Every New Year, British society and the world’s media wait with excitement for the announcement of the New Years honours list – the latest appointments of modern-day Knights and their female equivalents, Dames. 

These Knighthoods and Damehoods are among the highest honours that the current British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, grants to her subjects as well as notable citizens from around the world. 

In the ancient times of royal honours, the kings and queens of the Middle Ages would regularly anoint new nobles, with a range of titles from the aristocratic hierarchy, such as Lords, Dukes, Counts, Marquises and Barons. 

These days, new appointments of this calibre are exceedingly rare, and so it’s not surprising that the modern Knighthood is regarded with such esteem, curiosity and interest, being one of the few remaining noble titles to be issued by a sovereign. 

So, if you have your sights set on one of these eminent honours, you may be wondering, How do you become a knight today? Is Britain the only place you can attain a modern knighthood? And are royal appointments the only way to become a knight in today’s world? 

Becoming a Knight Today

To become a knight in today’s society, you must be granted the honour, usually by the head of one of the few remaining orders of knights which is often the sovereign, the head of state, the head of the church or a representative of such. 

Admiral Drake knighted by Queen Elizabeth
Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In Britain, this function is performed by the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, and while much has altered since the chivalrous knights of ancient times were granted their esteemed rank from the king or queen, there are still some similarities. 

For example, as an enduring reference to the history of knighthoods, modern appointments are still carried out with the subject kneeling before the sovereign, who places a sword on their shoulder as a symbol of their new rank. 

The modern knighthoods also uphold the ancient tradition of honouring valuable contributions in service of the greater good. While the knights of old may have more commonly been recognised and rewarded for their bravery in battle or valiant support of their sovereign, these days knighthoods are granted in acknowledgement of services to society rather than military performance. 

The eligibility for being granted an MBE for example, i.e. a British Knighthood from the Order of the British Empire, is based on outstanding or longstanding contributions to the arts, science, public service or charitable works. 

These criteria echo the origins of the entire system of aristocracy, i.e. to bestow nobility and esteem on those individuals who demonstrate an uncommon devotion to their country or social group, or who display considerable traits of altruism, integrity or honour. (The word aristocrat actually stems from the Ancient Greek word aristos which means best.) 

So, in order to become a knight in today’s society, you would have to meet the eligibility of the particular order of knights. While these vary in detail, the general route to joining their ranks is to be a notable citizen who has proven their loyalty to a certain cause, usually through a lifetime’s work, a considerable breakthrough, or a significant level of success in a certain field. 

Modern Knighthoods Around the World

While the British Honours List may be one of the most famous and headline-grabbing appointments of modern knighthoods, it is by no means the only way to become a knight in contemporary society. 

While genuine orders of knights are much rarer than they were in the times of the legendary warriors on horseback, there are still a number of orders that continue to grant knighthoods today. 

For example, within the modern Christian Church, there are several orders, such as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta within the Roman Catholic Church, and the Order of Saint John within the Protestant Church. 

Coat of arms of the Knights of Malta
Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Branches of the Order of the Golden Fleece also exist in Spain and Austria, while France has an Order of the Legion of Honour, where outstanding citizens can attain a knighthood, or the rank of Chevalier, as it is known in French. 

Italy has a similar honour – the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity, an unusual order that was originally created specifically for foreigners rather than the country’s own citizens. 

An Alternative Way to Become a Knight

While there are a number of ways you can become a knight today, they all share similar criteria for eligibility, i.e. that of notable works or service, usually over a lifetime. 

This does mean that, in theory, anybody could rise to the rank of knighthood, through excellence or a significant contribution to society. 

Yet, for the majority of the population, this path might not be a viable option, or it may take much longer than they are prepared to wait. It also relies heavily on the approval and unpredictable choices of those in charge of the selection processes.  

Fortunately, there is another route to enjoying the rank and respect of being a modern-day Sir or Dame, and that is to follow in the footsteps of aspiring would-be nobles of old who took their fate into their own hands and purchased the title as a commercial transaction. 

Alongside the new knighthoods that are issued to the select few around the world, there still remains some ancient or historic titles – genuine noble titles from the aristocratic lines of the past – that are available to buy from a small number of reputable agents. 

The availability of these titles varies, as they are rarely offered for sale, but for those who desire the rank and esteem of this modern-day status symbol, it is possible to fast-track the path to attaining noble status, simply by sourcing the desired title from the appropriate provider. 

Whichever route you choose to follow, becoming a knight today guarantees a certain level of social esteem and interest from people in all walks of life. While we may no longer live in the times when aristocrats were regarded as a superior ruling class, the history of the nobility still lends an air of eminence and exclusivity that continues to carry weight in today’s society, and likely will for many generations to come.