One of the highlights of the New Year social calendar within the UK is the annual honours list. The media and people around the world love to know who among the great and good have been deemed remarkable by one of the few remaining monarchs, and chosen to receive one of the few remaining titles of social esteem. 

These honours, which include knighthoods, OBEs, CBEs, and MBEs are a remnant of an age-old tradition within Great Britain and Europe, where the reigning sovereign would award noble ranks and titles to a chosen few, in recognition or reward for their contributions to the nation or services to their king or queen. 

This bestowal of noble titles is the very basis of the aristocracy, a practice that began in the early Middle Ages when medieval kings and rulers would appoint their favoured deputies in official positions that included certain benefits and privileges. 

These ranks and titles would often be military roles, such as a Marquis who would protect a border territory, or a Count who would oversee the management of a county or region. 

As such, the earliest noble titles were almost invariably granted solely to men. The women who held the female equivalent of these titles, such as Countess, Baroness, Lady etc were most often granted such ranks due to their connection to a nobleman. 

For example, they may have acquired the title of Baroness when they married a Baron. Or they might inherit the title of Countess by virtue of their birth within a Count’s family. 

But what about the title of Knight? Were women granted knighthoods during the early history of the nobility, back in the medieval days of chivalry and esteemed orders of knights? Also, we may be familiar with famous modern male ‘knights’ such as Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Elton John, but can women be knighted in today’s social systems? 

Women Knights of The Middle Ages

While the fantasy images and stories of medieval knights invariably depict valiant noblemen on horseback, it’s a little-known fact that there were female knights during even the earliest times of the noble systems of Europe. 

On rare occasions, women were accepted within the numerous orders of knights that evolved during the Middle Ages. Their membership of the order was denoted in similar ways to their male counterparts, namely the relevant regalia such as flying the order’s banner or bearing its coat of arms

Some women participated in the knightly jousting tournaments, and while it was extremely rare for female knights to enter into battles, history does include a few tales of such valiant women. 

Perhaps the most famous example of a female knight is Joan of Arc, the legendary female warrior who went to fight for her king and country in the 13th century, in response to messages she heard from God.

Legendary female knight, Joan of Arc.
Legendary female knight, Joan of Arc – Jean Pichore, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Many of the images depicting this brave Maid of Orleans throughout the centuries show an armour-clad young maiden, flying the banner of her cause as she leads her cavalry into battle – much as we envisage the male equivalent of the knights of old. 

So, in times past, during the periods in history when knights were a prominent feature of medieval society and military action, women could attain knighthoods within the noble orders, and be recognised alongside men as bearing the rank and title of a knight. 

However, this occurrence was most certainly the exception rather than the norm. 

Modern-day Knighthoods for Women

In the present day, the most widely known honours within the modern British establishment are the annual knighthoods, CBE, MBE and OBE appointments. 

All of these are titles within the Order of the British Empire and the level of Knight is the highest of all of these – or to give the position its full title; Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. 

Within modern parlance, however, these honours are generally referred to as a Knighthood, and the official term of address for someone attaining this honour is Sir. 

These rare and highly esteemed awards are granted today in much the same way as they were throughout the history of noble appointments – the recipient kneels before the monarch, who touches their shoulder lightly with a sword to formally decree their new status. 

These modern knighthoods are granted solely to men, because there is a female equivalent but this is referred to as a Damehood. The official status for these recipients is that of Dame Commander of the British Empire. Again this is commonly shortened to the title Dame. 

So while modern women can attain the equivalent rank and title of a modern knighthood, for females the honour is officially regarded as a Damehood. Famous Dames include Dame Judi Dench, Agatha Christie, and Anna Wintour.

Anna Wintour, appointed Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (DBE).
Anna Wintour, appointed Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (DBE) for services to fashion and journalism. (Dominic Lipinski / AFP/Getty Images)

While there are still knightly orders throughout the various countries of Europe that also bestow modern-day honours and titles, these usually follow the convention of the British system by granting Damehoods to women, and Knighthoods to men. 

In some orders, the female equivalent uses the term Lady rather than Dame. While the modern noble system ranks a Lady below a Dame within the social hierarchy, this title is an echo of a 17th-century practice when the wife of a knight began to be known as a Lady, rather than a Dame. Over the centuries since then, we have become accustomed to hearing of Sirs and their Ladies more often than Knights and their Dames.  

So, in modern society, we’re unlikely to witness female knights, as even the highest-achieving military women would be honoured with a Damehood, rather than a Knighthood. 

Regardless of the title, however, attaining a modern-day Damehood is still viewed as a highly impressive and noteworthy honour, largely because these titles are limited each year, and they represent accolades of excellence across a varied range of social and academic fields, including sport, entertainment, business, politics and charitable work.

While it may take a lengthy amount of time and considerable effort on your part to attain your Damehood via the Queen’s honours list, our very own Livonian honours system offers all women purchasing one of our title packages the opportunity to officially acquire their very own title of Dame.