The noble ranks and titles that flourished during the Middle Ages are well known at all levels of society, even in modern times. 

Most of us are familiar with aristocratic titles such as Marquess or Viscount, many of us have heard of Dukes, Lords and Barons. 

Many of these titles may be familiar to contemporary minds as a result of historical characters or fictional accounts set in bygone eras. Costume drama fans will no doubt be aware of the appeal of a bachelor Duke, and literature lovers will have come across titles such as The Count of Monte Cristo or Baron Munchausen, and history buffs will know all about such legendary aristocratic figures as the Marquis de Sade or Lord Lucan. 

Of course, it’s also possible that some people may be on speaking terms with modern nobles and aristocrats, perhaps mingling socially with a twentieth-century Count or doing business with a modern-day Earl. 

In this way, many of the ranks and titles of the aristocratic hierarchy have been enveloped into common parlance, even if they are increasingly uncommon social ranks in today’s egalitarian culture. 

While many of the ancient noble titles have endured today, the nature of culture and history means that the most famous aristocrats tend to be the male holders of noble titles. 

History and literature are rife with tales of the noblemen whose notable lives were recorded for posterity. Yet there are far fewer tales of the noblewomen who no doubt experienced equally notable lifestyles and achievements. 

So it’s an encouraging modern trend that a fair proportion of the new noble titles issued in the 21st century are being bestowed upon females, and one of the most popular noble titles still being granted to ordinary women in contemporary society is that of a Damehood. 

What Is A Damehood? 

In the simplest terms, a Damehood is the female equivalent of a Knighthood. 

Dame Judy Dench at St Paul’s Covent Garden – The National Churches Trust from London, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In contemporary society, Knighthoods and damehoods are noble titles granted by a sovereign (or high-ranking clergy member), usually to non-nobles and often in recognition of some kind of worthy achievement. 

So a Damehood is an honourary title, equivalent to a Knighthood, appointed to select women by the chivalric orders or the reigning monarch. 

Knights, Dames & History

In times past, during the evolution of the aristocracy, the title of Knight was granted almost exclusively to men, usually warriors of impeccable bravery or skill. While history does tell of occasional female knights – Joan of Arc, Maid of Orleans is perhaps the most famous example – the Orders of Knights were customarily male-dominated, their circles and ranks closed to female members. 

This is perhaps not surprising, given that the role of a knight was that of a fearless and chivalrous soldier on horseback, a role not occupied by many females during the Middle Ages. 

While the modern equivalent of a Knight is the title of Dame, during the days of the aristocratic hierarchy, the wife of a knight would not be styled as a Dame, instead, she would be regarded as a Lady. 

So, even though there were females ranking alongside the knights of the ages – such as the female warriors or the wives of knighted men – the term Damehood would not have been a popular title. 

In fact, the term ‘Dame’ has had various uses over the centuries, some were more flattering than others, but the term was largely used to indicate a female, a wife or a mistress, or sometimes the lady of the house. 

Modern Dames & Damehoods

While the word dame has historic roots – coming from the Latin word domina, meaning mistress, the noble title of Damehood is a relatively modern phenomenon. 

The male equivalent – a Knighthood – dates back to the earliest times of the nobility and aristocracy, to the iconic medieval heroes of chivalric honours and victorious battles. 

Yet their female counterparts, i.e. women granted an equivalent rank of Damehood, is a twentieth-century development. 

The origins of the title of Damehood are attributed to King George V of England, who established the rank as part of the Order of the British Empire in 1917 – or to give it its full official title: Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. 

This is the Order of Knighthoods and Damehoods that features many of the most famous modern-day honours such as OBE, CBE, MBE etc… It’s also the celebrated source of the New Years Honours list that makes the headlines every January, as the world’s great and good are celebrated for their achievements. 

Unlike the military connotations of ancient Knighthoods, contemporary equivalents are granted to both military personnel and civilians alike. 

Over the years these modern Knighthoods and Damehoods have been granted for a wide range of achievements, including notable endeavours in sport, culture, industry, philanthropy, science and politics. 

While these honours are usually highly regarded and deeply prized by the new recipients, there have been occasions when Knighthoods or Damehoods have been refused, declined or returned – usually as a political statement or a gesture of humility. 

Types Of Damehood

As 21st-century culture sees a more balanced approach to male and female honours, the few remaining orders of knights are increasingly more accepting of female members. 

Not all of the chivalric orders offer damehoods to female candidates, but the more forward-thinking ones embrace a spirit of equality in keeping with the times. 

Within the limited range of titles, however, there is some variety in the types of Damehoods available, or the class of honours as they are called within the parlance of such traditions. 

For example, within the Order of The British Empire the highest classes of honours that allow the official use of the title of Dame (subject to British citizenship) are; Dame Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (sometimes abbreviated to GBE), and Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (sometimes abbreviated to DBE). 

These are the female equivalents of the Knight Grand Cross or Knight Commander (KBE)

While the myths and legends of knights stretch back into the mists of time, the perception of a Damehood is a much more recent phenomenon. Yet the contemporary balance between male and female recipients of these modern-day noble ranks is a much more encouraging and inspiring trend than the ancient traditions that omitted noteworthy women from the limelight.