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A complete guide to the British Orders of Knighthood

Twice a year, The Queen’s Birthday Honours and New Year’s Honours lists are published by the Cabinet Office. They contain a list of people whom The Queen ‘has been pleased to appoint’ to various orders of chivalry in the UK. The appointments, usually made from the Government, are nowadays mostly used as a means of rewarding unsung heroes and life-long dedication to all manner of things from charities to public service.

This guide will tell you something about the various orders in the UK and their role.

Of course, not all the appointments to these orders are made on The Queen’s official birthday and New Year’s – some significant honours can be announced especially or on specific days for that order, such as with the Order of the Garter.

The Order of the Garter

Fully ‘the Most Noble Order of the Garter’, it is one of the oldest extant orders of chivalry in the world and is the single highest ranking order in the UK. Founded by Edward III in 1348, its membership remains limited by its statutes to the Sovereign, the Prince of Wales and 24 members – though members of the Royal Family and foreigners admitted into the order are admitted as supernumerary members and don’t count towards the 24.

Membership to the order is at the Sovereign’s personal gift and almost every year on St George’s Day, new members are admitted. As well as being the oldest and most prestigious order, it’s also by far the most grand. Those admitted to the Order attend their induction at Windsor Castle on Garter Day in June where new knights and ladies are invested personally by The Queen – receiving their full robes and outfit – estimated to cost just over £5,000 (though many knights choose to use an older mantle rather than have a new one made at their own expense).

There is only one grade in the order, though two different stylings depending on gender. Men admitted to the order as Knights are allowed to use the title of ‘Sir’, while Ladies admitted – rather unusually for British orders of chivalry – use the title of ‘Lady’ prefixing their first name. As usual, wives of Garter knights can use the title of Lady before their surname.

Grades: [1] Knight (KG)/Lady (LG) of the Order of the Garter (Sir/Lady)
Nominator: Given at The Queen’s own pleasure
Motto: ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ (“shame on him who thinks evil of it”)

The Order of the Thistle

Following the Order of the Garter in precedence is the Most Ancient and Noble Order of the Thistle – the single highest order of chivalry in Scotland and Scotland’s Garter equivalent. Founded in 1687 by King James II (James VII of Scotland), who insisted he was reviving an ancient Scottish order (despite little evidence existing for this now), the order began with eight knights appointed by James. The order went into dormancy for some number of years after James was deposed after the Glorious Revolution and it wasn’t until Queen Anne that the order was revived once more.

The order is limited to the Sovereign, 16 ordinary knights and ladies and an unlimited number of extra knights and ladies (such as foreigners and members of the Royal Family) and appointments to the Order are made on St Andrew’s Day most years (30th November) and an investiture takes place the following year during The Queen’s annual Holyrood week.

Just like the Garter, the Order of the Thistle is the only other order where lady members are titled as ‘Lady’ instead of Dame. Knights are entitled to use the title ‘Sir’ and as usual, wives of knights ‘Lady’ before their surname.

Grades: [1] Knight (KT)/Lady (LT) of the Order of the Thistle (Sir/Lady)
Nominator: Given at The Queen’s own pleasure
Motto: ‘Nemo me impune lacessit’ (“no one provoked me with impunity”)

The Order of the Bath

Used primarily as a means of honouring military officers and high-ranking civil servants, the Most Honourable Order of the Bath was founded by George I in 1725, named after an elaborate ceremony where knights would be bathed for purification before being admitted into the order, a practice that was only formally abolished during Queen Victoria’s reforms of the Order in 1847 – when she also changed the order’s statutes to allow civilians to be admitted.

With three grades (Knight/Dame Grand Cross, Knight/Dame Commander and Companion – limited in numbers to 120; 355 and 1,925 respectively) are still made largely to military officers.

The order has its chapel in Westminster Abbey, where an investiture ceremony is held once every four years, which the Sovereign only attends every eight years. Knights Grand Cross and Knights Commander receive a knighthood and so are titled as ‘Sir’ and female Dames Grand Cross and Commander are titled as ‘Dame’. Being a Companion in the order confers no title, though allows the use of the letters CB after one’s name. It is the highest ranking order of chivalry whose membership comes on the advice of the Government (Garter and Thistle are solely within The Queen’s personal gift).

