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The Britishmarker honours system is a means of rewarding individuals' personal bravery, achievement, or service to the United Kingdommarker. The system consists of three types of award: honours, decorations and medals:
  • Honours are used to recognise merit in terms of achievement and service.
  • Decorations tend to be used to recognise specific deeds;
  • Medals are used to recognise bravery, long and/or valuable service and/or good conduct.

Brief history

Although the Anglo-Saxon monarchs are known to have rewarded their loyal subjects with rings and other symbols of favour, it was the Normans who introduced knighthoods as part of their feudal government. The first English order of chivalry, the Order of the Garter, was created in 1348 by Edward III. Since then the system has evolved to address the changing need to recognise other forms of service to the United Kingdommarker.

Modern honours

As the head of state, the Sovereign remains the "fount of honour", but the system for identifying and recognising candidates to honour has changed considerably over time. Various orders of knighthood have been created (see below) as well as awards for military service, bravery, merit, and achievement which take the form of decorations or medals.

Most medals are not graded. Each one recognises specific service and as such there are normally set criteria which must be met. These criteria may include a period of time and will often delimit a particular geographic region. Medals are not normally presented by the Sovereign. A full list is printed in the "order of wear", published infrequently by the London Gazette.

Honours are split into classes ("orders") and are graded to distinguish different degrees of achievement or service. There are no criteria to determine these levels; various honours committees meet to discuss the candidates and decide which ones deserve which type of award and at what level. Since their decisions are inevitably subjective, the twice-yearly honours lists often provoke criticism from those who feel strongly about particular cases. Candidates are identified by public or private bodies, by government departments or are nominated by members of the public. Depending on their roles, those people selected by committee are submitted either to the Prime Minister, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, or Secretary of State for Defence for their approval before being sent to the Sovereign for final approval. Certain honours are awarded solely at the Sovereign's discretion, such as the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Thistle, the Royal Victorian Order, the Order of Merit and the Royal Family Order.

A complete list of approximately 1350 names is published twice a year, at New Year and on the date of the Sovereign's birthday. The awards are then presented by the Sovereign or her designated representative. The Prince of Wales and The Princess Royal have deputised for The Queen at investiture ceremonies at Buckingham Palace.

By convention, a departing Prime Minister is allowed to nominate Prime Minister's Resignation Honours, to reward political and personal service. As of 2009, Tony Blair has not taken up this privilege.

Current orders of chivalry

The current system is made up of ten orders of chivalry. The statutes of each order specify matters such as the size of the order, the use of post-nominal letters and insignia design and display.

Complete name Ranks / Letters Established Founder Motto Awarded to/for Associated awards
The Most Noble Order of the Garter KG/LG 1348 King Edward III Honi soit qui mal y pense ("shame upon him who thinks evil of it") Relating to England and Wales None
The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle KT/LT 1687 James II Nemo me impune lacessit ("No one provokes me with impunity") Relating to Scotland None
The Most Honourable Order of the Bath GCB,

18 May 1725 George I Tria iuncta in uno ("Three joined in one") Civil division: senior civil servants; Military division: CB: OF-3 or higher; K/DCB: OF-5 or higher; GCB: OF-7 or higher None
The Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George GCMG,

28 April 1818 The Prince Regent Auspicium melioris ævi ("Token of a better age") Diplomats None
The Distinguished Service Order DSO (plus bars) 6 September 1886 Queen Victoria None Military officers in wartime None
The Royal Victorian Order GCVO,

21 April 1896 Queen Victoria Victoria ("Victory") Services to the crown The Royal Victorian Medal, The Royal Victorian Chain
The Order of Merit OM 1902 King Edward VII For merit Military, science, art, literature, culture None
The Imperial Service Order ISO August 1902 King Edward VII For faithful service Civil servant for 25 years (in administrative or clerical capacity) The Imperial Service Medal
The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire GBE,

4 June 1917 King George V For God and the Empire Miscellaneous (military and civil) The British Empire Medal
The Order of the Companions of Honour CH June 1917 King George V In action faithful and in honour clear Arts, science, politics, industry, religion None

Dormant orders of chivalry

Orders were created for particular reasons at particular times. In some cases these reasons have ceased to have any validity and orders have fallen into abeyance, primarily due to the decline of the British Empire during the twentieth century. Reforms of the system have sometimes made other changes. For example the British Empire Medal ceased to be awarded in the UK in 1993, as was the companion level award of the Imperial Service Order (although its medal is still used). These changes were made because it was believed they perpetuated "class" differences .

