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Swellboy on… knighthoods

Why the French have the edge when it comes to ceremonial swords

Swellboy on… knighthoods

Image: Brijesh Patel

October 05 2010
Nick Foulkes

I am delighted to learn that Terry Pratchett was so delighted to be knighted that he made himself a sword from locally dug iron ore, and meteorite, which he picturesquely calls thunderbolt iron. I can’t help wishing there was a bit more rigmarole, pageant and pantomime surrounding knighthood.

In France, for instance, when elected to the Académie française, the new “immortel” has a sword made, and they have turned to jewellers to create ceremonial weapons which include ornamental allusions to the interests of the academician. For instance, the duc de Lévis-Mirepoix had a sword made by Cartier that managed to incorporate an aeroplane and the Order of the Holy Ghost.

However, easily the most famous is the one made by Cartier for Jean Cocteau, a triumph of allegory including everything from the lyre of Orpheus; the profile of the mythical poet; an emerald given by Chanel; rubies and diamonds from Francine Weisweiller; the grille from the Palais Royal; a ribbon wrapped around a pillar to signify the theatre; and an ivory ball grasped by a hand, which stood for his play Les Enfants Terribles. There was plenty more, too, but you get the picture.

The trouble is that with the exceptions of actors, artists, sportsmen and writers, most of the people getting knighthoods these days tend to be selected on the basis of their ability to contribute to party political funds, to loyally support their party from the backbenches or to percolate up through the various strata of the civil service; after a while it would test the powers of even the most inventive of jewellers to come up with variations on the themes of money, political obedience and form-filling.

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