Grades: [3] Knight/Dame Grand Cross (GCB) (Sir/Dame)
                        Knight (KCB)/Dame (DCB) Commander (Sir/Dame)
                   Companion (CB)
Nominator: Given on advice of the Government
Motto: Tria Iuncta in Uno (Civil – “Three joined into one”)/Ich Dien (Military – “I serve”)

The Order of St Michael and St George

Now used primarily to honour those who perform valuable service to the UK with regard to foreign relations and affairs, the Order of St Michael and St George also contains a lot of recipients from the Commonwealth, for non-military service to foreign and Commonwealth relations. It was founded in 1818 to reward the inhabitants of the Ionian Islands and Malta and had always been intended as a more broader, non UK based order.

Its Grand Master is the Duke of Kent and has been since 1967. Nowadays its statues limit it to 125 Knights or Dames Grand Cross, 375 Knight or Dame Commanders and 1,750 Companions at any one time with many Governors-General and ambassadors in the Order’s top grades.

Since 1906, the Order of St Michael and St George’s chapel has been within St Paul’s Cathedral. During the services for the Order held there, Knights and Dames Grand Cross are invested with their insignia.

Grades: [3] Knight/Dame Grand Cross (GCMG) (Sir/Dame)
                        Knight (KCMG)/Dame (DCMG) Commander (Sir/Dame)
                   Companion (CMG)
Nominator: Given on advice of the Government
Motto: Tria Iuncta in Uno (Civil – “Three joined into one”)/Ich Dien (Military – “I serve”)

The Royal Victorian Order

The Royal Victorian Order is one of the only orders of chivalry awarded entirely at The Queen’s own will and independent of Government appointments or suggestions. Established by Queen Victoria in 1896 to allow for her to dispense honours for personal service (where, at the time, almost all Orders were bestowed on the advice of the Government for national services), the Order is still used today to acknowledge personal service to the Monarch.

Uniquely, the Royal Victorian Order uses the title of ‘Lieutenant’ for its second grade as opposed to Officer as with many other orders. Originally, the two were simply referred to as Members fourth and fifth class until The Queen decided there would be a distinction between the two and in 1984, declared that members fourth class would become Lieutenants of the Order.

Its chapel is the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy in London, though St George’s Chapel is used for the 4-yearly meeting of the Order due to the number of members. Many members of the Royal Family are appointed as GCVOs within the Order for rendering personal service to The Queen.

Grades: [5] Knight/Dame Grand Cross (GCVO) (Sir/Dame)
                        Knight (KCVO)/Dame (DCVO) Commander (Sir/Dame)
                   Commander (CVO)
                        Lieutenant (LVO)
                        Member (MVO)
Nominator: Given at The Queen’s own pleasure
Motto: Victoria

The Order of the British Empire

The Order of the British Empire is the Order to which most public honours are admitted. Founded in 1917 by George V to deal with the fact that no specific order existed for appointing ordinary people who had rendered service to the country in the wake of the First World War in non-fighting roles as well as for general service to the nation.

Divided into two divisions for military and civil service, each year thousands of people are appointed to the Order.

The Chapel of the Order is in St Paul’s Cathedral where a service is held every four years and new Knights/Dames Grand Cross are invested. The Duke of Edinburgh is the Order’s Grand Master and also its longest extant GBE holder.

Grades: [5] Knight/Dame Grand Cross (GBE) (Sir/Dame)
                        Knight (KBE)/Dame (DBE) Commander (Sir/Dame)
                   Commander (CBE)
                        Officer (OBE)
                        Member (MBE)
Nominator: Given on advice of the Government
Motto: For God and the Empire

Knights Bachelor

Essentially a knighthood where the recipient is not admitted to any specific Order. The honour is not open to women and gives the holder the right to the title of ‘Sir’.

Grades: [1] Knight (Kt.)
Nominator: Given on advice of Government

featured photo credit: (Mick Baker)rooster via photopin cc

  • Michael Y. Medvedev

    Wrong motto[es] given for the Order of St M and StG

  • Samuel Mbugua

    Its a cool thing to honor dedicated citzens and foreigners who respect the British culture (life style).

  • regiment1

    Royal Victorian Chain, Order of Merit, Order of the Companions of Honour, Distinguished Service Order, Imperial Service Order, Order of St John of Jerusalem all sadly not mentioned.

    • Devron Graham

      as they are not orders of knighthood…..

      • regiment1

        A Knight Bachelor is not an order of knighthood either …..

        • vegastearoom

          Is that because it is an individual designation with no order attached? Would it be called a classification of knighthood and not an order?

  • Honored to know a couple with gongs. Never have I lived in such a time and place as London in the late 70’s. It was as a resident and it was simply wonderful. Wish I could have stayed but the memory is etched so clearly I can be there in a second. God Save the Queen.

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