The Most Illustrious Order of St. Patrick

Founded in 1783, this single-class order fell into disuse following Irish independence. The last surviving knight, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, died in 1974.

The Royal Guelphic Order

The Royal Guelphic Order, also known as the Hanoverian Guelphic Order, was a three-class honour founded in 1815. Awards were made in two divisions (civil and military). In the UK it was used only briefly until 1837 when the death of William IV ended the personal union with Hanovermarker.

Indian orders

These orders, relating to the British Raj or the British Indian Empire, are also defunct. The senior order, the Order of the Star of India, was divided into three grades, Knight Grand Commander, Knight Commander and Companion, of which the first and highest was conferred upon the Princes and Chiefs of Indian states and upon important British civil servants working in India. Women were not eligible to receive the award. The junior order, the Order of the Indian Empire, was divided into the same ranks and also excluded women. The third order, the Order of the Crown of India, was used exclusively to honour women. Its members, all sharing a single grade, consisted of the wives and close female relatives of Indian Princes or Chiefs; the Viceroy or Governor-General; the Governors of Bombay, Madras and Bengal; the Principal Secretary of State for India; and the Commander-in-Chief in India. Upon Indian independence in 1947, appointments to all these orders ceased.

H.H. Maharaja Sawai Sir Tej Singh ji Bahadur, Maharaja of Alwarmarker, who was a KCSI and the last surviving member of the Order of the Star of India died in February 2009, aged 97. The Order of the Indian Empire has a single surviving member H.H. Maharaja Sir Meghraj Singh ji III, Maharaja Raj Saheb of Dhrangadhramarker, a KCIE. The Queen remains the Sovereign of those orders as they have never been abolished.

Order of Burma

The Order of Burma was created in May 1940 by King George VI of the United Kingdom to recognise subjects of the British colony Burma. This order had one class which entitled the member to the postnominal letters OB but no title. It was originally intended to reward long and faithful service by military and police. In 1945 the Royal Warrant was altered to allow for membership for acts of gallantry as well as meritorious service. The Order was one of the rarest awarded with only 33 appointments by the time appointments were discontinued in 1948 when Burma declared independence.


The decorations awarded are, in order of wear:

The last two have not been awarded since 1947.

On 1 July 2009, BBC News reported that the Queen had approved a new award, the Elizabeth Cross, to honour those killed in action or by terrorist attack since World War II. This award would obviously be posthumous, and the cross itself given to the family of the honoured.

Other honours and appointments

Hereditary peerage

There are five ranks of hereditary peerage: Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount and Baron. Until the mid 20th century, peerages were usually hereditary (bar legal peerages - see below) and, until the end of the 20th century, English, British and UK peerages (except, until very recent times, those for the time being held by women) carried the right to a seat in the House of Lordsmarker.

Hereditary peerages are now normally only given to members of the Royal Family. The most recent was the grant to the Queen's youngest son, the Earl of Wessex, on his marriage in 1999. No hereditary peerages were granted to commoners after the Labour Party came to power in 1964, until Margaret Thatcher tentatively reintroduced them by two grants to men with no sons in 1983, respectively the Speaker of the House of Commons George Thomas and the former Deputy Prime Minister William Whitelaw. Both these titles died with their holders. She followed this with an Earldom in 1984 for the former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan not long before his death, reviving a traditional honour for former Prime Ministers. Macmillan's grandson succeeded him on his death in 1986. No hereditary peerages have been created since, and Thatcher's own title is a life peerage (see further explanation below). The concession of a baronetcy (i.e. hereditary knighthood), was granted to Margaret Thatcher's husband Denis following her resignation (explained below, see Baronetcy).

Life peerage

Modern life peerages were introduced under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876, following a test case (the Wensleydale Peerage Case) which established that non-statutory life peers would not have the right to sit in the House of Lords. At that time, life peerages were intended only for Law Lords, there being a desire to introduce legal expertise into the chamber to assist appellate law work, without conferring rights on future generations of these early working peers because the future generations might contain no legal experts.

Subsequently, under the Life Peerages Act 1958, life peerages became the norm for all new grants outside the Royal Family, this being seen as a modest reform of the nature of the second legislative chamber. However, its effects were gradual because hereditary peers, and their successors, retained until recently their rights to attend and vote with the life peers. All hereditary peers except 92 – chosen in a secret ballot of all hereditary peers – have now lost their rights to sit in the second chamber. All hereditary peers retain dining rights to the House of Lords, retaining its title as "the best club in London".

