A QUESTION THAT HAS PLAGUED
MEN AND WOMEN THROUGH THE AGES
By Sir Knight Richard W. Van Doren, Ed.D.
Grand Generalissimo of MA/RI
May 2017; Revised August 2021
Many of you, like me – and certainly like my wife and children – have often asked the question, “Why Knighthood?” What is there about dressing up in some outlandish outfit and parading around and calling one another, “Sir Knight” that we find intriguing? Is there something even remotely connected to real life as we know it today? I think the answer might surprise you. However, let’s go back to the beginnings of my involvement with chivalry.
It all began in childhood. Growing up in Minnesota, I was an early fan of the University of Minnesota cartoon program, “Crusader Rabbit”. Along with his faithful companion and Squire, Rags the Tiger, Crusader Rabbit rode about the world righting the wrongs of Evil and the dastardly deeds of Dudley Nightshade and his sniveling sidekick, Smee.
A little later, I graduated to a more advanced form, Don Quixote and….. wait for it ….. Men in Tights! I learned phrases such as “Onward to Justice” and “Beware the snares of Foolery”.
Still later, I began my acquaintance with Masonic chivalry by joining the Order of Knights Templar in Trenton, NJ decades ago. Unlike the progenitors in England, where they try and replicate what Victorian enthusiasts deemed to be the medieval costumes of the original crusading Knights, this was rather plain fare with military style uniforms and business suits.
These are military uniforms adopted here during our Civil War and, later, modified by way of the 1940’s US Navy. As I glanced around the members before convocations began and witnessed venerable freemasons struggling to equip themselves with all the requisite and expensive “gear”, I often caught myself thinking, “Oh, Boy! If the defense of Jerusalem depends on the likes of these guys….!”
Even later, when I had acquired more sense, I guess, I became involved with a European style Chivalric Order which was quite different. Their costume was more elaborate and the teaching was much more spiritual and more intense. It did not take me much time at all to realize that this was something that I had been looking for. It was in that cosmopolitan company that I began to appreciate the notion of Knighthood being a pilgrimage – a journey that required dedication, sustained effort, and very solemn, sanctified promises being kept at a great cost to oneself.
But, by way of introducing the whole notion of Chivalry, let me start by setting out a few facts about real or actual knighthoods in the modern world.
For those of you who like some solid, re-assuring statistical underpinning, it would be best to check with the gentleman in London, England who rejoices in the somewhat glorious job title of “Clerk to the Central Chancellory of the Orders of Chivalry in St. James’ Palace, London”. He’s a very polite fellow and after only a brief checking of the registers it was discovered that there are many US citizens who have been awarded real (though Honorary) Knighthoods by British monarchs in relatively recent times.
It came as a surprise to me that no less than sixty-five American men have been awarded – and have accepted – such knighthoods in the period from 1918 to 2021! It was surprising to me, and maybe to you, to learn that in only about one hundred years after British troops had burned down the White House, there were Americans accepting knighthoods from the British monarch, King George V.
American citizens who have achieved their fame in various fields have been honoured with knighthoods by Britain. Included are the following:
Tasker H. Bliss – 1918
John J. Pershing – 1918
William S. Sims – 1918
George S. Patton – 1944
Walter B. Smith – 1944
Carl Spaatz – 1944
Movie Actors and Producers
Douglas Fairbanks – 1949
Steven Spielberg – 2001
One Comedian and three Musicians
Bob Hope – 1998
Yehudi Menuhin – 1965
Eugene Ormandy – 1976
Andre Previn – 1976
Ronald Regan – 1989
George H.W. Bush – 1993
Dean Rusk – 1976
Caspar Weinberger — 1988
John Warner – 2009
Ted Kennedy – 2009
George Mitchell – 1999
A Federal Banker & Economist & An FBI Director
Alan Greenspan – 2002
J. Edgar Hoover – 1950
Ambassadors to Great Britain
John Davis – 1953
Walter Annenberg – 1976
Robert M. Worcester – 2005
Commerce and Business Leaders
Lou Gerstner – 1948
Cecil Green – 1991
Bill Gates – 2004
Ralph Lauren – 2019
A Christian Minister
Dr. Rev. Billy Graham – 2001
And finally, the highest Order of all, one only rarely given – the Order of Merit – was awarded to General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower – 1945.
