Although chivalric orders for military members date back to the medieval period, King George V ushered in a new era for knights and dames when he established The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1917. Appointees to the OBE don’t have to see battle to be on the receiving end of the ceremonial sword tap (or its rather dull modern equivalent, the firm handshake), so long as they make a significant contribution to the arts, sciences, or any charitable organization outside the civil service.
In fact, you don’t even have to be a British citizen to receive the honor. A large number of Americans have been awarded knighthood or damehood, and the privilege is potentially open to any non-Brit around the world. Though non-Commonwealth subjects are not extended the privilege of styling themselves Sir or Dame, as far as anything else is concerned, these famous figures are knights and dames just like any other.
1. Steven Spielberg
In 2001, director and producer Steven Spielberg received an honorary knighthood via British ambassador to the U.S., Sir Christopher Meyer. The ambassador noted that while Spielberg’s commitment to movie magic had made a global impact, its effects on British cinema in particular were significant enough to double movie ticket sales since the early ’80s (likely beginning with 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and 1982’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial). Behind the scenes, Spielberg was also known to be a supporter of the local film industry, choosing to shoot massive productions like 2001’s multi-part series Band of Brothers on location in England. Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s son even got in on the action, spending a week on set for work experience.
“This is the stuff that all of our childhood fantasies come from,” Spielberg said after his investiture. “You know, courtliness, civility, and honor.”
2. Franco Zeffirelli
Spielberg was later joined in the ranks of honorary knights by fellow filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli, the first Italian to be so recognized. Zeffirelli earned his KBE in 2004 for “valuable services to British performing arts,” including multiple acclaimed Shakespeare adaptations to film and stage, and 1999’s Tea With Mussolini, a film that starred no fewer than three British dames: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Joan Plowright. An Oscar nominee, Zeffirelli joyously proclaimed the knighthood to be “the greatest conquest, recognition, I have received in my life, practically.”
Paul Hewson—a.k.a. U2 lead singer Bono—falls into the category of honorary knights because he is an Irish citizen (like fellow honorary knight, Irishman Pierce Brosnan). Though Ireland is part of the British Isles, its citizens are not British and therefore not eligible for “substantive” knighthood (i.e., he can’t style his name as Sir Bono, such as Sirs Elton John and Patrick Stewart, both British citizens, can). In the same year he shared the title of TIME Magazine’s Person(s) of the Year with fellow philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, Bono was presented with honorary knighthood by the British ambassador to Ireland for his humanitarian work. The 2005 ceremony was made all the sweeter for taking place in Dublin, Bono’s hometown.
4. and 5. Bill and Melinda Gates
In addition to managing sums of wealth inconceivable to the average person, Bill Gates is also an honorary knight of the British Empire. In keeping with his multi-hyphenate role as billionaire-businessman-tech mogul-philanthropist, Gates was honored in 2005 for a string of contributions, from the 2000 British jobs created by Microsoft to the $210 million in scholarship grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to Cambridge University to subsidize international graduate students. That number is just a fraction of the further $750 million the Foundation gave to help establish Gavi (once called the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation), a cornerstone of the couple’s commitment to leveraging their wealth to improve public health in developing countries.
Melinda Gates attended her husband’s ceremony with the Queen, but she had to wait nearly another decade to be honored for her role in the Foundation’s charitable work—it wasn’t until 2014 that she was named an honorary Dame Commander. In a simple message sent out on Twitter to accompany a photo from her ceremony, Gates said, “Honored to be named a Dame of the British Empire. The UK is a leader in fighting global poverty.”
6. Ralph Lauren
In 2018, it was announced that Ralph Lauren would become the first American fashion designer to be honorarily knighted. In accordance with Lauren’s penchant for putting his name on things, the Ralph Lauren Corporation established The Ralph Lauren Centre for Breast Cancer Research at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, along with two other cancer centers in the United States. British Consul General Antony Phillipson recognized his commitment to public health research and treatment, along with his “key role in forging transatlantic cultural and economic connections” as “a vanguard for the global fashion industry.” Lauren certainly has fans in high places: Duchesses Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle have both been known to wear his clothing, and one of the late Princess Diana’s most iconic looks—a beaded, white, halter column gown—was a Lauren design she wore while honoring him at a fundraiser for his first cancer hospital.
