trees almost from the cradle." The Prince of Wales has vowed to overhaul the system when he succeeds to the throne, but his mother—who recently surpassed her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria as Britain's longest-reigning monarch— seems in such fine fettle at 89 that he may have to wait a while. Courtiers close to His Royal Highness have lamented the paradox that the nation's most frequently awarded medal—the Most Honorable Order of the British Empire—refers to an empire that no longer exists. Notwithstanding such eccentricities, royal honors are coveted and still command respect in Great Britain, where they are an official means to reward individuals for bravery, achievement, or service to the United Kingdom and the British Overseas Territories. "People need pats on the back some- times," the queen has said. "It's a very dingy world otherwise."
Contrary to popular perception, the queen is not involved in deciding who should receive the 2,500 or so chivalric honors she dispenses each year, with some notable exceptions, so any fantasies of Her Majesty granting Jolie her dame-hood after a Balmoral screening of Mr. & Mrs. Smith can be put to rest. The selection of suitable candidates is overseen by the Cabinet Office Honors and Appointments Secretariat. Suggestions are submitted by government departments and also by members of the pub- lic, whose recommendations usually constitute roughly 25 percent of the total. (Anyone, anywhere, can recommend an individual for a U.K. honor via a form available online.) Nominees are assessed by eight specialist subcommittees made up of independent experts in the fields of Arts and Media, Sport, Health, Education, Science and Technology, the Economy, Community (voluntary and local services), and State. Their research and recommendations are then reviewed by the Main Honors Committee, which submits them via the prime minister to the queen for her informal approval.
"The system does discover people who do unsung things that perhaps local people know about but nobody else does," the queen says in a short video about investitures posted on royal.gov.uk, the official website of the British monarchy. "And I think that's very satisfactory." Nobody is forced to accept an honor from the queen. Such accolades usually inspire pride, and envy, and are regarded as status symbols, but not everyone clamors for that distinction. Roughly 2 percent of the 2,500 people who are offered an honor each year decline it. John Cleese, of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers fame, declined a CBE in 1996 and later joked that he had felt more honored when a Swiss zoologist named a Madagascan lemur after him. Speaking to an amused audience at Bristol Zoo in 2008, Cleese said, "I would rather have that than a knighthood or peerage."
And others refuse to share in an honoree's moment of glory. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards savagely ridiculed his bandmate Mick Jagger in 2003 for accepting a knighthood, which Richards derided as a "fucking paltry honor." Awards are announced twice annually, in the New Year's Honors list and the Birthday Honors list (which marks the queen's official birthday, in mid-June), and are published in the official crown newspaper, the Gazette, in starchy English prose: "The Queen has been graciously pleased, on the occasion of the Celebration of Her Majesty's Birthday, to signify her intention of conferring the honor of Knighthood upon the undermentioned." The queen takes her ceremonial role seriously. By her 60th year on the throne, in 2013, she had conferred more than 404,500 awards, presenting them in person at 610 investitures. Most of the ceremonies are held in the gilded ballroom at Buckingham Palace; others take place at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh and in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle.
The queen, at almost 90, remains standing through- out, as she has always done. After the national anthem has been played, the lord chamberlain or a lord in waiting announces the name of each recipient and the achievement for which he or she is being honored. The queen then attaches the decoration to the honoree's lapel, silently, smiles warmly, steps back, and asks a pertinent question and listens, seemingly rapt. Then, like clockwork, she proffers her hand to say goodbye. Each recipient gets 40 seconds with the monarch. (When the Prince of Wales stands in for the queen, he prefers to chat a bit longer with each honoree, and the proceedings can last another 15 minutes.) When actress Kristin Scott Thomas was at Buckingham Palace in March 2015 to receive the title of Dame Commander of the British Empire for services to drama, the queen asked, "What are you doing next?" "Playing you, ma'am," Scott Thomas replied, referring to her role as the queen in The Audience, in London's West End. "That'll be quite a challenge," Her Majesty quipped.
While the American actor Kevin Spacey appeared to be thrilled at being awarded an honorary knighthood (he said it made him feel like "an adopted son. I am honored and humbled by such recognition from the queen"), some Britons feign disinterest in accruing accolades. Others are not so bashful. Lord Mountbatten, known to the royal family as Uncle Dickie, was in a league of his own. As his biographer Philip Ziegler observed, "Mountbatten collected orders as others collect stamps."
During his lifetime (1900–'79) the matinee idol–handsome seaman and statesman accrued an astonishing array of British and foreign honors, becoming Admiral of the Fleet Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma KG GCB OM GCSI GCIE GCVO DSO PC FRS. No one ever accused Mountbatten of lacking ambition.
The correct form for wearing honors can be confusing even for the most conscientious recipients, especially those who have recently acquired them. When soccer star David Beckham arrived at Westminster Abbey for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in April 2011, his OBE was pinned on his right lapel—a faux pas. (Decorations are always worn on the left.) Someone must have whispered in his ear, for the sportsman turned underwear supermodel was sporting the medal on his left lapel when a blaze of trumpets sounded the commencement of the ceremony.
All British orders of chivalry are conferred for life, but they can be rescinded on the recommendation of the government's Honors Forfeiture Committee if the recipient is convicted of a serious crime or acts in a way that could bring the dignity of his or her order into disrepute. Sir Anthony Blunt, the keeper of the queen's pictures, was stripped of his knighthood in 1979 after being outed as the "Fourth Man" in the Burgess-and-Maclean Soviet spy ring in the 1950s. More recently, former Bank of Scotland boss Fred Goodwin had his knighthood rescinded for his disastrous role in the bank's near collapse in 2008.
It remains to be seen how Britain's elaborate honors system will fare in future decades. The Prince of Wales has already vowed to reform it when he becomes king, and it will be fascinating to see how his heir, Prince William, will navigate the business of conferring ancient honors in his reign, which promises to be dramatically less formal. According to recent press reports, the staff at Anmer Hall (the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's country house on the royal Sandringham estate) and the royal couple themselves confer on a first name basis.
If centuries of bowing and scraping to royalty give way to blithe informality, how will the stiff traditions and snobbish distinctions of Britain's honors system evolve, or even survive? Maybe the youngest royals, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, will one day look back at the tradition of giving out medals bearing the motto "For God and the Empire"—referring to a long since vanished one—and wonder how their royal forebears, with their ermine robes, gilded carriages, and formal honors, imagined that such a remarkably ornate and archaic system could survive.