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"It's a big deal," says Guy Stair Sainty, historiographer of the British Order of St. John and a respected phaleristic scholar. "There are only 24 members in the Knights of the Garter, for instance, and they take precedence over other people at state occasions and the like. They have these beautiful robes that they wear once a year, when they meet with the Queen of England."
Sainty is not only a certified knight, he's also an expert on heraldry, the study of coats of arms. He developed a Website on chivalry, and he also runs the official Website of the Knights of Malta (of which he is one). The native of Sussex, England, who has operated an art gallery in New York City since 1979, has published more than eleven academic texts, including The Orders of Saint John, an obscure but authoritative treatise on the Knights of Malta. In that book he devotes a fair amount of attention to the "self-styled" imitators of established chivalric orders; there seems to be a healthy supply of individuals eager to hand over cash -- sometimes thousands of dollars -- for a title they can wield at cocktail parties.
"These are the sorts of people who believe, I think, that extraterrestrials have landed in Arizona," Sainty scoffs. "They are willing to suspend ordinary judgment because they want to believe. They've seen Braveheart or Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or whatever, and from that they have some idea of European graciousness and history. They think that the title somehow makes them better than their neighbors. And they think they can be a knight by paying money to some people. They really think that's how it happens.
"Of course," he adds dryly, "that's not how it happens."
To earn membership in most legitimate chivalric orders, a person must be of noble birth. Other legitimate orders require extraordinary public service and a certain religious affiliation. What makes a title legitimate? The short answer, says Sainty, is that the order must be given by the recognized head of a sovereign state. Additionally, certain long-established dynasties that have been deposed still award legitimate honors.
And to earn membership in a "self-styled" order? Just write a check.
"It's unbelievable how easily a fool and his money are parted," Sainty muses. "People who in their ordinary lives would take the greatest of care with what they buy somehow believe this twaddle. Once they hear the truth, they don't want to believe it, because they've spent all this money and what have they got? Nothing but a piece of paper worth maybe ten cents."
K The Countess of Boca Raton K
During the 1980s Prince Henri Paleologue was a celebrated fixture in Palm Beach County society. The prince sponsored one of the season's biggest parties, the Imperial Byzantine Ball, and told everyone that he was affiliated with the Knights of Malta and that Pope John Paul II recognized him as the hereditary emperor of Byzantium and Prince of Thessaly. As grand master of the 1986 International Chivalric Congress of the Palm Beaches, Prince Henri bestowed upon eleven locals honorary titles of knight and dame.
But Prince Henri was really Enrico Vigo, Sainty writes in The Orders of Saint John. He hails from Munich, most recently lived in Cannes, and, the author dryly notes, "was reputedly once a hairdresser in Genoa." In a decimation of Vigo's bona fides, Sainty quotes a French court that found that Vigo's "evidence of his ancestry was no more than 'photocopies of passages from unnamed works whose authors and credibility could not be established.'"
Prince Alexis de Anjasou de Bourbon Conde Romanov Dolgoruky of Italy was another "monarch" who worked his way through U.S. high society. Otherwise known as Alex Brimeyer, this "prince" operated mainly out of Houston, claiming a host of titles and links to the French throne, none of which could be verified. In 1971 he was sentenced to eighteen months in prison for falsely claiming to be royalty. According to Sainty, Brimeyer awarded nearly 40 bogus titles in the twenty years before he died from AIDS in 1995.
In 1981 he sold the title of Countess of the Order of the Knights of Malta to a woman named Henrietta de Hoernle. She paid him $20,000.
The Countess de Hoernle is one of the most active and generous philanthropists in Palm Beach County. An octogenarian, she has donated millions to charities and other worthy causes, endowing, among many other things, a floor at Boca Raton Community Hospital and a gymnasium at Lynn University, a local liberal arts institution. She even has a motto: "Give while you live and know where it goes."
In 1992 a staff writer at the Boca Raton News was vilified in the community for reporting that the countess's title was bogus. Some 200 people rallied at the Count and Countess de Hoernle train depot in downtown Boca to decry the "gutter journalism" printed in the News. The countess even threatened to deny Boca charities $22 million from her will unless the reporter and the editor were fired.
The countess, who never challenged the accuracy of the story, eventually dropped her threat; she continues to give generously to Boca charities and most recently funded the construction of a new international center at Lynn. Everyone still calls her Countess.