HER MAJESTY THE QUEEN can confer knighthoods to non-British nationals known as honorary knights (and honorary dames for females) but such honoured individuals cannot prefix their names with ‘Sir’ (or ‘Dame’) but can add the appropriate letters after their names (usually KBE – Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire – or DBE – Dame Commander ……). Nor do they go through the accolade or ceremony of having the sword touched upon each shoulder.
No sword tapping for non-British knights
Now, I knew all this but until I recently read the wonderful Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s biography I wasn’t aware as to why (mainly because I had never bothered to think about it). Fairbanks Jr was suitably honoured in 1949 – and rightly so. We all know him as a swashbuckling Hollywood action man actor but there was much more to him than that. He was awarded his knighthood for his tireless efforts to gain US support for Great Britain during the early years of the Second World War (before Pearl Harbour of course) and, among other things, for his services to the Co-operative for American Remittances to Europe (C.A.R.E.), a war relief organisation. But, being an American he could not call himself Sir Douglas. Why not?
Highly-decorated Commander Fairbanks Jr., KBE, DSC, etc, after the war – and wife, Mary Lee
Well, as his biography says, “Membership in an order of chivalry is one thing and the accolade another; they go together but they are separate.” The reason is historical – it would be if it’s British. In the good old medieval days when the king relied on his landowners for military support (which included a supply of soldiers), such a landowner would give allegiance to the Crown and, if he didn’t already have one , he may be granted a knighthood (and possibly more land if the war was successful). This was fine when he was a British national but that was not always the case. For example, in the days of the Crusades (which particularly involved English and French) a man could be a member of an order of chivalry and become a knight of that order (Knights Templars, etc), but he could not swear allegiance to a foreign sovereign if he still owed a loyalty to his own feudal monarch, regardless as to whether that monarch was involved in that crusade. The accolade had only indirectly to do with becoming a member of the order. This meant that as the knight had no bond to the sovereign, as a liege lord, that sovereign could not demand that the knight present himself with his sword and armour (and soldiers) to fight the king’s cause. Okay, the romantic days of chivalry are gone but the accolade still has implication in law. With non-British honorary knighthoods the principles remain the same and a foreign citizen has no allegiance to the British monarch and so is not required to respond to the sovereign’s call to arms – and so have no right to the accolade of the prefix of ‘Sir’ to his name. Got it?
That’s the idea in principle. In practice, this day and age, it also applies to British national knights of course as, bearing in mind the age, etc, of many British knights, they are not going to be very useful if called to arms by the sovereign today (and none of them should have soldiers at their beck and call – well, I hope not). But that’s not the point.
To battle Sir Roger, Sir Michael, Sir Elton …. hmm, perhaps not
There are quite a few non-national knights, from arts and entertainment, professional, humanitarian and exploration, politics and government, diplomatic, military, business, religion, and royalty. As well as Douglas Fairbanks Jr., you might recognise names such as Bob Hope (USA), Steven Spielberg (USA), Edward Kennedy (USA), George S. Patton (USA), Bill Gates (USA), J. Edgar Hoover (USA), Angelina Jolie (USA), Magnus Magnusson (Iceland), Spike Milligan (Ireland), Bob Geldof (Ireland), Bono (lead singer of U2 – Ireland), Terry Wogan (Ireland – although he took British nationality in 2005 and the knighthood became substantive, i.e. he can use ‘Sir’).
Honorary Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire
Douglas Fairbanks Jr is one of the few non-national knights who devised his own coat-of-arms with the motto Fides, Conatus et Fidelitas – ‘Faith, Effort and Loyalty’. Being a Hollywood actor he was rather an exhibitionist – it goes with the job – and so it was acknowledged by the College of Arms. I’ve not been able to find a copy of it but below is a Fairbanks Jr bookplate which sort of resembles it:
Fairbanks Jr bookplate
Another example of his exhibitionism: He joined the US Navy as a reservist before America entered the war. One of the first orders that the US Navy issued was that officers were not to wear swords. In fact, if they owned them they were encouraged to hand them in for the scrap metal promotion. Not Douglas. He arrived at the house of the Hollywood film producer, Darryl Zanuck, one night for a dinner party with his boat cape and sword. His excuse was that he had just come from a drill at the Armoury. The narrator of the tale said, “Well, I know that no one in the whole of California, if they went to a drill hall, would have a sword. But he thought he looked like Lord Nelson or something. That is the ham in him, unfortunately.”
Douglas Jr. coming to dinner
Artemus Smith’s Notebooks
This is the last extract from the 2nd volume of Artemus’ notebooks (followers will recall Dr Artemus Smith was an archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction) – I’ll let you know if I come across any more volumes or extracts of Artemus’ notebooks:
During a physical examination, a doctor asked my good friend, Sir Alfred Cucumber-Smythe, retired professor of archaeology now living in Canada, about his physical activity level.
He replied that he spent three days a week, every week, in the outdoors, and went on to give an example:
“Well, yesterday afternoon was typical; I took a five hour walk about 7 miles through some pretty rough terrain. I waded along the edge of a lake. I pushed my way through 2 miles of brambles. I got sand in my shoes and my eyes. I barely avoided stepping on a snake. I climbed several rocky hills. I went to the bathroom behind some big trees. I ran away from an irate mother bear and then ran away from one angry bull Elk. The mental stress of it all left me shattered. At the end of it all I drank a scotch and three glasses of wine.
Amazed by the story, the doctor said, “You must be one heck of an outdoor man!”
“No,” Alfred replied, “I’m just a really very bad golfer.”