The great Orders of Knights that evolved during the Middle Ages are one of the last vestiges of the ancient realm of knightly chivalry and valiant virtue associated with this unique noble status. 

In modern times, the role of a knight is a world away from the armour-clad cavalrymen of history, renowned as much for their manners as their military prowess. Though the rank and title of Knight does still exist in today’s social hierarchies, it is more of a reference to aristocracy or achievement than to a brave and gallant way of life. 

In a few countries around the world, it is still possible to become a knight, by attaining recognition and merit from the various monarchs or heads of state who have the right to grant a knighthood. 

One of the most famous instances of this modern practice is the New Year Honours List announced each year in Britain, where the Queen of England grants a number of noble titles such as knighthoods and damehoods to notable people from all walks of life. 

The subjects of Britain and the Commonwealth who receive the relevant award are then officially allowed to style themselves as a Sir (for men) or a Dame (for women). 

What Are Honorary Knighthoods? 

It’s also possible for citizens of other countries to be awarded honors from the British Queen or from any of the other few remaining Orders of Knights around the world that still grant these esteemed and noteworthy titles. 

In such cases, these awards are referred to as honorary awards, and so in the case of a knighthood being granted to someone who was not a subject of the sovereign, it would be called an Honorary Knighthood. 

For example, if an American man was a candidate for a knighthood from the Queen of England, in recognition of their contribution or services to society, e.g. in politics, science, charity or the arts, their award would be classed as an Honorary Knighthood. 

Similarly, if an American woman was identified as a candidate for a Damehood from another country or monarch, the award would be classed as an Honorary Damehood. 

What’s The Difference Between A Knighthood And An Honorary Knighthood? 

In terms of recognition and merit, the awarding and criteria of a Knighthood or Damehood is the same, regardless of which country the citizen belongs to. 

These distinguished and highly regarded honors are only ever awarded to a select number of candidates, and these individuals must have proven an outstanding contribution or service of some kind, that benefits the county issuing the award, or that serves humanity in general. 

The difference between a knighthood and an honorary knighthood relates solely to the nationality of the recipient. 

So in the example of the British New Year Honors List, eligible British candidates would receive a Knighthood, and eligible non-British citizens would receive an Honorary Knighthood. 

There is also a difference in how recipients can style their titles. 

A British citizen granted a knighthood or Damehood is entitled to style themselves as Sir or Dame. 

However, a non-British citizen who receives a knighthood or Damehood is not officially allowed to use the Sir or Dame title. 

Instead, they are entitled to use certain letters after their name, indicating the order of merit, such as KBE (Knight of the British Empire) or DBE (Dame of the British Empire). 

Americans Who Received Honorary Knighthoods

American citizens have been receiving honorary knighthoods from other countries for well over a century. 

Even though America is a Republic, and as such, has no official monarchy of its own, the people of America who have contributed significantly to the well-being of other countries of the world have often been recognised with an honorary title to reflect ly and acknowledge their worthy works or lifelong service. 

For example, a number of American Presidents have received Honorary Knighthoods from Britain in recognition of the mutual support and alliance the two nations have enjoyed over the centuries. 

Bill & Melinda Gates – Kjetil Ree, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Beyond the loftiest roles in politics and governance, many American citizens from a variety of professions and industries have also been recognised for their great works, such industries include The Arts, Science, Entrepreneurship, Commerce, Environmental Issues, Peace-keeping, and Charitable Works. 

Some notable Americans who have received Honorary Knighthoods or Damehoods include: 

• Tech billionaire Bill Gates and his wife Melinda Gates. 

• Actress and UN Ambassador Angelina Jolie

• A host of American Presidents including George Bush, Dwight Eisenhower, J Edgar Hoover, and Ronald Reagan

• Entertainer and comedian Bob Hope

• Fashion Designer Ralph Lauren

• Legendary Hollywood actor Douglas Fairbanks JR

• Film Director Steven Spielberg

• Musician and Conductor Andre Previn

From Honorary Knighthood To Substantive Sir

For those lauded American citizens who want to go one step further and turn their honorary knighthoods or damehoods into fully-fledged honors, they can apply to become a legal citizen of the country issuing the award. 

If granted citizenship, they can then legitimately style themselves as Sir or Dame of the relevant empire or order. 

This was the route to an absolute knighthood taken by the American philanthropist Paul Getty, more commonly known as John Paul Getty, Jr. 

Paul Getty, heir of the famous Getty oil fortune, initially received an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth I in 1986 for a range of notable works in the realms of sport, the arts and politics. His honorary title was then converted to what’s known as a ‘substantive knighthood’ when he achieved British citizenship in 1997.

It’s alleged that upon formally obtaining British citizenship, the American-born billionaire was told by the queen herself, “Now you can use your title.”

This was a rare acknowledgement from a sovereign themself of the difference between an honorary knighthood and a substantive honor that enables the recipient to use the coveted Sir or Dame title. 

This is just a small selection of the many Americans who have received honorary awards from British monarchs, and there are many more who have also received distinguished awards and honors from other countries. 

While these honorary knighthoods and damehoods do not allow the recipient to use the coveted Sir or Dame titles, they nevertheless convey a highly-regarded level of achievement, representing an accolade that is admired and respected around the world.