Saturday, December 27, 2014

Knights and daze

Here’s a quiz for you: Last week, Sir Elton John married his partner of 21 years, David Furnish. So, now that David is married to a knight, what’s his title? Easy: Mr. Furnish.

While knighthoods themselves are an anachronism, the way honorary titles are handled is even sillier. Such titles, also known as courtesy titles, are used for the female spouse(s) of a male knight, but male spouse(s) of a female knight have no courtesy title, and this is why the male spouse of a male knight has no title: They never invented one.

When a man in New Zealand is knighted, his female spouse becomes “Lady” and the last name of the knight. So, Sir John Smith’s wife Mary would be known as Mary, Lady Smith. The reason for that is that “Lady Mary Smith” would make her sound like a peer (New Zealand doesn’t have a peerage—just knighthoods). Mary, Lady Smith would keep that title even if her husband dies or they’re divorced; it would only end of she changed her name. So, if a knight were to marry many women (sequentially, of course…) there could be several “Lady Smith” women around. Also, it doesn't matter if the male knight had been with his spouse 21 years or 21 hours—the woman still gets the title.

Because there’s no title for a man married to a female knight (called a Dame, by the way, where a male Knight is called Sir), there’s also no title for a man married to a male knight—it’s the gender of the spouse that matters. However, this is also why a wife of a female knight wouldn’t be “Lady Smith” (assuming they had the same last name): There’s no title allocated for the spouse of a Dame.

Last year, the British Parliament (unsuccessfully) considered a bill, The Equality (Titles) Bill 2013, which said in Clause 10:
“Any person who is, or who has been at any time . . . the civil partner of any man or woman who holds a title as a peer, baronet, baronetess, knight or dame shall be entitled to use the courtesy title 
”The Honourable”’.
I think this is a step in the right direction, but not good enough since apparently it’s still only a woman married to a male knight gets an honorary title. I think the ideal would be a title applicable to a spouse of either gender married to a knight of either gender. I bet heraldic scholars could come up with a better title, one that has some historic connection.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, they’ve banned men from becoming Queen or Princess of Wales (even if they are—get it? Even they’re, oh, never mind…). Up until now, a woman married to the reigning king is called Queen, but a man married to the reigning queen is not called King (so as to not confuse that person with the reigning monarch). That’s why the current Queen’s spouse is titled “Prince”. Personally, I think that’s the sensible answer: The spouse of the reigning monarch (male or female) could be called “Prince Consort” or “Princess Consort”, or, those titles could be used for the spouse of the Prince of Wales, and some other title could be used for the monarch’s spouse.

The point is, this whole business is needlessly complicated, and makes heraldic titles, which already seem incredibly old fashioned, downright silly. What the UK does about titles in the monarchy has nothing to do with me (they won’t consult Kiwis, after all…), but the honorary titles for New Zealand knighthoods do.

I didn’t approve of John Key restoring knighthoods in 2009, but they’re here, and I think he has an obligation, since he brought them back, to modernise them. He can’t make knighthoods themselves any less anachronistic, but at least he could make the honorary titles a bit less stuck in the past. With the New Year's Honours List coming out soon, this may be an issue in NZ this year, but even if not, sooner or later it will be.

Sir Elton John and Mr. David Furnish probably don’t really care, but fixing the titles is the right thing to do.

Related: A few years ago, I talked about ways that New Zealand’s knighthood system could be vastly improved. I’m still not a fan of knighthoods, but some reforms and changes could at least make them better.

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