The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






British honours system

The honours system of the United Kingdom is a means of rewarding personal bravery, achievement or service to the country. The system is made up of three types of award: honours, decorations and medals.

  • Honours are used to recognise merit in terms of achievement and service;
  • Medals are used to recognise bravery, long/valuable service and/or good conduct;
  • Decorations tend to be used to recognise specific deeds.

Brief History

Although the Anglo-Saxon kings 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 system of government. Later, the first English order of chivalry, the Order of the Garter was created in 1348 by Edward III. Since then the system has evolved and branched out to address the changing need to recognise other forms of service to the United Kingdom. Various orders of knighthood were created (see below) as well as awards for military service, bravery, merit and achievement.

Modern Honours

As the head of state the Sovereign remains the “Fount of honour” but the system for identifying and recognising candidates 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. The means of selection depends upon the type of award being made.

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” which is published infrequently in the London Gazette.

Honours are split into classes (orders) and graded with different levels being used to distinguish between 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 provoke criticism from those who feel strongly about particular cases. Candidates are identified by public/private bodies and government departments or nominated by members of the public. Those selected by committee are submitted to the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary or Defence Secretary (depending upon their background) and then sent to the Sovereign for approval. Certain honours are awarded at her sole discretion.

A complete list of ~1350 names is published twice a year at the New Year and on the Queen's official birthday in June. The awards are then presented by the Queen or the Prince of Wales at investiture ceremonies.

Honours are sometimes subsequently removed (forfeited) if a recipient is convicted of a criminal offence. A small proportion of those offered awards refuse them (see a partial list of people who have declined a British honour.)

Current Orders of Chivalry

The current system is made up of ten orders of chivalry:

Each order has different grades and some of them have associated medals. The composition of each order is explained in the related pages. The statutes of each order set down the rules covering matters like the size of the order, post nominal letters and the design and wearing of the insignia. All of the awards in the above orders except the medal of the Imperial Service Order carry post nominal letters.

Old Orders of Chivalry

Each order was created for a particular reason at a particular time. In some cases the reason has ceased to be valid and the order has fallen into abeyance.

The Order of St Patrick is no longer used because of Irish independence. The last surviving knight died in 1974.

The Royal Guelphic Order was only used briefly as a UK honour. This three class honour was infamous in its time, but ceased to be used in the UK in 1837.

Orders related to the Indian Empire are also defunct. The Order of the Star of India was the senior order, divided into three grades - Knight Grand Commander, Knight Commander and Companion (females were not eligible). The highest rank was conferred upon the Princes and Chiefs of Indian states and upon important British civil servants in India. The junior order, the Order of the Indian Empire, was divided into the same ranks and also excluded women. There was a third order, the Order of the Crown of India, that was open exclusively to ladies. The members, all of the same grade, included 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. Appointments to all of these orders ceased upon Indian independence in 1947.

Reforms of the system have sometimes made other changes. For example the medal of the Order of the British Empire 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).

Other honours and appointments

  • Hereditary peerage - No longer attached to a seat in the House of Lords, and now normally only given to members of the Royal family. Last award to a non-royal was in 1984, to former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. There are five ranks of hereditary peerage: duke, marquess, earl, viscount, and baron.
  • Life peerage - All life peers hold the rank of baron, and automatically have the right to sit in the House of Lords. These titles exist only during their own lifetime and are not passed to their heirs. Some life peerages are created not as an honour, but to enable the holder to sit in the House of Lords, either as a legislator or as a judge. Introduced under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 and Life Peerages Act 1958.
  • Baronetcy - The Baronetcy is an hereditary honour, carrying the title Sir. Baronetcies are not peerages, but are usually considered a species of knighthood.
  • Knighthood - Descended from mediaeval chivalry, knights exist within the orders of chivalry and within the class known as Knights Bachelor (usual recipients include High Court judges). Knighthood carries the title Sir. The female equivalent Dame only exists within the orders of chivalry.
  • Other orders, decorations and medals which do not carry titles, but entitle the holder to place post nominals after his or her name. There are also a small number of Royal Family Orders.
  • The Most Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem (founded 1888). The members of this semi-official order can wear the Order's insignia, but do not receive any titles of Knighthood or use any post-nominal letters.

Honorary Awards

Citizens of countries which do not recognise the Queen as head of state sometimes have honours conferred upon them, in which case the awards are "honorary" - the holders are entitled to place initials behind their name but not style themselves "Sir ...". Examples of foreigners with honorary knighthoods are Bill Gates, Bob Geldof, and Rudolph Giuliani, while Arsène Wenger and Gérard Houllier are honorary OBEs. Recipients of honorary awards who later become subjects of Her Majesty may apply to convert their awards to substantive awards. An example of this is Yehudi Menuhin, the American-born violinist and conductor, who was granted an honorary knighthood while still an American citizen, and converted it to a substantive award after he assumed British citizenship. He was only then entitled to be known as Sir Yehudi Menuhin. He later accepted a life peerage as Lord Menuhin. Tony O'Reilly, who holds both British and Irish citizenship, uses the style "Sir", but has also gained approval from the Irish Government to accept the award as is necessary under the Irish Constitution.

There is no law in the UK preventing foreigners from holding a peerage, though only Commonwealth and Irish citizens can sit in the House of Lords. However, some other states such as the United States have laws restricting the acceptances of awards by foreign powers; and in Canada, where the Canadian House of Commons has opposed the granting of titular honours with its Nickle Resolution, the prime minister Jean Chrétien was able to advise the Queen not to grant Conrad Black a titular honour while he remained a Canadian citizen.


Knights and Ladies of the Garter, Thistle and St Patrick precede recipients of other orders regardless of grade. Amongst the remaining orders, 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. Knights Bachelor come after Knights of all of the other orders, but before those with the rank of Commander or lower. The Orders of Merit (founded 1902), Companions of Honour (1917), St John (1888) and the Crown of India (1878) accord no special precedence.


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 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 Committee (PASC) of the House of Commons 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 include diversifying and opening up the system of honours selection committees for the Prime Minister's list and also the introduction of a miniature badge.

See also

Last updated: 06-01-2005 22:02:48
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