Her Majesty The Queen is considered as the font of all honour in the United Kingdom. As such, she has the final say on all honours issued in this country. This article aims to explain the ranks, orders and decorations in the British Honours system. At the bottom of this article is a video from a BBC documentary a few years ago where the Order Of The British Empire honours are explained fully!
The following are orders to which ordinary members of the public are admitted as members.
The first thing to mention is the various orders of the British Honours system. There are many different orders, of which only a handful are still constituted.
There’s the most commonly constituted order, called the Order Of The British Empire, which rewards service to the country. There’s the Royal Victorian Order which rewards personal service to the Monarch and the Order Of The Bath, which is a higher honour for both civil and military.
The Order Of The British Empire was instituted by King George V as he wanted a way of rewarding civilians in the United Kingdom as previously, there was no facility to do this. The order consists of 5 ranks, in ascending order (lowest ranking to highest), they are:
MBE – Member of the Order Of The British Empire
OBE – Officer of the Order Of The British Empire
CBE – Commander of the Order Of The British Empire
KBE/DBE – Knight/Dame Commander of the Order Of The British Empire
GBE – Knight/Dame Grand Cross of the Order Of The British Empire
The last two, KBE/DBE and GBE are both knighthoods, so the holder may use the title ‘Sir’ if male or ‘Dame’ if female.
Each one is awarded for various meritorious service. An MBE is quite common, it may be handed out to those who perform notable charity work. An OBE may be given to an actor who has done well the previous year. A CBE may be given to someone who has worked in a certain public field for a long time. A KBE/DBE may be for a high-profile retiring government official. A GBE is extremely rare, only 15 have been given out in the last 20 years! GBEs are often given for very commendable service. The most recent one was to Sir John Parker, for services to Industry and to the Voluntary Sector.
The Royal Victorian order rewards personal service to the King or Queen. It was founded by Queen Victoria as a way of being able to honour all those who had performed personal service for her, as all other orders at the time were dealt with ‘on the advice of the government’, so there was no personal order.
There are 5 ranks in the Royal Victorian Order, they are, in ascending order:
MVO – Member of The Royal Victorian Order
LVO – Lieutenant of The Royal Victorian Order
CVO – Commander of The Royal Victorian Order
KCVO/DCVO – Knight/Dame Commander of The Royal Victorian Order
GCVO – Knight/Dame Grand Cross of The Royal Victorian Order
Similarly to the Order Of The British Empire, ranks in the Royal Victorian Order accord to the receiver’s service. an MVO may be awarded for basic service, such as butlering, whereas a GCVO is rarely awarded outside of the Royal Family. Both KCVO/DCVO and GCVO are ranks of Knighthood and allow the use of the ‘Sir’ or ‘Dame’ prefix.
The Order Of The Bath derives its name not from the place, Bath, but from the ancient process of bathing knights to purify them. The order is one of the highest ranking in the land and is often awarded to visiting dignitaries.
There are only 3 ranks in this order, they are in ascending order:
CB – Companion Of The Order Of The Bath
KCB/DCB – Knight/Dame Commander Of The Order Of The Bath
GCB – Knight/Dame Grand Cross Of The Order Of The Bath
Companion is a basic honour. Knight/Dame Commander and Grand Cross are both knighthoods, allowing the holder to use the prefix of ‘Sir’ or ‘Dame, but only if they’re a British subject!
This next two orders are the most exclusive in the land.
This is the highest ranking order of chivalry in the United Kingdom, it is entirely within the personal gift of the Monarch and is very exclusive. Only The Queen, The Prince Of Wales and 24 knights may be in the order at any one time. When one Knight dies, another is appointed. It is also, the oldest order of chivalry in the world, going back to 1348.
The order has only two ranks, which are not really ranks as they rank the same, they are:
KG – Knight Of The Order Of The Garter
LG – Lady Of The Order Of The Garter
The rank of KG allows the member to use the title of ‘Sir’ whereas the rank of LG allows the member to use the title of ‘Lady’.
The Order Of The Thistle is the second most exclusive order of Chivalry in Britain and is an order exclusively for Scotland. It is specifically limited to The Queen, The Prince Of Wales and 16 knights.
The order has two ranks, again not really ranks as they rank the same, they are:
KT – Knight Of The Order Of The Thistle
LT – Lady Of The Order Of The Thistle
Knights are entitled to the style of ‘Sir’ and Ladies, the style of ‘Lady’.