How Does One Become A Knight?

Sir Francis Chichester is knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1967.
Sir Francis Chichester is knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1967.
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What does it really mean to become a knight? Do you get a sword and a squire to boss around? Inquiring minds want to know, so we did a bit of research. Here are the answers to some of your most pressing knighthood-related questions.

WHAT EXACTLY IS A KNIGHTHOOD?

Since 1917, the British government has been awarding notable citizens with spots in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, which just recently welcomed Beatle Ringo Starr into its ranks. Although the Order, which was established by King George V, was originally meant to honor top-notch civilian and military behavior in wartime, it quickly expanded to include peacetime achievements as well.

The Order has five separate ranks: Knight and Dame Grand Cross (GBE), Knight and Dame Commander (KBE and DBE, respectively), Commander (CBE), Officer (OBE), and Member (MBE). 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, i.e. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dame Judi Dench. 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."

CAN NON-BRITISH CITIZENS BE KNIGHTED?

Sort of. Notable non-Brits are only eligible for honorary knighthood, meaning they aren’t allowed to add “Sir” or "Dame" to their names. They do, however get to append the suffix “KBE” to their monikers if they so desire. Bono, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, and Michael Bloomberg are all technically “KBEs.” If any of them later become citizens of the realm, the honor is usually made substantive and they are “bumped up” into real knighthood. In 2005, Irish-born BBC personality Terry Wogan received an honorary knighthood, 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.

Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese (1894 - 1978) of the British Army receives a knighthood from King George VI, during the King's visit with the Eighth Army in Italy, 26th July 1944
Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese of the British Army receives a knighthood from King George VI, during the King's visit with the Eighth Army in Italy in 1944.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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 don’t have 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, approximately two percent of the 3000 or so people offered spots in the Order each year decline them.

A photo of David Bowie circa 1970
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

David Bowie supposedly twice declined offers to join, 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. When asked about the decision to just say no in 2002, Redgrave told The Independent, "My difficulty is in receiving anything that says British Empire, because I am a Unicef special representative at the service of children from any country. If there were no mention of the British Empire, I would be as honored as anybody. If I were asked to be a baroness, for example, I would see that in a different light."

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 discreetly 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.

 Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands after knighting Sir Rodney Williams upon his appointment as Governor-General of Antigua and Barbuda during an audience at Windsor Castle on December 5, 2014 in Windsor, United Kingdom
Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands after knighting Sir Rodney Williams in 2014.
Jonathan Brady, WPA Pool/Getty Images

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 badges 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.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

An earlier version of this post originally appeared in 2009.

What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Antoninapotapenko/iStock via Getty Images
Antoninapotapenko/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25 and ends on January 5. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Tevarak/iStock via Getty Images
Tevarak/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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