British Dames and Knights are part of an honour system whose roots can be traced back to the medieval concept of chivalry and the honorific orders of the Crusades.
The modern-day British order of chivalry is a visible honour awarded by the Queen, typically in recognition of individual achievement and service.
Created in 1348 by King Edward III, the first order of chivalry was the Order of the Garter.
At the Queen’s pleasure, it is still awarded as a personal gift to a limited and exclusive membership. Male members of the Order are titled “Knights Companion,” and female members are called “Ladies Companion.”
However, the modern honours system has evolved and adapted to recognise various forms of service to the United Kingdom, rewarding contributions to the arts, sciences, and work with charitable organisations.
King George V created the “Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” in 1917 to fill gaps in the British honours system and recognise service in a variety of non-combatant roles in World War One.
There are 5 classes, with civil and military divisions. For our purposes, we will focus on the rank of Knight/Dame Commander, which entitles the recipient to use the title Sir for men and Dame for women before their forename.
The performing arts is a widely recognised category for recipients of the Knights Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) and Dames Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE).
Here are 10 actresses who have been awarded British damehoods for their contributions to performing arts.
Watch the video clips, read the summaries of their careers, then vote for your favorite at the end of the article.
Dame Maggie Smith
Spanning sixty years in stage, film, and television, Dame Maggie Smith’s career includes over 50 films and began with the Oxford Playhouse in the 1950s.
A breast cancer survivor, she has played alongside some of the world’s most prominent actors and been nominated for an Oscar six times, winning twice for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) and California Suite (1978).
Dame Maggie Smith is best known for her role as the caustic Lady Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, in the British TV period drama Downton Abbey.
Dame Maggie Smith quotes:
- “One went to school, one wanted to act, one started to act, and one’s still acting.”
- “When you get into the granny era, you’re lucky to get anything.”
- “I’ve won two Oscars and I still don’t begin to understand film acting.”
Dame Judy Dench
For twenty years from 1957, Dame Judi Dench established herself as one of the best British theatre performers, working with both National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare companies.
Breaking into television in 1981, she found success in romantic sitcoms “A Fine Romance” and “As Time Goes By”.
Following a supporting actress role in “A Room with a View (1986)”, she found international recognition as M alongside Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in GoldenEye (1995).
Her long list of awards includes six British Academy Film Awards, four BAFTA TV Awards, seven Olivier Awards, two iScreen Actors Guild Awards, two Golden Globes, a Tony Award, and an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Shakespeare in Love (1998).
Dame Judi Dench quotes:
- “I’m more comfortable on stage, where there is an audience to tell a story to, as opposed to a film set where you are not in charge at all. On stage, you can hear an audience’s reactions. Within two minutes of a play starting you know how the evening will go. On film, you’re more reliant on the director. The moment he leaves you, you’re like a child learning to walk.”
- “You should take your job seriously but not yourself. That is the best combination.”
Dame Julie Andrews
Dame Julie Andrews appeared on the West End at the age of 13 and Broadway at 18. At 21, her television role in the musical Cinderella was watched by over 100 million viewers.
Best known for Disney’s Mary Poppins and Rogers and Hammerstein’s sweeping musical The Sound of Music, by 1967, Julie Andrews was the most successful film star of the mid-sixties.
Julie Andrew’s extraordinary voice produced notes that only a dog could hear until a botched throat operation in 1997 ruined her singing voice.
Dame Julie Andrews quotes:
- “Singing has never been particularly easy for me.”
- “A lot of my life happened in great, wonderful bursts of good fortune, and then I would race to be worthy of it.”
- “I am first and always English, and I carry my country in my heart wherever I go.”
Dame Helen Mirren
Beginning her career with the Royal Shakespeare Company at age 22, Dame Helen Mirren is one of a select few to achieve the Triple Crown of Acting: Academy Award for Best Actress (the Queen, 2006), the Tony Award for Best Actress in a play (The Audience, 2013), and several Emmy Awards (Prime Suspect, 1991-2006).