Now, not all of these Knightings were equal in character – as just noted, there are gradations. I won’t go into them now, but there are no less than seven such gradations and include such titles as Order of the Bath, Order of the British Empire, Order of St. Michael and St. George, and Order of the Garter. Two are known frequently only by their initials – KCMG and GCMG – and, privately of course, are referred to as “Kindly Call Me God” and “God Calls Me God”.
Having taken a look at some of the actual, recognized European Knighthoods, I feel it only right to look at some of the Masonic Knighthoods.
Ever since the Scots-born Chevalier Andrew Michael Ramsey [1686-1743] gave his famous Oration in the late 1730’s while being a tutor to Bonnie Prince Charlie in exile in France, Freemasons have become infatuated with Orders of Chivalry. Ramsey – and since then many other scholars – attributed the origins of Freemasonry to the Knights Templar following their “suppression” in 1307 by Pope Clement V and King Phillip of France.
This quickly took hold – and especially in the French so-called “Higher Degrees”. Looking through some standard reference books, one can find no fewer than 180 different Orders of Masonic Knighthood. Of course, many are now extinct, but others persist to this day…. ours included.
There are Masonic knighthoods associated with geometrical figures, animals, architectural feature and structures, with birds, with snakes, with flowers, with weather, and with all four Cardinal Points of the Compass. Two are particularly weird: The Knight of the Perfumes and the Terrible Knight of Masonry….. one can only surmise!
Early on in my Masonic career, I was advised to never ask about Knighthoods or it surely would be my fate to never possess one. No… I was to wait until I was deemed worthy by my superiors before I would be asked to become one. But there are some – two in particular – that one could actually get a petition and apply for… namely, Knight Master of the Angels [what would my Pastor think??] or the more exalted Knight Supreme Commander of the Stars! Imagine that one – and wearing the regalia to a Star Trek Convention!!
Well, I can’t take that sort of thing seriously so please forgive me for insulting anyone out there who holds one of those things. And yet… And yet… And yet, there is still something that draws people of our day and age to the trappings and what lies beyond that really does reflect aspects of Chivalry.
Something must surely attract men of good character and good sense to pursue associating themselves with this elusive quality that we call Knighthood. Perhaps we can discover clues to what it is in some writings of the past and – I believe — one example that exists from recent days of a man and figure whom you will all recognize. [[No, not me]]
I was an undergraduate English Major, so you must excuse me for looking to that genre of letters and language to illustrate the qualities of Knighthood. Indeed, we can return closely to the days of the original Knights Templar when we read The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer [mid 1300’s]. Writing about a group of travellers on their way from London to Canterbury, they each told a tale. They were planning on paying their respects to the tomb of St. Thomas a Becket.
Chaucer portrays, in his prologue, a description of the travellers. Foremost amongst them was the Knight. Let me translate into Modern language what Chaucer said about him:
A Knight there was, and he a worthy man
Who from the moment that he first began
To ride about the World. He loved
Chivalry, Truth, Honor, Freedom, and all Courtesy.
Full worthy was he in his liege-lord’s war,
And therein had he ridden [none more fair]
As well in Christendom [as amongst the heathen, also].
Everywhere, he was honoured for his worthiness.
When [wars] they were won, on land or on the sea
Many meetings with Nobles were there
And he fought in no less than fifteen mortal battles
For our Faith, and in one-on-one combat,
With other worthy knights and lords
And always prevailed and won his sovereign’s prize,
Though so illustrious, he was very wise
And bore himself as meekly as a maid.
He never ever had one vile thing to say
In all his life, no matter the provocation.
He was a truly perfect, gentle Knight
Simple in dress, sadly some in disrepair
For he had lately returned from war voyage
And now he began this pilgrimage.
What a description of a person! It captures many essences of that to which all Knights should aspire. It continues the traditions outlined in an earlier work, the twelfth-century “Song of Roland” to which I will return later.
So, what characteristics could we find worthy of emulation? Is that even possible in today’s world? How does that square with what we see in the news on TV every night; read in the papers or on the Internet; observe in the public acts of everyday people as we go about our daily lives? Is it possible – or should we align ourselves with the more recent Irishman, Edmund Burke who wrote in his Reflections on the Revolution in France:
“I thought that ten thousand swords must have leapt from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her [Marie Antoinette] with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, calculators, [and politicians] has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more shall we behold the generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.”