All life peers hold the rank of Baron and automatically have the right to sit in the House of Lords. The title exists only for the duration of their own lifetime and is not passed to their heirs (although the children even of life peers enjoy the same courtesy titles as hereditary peers). Some life peerages are created as an honour for achievement, some for the specific purpose of introducing legislators from the various political parties (known as working peers) and some under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876, with a view to judicial work. There is a discreet number appointed as "People's Peers", on recommendation of the general public. Twenty-six Church of England bishops as of right have a seat in the House of Lords.

As a life peerage is not technically an "honour under the Crown", it cannot be withdrawn once granted. Thus, while knighthoods have been withdrawn as "honours under the Crown", convicted criminals who have served their sentences have returned to the House of Lords. In the case of Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, he has chosen only to exercise dining rights and has yet to speak following his release from his conviction for perjury.


A hereditary honour carrying the title Sir. Baronetcies are not peerages, but are usually considered a species of knighthood.

When a baronetcy becomes vacant on the death of a holder, the heir, if he wishes to be addressed as "Sir", is required to register the proofs of succession. The Official Roll of Baronets is kept at the Home Office by the Registrar of the Baronetage. Anyone who considers that he is entitled to be entered on the Roll may petition the Crown through the Home Secretary. Anyone succeeding to a baronetcy therefore must exhibit proofs of succession to the Home Secretary. A person who is not entered on the Roll will not be addressed or mentioned as a baronet or accorded precedence as a baronet, effectively declining the honour. The baronetcy can be revived at any time on provision of acceptable proofs of succession. There will at any time be numerous baronets who intend proving succession, but who have yet to do so.

About 83 baronetcies are listed as awaiting proofs of succession. Notable examples include Jonathon Porritt, lately of Friends of the Earth; Ferdinand Mount, the journalist; and Francis Dashwood [title created 1707].

Tam Dalyell, lately MP and Father of the House of Commons, provided proofs of succession to take his Scottish baronetcy, created in 1683, as "Sir Tam".

As with hereditary peerages, baronetcies ceased to be granted after the Labour Party came to power in 1964. The sole subsequent exception was a baronetcy created for the husband of Margaret Thatcher, Sir Denis Thatcher, in 1991, which was inherited by her son, Mark Thatcher, after his father's death.


Descended from mediaeval chivalry, knights exist both within the orders of chivalry and in a class known as Knights Bachelor. Regular recipients include High Courtmarker judges and senior civil servants. Knighthood carries the title Sir; the female equivalent Dame only exists within the orders of chivalry.

Order of St John

Members of the Royal Order of Chivalry the Most Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem (founded 1888) may wear the Order's insignia but the ranks within the Order of St. John do not confer official rank on the order of precedence and, likewise, the abbreviations or postnominal initials associated with the various grades of membership in the Order of St. John do not indicate precedence among the other orders. Thus someone knighted in the order does not take precedence with the knights of other British orders nor should they be addressed as "Sir" or "Dame."

Other orders

Other British and Commonwealth orders, decorations and medals which do not carry titles but entitle the holder to place post-nominal letters after his or her name also exist, as do a small number of Royal Family Orders.

Honorary awards

Citizens of countries which do not have the Queen as their head of state sometimes have honours conferred upon them, in which case the awards are "honorary". In the case of knighthoods, the holders are entitled to place initials behind their name but not style themselves "Sir". Examples of foreigners with honorary knighthoods are Billy Graham, Bill Gates, Bob Geldof, Bono, Rudolph Giuliani, and Ted Kennedy, while Arsène Wenger and Gérard Houllier are honorary OBEs. Honorary knighthoods arise from Orders of Chivalry rather than as Knights Bachelor as the latter confers no postnominal letters.

Recipients of honorary awards who later become subjects of Her Majesty may apply to convert their awards to substantive ones. Examples of this are Marjorie Scardino, American CEO of Pearson PLC, and Yehudi Menuhin, the American-born violinist and conductor. They were granted an honorary damehood and knighthood respectively while still American citizens, and converted them to substantive awards after they assumed British nationality, becoming Dame Marjorie and Sir Yehudi. Menuhin later accepted a life peerage with the title Lord Menuhin.

