CLIFF DUNN, EDITOR
“A man in love is incomplete until he has
married. Then he’s finished.” -Zsa Zsa Gabor
My boyfriend and I were watching a movie last week which took place in an imagined version of the Middle Ages, complete with bloody—and bloodied—warriors and maidens in distress (who had left all pretense of maiden-hood long behind). This rough-around-the-edges retelling of the Dark Ages was actually more spot-on, historically, than some of the polished armor, keen-edged-blade versions of medieval life (and death) that are more typical for Hollywood.
The film sparked a conversation between us about the historic nature and purpose of knighthood, and the institution’s function as the original “professional” army, who gave military service to a king or other lord—secular or religious—in exchange for land, weapons, and other benefits unique and specific to the class. Some later knights and similarly-bedecked feudal lords became so powerful, that medieval kings—and their Renaissance successors— began to hire real professional soldiers (mercenaries, we would call them today), who fought for king—and, by extension, country—without respect to a personal agenda.
As technology—especially the advent in the 14th Century of the English longbow, which became the era’s weapon of mass destruction, laying waste to armored cavalry, for the next two centuries—made greater battlefield strides, the importance of knights became less and less apparent to the social order, at least from a military standpoint, and more ceremonial in nature, as a means of rewarding loyal service to the monarchy. This became most evident in the industrial and modern ages, when captains of industry, business, and public service were rewarded for their contributions to society with the honorary bestowal of knighthoods (and dame-hoods). Sometimes, this practice went from the sublime to the ridiculous, as in 1965, when The Beatles were inducted as Members of the British Empire (MBEs). The very anti-Establishment John Lennon felt it necessary to justify accepting his investiture. “Lots of people who complained about us receiving the MBE received theirs for heroism in the war– for killing people,” he said. “We received ours for entertaining other people. I’d say we deserve ours more.” (In 1969, Lennon returned his MBE, to protest global imperialism.)
It’s funny, the number of famous modern people—most of whom couldn’t tell the business end of a sword from a college class on medieval warfare—who have received honorary British knighthoods. A partial list includes such luminaries as tenor Placido Domingo, comedian Bob Hope, violinist Eugene Ormandy, musician Spike Milligan, conductor André Previn, billionaire Bill Gates, evangelist Billy Graham, and film auteur Steven Spielberg. I might be wrong, but there doesn’t seem to be a single medieval warlord in the bunch.
Clearly, knighthood is an institution that has maintained its very existence by virtue of its adaptability—or at least the monarchy’s ability to adapt the institution to the needs and realities of a modern world (you may have an idea where I’m going with this). In keeping with this spirit of adaptability, I found news this week from the U.K. noteworthy. It appears that there is a movement underfoot in Parliament—introduced this week in the form of legislation—to allow “husbands and civil partners of those receiving honors [knighthood] to be allowed to use equivalent honorary titles to those available to women.” As Conservative MP Oliver Colville told The Sunday Times, “If you are made a peer or a knight, your wife automatically gets the title lady, but if you are gay or are a woman and become a dame, your partner gets nothing.”
Under the current British “honors” system, if, say, the fictional Basil Sloshpot received a baronetcy for a golf swing that “goes above and beyond,” his wife—the equally fictional Ligurtha Sloshpot nee- Flumpf—would receive the courtesy address form of “Lady Ligurtha.” But no current provision exists for the very non-fictional Sir Elton John, or his equally-real partner, David Furnish, who, under Colville’s measure, would receive a similar courtesy title, probably “Sir David” (although, as a gay man, it’s tickling in the most campy way to imagine Sir Elton and Lady—or “Dame!”—David rolling past the royal booth at Ascot for a spot of tea with Liz and Pip).
Clearly, this might not do much to assuage the restless ghost of a 6th Century Welsh warrior who rode into battle with the original King Arthur, who may be scratching his lice-infested spectral beard at the very notion of a gay Sir Ian McKellin—or a pacifist Sir John Lennon—but there were plenty of that type who couldn’t come around to the idea of a reigning monarch who wore a dress. To date, Britain has had several reigning queens, some weak (Mary I, Anne), some strong (Elizabeth I, Victoria, Elizabeth II), but none of them would have their right to rule—as women—challenged in the context of a modern age. That institution, too—one which believes its very existence comes by way of “the Grace of God”— adapted to modern sensibilities, in spite of the objections of traditionalists.
My question, then, is simple (although I realize that the times in which we live— sadly—rebel at the very idea of a simple answer): If these ancient and honorable institutions can adapt to the needs of modernity and gender, then what’s so special about marriage?