In September 2021, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani made an expletive-ridden and at times rambling public speech, during which he impersonated Queen Elizabeth and drifted between anecdotes about his time as a federal prosecutor, and the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The speech provided fodder for late night talk show hosts, and prompted widespread speculation that Giuliani, a prominent ally of former U.S. President Donald Trump, may have been drunk during his appearance at an event to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11 — allegations that Giuliani has denied.
In one widely-shared moment from his Sept. 11 speech, Giuliani claimed he had "turned down a knighthood," because accepting it would have meant relinquishing U.S. citizenship:
While it's true that only U.K. or Commonwealth citizens can be given full or "substantive" knighthoods, foreign recipients are simply not given the option of suddenly acquiring U.K. citizenship in order to receive a "full" honor. Rather, they are awarded only "honorary" awards, as Giuliani was. We are issuing a rating of "False."
What Giuliani Said in His Sept. 11, 2021, Speech
Giuliani's speech can be watched in full here (the relevant remarks begin around 3:09:25). At one point, Giuliani recalled the considerable difficulty associated with shepherding the city of New York through the aftermath of such an unprecedented and horrifying attack, then segued into a discussion of his honorary knighthood:
I think what got me through it is — I don't want to sound like a name-dropper, but I told this to the queen of England. She said [affects accent] "You did a wonderful job on September 11th. And therefore I'm making you an honorary knight commander of the royal something-or-other." I turned down a knighthood, because if you took a knighthood you had to lose your citizenship.
...[Prince Andrew] told me "My mummy wants to make you a knight"... I said "Well what does it entail?" He said "Well if you want to be a full knight you have to give up your citizenship"... I said "I think I'll turn that down. Do we have an alternative?" He said "Yes, you can do what Ronald Reagan did." I said "Anything Ronald Reagan does, I'll do." He said "You can be an honorary knight."
So when she gave it to me and to Bernie and to Tom, right after, she said to me "You did a wonderful job..."
Giuliani is referring to the episode, in February 2002, when Queen Elizabeth bestowed an honorary knighthood on three prominent public officials associated with New York's response to the attacks of Sept. 11: Former mayor Giuliani; former NYPD Commissioner Bernie Kerik; and former FDNY Commissioner Tom Von Essen. News footage from that episode can be watched below:
There's no doubt that Giuliani was offered, and gratefully accepted, an honorary knighthood, in 2002. So how does this track with his claim, 19 years later, that he "turned down a knighthood"?
How the Honors System Works
Twice each year — in June, to mark her official birthday, and on New Year's Eve — Queen Elizabeth bestows various honors and awards on hundreds of people, as a way of formally recognizing their contributions to various aspects of public life, including business, charity, sports, culture, and so on.
While formally, it is the monarch who confers those honors, the lists of recipients are recommended by various "honors committees," who forward their recommendations to a main honors committee. From there, the lists are vetted by the U.K. Prime Minister and government, who submit the names to Buckingham Palace.
The honors are separated into various different orders, with some being more exclusive, and regarded as higher honors, than others. While most recipients are either citizens of the U.K., or citizens of the Commonwealth (countries such as Australia and New Zealand, whose head of state is Queen Elizabeth), some are neither U.K. nor Commonwealth citizens.
Non-British and non-Commonwealth recipients are given "honorary" awards. For example, in 1989 former U.S. President Ronald Reagan was given an honorary knighthood, and made an honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honorable Order of the Bath, to which Giuliani alluded in his 2021 speech. Other prominent Americans to have received honorary knighthoods include George H.W. Bush (1993), Steven Spielberg (2001), and Bill Gates (2005).
Foreign recipients of honorary awards are entitled to place the relevant initials after their name, but cannot use any associated honorifics, such as "Sir" or "Dame," because they are not U.K. or Commonwealth citizens. Giuliani was made an honorary Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, a very significant honor. As such, he is entitled to style himself "Rudy Giuliani KBE," but cannot style himself "Sir Rudy Giuliani."
Interestingly, recipients of honorary awards can convert those to "substantive" awards, if they later obtain U.K. citizenship, such as was the case with the well-known Irish broadcaster Terry Wogan, who received an honorary knighthood in the queen's birthday honors in June 2005. After Wogan obtained U.K. citizenship, his knighthood was "made substantive" in the New Year's honors list, on Dec. 31, 2005.
However, that process was not available to Giuliani, because he did not meet the standard requirements for obtaining U.K. citizenship, such as residency in the country.
While there was a grain of truth in his remarks — full or "substantive" honors are indeed reserved only for U.K. and Commonwealth citizens — the reality is that, because of this, foreigners are only ever offered honorary awards in the first place. The prospect of Giuliani being offered a "substantive" knighthood, but only on condition that he obtain U.K. citizenship and/or relinquish his U.S. citizenship, simply would not have arisen.
By contrast, if Giuliani were to move to the U.K., live there for several years, meet the criteria for naturalization, and obtain U.K. citizenship, he would then be eligible to apply for his honorary knighthood to be "made substantive." Then, and only then, could he call himself "Sir Rudy."