Tony O'Reilly, who holds both Britishmarker and Irishmarker nationality, uses the style "Sir", but has also gained approval from the Irish Government to accept the award as is necessary under the Irish Constitution. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the German soprano, became entitled to be known as "Dame Elisabeth" when she took British nationality. Irish-born Sir Terry Wogan was initially awarded an honorary knighthood, but by the time he collected the accolade from the Queen in December 2005, he had obtained dual nationality and the award was upgraded to a substantive knighthood.

Bob Geldof is often erroneously referred to as "Sir Bob", though he does not have British nationality and does not appear in the British Knightage.

There is no law in the UK preventing foreigners from holding a peerage, though only Commonwealth and Irish citizens may sit in the House of Lords. This has yet to be tested under the new arrangements. However, some other countries have laws restricting the acceptances of awards by foreign powers, in Canadamarker, where the Canadian House of Commons has opposed the granting of titular honours with its Nickle Resolution, then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien advised the Queen not to grant Conrad Black a titular honour while he remained a Canadian citizen.


Each year, around 2,600 people receive their awards personally from The Queen or a member of the Royal Family. Approximately 22 Investitures are held annually in Buckingham Palacemarker, one or two at the Palace of Holyroodhousemarker in Edinburghmarker and one in Cardiffmarker. There are approximately 120 recipients at each Investiture. The Queen usually conducts the Investitures, although The Prince of Wales and The Princess Royal also hold some Investitures on behalf of the Queen.

During the ceremony, The Queen enters the Ballroom of Buckingham Palacemarker attended by two Gurkha Orderly Officers, a tradition begun in 1876 by Queen Victoria. On duty on the dais are five members of The Queen's Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard, which was created in 1485 by Henry VII; they are the oldest military corps in the United Kingdom. Four Gentlemen Ushers are on duty to help look after the recipients and their guests.

The Queen is escorted by either the Lord Chamberlain or the Lord Steward. After the National Anthem has been played, he stands to the right of The Queen and announces the name of each recipient and the achievement for which they are being decorated. The Queen is given a brief background by her Equerry of each recipient as they approach to receive their award.

Those who are to be knighted kneel on an investiture stool to receive the Accolade, which is bestowed by The Queen using the sword which her father, George VI used when, as Duke of York, he was Colonel of the Scots Guards. Occasionally an award for Gallantry may be made posthumously and in this case The Queen presents the decoration or medal to the recipient's next-of-kin in private before the public Investiture begins.

After the award ceremony, those honoured are ushered out of the Ballroom into the Inner Quadrangle of Buckingham Palace, where the Royal Rota of Photographers are stationed. Here, recipients are photographed with their awards. In some cases, members of the press may interview some of the more well-known who have received honours.

Refusal or forfeiture

A small number of people each year refuse the offer of an award, usually for personal reasons; conversely, honours are sometimes removed (forfeited) if a recipient is convicted of a criminal offence or for political reasons. In 2009, Gordon Brown confirmed that the process remains as set out in 1994 by the then Prime Minister John Major in a written answer to the House of Commons:

Notable examples of persons who forfeited their honours include:
  • Roger Casement, a distinguished colonial officer in the Congo, who was convicted of spying in the First World War because of his involvement in the 1916 Irish Easter Rising, forfeited his knighthood and was executed.
  • Jack Lyons, who had received his knighthood for his huge charitable donations and services to industry, lost it when he was convicted of fraud in the 1980s.
  • Anthony Blunt, knighted as Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures for his services to Art, lost his knighthood in the 1980s when he was revealed to be the "Fourth Man" in the early 1950s Burgess and Maclean spying scandal which also touched on the 1960s Philby spying affair, as a result of which he confessed to the security services. Although Blunt was never charged or convicted, the honour was withdrawn on the advice of the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
  • Terence Lewis, knighted for his services to Queenslandmarker police, was stripped of his knighthood in 1993 after being sentenced to prison on charges of corruption and forgery as a result of the findings of the Fitzgerald Inquiry.
  • Albert Henry was the former Premier of the Cook Islandsmarker. He was later convicted of electoral fraud in the 1980s.
  • Nicolae Ceauşescu forfeited his honorary knighthood that he earlier received for his friendship with Western democracies.
  • Robert Mugabe was stripped of his honorary GCB after calls from the Government to the Royal Family due to the crisis in Zimbabwemarker under his régime, including hyperinflation, and violence in the 2008 Presidential elections.
  • Lester Piggott, the successful jockey, had his OBE removed after being convicted and sentenced to imprisonment for tax evasion.


Honours, decorations and medals are arranged in "order of wear", an official list which describes the order in which they should be worn. Additional information on the social events at which an award may be worn is contained in the box.