Her paternal grandparents were Russian. Her grandfather, Piotr Vasilievich Mironoff, was a Tsarist aristocrat who was in London negotiating an arms deal during World War I when the 1917 Russian Revolution stranded him there.
Dame Helen Mirren quotes:
- “If you wanted to teach someone who knew absolutely nothing about the British people, it would be very good to guide them to Shakespeare. You could see the foolishness, the humour, the brutality – it’s all in almost every play.”
- “All you have to do is to look like crap on film and everyone thinks you’re a brilliant actress. Actually, all you’ve done is look like crap.”
- “The trick in life is learning how to deal with it.”
Dame Angela Lansbury
The movie clip is from Angela Lansbury’s iconic Oscar-nominated performance in The Manchurian Candidate (1962).
Dame Angela Lansbury’s 70-year career includes several award-winning film roles, but she is best known for the character Jessica Fletcher in the television series Murder, She Wrote.
When Lansbury was nine, her father died from stomach cancer; she retreated into playing characters as a coping mechanism. In 2014, Lansbury described this event as “the defining moment of my life. Nothing before or since has affected me so deeply.”
Dame Angela Lansbury quotes:
- “Providing I can put one foot in front of the other, I will continue to act.”
- (In 2013) “I absolutely do not have a retirement age… I’m only 87 – which today is nothing. It’s just like 60 a few years back. I believe age should not stop you from keeping on.”
Dame Elizabeth Taylor
Dame Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was considered one of the last, if not the last, major star to have come out of the old Hollywood studio system.
Born in London to wealthy American parents, she moved with her family to Los Angeles at age seven. Just three years later, she debuted in the Universal Picture’s “There’s one Born Every Minute (1942)”.
Signing with MGM in 1944, her role in National Velvet made her one of the studio’s most popular teenage stars.
In 1951, she received critical acclaim for her role in A Place in the Sun, playing alongside Montgomery Clift, going on to become the first actress to earn $1,000,000 for a movie (Cleopatra, 1963).
The American Film Institute named her the seventh greatest female screen legend in 1999.
Dame Elizabeth Taylor quotes:
- “I’ve come through things that would have felled an ox. That fills me with optimism, not just for myself but for our particular species.”
- “I, along with the critics, have never taken myself very seriously.”
- “One problem with people who have no vices is that they’re pretty sure to have some annoying virtues.”
Dame Diana Rigg
Swinging Sixties sex symbol Diana Rigg was voted the sexiest-ever TV star by TV Guide in the United States.
Best known for her role as Emma Peel in the iconic 60s TV series “The Avengers”, her other performances led critics to proclaim her one of the greatest actresses on the British stage.
Dame Diana Rigg quotes:
- “If I meet a woman who is immaculately groomed, I really admire her discipline. I grew up admiring out-of-this-world screen goddesses, such as Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth.”
- “I think I was quite daring. I was once escorted out of a restaurant because I was wearing a trouser suit. It wasn’t considered good breeding for a woman to go around in trousers after 6:00 pm.”
Dame Kristin Scott Thomas
Dame Kristin Scott Thomas is best known for her roles in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), for which she won the Best Supporting Actress BAFTA Award, and The English Patient (1996), for which she was nominated Best Actress in the Academy awards.
Dame Scott Thomas is the great-great-niece of Captain Scott, who died in the race to reach the South Pole in 1912.
Dame Kristin Scott Thomas quotes:
- “Just because you have a few wrinkles does not mean you do not have anything meaningful to contribute. As you get older, it all becomes richer and the implications of everything you do become so much more complicated – and therefore more interesting. Your life as a woman does not end because you are 35 or 45.”
- “Unlike most actresses, I don’t lie about my age (55) but I’m liking this bit. I love it. I wouldn’t swap it for a million years.”
