TT: Rocking Lords and Authors

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  This week I’m wandering about involuntary time travel, memorization, and handwriting.  Then do join me and Alan as we conclude our discussion of the British peerage.

Rocking Royalty

JANE: As we have been talking about how titles evolved, I’ve found myself wondering about how modern lords and ladies are created.

ALAN: Generally speaking, they aren’t. Hereditary peerages can only be created by the sovereign.  These days she does not initiate the process; she takes advice from the government of the day.  But in the 1950s, the government introduced the idea of life peerages as a reward for public service.  Since then the creation of hereditary titles has largely become obsolete.

In the last fifty years, only seven hereditary titles have been created. Two of those have subsequently vanished since the men appointed to them had no heirs, and two others were mere formalities, being awarded to members of the Royal Family on the occasion of their marriage.

JANE: But I know that there have been quite recent occasions when people were given knighthoods.  I guess these aren’t hereditary titles.  Can you explain what they are?

ALAN:  Various grades of honours are awarded for public service of one sort or another. Medals can be given, knighthoods are awarded, and people can be made members of various chivalric orders. Honours are awarded each new year and on the sovereign’s birthday.  They may also be awarded on the dissolution of parliament and on the resignation of a prime minister.

There’s a long tradition of giving awards for contributions to the arts as well as for public service. Elton John, Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney all have knighthoods.  So does our own Terry Pratchett, of course. And both Gandalf and Saruman have knighthoods, though they accepted the title under the pseudonyms of Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee for mysterious wizardly reasons of their own.

JANE: Trifle not with the ways of wizards, for they have wands…  Or staves.

So with these honors,  men become “sir” – which is a knight, right?  But females become “dames,” not ladies.  To an American ear, “dame” sounds very odd, especially since in our language “dame” is rather old-fashioned slang for a woman – not at all a polite form of address.

ALAN: Not all the honours grant titles. But of those that do, you are quite correct in saying that a dame is the female equivalent of a knight, odd though it sounds to your ears!

JANE: I know my beloved Agatha Christie was knighted.  Would she have been Dame Agatha or Lady Agatha or Dame Christie or Lady Christie or even Dame Mallowan (since her husband was Max Mallowan)?

ALAN: In 1956, Agatha Christie was awarded a CBE (Commander of the British Empire). That didn’t give her a title though, just a medal. In 1971, she was promoted to a DBE (Dame Commander of the British Empire) which gave her the title Dame, of course. Because her husband had a knighthood, she was also allowed to call herself Lady Mallowan. But in her own right she was just Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie.

JANE: Just…  I think I could handle such a “just.”

Alan, you’re going to think that everything I know about modern British culture comes via rock and roll.   In some ways, actually, you’d be right.

You’ve talked about Americans being a bit prudish, and I won’t argue the point.  However, I do wonder about rock stars being knighted, especially when, in addition to their admitted musical achievements, they are known for extralegal activities, especially in the area of drugs.

Isn’t there a line in acceptable behavior?  I mean, we Americans think of the British as so very proper. While I can see that you can’t stop someone who has inherited a title from behaving badly, it seems odd to give a title to someone who is known to have broken the law.

ALAN: Why should youthful peccadilloes mar the whole of your life? Also, attitudes change with time. Oscar Wilde went to jail for offences that these days would scarcely raise an eyebrow. And, despite their reputations, both Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney each have only been convicted of one very minor offence. Neither has ever made any secret of their lifestyles, but really what does that matter in the grand scheme of things? Both have made enormous contributions to music. Surely they deserve recognition?

Yes, you are correct, the British are very proper, but they are also very tolerant. And it’s that kind of  zen contradiction that makes the British so maddeningly puzzling to everybody else in the world!

JANE: I like that attitude, actually.  Certainly, I wouldn’t want to be judged now for the dumber choices I made when I was twenty, or even thirty, or, uh, forty…

Still, wasn’t getting stripped of a title a penalty for bad behavior?

ALAN: Yes, indeed.  Some British peers who had family connections with Germany actually fought against the British in the first world war. In 1919, their titles were suspended. Their descendants, who of course have not committed any offence, have the right to appeal that suspension and have the hereditary title and estates (if they exist) restored. Interestingly, none have chosen to do so.

JANE: Thanks, Alan.   I have certainly enjoyed our trip through the rabbit hole of English titles.  As a bonus, the next time I write a fantasy or historical piece where they are appropriate, I’m going to feel a lot more confident.

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9 Responses to “TT: Rocking Lords and Authors”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Thanks for that enlightening discussion!

    I suppose that since the honors have become so standardized, the British have a whole system of printed sir kits for which they have to write programmes? Do these sir kits get upgraded with each new generation?

  2. janelindskold Says:

    I enjoyed this conversation, too. I know I’ll feel a whole lot more comfortable next time I need to write about a fictional “royal” structure. The sense that Alan (and several of those making comments) have given that this system evolved rather than being imposed from without was a tremendous eye-opener.

    I mean, I thought it all was supposed to make sense!

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    But Jane, it does make sense, from a historical perspective. It just wasn’t designed logically.

  4. Alan Robson Says:

    Have you ever described a wonderful scene in a movie to a bunch of friends? You explain how brilliant it was, how funny it was, and you find yourself laughing all over again as you tell them all about it.

    And they just stare blankly at you. No reaction at all.

    You finish, somewhat lamely, by saying, “Well, I suppose you just had to be there.”

    This subject is just like that!


    -Alan

  5. Ann M Nalley Says:

    Alan, can a person refuse to be knighted? I was thinking of David Bowie, who has certainly contributed significantly to the music genre, but who has not, to the best of my knowledge, been knighted.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      Yes — they certainly can refuse. There is no obligation on anyone to accept an offered honour. Mostly we never get to hear about refusals, but sometimes details leak out. The actor Albert Finney turned down a knighthood in 2000 and David Bowie (since you mentioned him) declined a CBE in the same year. Perhaps 2000 was a bad year for awards…


      -Alsn

      • Ann M Nalley Says:

        Thanks, Alan! That is interesting… I wonder why people decline?

      • Alan Robson Says:

        It’s hard to tell why they decline, since it is seldom spoken about. But I suspect it might be some sort of protest against the system. After all, it would be somewhat hypocritical to accept an award from a system you disagreed with.

        Perhaps it’s the same mix of motives that causes people to decline Oscars, Nobel prizes etc.

        But I’m just guessing.


        -Alan
        (Spelling my name properly this time :-))

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