Those gentlemen from the Age of Enlightenment…. What could they possibly know of the modern world we now live in? Whom could they hold up as an example of that ancient and honorable estate of Knighthood? Does he, can he exist?
The medieval poet of the Song of Roland outlined the qualities of Knighthood brilliantly. They included no less than seventeen codes mentioned in this long poem. In summary, a knight was to:
Fear God and maintain the Church
Serve his liege lord in valour and faith
Protect the weak and defenceless
Give succour to widows and orphans
Refrain from the wanton giving of offence
Live by honour and for glory
Despise pecuniary reward
Fight for the welfare of all
Obey those placed in authority
Guard the honour of fellow Knights
Eschew unfairness, meanness and deceit
At all times speak the truth
Persevere to the end in any enterprise begun
Respect the honour of women
Never refuse a challenge from an equal
Never turn his back upon a foe
So, for the people of those far-off times, Knights were called upon by their solemn vows to be Christians; able-bodied; risk-taking; brave and well-skilled in the several arts of warfare; more experienced than most other men and wiser through frequent and extensive travelling; noticeably modest in character and bearing; courteous in their reciprocal dealings with all people; not profane in their language; nor gaudy in their apparel. Above all and ideally, they were motivated by a profound sense of personal honour; champions of Good against Evil wherever and whenever it was manifested.
But the main feature which I find so very interesting and which may help to answer the questions which I pose is this: just recall how many of these medieval characteristic virtues are enshrined in our largely eighteenth-century Freemasonry, especially in our Third Degree. Indeed, some of them are actually mentioned explicitly in that ceremony.
Just recall for a moment what are the three great principles upon which the modern Freemasonry is based: Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth. It does not take much inspection to realise that many, if not most, of the Knightly virtues are contained in those three Masonic virtues.
The parallels can be tabulated and set out an easily constructed table:
|Refrain from giving offence||Protect the weak/helpless||Love God & obey Him|
|Despise pecuniary reward||Succor widows/orphans||Speak/Defend the Truth|
|Eschew pettiness/envy||Fight for the welfare of all||Live for Honour, not Glory|
|Keep faith with each other||Give respect to everyone||Obey lawful authority|
|Offer support and hope||Resist despair for Justice||Guard others’ Honour|
|Think well of other Knights||Oppose tyranny forever||Shrink not from challenge|
|Rejoice in others’ success||Speak boldly for the Right||Hold confidence in Truth|
But the question remains: is such a life possible in today’s world? Can we point to a single example of such a man? I believe we can. And it is someone almost everybody reading this article is familiar with …. Well, perhaps not the man, but his work. And I think you should know more about the man.
He was usually called, “Jack” by all his friends, although his name, actually, was Clive. He was born in Belfast, Ireland and from the beginning as he listened to fairy tales being recounted by his parents, he fell in love with tales of the Knights of yesterday. In his early teens, he, too read about the same tales we have looked at, and those of Ivanhoe, King Arthur, Lancelot, Don Quixote, and many, many more. The books so impressed him, that he decided to study literature. His brilliance led him to the Halls of Oxford. But, during his first semester there, the realities of war brought him into the Army and headed to the front lines in France. You know this man…. Clive Staples Lewis; that’s right, C.S. Lewis.
In France, this quiet, studious man, became a Lieutenant in the English Army and led assaults on the enemy which won him many battlefield decorations for bravery and valor. While recuperating from severe wounds sustained during the Battle of Arras, France, Lewis wrote poetry – as many of his medieval and renaissance heroes had done. They were published and, when he returned in victory from the war, led to professorships at Oxford and Cambridge. He taught English and English History and always placed emphasis on the period of Medieval England and the Renaissance. Later, a special Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature was created especially for him.
Yet, he did not only teach Chivalry to his students in the cloistered halls of academe, he brought it out into the real world through publishing articles, stories, and holding forth on radio and television. He was a believer in the values and character of the Knight – and that those qualities were needed in today’s world more than ever.
He thought that men are, by nature, either stern or meek. A Knight, however, must be both at the same time. Stern and unyielding on the field of contest or battle, yet meek and gentle when not so engaged. Repeatedly, his characters reveal his concepts of knighthood: his heroes kill their opponents quickly, but do not take any pleasure in it. Off the field, they demonstrate all the gentle virtues of the Christian life and are protectors of those most vulnerable – the widow and the orphan.
