How Does One Become A Knight?

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The British government announced this week that Ted Kennedy is due to receive a knighthood. The longtime senator earned this recognition in part for his work as a peace advocate in Northern Ireland. But what does it really mean to become a knight? Do you get a sword and a squire to boss around? We didn't know, either, so we did a bit of research. Here are the answers to some of the most pressing knighthood-related questions.

What exactly does it mean to get a knighthood?

Since 1917, the British government has been awarding notable citizens with spots in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Although the Order was originally meant to honor top-notch civilian and military behavior during war, it quickly expanded to include peacetime achievements as well.

The Order has five separate ranks: Knight Grand Cross (Dame Grand Cross for women), Knight Commander (Dame Commander), Commander, Officer, and Member. Achieving one of the first two ranks earns a person a slot in the knighthood, which means they can add "Sir" or "Dame" to their names. All members of the Order of the British Empire can add the initials of their rank to the end of their names, though, which is why you sometimes read about celebrities with ranks following their names, like "Roger Daltrey, CBE."

So Ted Kennedy is Sir Ted now?

Not quite.

Since Kennedy isn't a citizen of the realm, his knighthood is honorary. He's not allowed to call himself Sir Ted, although if he so chooses, he can write his name out as Edward Kennedy KBE.

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Kennedy's still in good company, though, as a number of notable figures have received honorary knighthoods. Bono, Bill Gates (pictured), Steven Spielberg, and Rudy Giuliani can all append "KBE" to their names if they so desire. Also, if an honorary knight later becomes a citizen of the realm, the honor is usually made substantive, or "bumped up" into real knighthood. Irish-born BBC personality Terry Wogan received an honorary knighthood in 2005, and when he became a British citizen later that year, he could start making people call him Sir Terry Wogan.

Who decides who gets to be a knight?

Technically, the reigning monarch is the sovereign of the Order and is in charge of making all appointments. On a more practical level, though, the monarch receives counsel and recommendations from the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

Membership in the Order of the British Empire is available for all sorts of reasons, from superlative civil or military service to artistic achievement to charity work.

What do you have to do to get a knighthood?

While lots of notable figures are offered the honor of joining the Order of the British Empire, only a few heavy hitters get to become knights and dames commander. Simply put, these higher honors go to the bigger names. For example, current Dames Commander include Judi Dench, Jane Goodall, and Helen Mirren. Generally, it's a good idea to make a pretty substantial service and cultural contribution to the British realm.

A few members of the Order of the British Empire aren't technically knights within the organization's hierarchy, but they're allowed to call themselves sir. These guys have been knighted by the monarchy, but not as part of an order of chivalry like the Order of the British Empire. They can call themselves "Sir," but there aren't any additional letters added to their names. Elton John, Paul McCartney, and some other famous "Sirs" have this type of knighthood.

Do you have to be a knight if it's offered to you?

Nope. In fact, a number of people have turned down the honor due to uneasiness with its militaristic or imperialist overtones. According to an AP story, 2 percent of the 3000 or so people offered spots in the Order each year decline them.

David Bowie supposedly declined offers to join twice, including an offer of knighthood in 2003, because he felt the whole business was a waste of time. John Cleese rejected a CBE and said he felt much more honored when a Swiss zoologist named a lemur after him in 2005. Vanessa Redgrave became a Commander of the British Empire in 1967, but she turned down an offer of damehood in 1999. Keith Richards turned down a spot as Commander of the British Empire and viciously mocked bandmate Mick Jagger for taking a knighthood, which he called a "f---ing paltry honour."
Generally, when a person declines an honor, they don't crow to the media about it. Rather, they discretely tell the tale after some time has passed.

What are the benefits of being a knight?

You don't get to joust or wear armor, but you do pick up a few unusual garments. Knights and Dames Grand Cross get to wear special gear to formal events like coronations. This getup includes a pink-with-gray-edges satin mantle and a collar of six gold medallions.

All members of the Order are allowed to wear the group's badge. The badge is basically a cross hanging from a pink ribbon with gray edges, although various ranks wear their badge in unique ways. Members and Officers simply wear their badges like military medals pinned to their chests, while higher-ups wear theirs on sashes or around their necks.

Other benefits include getting a spot in the British order of precedence, the arcane system that develops the hierarchy of ceremonial importance for things like state dinners. Furthermore, knights win their wives the right to be called "Lady," and Knights and Dames Grand Cross can modify their coats of arms to reflect the honor.

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March 6, 2009 - 3:40am
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