To Sir with Love: Knights and Dames in Merrie Olde England

middle ages

Recently, famed singer-songwriter Van Morrison was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. The pudgy, red-headed imp with the soulful voice, who wrote “Gloria,” “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Tupelo Honey,” and the evocative albums ASTRAL WEEKS and MOONDANCE, is now “Sir George Ivan Morrison.”

I tried to find a quote from the queen as to exactly why she chose Morrison, as opposed to, say, Steve Winwood, or Richard Thompson. But she’s pretty low-key, and I couldn’t dig up a quote. Media outlets (many of whom just copy each other’s stories) say it’s because of Morrison’s contributions to music. Also, his promotion of tourism in Northern Ireland… (huh?).morrison

Morrison joins other high-profile rockers Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and Elton John as knights on the British chessboard.

Being a parochial American, I’ve always cast a dubious eye at this British honors business (actually, I should spell it “honours” out of respect for my distant cousins across the pond).   Why do some men get Sir’ed, and others do not? Why are some women Dame’ed, and others ignored? Why is this title-before-the-name stuff so significant?

I remember when Mick Jagger was knighted. I thought it insulting that Keith Richards wasn’t similarly honoured.  I asked my brother, “If Mick can get Sir’ed, why not Keith, too?”

“I think we both know why Keith wasn’t Sir’ed,” he deadpanned.

The British honours system is very complicated, comprising all sorts of orders and classes, both civil and military, and depending on the class, you don’t always get to be a Sir or a Dame. Queen_Elizabeth_IIblack garterThe tradition dates to 1348, when King Edward III of England established the Most Noble Order of the Garter to recognize men who displayed acts of chivalry. The order’s emblem is, of course, a garter, accompanied by the motto “Shame on him who thinks evil of it.”

I don’t know why anyone would think evil of an article of feminine underwear. Then again, I’m a 21st-century bullet-headed Yank, so what do I know?

This original order eventually expanded to other orders based on degrees of service or professional achievement. Some include The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle (but isn’t the Garter the “most ancient”?); The Most Honourable Order of the Bath (which I assume recognizes cleanliness and hygiene); and The Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick (which recognized Irish peers in the UK, until 1922, when The Irish Free State seceded. Van the Man, however, is from Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he evidently works at a tourist agency).knights

In addition to orders, there are medals, which recognize bravery or good conduct, and decorations, which recognize specific deeds. There were three decorations related to India. But when India gained independence in 1947, these were somehow put on the back burner.

There have been a number of individuals who have either turned down their awards, or had them revoked. Believe it or not, Emperor Hirohito of Japan was a Knight of the Garter… until December 7, 1941.

My favorite rejection of one of these honours was John Lennon‘s. He and the three other Beatles were recognized as Members of the British Empire (MBE) in 1966. But three years later, Lennon returned his award insignia (against his Aunt Mimi’s wishes) to Buckingham Palace, with a note to the queen saying he was protesting Britain’s “support of America in Vietnam,” and for “’Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.”beatles

All joking aside, there are numerous individuals, most outside the entertainment sphere, who have done amazing things, and being honoured as a Sir or Dame brings their achievements to public light. For example, English journalist Esther Louise Rantzen is now a Dame due to setting up a charity for child protection, and another charity to assist people struggling with loneliness. Ebola virus survivor Will Pooley is now a Sir, honoured for his energetic efforts to prevent the disease’s spread.

And if you’re from outside the British Isles, you can be an honorary knight or dame.  Like Rudolph Giuliani or Edward Kennedy.  Or Hirohito.

The Sir and Dame stuff is also good fodder for late-night comedians, and for dumb Yanks like me who have nothing better to write about.

As I’ve always said: it’s better to be Sir’ed than slurred, and better to be Dame’ed than damned.

chessboard

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