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The Honours System

"..the object of presenting medals, stars and ribbons is to give pride and pleasure to those who have deserved them. "
(Sir Winston Churchill, in a speech to the House of Commons, March 1944).

I think he (or she) deserves a medal! How often have those words been said about someone who has performed a gallant deed, given long and loyal service, or has been an invaluable member of the community? Who decides who gets a medal? Can anyone's name be put forward? What is a knight? What does it mean anyway?

Anyone can recommend virtually anyone else for an honour. In theory there is nothing to prevent a person submitting their own name, although it is pretty unlikely an application for a peerage will succeed by this method.

To those who receive honours and are invited to take part in an Investiture Ceremony the occasion implies recognition by the Queen or State of personal accomplishment. It is undoubtedly an exhilarating experience and often a fitting climax to an outstanding career.

There are a bewildering number of awards and the British honours system is complex to say the least. These pages will attempt to unravel some of those complexities.

Basically the honours system has three elements:

    The Peerage (Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount and Baron);
    Knighthood (members of the higher grades of most Orders and Knights Bachelor);
    Decoration (the presentation of an emblem for gallantry or long and valuable service).

How It Works

On his accession to the throne King Edward VII demonstrated his keen interest in the Honours system by approving the creation of the Central Chancery. Set up in 1904 this formed part of the Lord Chamberlain's Office.

The Chancery has the enormous task of administering the records of new appointments, promotions within the orders and the organisation of Services of Dedication in the chapels of main Orders.

The Sovereign personally selects recipients for The Order of the Garter, The Thistle, The Order of Merit, The Royal Victorian Order, The Royal Victorian Chain, Royal Medals of Honour and Medals for long service. All other lists are submitted to Her Majesty for approval. The Prime Minister's list, which represents almost half, is made up from recommendations of the Lord-Lieutenants of Counties, companies, public organisations and private individuals. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Ministry of Defence and Scottish and Welsh Offices are also authorised to submit recommendations. The Secretary of State for Defence submits names directly to the Sovereign for recommendation for appointment to the military divisions of the Orders of the Bath and British Empire.

All the material from these sources is collated at the Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood. They produce two lists containing a total of nearly 3500 names annually. One list is announced to celebrate Her Majesty's Official Birthday in June, the other for New Year's Day. Additional lists are formed when a Prime Minister leaves office, and another for a Coronation.

The London Gazette prints the names of those chosen and immediately following publication the appropriate letters for the award may be used by the recipient. Those selected for a knighthood may use the title 'Sir' following the announcement and before the Investiture. This is helpful for people who are ill and unable to attend, or those overseas on long assignments.

When an announcement is made of the Sovereign's intention to confer a life peerage or baronetcy, the recipient may not use the title until the appropriate form of address has been chosen and the Home Office has published a second notification giving details in the London Gazette.

Private Investitures are held for the following appointments: Knights of the Garter, Knights of the Thistle, the Order of Merit, the Royal Victorian Chain and to some of the highest grades of the Orders of Chivalry. A private Investiture may also held for the Companion of Honour.

Other recipients are summoned to attend Investitures at Buckingham Palace or elsewhere to receive their insignia personally from The Queen, The Prince of Wales or a senior member of the Royal family.

Normally there are 22 Investitures annually, each attended by approximately 130 recipients. Most years Her Majesty holds Investiture Ceremonies at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh and at Cardiff Castle. The Queen also holds Investiture Ceremonies abroad during her Royal Visits. Because of the large numbers involved it is not possible for all to attend one of the Queen's Investitures. In such cases the award may be presented by Her Majesty's official representative.

Some insignia of the greater Orders are returnable on death. It has to be said however that many articles find their way into collector's hands. The collar chain and badge (The George) of the Order of the Garter can be worth over £50,000, and considerably more if it can be proved that the owner was a particularly outstanding person.

The highest class (Knights and Dames Grand Cross) receive the Star and a broad riband to be worn over the shoulder. The second class Knights receive a neck badge and Star and Dames Commander a chest-worn bowed ribbon with badge and Star. The third class receive a neck badge if men, and a chest-worn bowed ribbon if women. The fourth and fifth classes receive medals to be worn on medal brooches pinned on the left breast, or chest-worn bowed ribbons.

Gallantry and distinguished conduct decorations, Jubilee and Coronation Medals, efficiency and long service decorations are similarly worn on medal brooches. Specific instructions regarding the wearing of insignia, and a Warrant of Appointment confirming the award are provided by the Central Chancery.

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