So the rumours were true, and Mr. Richard Starkey MBE will indeed, in the course of 2018, be promoted from a humble Member of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire to a Knight Commander of the same order, allowing him to use the title ‘Sir’ before his name. A Knight of the Realm, no less. As even many British citizens are confused about the ins and outs of the British honours system, it’s only fair to conclude that the legions of Beatles fans around the world must wonder about the exact nature of such an honour, to which end I will, in a conversation with myself, try to set the record straight.
What exactly is The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire?
On 4th June 1917, King George V of the United Kingdom created a new order of chivalry, The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, rewarding contributions to the arts and sciences, work with charitable and welfare organisations, and public service outside the Civil Service. It has five classes, starting at the lowest level with MBE (member – which all four Beatles hold/held), followed by OBE (Officer), CBE (Commander), KBE (Knight, for men, conferring the title ‘Sir’ (Ringo and Paul’s honour) and DBE, for women, conferring the title ‘Dame’), and the rare honour, GBE (Knight Grand Cross). The original intention was to reward outstanding service in non-combat roles during the Great War (WWI), but it was later divided into military and civil orders. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, a list of recipients has been published twice a year, at the end of the year, and on the Queen’s ‘Official Birthday’ in June (her real one is in April).
British Empire? Britain doesn’t have an Empire these days, does it?
Umm … no, but what’s that got do do with anything?
That means Queen Elizabeth II is a Beatles fan, then?
I do believe she was quite enamoured of them back in the day, but this isn’t a personal honour from the Queen. What happens is that a government committee draws up a list which is then approved by the monarch – in reality just a formality. Some weeks before the official list is published, the potential recipients receive a letter asking them if they would like to accept, and if they do, are asked to keep the award a secret until the official date. Obviously this doesn’t always work, as in Ringo’s case. If they decline the honour, it usually isn’t known until some years after. Among musicians who turned down an honour are David Bowie (Knighthood in 2003), Brian Eno and Paul Weller (CBE), Hank Marvin (OBE) … and Sex Pistol, Johnny Rotten (John Lydon), declined an MBE.
So Ringo has caught up with bandmate Sir Paul McCartney?
Not quite. Although Paul was awarded the same honour in 1997, he was appointed Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) in the 2017 Birthday Honours for services to music, which is one of the highest civil honours available, considered second only to the Order of Merit (OM), which is in the personal gift of the monarch.
Can I see his medal?
Of course. He hasn’t received it yet – he will be called to Buckingham Palace some time in 2018 – but here is an identical one:
How is the ceremony?
Ringo will be shown to the Ballroom at Buckingham Palace (or very occasionally the investitures take place in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle) where he will be joined by around fifty other people who are going to receive an honour that day. Due to fact the Queen is now advancing in age, and there are around 25 such investiture ceremonies every year, there is a possibility that either Prince Charles or Prince William will be hosting the ceremony. Each recipient will be called in turn, and those receiving a knighthood will be asked to kneel on a low Investiture Stool before The Queen/Prince “dubs” the knight by tapping each shoulder with a sword that belonged to her father, King George VI. The knight then rises, to receive his medal. Each recipient is given a special pin to wear, so that their insignia can be easily hooked on to their clothing when the honour is awarded. After the ceremony, recipients gather outside in the quadrangle of the Palace with their families and friends, where they can take photographs to remember the moment.
What privileges does the award give the recipient?
In reality, very little apart from using the title ‘Sir’ before his name. Theoretically, the recipient takes a higher place of precedence among the population, after the monarch, nobility, etc, but this has little practical use. He can also wear the medal on formal occasions – David Beckham wore his CBE medal to Prince William’s wedding – but the main privilege is personal satisfaction in one’s achievement.
How do Barbara, and Ringo’s children, benefit from this award?
Nothing for the offspring, I’m afraid – no honorary titles. The award, unlike a traditional peerage (Duke, Marquess, Earl, etc) is not hereditary, either. There is a title with ‘Sir’ attached, called a Baronetcy, which is hereditary, but this isn’t it! A good example is the award given to Margaret Thatcher’s husband, Denis, or rather Sir Denis Thatcher, Bt., which has now passed to his son, Sir Mark Thatcher, 2nd Baronet, and will pass to his son, and so on.
Ringo’s wife, Barbara Bach, however, now becomes Lady Starkey (or Starr, depending how Ringo wants to formally style himself), but please, please, please, never Lady Barbara Starkey – that form is reserved for daughters of earls, e.g. Lady Diana Spencer. Nancy Shevell is indeed Lady McCartney, as was Linda, albeit unfortunately briefly … oh, and the other one.
What about John and George? Are posthumous awards given?
Let me allow the Prime Minister’s Office to help me with this one:
“The rules state that posthumous honours are only awarded for acts of valour. There are absolutely no plans to change that.”
It has been reported that George Harrison declined a promotion to CBE shortly before he died, as he considered that he should be at least at the same level as Paul, but that has never been verified. Despite returning his medal in 1969, John Lennon remained an MBE until he died. The medal can be returned, the honour and title can only be removed by those that awarded it in cases of the recipient falling into disgrace or disrepute.
How should we address the great drummer now?
He can be knighted with the name he chooses, either his real name or the stage name he is best known by. When the actor, Michael Caine, was knighted, he chose to be known as Sir Maurice Micklewhite (his birthname), although he was still known by everyone by his stage name. (He actually legally changed it to Michael Caine in recent years to avoid confusion in passport lines!) Sir Elton John has no such problems, as he legally changed his name from Reginald Kenneth Dwight to Elton Hercules John decades ago.
Whichever Ringo chooses, it’s almost certain he will be widely known as Sir Ringo Starr … to be addressed as Sir Ringo in conversation.
Copyright 2017 Philip Kirkland. No original part of this work may be reproduced in whole or in part in any manner without the permission of the copyright owner.