Knighthood conjures images of Medieval England; of men in armour, jousting and performing chivalrous acts to win the affections of damsels in distress. Knighthood still exists in England and has evolved to reflect modern times. A member of the British royal family may make any man deemed worthy of achievement a knight. Musicians, actors, teachers and industrialists are among the many types of occupations that may achieve knighthood.
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Historically, a boy would need to complete rigorous training to become a knight. A young man would sometimes act as a page for an established knight in order to gain knowledge and experience. A knight was required to be brave, generous and skilled at arms. No man was born a knight; a man either received a knighthood on the battlefield or through religious rituals and elaborate ceremonies. A monarch's "lieutenants of war" and persons of noble birth could knight others. As time progressed, the power to knight was restricted to the Monarchy.
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A modern knighthood is still merit-based and not attained through financial means or birthright. Even though historically knights were obligated to protect and defend the nation when called upon, the modern knight is not obligated to perform any military service. In order to become a dubbed knight, the Monarch must perform the ritual knighting ceremony. The Monarch may also bestow honorary knighthoods on foreign citizens; however foreigners cannot become dubbed knights. Only dubbed knights may use the title "Sir."
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Many knights are well-known historical and modern figures. 16th-century philosopher Francis Bacon was a knight. Explorers Francis Drake, Ernest Shackleton and Richard Burton received knighthood. Heads of state George H.W. Bush and Hamid Karzai are knights. Entrepreneurs Richard Branson, Bill Gates, J. Paul Getty, Jr. and Alan Greenspan are also knights. Famous actors and musicians who have received knighthood are: Richard Attenborough, Sean Connery, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Ian McKellen, Laurence Olivier, Sidney Poitier, Patrick Stewart. Peter Ustinov, James Galway, Bob Geldof and David Bowie. Authors Salman Rushdie, Kingsley Amis, Arthur C. Clarke, Arthur Conan Doyle and William Golding earned knight status.
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Although relatively modern compared to the historical legacy of knighthood, damehood is the female equivalent of knighthood. Actors Julie Andrews, Peggy Ashcroft, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith have received damehood. Authors Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier and Muriel Spark have also received damehoods. In 1992, Nobel Prize winning author Doris Lessing rejected damehood due to her opinions and feelings towards the British Empire. As a citizen of South Africa, formerly Southern Rhodesia, Lessing felt uneasy accepting an award from an institution she had attacked in her youth.