America has been a republic for much of its modern history, and as such has no reigning sovereign that can grant American royal or aristocratic titles.
However, it is possible for American citizens to attain such noble honors, as foreign nationals are often awarded a special kind of honor known as an Honorary Knighthood or Damehood.
Here are some American-born men and women who have achieved such outstanding success in their fields or performed such notable works for society that their work was officially recognised with one of the most prestigious modern accolades – a knighthood or damehood.
American Honorary Knights & Dames
• Melinda Gates
The American philanthropist Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was awarded an Honorary Damehood from the Order of the British Empire in 2013.
The honor was largely in respect of her work in the Foundation that she founded with her husband, the founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates.
Melinda shared her delight in being recognised for her work by posting a comment on Twitter describing the honor of being an honorary Dame. She accompanied the tweet with a photo from the ceremony and praised the UK’s work in the fields closest to her heart, i.e. the reduction of global poverty.
Melinda’s famous billionaire husband Bill Gates had also received an Honorary Knighthood almost a decade before Melinda’s award, as a gesture of recognition for the British jobs created by his company, as well as substantial scholarship grants to British University establishments.
• Angelina Jolie
While she may have made her name and her fortune as a Hollywood superstar, Angelina Jolie is also widely known for her more recent work for the United Nations.
Her humanitarian efforts led to Angelina being singled out for an Honorary Damehood in 2014, receiving an award from The Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael & Saint George, an honor reserved for notable non-military service in a foreign land or foreign affairs.
The history of Angelina’s particular award lies in the heroes of the Napoleonic Wars. Yet the contemporary criteria for this Honorary Knighthood and Damehood are related more to civilian contributions to world affairs.
Other notable recipients include Sir David Attenborough and fellow Americans, Richard Armitage and Henry Kissinger, both former US Deputy Secretaries of State.
• Ralph Lauren
In a long tradition of recognition of the work of key figures from the arts and creative industries, the world of fashion design can also lay claim to knightly honors.
In 2018 the iconic fashion designer Ralph Lauren was granted an Honorary Knighthood, in recognition of his contribution to public health, in particular for establishing a research and treatment center in a London hospital.
He was also praised for his work in ‘forging transatlantic cultural and economic connections’, something which is a strong theme in the trend of Americans being granted Honorary Knighthoods and Damehoods from the British establishment.
• Steven Spielberg
Legendary movie director and producer, Steven Speilberg, creator of hits such as ET, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park, is another American to receive an Honorary Knighthood from the British Queen.
In his comments about receiving the honor, Speilberg made a reference to the ancient values of royalty and aristocracy, describing the ‘courtliness, civility and honor’ associated with the award as “the stuff that all our childhood fantasies come from”.
Spielberg is just one of a number of stars from the entertainment industry to receive an Honorary Knighthood. Other foreign nationals include the Oscar-winning fellow director Franco Zeffirelli, and from the other side of the screen, fellow American and Hollywood legend, Douglas Fairbanks JR also received an Honorary Knighthood.
What Titles Can American Knights & Dames Use?
For many, one of the most prestigious benefits of receiving a royal honor such as a Knighthood or Damehood is the change in title that can come with it.
For example, British citizens receiving a Knighthood of Damehood are officially entitled to style their names as Sir or Dame.
However, when non-British citizens receive British honors, the rules are slightly different.
In the case of Americans receiving Knighthoods and Damehoods, they are not officially permitted to style themselves as Sirs and Dames.
Instead, they’re entitled to use certain letters after their names, to indicate the type of honor they have received.
For example, American recipients of a British Knighthood can use the letters KBE after their name, which stands for Knight of the British Empire.
Similarly, American women who receive a British Damehood can use the letters DBE after their name, which stands for Dame of the British Empire
American Sirs & Dames
It may seem that American citizens can never acquire the Sir or Dame titles that are such an impressive accolade for many people, yet there is a loophole whereby an American-born man or woman can style themselves as a Sir or Dame.
This option involves obtaining British citizenship. While this is an extreme route to changing your title, it is entirely legal and has in fact been chosen in the past.
This was the route to an ‘absolute knighthood’ taken by the American philanthropist Paul Getty, more formerly known as John Paul Getty, Jr, who received an honorary knighthood in 1986, and later acquired British citizenship. He then styled his title as Sir Paul Getty, KBE – perhaps as a reference to his American origins alongside his new status as a British citizen and an official ‘Sir’.
These are just a few of the Americans who are honorary knights and dames, and there are many more who have received similar distinguished honors, both from the British Honors system, as well as awards from some of the other few remaining Orders of Knights around the world that still issue these esteemed accolades to both native citizens and foreign nationals.
While these honorary titles may not grant access to all of the perks available to native royal subjects, there’s no doubt that being awarded an Honorary Knighthood or Damehood is an admirable distinction for American citizens and those around the world.