In common with most nation states the United Kingdom has over the centuries developed a number of ways of rewarding those that have been of particular service to the nation. Although the origins of some elements of the system date back into the Norman era much of it is largely a Victorian creation.
The Fountain of Honour
All honours were once the personal gift of the reigning king or queen and the monarch was regarded as the 'fons honorum' or 'the fountain of honour'. This remains the case today as "the Sovereign has the sole right of conferring all titles of honour, including life peerages, knighthoods and gallantry awards."
However with the development of parliamentary democracy and cabinet government during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the sovereign increasingly began to rely on the advice of their ministers in deciding on the question of the award of honours. It therefore became the case that,
with certain exceptions, honours were awarded on the advice of the Prime Minister. In practice this means that there is a committee of civil servants which considers nominations and forwards recommendations for the approval of the Prime Minister.
There remain a number of specific dignities which are regarded as within the personal gift of the sovereign and which are conferred at their own discretion. These are; the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Thistle, the Order of Merit, the Royal Victorian Order and the Royal Victorian Chain.
Honours were awarded in return for services rendered to the crown, such services being many and varied. Loyal service as a minister or success in battle being favourite reasons, although of course honours were also liberally bestowed upon family and friends without necessarily any particular merit being required. Kings often conferred honours on their mistresses and it is not unknown for money to have changed hands, as there are many occasions on which honours have been sold to raise funds on behalf of those who had the power to bestow them. Such naked commerce is now prohibited by the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925 although it is suggested by many cynics that a fat bank balance and a generous nature continues to be looked upon favourably.
The Structure of the Honours System
The Peerage, which is subdivided into the five degrees of Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount and Baron represents the highest and most prestigious honour that a British monarch may confer on a subject. The award of a peerage title includes a territorial or family designation and hence a recipient is known as for example John Smith, Earl of Somewhere or John Smith, Baron Smith.
A Peerage may either be either hereditary or for life. Historically speaking the overwhelming majority of titles awarded were hereditary and included the right to a seat in the House of Lords, together with other valuable privileges. The conferring of an hereditary peerage is now regarded as unfashionable and there have been few new creations in recent years, and since 1999 existing holders of an hereditary title no longer have the automatic right to sit in the Lords.
New life peers continue to be created under the Life Peerages Act 1958 although arguably life peerages are more of an appointment than an honour (particularly as regards Law Lords appointed under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876), since life peers are often expected to carry out various duties in the House of Lords as legislators.
Beneath the Peerage sits the Baronetage, sometimes called the sixth order of the Nobiles Majores, invented by James I as a way of raising much needed funds and popularised during the reign of Victoria as a means of awarding a title to an individual without overwhelming the House of Lords.
Although this is an hereditary honour it confers no particular privilege on its holder other than the right to automatically receive a knighthood, and the title 'Baronet', which is used after one's name without any particular designation. (Thus Sir John Smith, Baronet.)
3. Orders of Chivalry
There are a number of Orders of Chivalry, of which the oldest is the Order of the Garter. These orders are divided into a number of classes, the highest grades of which include the dignity of a knighthood and entitle the holder to the appellation of 'Sir' or 'Dame' depending on their gender.
All holders, irrespective of whether they are a knight, can be identified by the various designatory letters that they are permitted to use after their name (technically known as post-nominal letters) which identify the order and class of award which they hold.
Awards are currently made in the following Orders of Chivalry;
Former orders in which awards are no longer made include;
Awards are also made in the semi-official Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, but although this order is under royal patronage it is not part of the British honours system.
There was also The Royal Guelphic Order (sometimes known as the Royal Hanoverian Order) which was created by George Augustus Hanover the Prince Regent in 1815. Although awards under this order were bestowed upon many British subjects, it was officially an order of the Kingdom of Hanover.
4. Knight Bachelor
Beneath the Orders of Chivalry sits the dignity of the Knight Bachelor, who unlike a knight of a chivalric order is granted no post-nominal letters but only the use of the appellation of Sir. (But not Dame as there are no female Knights Bachelor.) Modern knights are also awarded with a badge which they are permitted to wear on all appropriate occasions.
Although it is argued that the knighthood can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon or even Roman origins the dignity of a knighthood is essentially derived from the Norman designation of a knight as landholder obliged to perform military service to the crown. Fortunately for contemporary holders of the dignity the modern knighthood no longer carries any such military obligations to the sovereign.
