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A Knighthood Without Dragons

So, Sir Harold, what did you do to earn your title?

August 10, 2004|Harold Evans

The timing of the announcement from Buckingham Palace that, by order of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, I was to be made a Knight Bachelor came awkwardly with the release of the movie "King Arthur." Expectations were aroused that I might immediately begin performing chivalrous deeds and displaying valor in the martial arts.

This was based, of course, on a glorious misconception. American friends who wondered how I had been mysteriously elevated to English nobility without even being dispatched first to Basra had to be told that the knighthood, like all the other honors emanating from Buckingham Palace, is not a reward for duty in battle but is a civilian acknowledgment of some level of public service (my citation, for instance, was for "services to journalism").

Thousands of people from all walks of life are nominated every year. Tiers of secretive official committees examine these names and make recommendations (or, just as secretly, nix people). The pared-down biannual list must finally be approved by the prime minister and the sovereign.

Think of the Oscars and the variety of creative work recognized. Similarly in the British honors system, there are awards for the whole pageant of national life -- for raising large sums of money for charity, unfailingly getting the royal mail through decades of blizzards, founding hospices, sustaining the arts, saving families in a fire, devoting years to teaching in Africa, serving with gallantry in Afghanistan and on and on, with medals judged appropriate to the degree and length of public service.

I now live in the United States, but it never occurred to me to decline the honor, as a few rebels do. (Winston Churchill, for instance, initially refused to accept a knighthood from King George VI after losing the 1945 election, asking how he could possibly accept the Order of the Garter after having been "given the Order of the Boot by the people.")

For me, frankly, it was a thrill to catch the echo of a trumpet from one's homeland, but my acceptance struck a querulous few here as requiring explanation because my book "The American Century" is a celebration of American democracy. Was a knighthood not somehow inconsistent with democracy?

Well, it is true that in the sceptered isle itself, there are from time to time murmurs that the award of honors -- peerages, knighthoods, assorted medals -- should be scrapped in the name of democratic reform. In fact, another parliamentary committee recommended doing away with titles only last month. But as I see it, the argument has no merit (except possibly with life peers in the House of Lords).

My title, the Knight Bachelor, has no political power, and as it happens can claim a distinctly egalitarian history. Unlike the original peerages, knights have never formed a hereditary class; the title cannot be passed on from father to son. On checking the historical requirements of knighthood, I found all the conditions acceptable, given the diplomatic qualifications in the fine script. The "knightly virtues" listed by various ancient authorities called for one to "succor ladies, maidens and gentlewomen," without suggesting there was any quota that must be filled on pain of death. Custom required that the night before the ceremony, when one moved from squire to knight, had to be spent in chastity, guarding one's armor before a church altar, but 800 years later the tradition has been amended.

All I had to do was show up at the palace, suitably attired in a top hat and tails, ready to bend the knee to the sovereign to be tapped on both shoulders with an unsheathed sword in the style of Sir Walter Raleigh, the knight who founded that first settlement in Virginia.

The palace is very considerate. They allow you to practice in an anteroom. I memorized "bow, kneel, walk"; reminding myself that in kneeling and walking it was permissible to stand up first. When the somewhat infirm Peter Ustinov, receiving his knighthood, was asked if he could kneel, he said he could but he was not sure he could ever get up again.

The question naturally arises, "So, mate, what did you do to earn a knighthood?"

Alas, the question cannot receive a proper answer. The modern authority, Brian R. Price, has distilled a knightly code from many sources and it insists: Humility must at all times prevail. "Value first the contributions of others; do not boast of your own accomplishments. Tell the deeds of others before your own. In this way the office of knighthood is well done and glorified." Did I mention that Tim Berners Lee, who was on the same list as me, was knighted for inventing the language of the Internet?

I confess to being a traditionalist. I rejoice that Britain has retained its constitutional monarchy, Horse Guards cavalry, Beefeaters, Black Rod and the rest. Heaven's sake, the title Knight Bachelor goes back to the 9th century, formalized by King Henry III (1207-1272). What's a 21st century novitiate to do but accept the sword?

*

Harold Evans, the former editor of the Sunday Times and Times of London, is president of Random House. He recently became Sir Harold, knighted in a ceremony in London.

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