Dame is the female form of address for the honour of a Damehood. It is the female equivalent for Knighthood, which is traditionally granted to males, but there have been numerous female knights throughout history. A Dame can also be known as a female Knight and her damehood is commonly called a Knighthood just like it would be for her male counterpart. There have also been entirely female Orders of Knighthood and such practice continues to this day.
The Order of the Ermine founded by John V, Duke of Brittany in 1381, was the first order of chivalry to accept women; however, female knights existed for centuries in many places in the world prior to this. Like their male counterparts, they were distinguished by the flying of coloured banners and generally bore a Coat of Arms. One woman who participated in tournaments was Joane Agnes Hotot (born 1378), but she was not the only one. Additionally, women adopted certain forms of regalia which became closely associated with the status of Knighthood.
Unlike the male Knights, it was virtually unimaginable to see women taking part in medieval battles or commanding battalions of soldiers, but there are exceptions. Joan of Arc of France being the most famous. Some wore armour, others commanded troops, and some were members of an official Order of Chivalry. One woman to wear full armour into battle was the Duchess Gaita of Lombardy (also called Sikelgaita), who rode beside her Norman mercenary husband, Robert Guiscard. She was a knight in her own right. Another was Petronilla de Grandmesnil, Countess of Leicester; wearing a mail hauberk with a sword and a shield, she defended her lands from King Henry II of England. She and her husband participated in the rebellion in 1173 against King Henry II. Isabel de Clare, 4th Countess of Pembroke showed her intelligence and powerful Military Leadership when she lead a defensive force against a upraising in the absence of her husband whilst in Ireland.
Historically, in all Europe, Knighthood was conferred upon mounted warriors. During the High Middle Ages, knighthood was considered a class of lower nobility. By the Late Middle Ages, the rank had become associated with the ideals of Chivalry, a code of conduct for the perfect courtly Christian warrior. Often, a Dame was the wife of a male Knight who in turn was a vassal who served as an elite fighter, a bodyguard or a mercenary for a lord, with payment in the form of land holdings. Virtually no Female Knights engaged in this type of conduct. Knighthood in the Middle Ages was closely linked with horsemanship and female knights had exceptional horsemanship. Today, a number of orders of knighthood continue to exist in Christian Churches, as well as in several historically Christian countries and their former territories, such as the Roman Catholic Order of the Holy Sepulchre and Order of Malta, the Protestant Order of Saint John, as well as the English Order of the Garter, the Swedish Royal Order of the Seraphim, and the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav. Each of these orders has its own criteria for eligibility.
This notion that an Order of Chivalry has to be headed by a Royal Fons Honorum seems to selectively ignore history and be an entirely modern concept entirely. For example, a Confraternal Order is one with a presidency attached to a nobleman - any rank of nobleman; and there is no Royal Fons Honorum. Confraternal Orders of Knighthood have existed since the 14th century thus technically a group of knights are within their right as legitimately ordained knights in forming an Order of Chivalry for whatever reason they desire. Two such orders were Ordre de la Pomme d'Or, founded by 14 knights in Auvergne in 1394 and the Alliance et Compagnie du Levrier, founded by 44 knights in the Barrois in 1416. This process has happened multiple times throughout history where Knights or Nobility create their own Orders of Knighthood.
Form of Address
Formerly, a knight's wife was given the title of "Dame" before her name, but this usage was replaced by "Lady" during the 17th century. The title of Dame as the official equivalent of Knight was introduced in 1917 with the introduction of the Order of the British Empire, and was subsequently extended to the Royal Victorian Order in 1936, the Order of St Michael and St George, and finally the Order of the Bath in 1971. The youngest person to be appointed a dame was Ellen MacArthur at the age of 28. The oldest had been Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies at the age of 100, until Olivia de Havilland was appointed two weeks before her 101st birthday. Several high-profile figures, including actresses Geraldine McEwan and Vanessa Redgrave, have declined the honour.
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