Monday, March 27, 2023

History of knights

Something you don't see very often in this country: a knight in the obits. This was a Canadian who died in Toronto recently, but one who made a good chunk of his career in Britain, including as an advisor to the Crown, and had received the customary honour that country gives for that kind of service. 

It reminded me of something I noted in Ted Glenn's A Very Canadian Coup. It often seemed as if Glenn's entire cast, the Conservative Party around Mackenzie Bowell (Sir Mackenzie Bowell, KCMG, if you prefer), consisted of knights: Sir Frank Smith, Sir Auguste-RĂ©al Angers, Sir Charles Tupper, Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper, Sir Adolphe-Philippe Caron, Sir John Carling, and so on.

Which raises the question: is it appropriate for historians faithfully to bestow "Sir Tom," "Sir Dick," or "Sir Harry" when they mention a nineteenth or early twentieth century Canadian who had accepted a knighthood? 

The honour was very much skewed towards Conservatives even in the 1800s. Robert Baldwin, George Brown, Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie, and Edward Blake were among prominent Liberals and Reform leader who chose not to be knights. Almost the only knighted Liberal in 1896 was Richard Cartwright, who had accepted the honour when he was a Conservative and was constantly teased as "the gallant knight" after he joined the Liberals.  

Is it appropriate then, for historical narratives to go putting Sir John A., Sir George-Etienne, Sir Robert, and the rest against Mr. Baldwin, Mr. Brown, Mr Mackenzie King, and so on? 

It does seem to imply that those who had been busy giving each other knighthoods were more prominent, more successful, and more dignified that their counterparts who believed as we do, that knighthoods are inappropriate for Canadians. 

Since we mostly don't recognized foreign honours in Canadian public life any more, perhaps historians should adopt Canadian usage and write of John A. rather than Sir John, Bowell rather than Sir Mackenzie, and Prime Ministers Borden and Laurier rather than Sir Robert and Sir Wilfrid.

I would give a partial pass, perhaps, to the francophone knights, at least in the nineteenth century. Anglophone progressives then were fairly consistent in declining titles, but their francophone leaders had fought hard to be accepted as full equals in Canada and the British world, and probably judged that claiming the dignities available to them was a mark of respect to their people as much as to themselves. There is a book called La Petite Loterie by Stephane Kelly that argues the opposite -- i.e., that the titled Quebeckers were being honoured for betraying their nation -- but it's a remarkably thin argument from a good historian.

But even Wilfrid Laurier felt he had accepted his knighthood almost under duress in 1897 and later offered to return it. 



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