The list places the Victoria and George Crosses at the top, followed by the orders of knighthood arranged in order of date of creation. Individuals of a higher rank precede those of a lower rank. For instance, a Knight Grand Cross always precedes a Knight Commander. For those of equal rank, members of the higher-ranked Order take precedence. Within the same Order, precedence is accorded to that individual who received the honour earlier.

Not all orders have the same number of ranks. The Order of Merit, the Order of the Companions of Honour, the Distinguished Service Order and the Imperial Service Order are slightly different, being single-rank awards, and have been placed at appropriate positions of seniority. Knights Bachelor come after knights in the orders, but before those with the rank of Commander or lower.

Decorations are followed by medals of various categories, being arranged in date order within each section. These are followed by Commonwealth and honorary foreign awards of any level.Miscellaneous details are explained in notes at the bottom of the list.

The order of wear is not connected to and should not be confused with the Order of precedence.


For peers, see Forms of address in the United Kingdom.

For baronets, the style Sir John Smith, Bt. is used. Their wives are styled simply Lady Smith. The rare baronetess is styled Dame Jane Smith, Btss.

For knights, the style Sir John Smith, [ postnominals ] is used, attaching the proper postnominal letters depending on rank and order (for knights bachelor, no postnominal letters are used). Their wives are styled Lady Smith, with no postnominal letters. A dame is styled Dame Jane Smith, [postnominals]. More familiar references or oral addresses use the first name only, e.g. Sir Alan, or Dame Judy.

Wives of knights and baronets are officially styled Lady Smith as a courtesy title only.

Recipients of orders, decorations and medals receive no styling of Sir or Dame, but they may attach the according postnominal letters to their name, e.g. John Smith, VC. Recipients of gallantry awards may be referred to in Parliament as "gallant", in addition to "honourable", "noble", etc: The honourable and gallant Gentleman.

Bailiffs or Dames Grand Cross (GCStJ), Knights/Dames of Justice/Grace (KStJ/DStJ), Commander Brothers/Sisters (CStJ), Officer Brothers/Sisters (OStJ), Serving Brothers/Sisters (SBStJ/SSStJ)and Esquires (EsqStJ) of the Order of St. John do not receive any special styling with regards to prenominal address i.e. Sir or Dame. They may, however, attach the relevant postnominal initials.

For honours bestowed upon those in show business (e.g., Anthony Hopkins, Maggie Smith), it is an accepted practice to omit the title for professional credits.


Reforms of the system occur from time to time. In the last century notable changes to the system have included a Royal Commission in 1925 following the scandal in which Prime Minister David Lloyd George was found to be selling honours, and a review in 1993 when Prime Minister John Major created the public nominations system.

In July 2004, the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) of the House of Commonsmarker and, concurrently, Sir Hayden Phillips, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Constitutional Affairs, both concluded reviews of the system. The PASC recommended some radical changes; Sir Hayden concentrated on issues of procedure and transparency. In February 2005 the Government responded to both reviews by issuing a Command paper detailing which of the proposed changes it had accepted. These included diversifying and opening up the system of honours selection committees for the Prime Minister's list and also the introduction of a miniature badge.

Honours for political donations

It has been revealed recently by the Sunday Times newspaper that every donor who has given £1,000,000 or more to the Labour Party since 1997 has been given a Knighthood or a Peerage. On top of this, the government has given honours to 12 of the 14 individuals who have given Labour more than £200,000 and of the 22 who donated more than £100,000, 17 received honours. Eighty percent of the money raised by individuals for the Labour Party is from those who have received honours. In 1976, the Harold Wilson era was mired by a similar controversy over the 1976 Prime Minister's Resignation Honours, which became known as the "Lavender List".

See also


  1. Order of Wear
  2. BBC News | New Queen's award for forces dead
  3. Whitaker's Almanac 2005, p 83 et seq.
  4. A person born in the Republic of Ireland before 1949 who holds British nationality may be either a British subject or a British citizen. British subject status is not full British citizenship but confers equal entitlement to a substantive honour.
  5. The Republic of Ireland government has no right to veto the award of a British honour to an Irish citizen, whether or not that person also holds British nationality. However, in practice, the British government would consult the Irish government before offering honorary aware to a solely Irish citizen, especially one not resident in the United Kingdom.
  6. The Guardian - The born-again Canadian - 16th October 2006
  8. BBC News: Kingsley downplays 'Sir' furore

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