Honorary degrees, jurisdiction, and the British monarch

Wikipedia has a list of Queen Elizabeth II’s honorary university degrees which is preceded by the following note:

Apart from the statement that she has not accepted any honorary degrees as Queen, is any part of this note actually true? If so, perhaps someone could explain to me:
[li]In what sense does accepting an honorary degree place one “under the jurisdiction” of the university chancellor? That is, what specific powers does the chancellor hold over the degree holder, apart from the freedom to revoke the degree (which is the same freedom enjoyed by every other granter of titles and awards, and which does not prevent the Queen from accepting such titles and awards)?[/li][li]In what way would these powers put the Queen in “a position deemed unsuitable for a reigning monarch”?[/li][li]If accepting the degrees put her in a position that is now unsuitable, why did she maintain the degrees after ascending the throne? Why didn’t she send back the diplomas with a politely worded note, say along the following lines?[/li]


I don’t know what they mean by it, but it’s clear that if HMQ accepted one, she would be inundated with them. Apparently, Bill Cosby has lost count of his.

It seems that the currency of honorary degrees has been much devalued since the 16th century.

Simply put, when you accept an honour from someone - monarch, university chancellor, whatever - you essentially pay homage to them in a sort of medieval sense - hand shake and tip of the head will do it, even though we now think of this as showing gratitude.

The Queen does this for no one.

The physical honour itself doesn’t tie you into any kind of lifelong servitude, so she doesn’t need to give back honours from before she was monarch.

Sure she does. She’s got a huge list of foreign honours, most of which she accepted after becoming queen. See the link in my OP. The only sort of honours that she seems to have stopped accepting after becoming queen are university degrees.

I don’t get this either. I’m not under the jurisdiction of any university I got a real degree from decades ago. Nevermind an honorary one.

And if she accepts honors in general, why the exception for degrees?

And why the distinction between pre-queen and post-queen? She’d still be “under the jurisdiction” once she became queen.

You’d have to ask whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry. But it might have something to do with the status of most UK universities as incorporated under a Royal Charter, by which the right to award degrees derived from the Crown in the first place. There wouldn’t be much point in the monarch honouring themselves.

That makes sense, but of course it wouldn’t prevent the monarch from accepting honorary degrees from universities without a royal charter (such as private UK universities, or most foreign universities).

That’d be a valid reason to not accept honorary degrees from UK universities. But there are other universities in the world.

Maybe it’s worrying that a university could rebuke the Monarch by revoking the honorary degree.

That could be a problem with foreign honors as well, but they are a more established custom between countries.

And you’d think it also applied to receiving honorary degrees prior to ascending the throne.

Yeah, apparently I have nothing.

pretty much all of Cosby’s honorary degrees have now been revoked

On the other hand she only has five honorary degrees from four UK universities. Maybe they were all deemed solidly in support of the monarchy and unlikely to play that sort of game.

My guess is that it’s well-known that she has always been slightly embarrassed by her lack of formal education and receiving an honorary degree brings that lack to light and she’d rather not have a press clipping showing her getting a ‘degree’ and the invariable criticism that she doesn’t deserve it. She might also simply feel embarrassed walking across a stage that she knows she didn’t particularly deserve to be on. Her father probably made her get them while he was alive as part of the royal duties of supporting those institutions and once she made it to the throne, she decided to put an end to it. Of course, the palace is going to give a much more regal and fitting official explanation regarding her turning those honors down, but I conjecture that it’s more personal.

Interesting theory. Are there any members of her family who actually did deserve a doctorate, and who got one the conventional way? So as not to hijack this thread, I have opened a new one to discuss this question.

Perhaps it’s just a scheduling issue. If a university is offering you a degree, you’re sort of obligated to show up and accept it. And probably most universities in the UK would be willing to give the Queen an honorary degree. But she can’t show up at all of them to accept. So rather than pick and choose which universities are worthy of her time (and insult the others) she instituted a blanket policy of not accepting any degrees from British universities. Nobody can feel singled out because it applies to everyone.

The idea that there might be jurisdictional problems in her receiving a honorary degree is not completely absurd, if only in a highly abstract sense.

Partly there is the issue of the Crown as the Fount of Honour. But there is also the problem that some of the older British universities do have elements in their degree ceremonies that have definite feudal overtones. So recipients at Oxford have to swear an oath of loyalty to the university. Cambridge doesn’t have a comparable oath, but it does require recipients to kneel before the Vice-Chancellor (or more usually their substitute) and place their hands between his or her hands. That is literally identical to what was the standard form of a feudal homage.

Nor are those overtones accidental. Medieval universities were, in feudal terms, rather anomalous, but for that reason they tried their best to fit in with prevailing feudal assumptions. There was in this a parallel with other corporate bodies, such as towns. Receiving a degree was viewed as promotion into the higher ranks of the university as a corporate entity, whose members were bound together in a social relationship with each other. Perhaps not a relationship of feudal dependency but certainly (in theory) one of mutual association.

Similar issues arise for similar reasons with civic honours. The Queen usually is not given the freedom of a town or city, as that would mean that, as a freeman, she was joining the ranks of its corporation. Instead, the mayor (or provost) submits to her by offering her its keys or sword. Just so there can be no ambiguity as to who is the boss.

I like Little Nemo’s suggestion. But that doesn’t stop someone from proposing another. :wink:

For a lot of schools in the US many of the people given honorary degrees are wealthy. There is an implied quid pro quo. We give you a useless degree, you donate some dough. This is one of the reasons people like Oprah are so popular in this regard. (Let’s face it, Bill Gates is widely loathed by people in higher education. But they do like his money.) The Queen is wealthy. She might not like the implication of a degree.

Note that honorary degrees are also given to not so well off people. Some are notable and it’s good to honor them. Others are just expected to give a good commencement speech.