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How To Become A Modern-Day Knight: The History Of The Order Of The British Empire

British History | June 15, 2020

Knight from the late 12th century. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

We may think of knights as those medieval guys with the suits of armor who rode around looking for the Holy Grail or whatever, but that style of knighthood went out with the Plague. However, did you know that knights still exist? And that several well-known celebrities—such as Rod Stewart, Elton John, and Ringo Starr—have been knighted by the Queen? Wanna join their ranks? Read on, friend.

Prince William knighting Sir Kenneth Gibson, honored for his work in education. (today.com)

For Men Only

Sorry, ladies: Only men can become knights. Don't give up hope just yet, though! How would you like to be a dame? According to classic Hollywood noir films, you already are one, but it's actually the other-gendered equivalent to a knight. Just as some famous men have been granted the honor of adding "Sir" to their names, many famous women—Angela Lansbury, Julie Andrews, Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Elizabeth Taylor, just to name a few—have earned the title of "Dame" by receiving the Order of the British Empire.

The medal awarded to those who have been knighted. (thegazette.co.uk)

The Order Of The British Empire

Modern knights are members of the British order that is officially called The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. This particular order was established in 1917 to honor the achievements of people in the arts and sciences as well as military members and civilians who have provided extraordinary service to the government. In other words, these aren't the Crusades kind of knights. If you were hoping to see Mick Jagger prancing around on a pony in defense of Her Majesty, you will be sorely disappointed.

King George V. (history.com)

All The King's Men

King George V created the OBE to honor the many people who had aided Britain during World War I, either in combat or non-combat roles. Before ol' Fivey stepped in, there was no way to chivalrously recognize the contributions of commoners. However, it soon became clear that not all knights were created equal, so he split the order into (appropriately) five different levels shortly after its founding. These levels are: The Order of the Garter, Thistle, and St. Patrick, which is bestowed on royals, prominent military leaders, statesmen, and their peers; The Order of the Bath, senior military officials and civil servants; The Order of St. Michael and St. George, diplomats and colonial officials; The Order of the State of India, Indian rulers and honored members of the British Indian Empire; and The Royal Victorian Order, basically anyone else the royal family takes a shine to.

Queen Elizabeth knighted actor Patrick Stewart. (listsbuzz.com)

How To Become A Knight

To become a modern-day knight, you don't have to learn to joust or sing the Camelot soundtrack. You really just have to do something to contribute to the betterment of life for the British people. It's not quite as simple as introducing them to the pleasures of deep-fried Oreos, though: You have to make a major difference in your field, engage in long-term volunteerism, elevate the overall reputation of Britain, and display outstanding moral courage. Your overall body of work will be inspected, and you will need to be recommended for the award by someone other than your mom. You also need to be British, so that rules out almost everyone. It's a high standard, but plenty of people have passed the test and had the honor of being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. 

Sir Elton John was knighted in 1998. (pinterest.com)

They Who Would Be Knight

Arguably, England's chief contribution to global society has been musical, so plenty of musicians have been knighted. That includes Barry Gibb, Tom Jones, Van Morrison, Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Elton John, and two of the four Beatles (Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr—Lizzie must not be a "Something" fan). Actors Patrick Stewart, Danial Day-Lewis, Roger Moore, John Hurt, Sean Connery, Ben Kingsley, Charlie Chaplin, Sidney Poitier, and Anthony Hopkins have also been knighted.

Two out of four Beatles have been knighted. (history.com)

Knight Privilege

So what privileges are bestowed on modern-day knights? Honestly, it's not as lucrative as it was in medieval times, when knights were well paid and quite wealthy. Today's knights get to use the title, add a special symbol to their coat of arms to indicate their membership in the Order, and ... that's pretty much it. Any other privileges they might get from being a fancy-pants friend of the Queen, they were probably already getting.

Tags: Britain | celebrities | knights

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.