The Knight was both fierce – and gentle. These were the qualities that had to be taught – and had to be learned. In his own words:
“The man who combines both characters – the Knight – is a work not of nature but of art: of that art which has human beings, instead of canvas or marble, for its medium”
So, those virtues present in our Masonic Craft ceremonies include the following:
- Emphases on being loyal [even unto death]
- The notion of being on an inner pilgrimage
- Being solicitous to – and protective of widows and orphans of Freemasons
- Being protective of the good names of our brethren
- Never lying
- Being ever dutiful to God
- Being prudent, temperate, tolerant, courteous, and
- Ever espousing the equality of the level and the stalwart uprightness of the plumb-line.
By osmosis, almost, we gain these qualities by association with like-minded men in our lodges, chapters, councils, and commanderies. It leads us, if we are attuned, inexorably to lives of continual perfecting of our rough ashlars [or character] into perfect ones; hence we become those perfect ashlars of True Knightly Demeanour.
This is a process; not a finished accomplishment. A Knight, returning from his pilgrimage, did not simply rest on whatever laurels the world might deem him worthy of. He didn’t take it easy. He came to understand that the struggle was, in fact, unending. Such Modus Vivendi that he had acquired in actual warfare had become just that – a habit, one which he could not forsake.
And that applies to us as Freemasons, doesn’t it? The lessons we are taught in those early, faltering steps that we take across the vast Masonic landscape cannot be, indeed should never be, abandoned by us. This appeal of Freemasonry to sustained effort, to unfaltering adherence to moral principles, to being kind and tolerant of all men of good intent, of becoming and remaining engaged in a kind of inner ‘pilgrimage’ is a powerful force for Good.
Like Knights of old, we seek; hence the obvious, often irritating, devotion to holistic ideas, to sentiments that are not governed and limited by a possibly out-moded concept of worldliness. Faced with such youthful expectations, then, perhaps Freemasonry could be, for the “youth of all ages”, a light shining in an otherwise darkened world.
As to the future, as opposed to this medievalism which I’ve been talking about, the young “Knights” are the future. If we are seeking to attract them into seeking membership in Templary – ever by our example rather than by any precept – this Knighthood notion must be part of our unique selling point! Its accompanying notion of universality, unselfish service, and idealism may appeal to their more modern yearnings and perceptions.
The young men of today are more cynical about the possible virtues which our generation seem to have trampled upon. They see the hypocrisy of the leadership and the self-promotion of those who should be promoting only Truth and Decency. This may well have contributed to the young men being sceptical of trusting even solid-seeming institutions. But the hunger for Spirit and Truth is insatiable and unstoppable.
Go into almost any bookstore these days and you will usually see whole shelves of new publications devoted to what is sometimes labelled ‘Body, Mind, Spirit’ – thousands of the books. Have you ever seen these and wondered why? You see, publishers are not fools. They are out to make an honest buck (most of them) and they would not publish books that would not sell. Therefore, there must be a thriving market ‘out there’ among some group of purchasers.
I haven’t done the market research, but that may well be an indication of the younger generation’s thirst for solace, information, moral guidance and stimulation, and – probably – assurance.
Perhaps this is idealistic, I guess, but somewhere ‘out there’ are many young men who seek proper moral instruction, something which they perceive they have not been receiving from our generation. And they will not usually seek that sort of aspiration from the mainline churches which are, yet again, wholly caught up in either sexual and financial scandals or in artificial theological controversies about ‘apostolic succession’, politically correct “missions”, or self-serving stewardship.
Perhaps Masonic chivalry – properly focussed and manifested – could be a part of the remedy for the young men of today. Inevitably, of course, as with most well-intentioned things – such as the mediaeval Crusades which ended up questionably – time alone will tell. Meanwhile, perhaps we might press forward with less self-denial and embarrassment. Perhaps, we could be more – dare I use the term – evangelistic – in presenting our view of manhood in this Modern era that so cries out for virtue and integrity.
- Is there a need for Chivalry in today’s world? I believe so.
- Is it possible? I believe so.
- Is it worth the effort? I believe so.
Why Knighthood? Can you think of a better cause?