The King and Honours

As 'fountain of honour' in the UK, The Sovereign has the sole right of conferring titles of honour on deserving people from all walks of life, in public recognition of their merit, service or bravery. The most well-known honours are probably MBEs, OBEs and CBEs, but there are a whole range of other honours that The King awards in addition to these, such as The Order of Merit, or The Order of St Michael and St George.

The King and Honours

Recipients collect their awards from The King or another Member of the Royal Family at an Investiture ceremony.

Most honours are awarded on the advice of the Cabinet Office, and anybody can make a recommendation if they know someone they believe to be worthy (see 'Honours nomination'). 

Sometimes, on the advice of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, honorary decorations are awarded to people who are neither British nor Commonwealth nationals but who have made a significant contribution to relations between the UK and their own country. This is known as an honorary award.

Honours recipients are announced twice a year, once in the New Year's Honours List, and once on the Monarch's official birthday. Separate military lists are published known as Operational lists and cover military activity overseas.  

Sometimes Orders are exchanged between the Sovereign and overseas Heads of State as formal and official awards by which one nation honours another.

History of the Honours System

Throughout history, monarchs have rewarded those who have shown service, loyalty or gallantry with gifts or titles.

After medieval times, physical gifts such as land or money were replaced by the awarding of knighthoods and of membership within Orders of chivalry, accompanied by insignia such as gold or silver chains. 

As the UK Government evolved and Parliament's legislative role grew in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Cabinet took over the role of selecting honours recipients. 

Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, only members of the aristocracy and high-ranking military figures could be appointed to an Order of chivalry, but from then onwards appointments were drawn from a wider variety of backgrounds. In 1917, Queen Elizabeth II's grandfather, George V, developed a new order of chivalry, called the Order of the British Empire, as a way of rewarding both men and women who had made an outstanding contribution to the WWI war effort. Nowadays the Order of the British Empire rewards service in a wide range of areas, from acting to charity work, with honours that include the well-known MBE and OBE.

Types of Honours

The Order of the Garter

This is the oldest and most senior order of chivalry in Britain; it is limited to 24 members who are selected and appointed personally by The King.

The Order of the Thistle

Recognising sixteen knights by personal gift of The King, this is the highest order of chivalry in Scotland.

Order of St Patrick

The national Order of Ireland, this lapsed in 1974 with the death of the last surviving recipient.

Order of the British Empire

Instituted in 1917 by George V to reward outstanding contribution to the war effort, this Order now rewards people from all walks of life with well-known honours such as MBEs and OBEs.

Order of Merit

The sole gift of the Sovereign to 24 members at any one time, this rewards those who have achieved greatly in the arts, learning, literature and science.

Companions of Honour

Sometimes regarded as a junior class of the Order of Merit, this Order rewards 65 individuals at any one time who have made a longstanding contribution to arts, science, medicine or government. 

Order of the Bath

Including past members such as Nelson and Wellington, this Order recognises the work of senior military officials and civil servants. 

Order of St Michael and St George

This order rewards service in a foreign country, or in relation to foreign and Commonwealth affairs. 

Royal Victorian Order

The personal gift of the Sovereign, this honour is awarded to those who have served The King or the monarchy in a particular way. 

Royal Family Orders

These are small portraits of the Sovereign attached to ribbon, gifted to Members of the Royal Family.

Commonwealth Honours

Commonwealth citizens can also receive UK awards, and Commonwealth countries have their own honours, which are sometimes awarded to UK citizens. 

Military Honours and Awards

There are several different awards exclusively for rewarding bravery and outstanding service in the Armed Forces, the highest of which  is The Victoria Cross, which is awarded for gallantry “in the presence of the enemy.”   The second highest, The George Cross, is awarded to both the military and civilians for acts of the greatest heroism or for most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger, not in the face of the enemy. The newest of these is The Elizabeth Cross, instigated in 2009 to recognise families who have lost loved ones as a result of conflict or terrorism. 

The Armed Forces also award medals for campaigns, operations and for long service.

Civilian Honours and Awards

The Police, Fire and Ambulance Services also have their own medals for distinguished service or gallantry.  These are The King’s Police Medal, The King's Fire Service Medal and The King’s Ambulance Medal.    

Honours Nomination

Anybody in the UK can make a recommendation for a British national to receive an honour. This ensures that many people who are not in the public eye are recognised for their valuable service and contribution, perhaps to charity, to the emergency services, or to their industry or profession.

Honours are awarded on the advice of the Cabinet Office, who deal with all nominations.

To find out more, or to nominate someone for an honour, please visit

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