7. Angelina Jolie
Despite first achieving fame for her Oscar-winning acting career, Angelina Jolie’s royal accolade isn’t an acknowledgment of her work in Hollywood. The Order of St. Michael and St. George, originally conceived as a means of honoring high-ranking officers of the Napoleonic Wars, has since been expanded to recognize “extraordinary or important non-military service in a foreign country.” Jolie was appointed to the order in 2014 after years of humanitarian work, particularly with the United Nations and the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative in the UK.
The announcement of Jolie’s honor coincided with her co-chairing of the End Sexual Violence in Conflict global summit in London, when she gratefully received the news and reaffirmed that foreign policy is “what I wish to dedicate my working life to.” She later received the title officially during a private audience with the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
Considering soccer’s venerated status as the national pastime (though technically, cricket is the country’s national sport), it comes as no surprise that Britain’s highest chivalric orders include more than a dozen professional footballers (as well as a large number of OBEs, like David Beckham). Onetime Brazilian Minister of Sport and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Edson Arantes do Nascimento—better known as Pelé—was once voted FIFA’s “greatest footballer in the history of the game” and has certainly earned his right to be there. Although the honorary KBE was ostensibly granted in recognition of his humanitarian and environmental activism, in part as a United Nations ambassador for ecology and the environment, his holding the Guinness World Record for most career goals (at 1283) probably didn’t hurt.
In 2017, 20 years later after his knighting ceremony, Pelé tweeted a throwback photo of himself proudly lifting his medal, and said the moment would “stay always in [his] memory.”
9. and 10. Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg
In a true show of international diplomacy, Queen Elizabeth II bestowed an honorary knighthood on former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani in 2002. Prince Andrew, Duke of York, made the formal announcement on Giuliani’s home turf, declaring his nation’s thanks for Giuliani’s “outstanding help and support to the bereaved British families” in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Giuliani later traveled to Buckingham Palace to join his fellow honorees before the Queen. She personally reiterated her gratitude for his leadership and wished him “less stress in [his] life now.”
Michael Bloomberg, another notable NYC mayor, was also welcomed as an honorary Knight Commander of the British Empire for his “prodigious entrepreneurial and philanthropic endeavors.” Bloomberg called the honor “especially meaningful” because he had long considered Britain a “second home.” His official investiture was in 2015, though The New York Times reported that, in jest, someone once helped Bloomberg celebrate the opening of his company’s London office decades before by donning full military regalia and dubbing him with a sword.
11. Plácido Domingo
For famed tenor Plácido Domingo, 2002 was a banner year. Shortly after the Spanish singer (one-third of the acclaimed opera supergroup The Three Tenors, with José Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti) was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in July, he was invited to the British embassy in Washington, D.C. to be knighted by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in October. At age 61, Domingo had done performances at the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden for three decades, occasions that he considered “among [his] greatest experiences.” At the time of his investiture, he’d sung 119 distinct operatic roles throughout his career, a higher number than anyone else in history. It only seems right that Domingo should also have a pile of commendations to match.
12. Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
When longtime leading man Douglas Fairbanks Jr. died in 2000, British newspaper The Independent lauded him as “Hollywood royalty and knight of the realm.” For an American who never relinquished his citizenship, Fairbanks devoted a significant portion of his personal and professional life to England. As a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy during WWII, he served directly under Lord Mountbatten and played a key role in a number of combined British-American operations. His distinguished service earned him a knighthood from King George VI in 1949 for “furthering Anglo-American amity,” and after taking a hiatus from acting, he and his family moved to London. Fairbanks kept a home in London for two decades and entertained acquaintances no less eminent than the royal family itself before retiring to the most American of locales: Palm Beach, Florida.
Never one for subtlety, Fairbanks took full advantage of his honorary knighthood. Though he was unable to style himself “Sir,” he nonetheless designed a custom coat of arms with the Latin motto Fides, Conatus et Fidelitas, meaning “Faith, Striving, and Loyalty,” in written along a scroll. It also features both a bald eagle and the circlet of the Order of the British Empire, perfectly befitting a man who loved countries.