THE RING — Made of gold, with a coat of arms on the top showing a small shield in the middle, three lions’ heads, and what looks like opposing badgers or maybe a cauliflower. Across the bottom is my family’s motto: “Be Just And Fear Not,” which, over the centuries should more accurately read: “Why Us, Oh Lord?” The coat of arms is engraved into the ring so that when push it into melted red wax on royal documents, the seal is raised. I’ve tried it and usually just burn my hand. All the males and at least one female in my family wears such a ring, mainly because no one else wants to.
The reason I bring this matter to your attention is that you, too, can have a coat of arms, maybe even matching gloves and a scarf. All you need is to write a check. It seems a noble title is being sold in a silent auction which has a special connection to Texas. It is the Barony of Fingalton, Renfrewshire, Scotland, and is said to have once belonged to the ancestors of General/President/Senator Sam Houston. According to press reports, the sale is being handled by Manorial Auctioneers Ltd., and is expected to go for at least $100,000. It’s being sold by a French-speaking Swiss businessman who’s owned it since 1998. No land, castle or serfs go with the honor, but you can go around demanding that you be called “Your Worship,” “Baron Fingalton- Renfrewshire,” or “You really look stupid in that armor.”
However, don’t get too cocky, or think everyone has to scrape and bow to Your Ridiculousness, because other Texans can also claim a knighthood. Yes, only in Texas do we have knights, honest to goodness ribbon-wearing knights. No, these are not the Knights of Columbus or the Knights of Pythias, groups which do good deeds, nor are they the Knights of the White Camelia which were sort of a non-violent version of the KKK.
What we had, and still have, are the Knights of the Order of San Jacinto, an organization which was established by President Sam Houston. In a letter dated Jan. 28, 1843, Houston wrote William Henry Daingerfield and Dr. Ashbel Smith, Our Men in Europe, that they would be made Knights of the Order of San Jacinto. Houston’s intent was that diplomats of the republic would not have to appear titleless and ribbonless among the aristocratic diplomats of Europe, who appeared in court looking like Walt Disney threw up on their uniforms. In the letter Houston described the ensign of the order as a green ribbon, worn on the left breast or buttonhole of the coat. Along with the diplomats, Houston wished to honor others who distinguished themselves in service to Texas. The actual awards were probably never made, and besides the letter to Daingerfield there is no mention of the award in contemporary papers.
According to the Handbook of Texas, there is no evidence that Houston created any more knights and the idea was dormant until it was revived by the Sons of the Republic of Texas (of which I am a coonskin cap-carrying member) in 1939. The honor died out again in 1945 but was revived in 1952. At the time it was limited to white males over 18 who were members of the Sons, either active or honorary. All those requirements have been scrapped, but in order to be a knight you still have to do something special for Texas. For some this could mean simply leaving it. There have been, as of 2003, at least 166 knighthoods given out although several knights have gone on to that Big Roundtable in the Sky. Since for some unknown reason I am not a knight I have no idea just what they do. Texas no longer has any sizeable dragon population. Maidens in distress generally turn to 911 or Dear Abby. Perhaps our Knights of San Jacinto hang out at the Renaissance Festival parking cars.
Back to Ashbel Smith, who was the surgeon general of the army and Houston’s drinking buddy. One night, he records, they and some friends drink for hours, then collapse. Later in the night Houston sends his slave, Esau, to a slave’s nearby shack for a glass of water. Esau reports there isn’t any. “Esau,” says Houston, looking out the window, “can you believe that this is I, Sam Houston, protégé of Andrew Jackson, ex-Governor of Tennessee, the beloved of Coleto and his savage hosts, the hero of San Jacinto and the President of the Republic of Texas, standing at the dead hour of midnight in the heart of his own capital, with the myriad of twinkling stars shining down upon his unhappy forehead, begging for water at the door of an old wench’s shanty. And. Can’t. Get. A. Drop?”
Esau shakes his head in sad agreement. They are surrounded by taverns and pubs, by barrels of booze, and there is not a drop of drinking water in all of Houston, Republic of Texas. “That’s just right, Marse Gen’l,” sighs Esau. “We sure ain’t got no water.” Incidentally, Coleto was chief of the Cherokees, and Houston’s name was Oo-tse-tee Ar-dee-tah-skee, Cherokee for “Big Drunk.”
There is the story, probably made up by Ashbel Smith, that when he was posted as the Texas minister to France, where he had studied medicine as a young student, he became quite friendly with the royal family, mainly because of his medical skills. When the king, his family and aides, left for Versailles to avoid the Paris summer, all the diplomats lined up to wish him off, each more peacock-proud than the others, dressed in their ostrich plumes, swords, rows of medals. The royal carriage came to a stop, a door opened, and in hopped Dr. Ashbel Smith of Texas, wearing his drab black suit with its little green ribbon in the buttonhole. We must hope he waved to the rest of the sartorially splendid diplomatic corps and shouted, “Don’t dress with Texas.”
Ashby is diplomatic at email@example.com