5. Non-chivalric orders
These are also a number of orders that include no grades conferring the dignity of a knight and which carry no title or precedence.
Awards are currently made in the following Orders;
Former orders in which awards are no longer made include;
There is also the Imperial Service Order where awards ceased to be made in the United Kingdom in 1993 but where the associated Imperial Service Medal continues to be awarded.
6. Gallantry awards
Gallantry awards are honours awarded specifically for bravery, and as such are made on a less regular and systematic basis than other awards. The announcements of such awards are not included within the Honours List (see below) but are made in their separate biannual lists.
They exist in two categories, civilian and military as follows:-
Military Awards are of course, awarded in recognition of acts of bravery in military operations and are administered by the Ministry of Defence.
The Honours process
Anyone may submit the name of a British national for consideration for an honour. Such private nominations as they are known are submitted to the Ceremonial Secretariat, at the Prime Minister's Office in Downing Street and account for about a quarter of all recommendations made each year. (See http://www.cabinet-office.gov.uk/ceremonial/index/nomination.htm ) Most nominations are however public in that they are made by government departments and forwarded to the Prime Minister's Office for consideration.
The actual decisions on awards are made by a civil service committee, before being ratified by the Prime Minister and submitted to the monarch for their approval.
It was once the case that senior Civil Servants would automatically be nominated for a certain class of honour on retirement but this practice was discontinued by John Major in 1993.
2. Award and announcement
Once a decision has been made regarding the individual to be honoured, they are contacted by letter in order to confirm their acceptance. Such acceptance is not automatic and individuals are at liberty to reject an honour if they so choose.
Given that the whole process of nomination, recommendation and offer is entirely confidential it was always a matter of speculation as to which individuals had declined an honour. However in 2003 the Sunday Times newspaper published a number of leaked official documents that, amongst other things included a list of names of people who had declined awards.
It therefore appears that some 300 people have had reason to refuse awards offered during the past 50 years. They include David Bowie, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, Graham Greene, John Le Carre, Roald Dahl, Aldous Huxley, Honor Blackman, Albert Finney, Francis Bacon, David Hockney and L.S. Lowry, who apparently turned down an award on no less than five separate occasions.
Once the lucky recipient has confirmed their acceptance their name will be included in the formal announcement known as the Honours List. Two such announcements are made each year, in the New Years Honours List and the Birthday Honours List which is issued on the sovereign's official birthday in June. Around 1,400 to 1,500 awards are generally announced on each occasion.
Any recipient of an honour must go through a ceremony of investiture in order to actually receive the award.
Those who have been awarded honours in the highest grades of the Orders of Chivalry or are being made a Knight of the Garter or Thistle, or are receiving an award in the prestigious Order of Merit, or the Royal Victorian Chain receive their honour at a private investiture ceremony.
Other recipients are summoned to attend a public investiture ceremony;
normally around 22 such ceremonies take place each year, each one of which is attended by approximately 130 recipients. The most popular venues are Buckingham Palace in London, Holyrood House in Edinburgh and Cardiff Castle in Wales. Whether private or public individuals have the pleasure of receiving their award personally from a senior member of the royal family.
There are a number of other countries who are members of the British Commonwealth and where the British sovereign is recognised as the head of state. The governments of such countries are entitled to recommend their citizens for British honours and many continue to do so.
There are also a number of countries which do not recognise the Queen as head of state, but whose citizens may well have performed services worthy of recognition within the United Kingdom. (A particular case in point is Ireland, which is republic but many Irish nationals choose to live and work in Britain.)
The nomination of such foreign nationals are on the recommendation of the Foreign Secretary and the receipt of any award by a foreign national is considered to be 'honorary'. The recipients of such honorary awards, generally knighthoods, such as Bill Gates who was made Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in the January of this year (for "his outstanding contribution to enterprise, employment, education and the voluntary sector in the United Kingdom"); may not use the title Sir, but may use the appropriate post-nominal letters. Hence Bill Gates is now Bill Gates KBE.
Some countries have specific legislation restricting the rights of their citizens to accept awards issued by foreign powers. However, contrary to an often held belief, this does not include the United States.
- The Official Website of the British Monarchy
- The Cambridge University Heraldic and Genealogical Society
- Orders and Decorations
- The Ceremonial Secretariat at
- The English Honours System at
- BBC News at http://news.bbc.co.uk
- Official Foreign Office press release 26 January 2004
HONORARY KNIGHTHOOD FOR BILL GATES