Lording it by Trevor Plumbly
According to the romantic poets, knights of old were an honourable bunch. Life was simpler then: apart from the odd local skirmish, there wasn’t much to distract them from high minded ideals. Achieving aristocratic status was relatively simple: once you fought for the prevailing cause, the king tapped you on the shoulder, said ‘arise Sir Knight’, gave you a chunk of land and you and yours were set forever. It was the medieval equivalent of a window of opportunity if you could scrap a bit and had a few bob. For the blokes, life was all about chivalry and loyalty, for the ladies, chastity and motherhood. Sex doesn’t seem to have played a major role in knightly thinking or, if it did, neither they nor the poets mentioned it; maybe having chain mail wrapped round your loins stifled lascivious thought.
For king and country
Having elevated themselves next to God, kings dispatched knights off to foreign parts to fight their ‘holy wars’ against people who failed to accept the all-forgiving concept of the Christian faith and who therefore needed to be put to the sword to save themselves from themselves. As well as slaughtering non-believers, the other knightly task was to liberate sacred ‘relics’, bits of the true cross and so-on. Provenance wasn’t a big deal back then and cynics might say it was the birth of souvenir merchandising, but as with today’s travellers I guess they arrived back happily laden with stuff they could build stories around.
The ultimate prize was the ‘holy grail’: no-one was quite sure what it looked like which made finding it difficult, but a fair few died chasing the myth and even to this day lots of odd bods are still looking for it. It’s interesting to note that after the crusades, overseas looting was considered an aristocratic calling, the most notable looter being Lord Elgin. Elgin nicked great chunks of Greek architecture, which really pissed off the Greeks, possibly giving rise to the phrase ‘losing your marbles’. But I digress…
Goings and comings
By the mid-19th century, the upper-upper class started to thin out; the dictum ‘one doesn’t marry beneath one’s station’ was fine for insulating the bloodline, but it tended to restrict the flow of male heirs. When the industrial revolution hit there was lots of ‘new money’ sloshing round, commercial peerages were granted to maintain the social distances between the haves and have nots. Though not well-bred, the ‘nouveaux riches’ bred well and their offspring soon swelled the privileged ranks. The 20th century hit the establishment hard: along with the depression and two world wars, Hollywood dished up a brand of hero that didn’t spring from a public school and once ordinary folk learned to say ‘get stuffed’, instead of tugging their forelocks, they realised the upper classes were just part of their lives and no longer a controlling factor.
On with the motley
Before long, the honours system started to look more like a lolly scramble than a selective process; it practically rained minor stuff twice a year. Whatever it was, you just had to hang in there for a decent period and your gong was an odds-on cert. I remember some time ago reading that the head groom at the Queen’s stable got one: it seems that even years of shovelling you-know-what deserved recognition. There are, I’m perfectly sure, a fair few recipients who more than merit honours, but given the proliferation of awards in recent years, I’m equally certain others are included to assuage egos or simply make the numbers up.
Going, going, gong
Once they started doling out life peerages, it stood to reason that if you include financiers, pop-stars etc, there’s bound to be a few ratbags in the mix. Minor bods like OBEs didn’t matter much, hardly anyone knew them anyway, so the odd one up before the courts wasn’t that big a deal; no-one was likely to say ‘Can we have our medal back?’ He or she would go to ground; the gong would get chucked in a drawer or end up on Trade-Me down the track. Oddly enough though, when the big boys like ‘Sir Jimmy’ and ‘Sir Ron’ get exposed, they get pilloried by the press and rightfully so, but not by their peers. Could it be a case of ‘One of us couldn’t possibly do that’? Well they can, and they did your lordships, they’re called paedophiles and, courtesy of a clapped out slice of England, they’re called ‘Sir’.