Dame Joan Collins
Born in Paddington, West London, Dame Joan Collins made her stage debut at the age of nine in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.
After training with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, she starred in a series of British and Hollywood movies,
Best known for her part as the vengeful ex-wife of an oil magnate in the 1980s TV soap opera Dynasty, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe six times, winning once in 1983.
Dame Joan Collins Quotes:
- “Dynasty (1981) was the opportunity to take charge of my career rather than walking around like a library book waiting to be loaned out.”
- “Age, in my opinion, has no bearing at all, that is unless, of course, one happens to be a bottle of wine.”
- “The problem with beauty is that it’s like being born rich and getting poorer.”
Dame Barbara Windsor
Dame Barbara Windsor has been acting on screen and stage since she was 13 years old.
Her sixty-six-year career includes nine Carry On films—iconic British comedy of the 60s and 70s—and 22 years as Peggy Mitchell on BBC soap opera EastEnders.
Known for her “chirpy cockney” personality and infectious giggle, Barbara Windsor has also starred on Broadway, the West End, and was the voice behind the Dormouse in Tim Burton’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
Barbara Windsor quotes:
- “We didn’t get a lot of money (for the Carry On movies) and we did always seem to be doing outside shots in winter, but it paid the mortgage and I loved it.”
- “I am not like my image; I take my work so seriously. Everyone thinks I just bounce in, but I study and everything has to be just right.”
Dame Joanna Lumley
From swinging sixties supermodel to television icon, Joanna Lumley’s career has been a kaleidoscope of sparkles and grit.
Television catapulted her to stardom with roles like the kickass Purdey in “The New Avengers” and the unforgettable Patsy Stone in “Absolutely Fabulous,” whose champagne-swilling antics forever etched her in pop culture.
But Lumley’s depth shines beyond comedy. Dramas like “Sapphire & Steel” showcase her versatility, while her voice work for characters like Aunt Sponge in “Corpse Bride” highlights her vocal range.
An avid traveler and humanitarian, Lumley’s documentaries and advocacy for indigenous rights reveal a dedication to social justice. In five decades of captivating audiences, she’s become a cultural icon, proving that the greatest adventure truly is to live, leaving a trail of laughter, wonder, and inspiration in her wake.
Joanna Lumley quotes:
- “Learn from nature. Stuff lives and stuff dies all the time, you know. Animals and birds and flowers. Trees come and go, and we come and go. That’s it. So we should all seize life and make the most of what we have while we can.”
- “I never mind scrubbing floors, vacuuming or bending and carrying stuff. Each time I do it I think, this is instead of going to the gym.”
Dame Penelope Wilton
Penelope Wilton’s career is a dazzling tapestry woven across theater and film. While Olivier nominations for “John Gabriel Borkman” and “Taken at Midnight” solidified her stage prowess, it’s television and film where she truly captured hearts.
Her comedic brilliance shone in “Ever Decreasing Circles” as the witty Ruth, while “Downton Abbey” catapulted her to global fame. As Isobel Crawley, the progressive Dowager Countess, Wilton embodied both steely pragmatism and fierce compassion, her chemistry with Maggie Smith pure magic. ✨
Films like “Shaun of the Dead” (shotgun-wielding grandma!) and “The BFG” (a surprisingly regal Queen) showcase her versatility. Reflecting on her diverse roles, she mused, “I don’t think I’m typecast. I just play women who haven’t got the memo on how to behave.”
With impeccable timing and understated brilliance, Dame Penelope Wilton continues to grace screens and stages. Age is just a number; true talent never fades. In her own words, “Acting is all about pretending to be somebody else, and there’s no limit to who you can be.” And what a journey it is to witness her be them all.
Penelope Wilton quotes:
- “The greatest adventure is to live. And live I have, leaving a trail of laughter, wonder, and inspiration in my wake.”
- “Laughter is the best medicine. It’s the one thing that can make you feel better instantly, no matter what’s wrong.”