Some Thoughts on Prince Philip’s Australian Knighthood

Tony Abbott has had a rough few weeks. His decision to make the Duke of Edinburgh a Knight of the Order of Australia as part of the Australia Day honors list has ignited a firestorm of controversy. The Federal Opposition condemned the move, and even members of Abbott’s own Liberal Party lined up to criticize him. Things got so bad that he even faced a vote of confidence in his leadership, and although he ultimately won, his authority has been badly damaged. But while Prince Philip’s knighthood has been a spectacular own goal on Abbott’s part, it’s not exactly an unprecedented move.

Photo of Prince Philip courtesy of Carfax2 via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo of Prince Philip courtesy of Carfax2 via Wikimedia Commons.

Back in 1988, Prince Philip was made a Companion of the Order of Australia on the advice of Bob Hawke, a Labor Prime Minister and a republican to boot. At that time, ‘Companion’ was the highest rank in the Order,[1] so by promoting Prince Philip within the Order of Australia, Abbott is arguably following the precedent set by his predecessor.

Of course the practice of conferring honors on the Sovereign’s spouse goes back much farther than 1988. It seems to have started in the nineteenth century alongside the emergence of the modern honors system.[2] Queen Victoria’s reign saw the advent of several new orders of chivalry (including the Order of St. Michael and St. George, the Order of the Star of India, the Order of the Crown of India, and the Royal Victorian Order), as well as the transformation of the Order of the Bath from a purely military order to a hybrid civilian/military order. Victoria lavished many of these new honors on her husband, Prince Albert–when he died in 1861, he was a top-tier member of almost every order of chivalry in Britain.

King Edward VII seems to have been more sparing with his own consort (though he did make Queen Alexandra a Lady of the Order of the Garter, the first such appointment since the 15th century), but his successors were much more generous. For example, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother received the following honors[3] during her husband’s reign:

  • Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire;
  • Dame Grand Cross of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem;
  • Companion of the Order of the Crown of India;
  • Lady of the Order of the Garter;
  • Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order;[4]
  • Lady of the Order of the Thistle.

By comparison, Prince Philip is a member of fewer British chivalric orders (he is not, for example, a member of the Royal Victorian Order or the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, though he is part of the Order of Merit), but he holds more Commonwealth honors.[5] In addition to the Order of Australia, he is an Extraordinary Companion of the Order of Canada, an Additional Member of the Order of New Zealand,[6] an Extra Companion of the Queen’s Service Order (New Zealand), and a Royal Chief of Papua New Guinea’s Order of Logohu.

The bottom line is that Tony Abbott’s decision to bestow a knighthood on Prince Philip is not as outlandish as his critics would like people to believe. That being said, just because something is in accordance with tradition doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea. To borrow a phrase from Margaret Thatcher, Abbott has gained the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit.

NOTES

[1] When the Order of Australia was founded in 1975, it did not have titular honors (i.e. knighthoods or damehoods). But when the Liberals took over the next year, the new Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, advised the Queen to create the rank of Knight/Dame of the Order of Australia. When Labor was returned to power in 1983, Bob Hawke countermanded Fraser’s advice, and ‘Companion’ was once again the highest rank. It would remain this way until 2014, when Tony Abbott asked the Queen to revive knighthoods once more.

[2] For a look at how the honors system was used to knit together the Empire’s elites, see David Cannadine, Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[3] This is not an exhaustive list. I have omitted the various Royal Family Orders (which are basically family mementos).

[4] She was also appointed Grand Master of the Royal Victorian Order.

[5] It’s not quite an apples-to-apples comparison: when the Queen Mother was consort, Commonwealth honors didn’t exist. Even self-governing dominions such as Canada and Australia used the British honors system.

[6] Although New Zealand Order of Merit features knighthoods and damehoods, they rank below the Order of New Zealand.

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