Twice a year - at new years and in June on the sate of the Queen's official birthday - British honour recipients are announced in The Gazette. Here we look at the different ranks of the Order of the British Empire, as well as some of their most famous recipients.
The British honours system rewards individuals with Honours, Decorations and Medals in public recognition of their merit, service or bravery. Honours are announced and awarded twice a year by Her Majesty The Queen, with lists consisting of knights and dames, appointments to the Order of the British Empire, and gallantry and bravery awards. Different awards are received depending on an individual's achievements.
The most well-known awards are classes of appointment to the Order of the British Empire. Instituted in 1917 by George V, the awards were created during World War I to reward services to the war effort by people not on the front line. However, they are now awarded to civilians as well as members of the armed forces.
They include (in order of precedence):
The two senior ranks of the Order of the British Empire are Knight or Dame Grand Cross, and Knight or Dame Commander. Both of these ranks entitle their members to use the title of Sir for men and Dame for women before their forename.
The honour is awarded to members who have made major contributions to any activity, usually at national level. Per tradition, knighthoods and damehoods are presented with a touch of a sword by the King or Queen.
Here are some notable people to receive a Knightood or Damehood from the Queen:
Standing for Commander of the Order of the British Empire, the CBE is the highest ranking Order of the British Empire award (excluding a knighthood/damehood), followed by OBE and then MBE.
The CBE is awarded to individuals for having a prominent role at national level, or a leading role at regional level. CBEs are also awarded for distinguished and innovative contribution to any area
Here are some notable people to receive the OBE from The Queen:
Standing for Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, an MBE is the third highest ranking Order of the British Empire award (excluding a knighthood/damehood), behind CBE and then OBE.
The MBE is awarded for an outstanding achievement or service to the community which has had a long-term, significant impact.
Here are some notable people to receive the MBE from The Queen:
In the 20th century, the British Crown appointed around 100,000 people to honours and titles. Throughout the century, this system expanded to include different kinds of people. Toby Harper writes that the process nevertheless continues to be confusing and tells us little about who honourees really are.
Suppose you meet a man on the train who introduces himself as ‘Sir James’. What does this mean? He could have done some distinguished professional or philanthropic service; he could be a famous artist; he could be a retired civil servant who won his title through long service; he could be a major political donor to one of a number of different governments in the Commonwealth; or he might not in fact be a knight but a baronet, and is thus entitled to call himself ‘Sir’ because he is the head of a male line whose ancestor won the title (probably through large donations to some government at some point in the last five hundred years). Alternatively, he could have changed his name so that his first name is “Sir” in the hope of getting respect, attention, more frequent upgrades to first class on flights, or some other rumoured advantage to having a title. He could also simply be lying. Titles have many sources, few of which reflect anything on the personality or talents of its owner.
The Knighthood, the Damehood, and the baronetcy are three of the many different titles and honours that the British government gives to its citizens. The terminology and hierarchies of this system are confusing, with a deep, complicated history. The Order of the Garter, the oldest and one of the most exclusive of these honours, dates back to the 14th century, but most of the system’s components are more recent creations. For example, in the aftermath of the formation of the largest single order of chivalry – the Order of the British Empire – in 1917, many recipients were confused by the names of the medals they received. Working class recipients of the low-ranking Medal of the Order of the British Empire reasonably thought that they were entitled to use the letters OBE after their name. In fact, the medal granted no rank, no formal membership in an order of chivalry, and no precedence: it was for working-class heroes. The right to use the postnominals OBE fell to middle class ‘Officers of the British Empire’, which was the fourth rank of the order.
Throughout the 20th and into the 21st century committees of civil servants have done the main part of the work of assessing nominations from government departments, processing public nominations, and integrating political priorities. The scale and rank of honours that they have worked with has been shaped by centralized policies that were only occasionally been subject to direct political scrutiny and change, although exceptions to this pattern created major shifts in who received what. From these committees honours lists go to the Prime Minister’s office, where a few names are added and subtracted, then successful nominees are invited to accept the honour, and finally the monarch signs off the lists for public proclamation, usually twice yearly, in the London Gazette. Although the monarchy’s role is limited, recipients and the wider public closely associate honours with royalty because of their symbolism and because of honours investitures, where recipients receive the medals from the hands of a royal.
Some people decline the opportunity to take on honours, out of principle, because of political objections to the current government, or for more obscure reasons. Reasons for rejecting honours have been almost as diverse as the reasons for giving them, and are secret: whether or not someone reveals they were offered an honour but declined is at their discretion because this is one of the many secrets about honours that the government defends vigorously. Some artists, musicians and anti-monarchists have declined them for political reasons. Poet Benjamin Zephaniah rejected an OBE in 2003 because of the imperial connotations of the order’s name, and because he disagreed with the government’s social policies.
Others rejected titles for more personal reasons. Physicist A.V. Hill rejected a knighthood in 1941 out of principle and aesthetics. He railed against the competition and enmity that he alleged knighthoods introduced among scientists. At the same time, had Hill, as he went by with friends and colleagues, been knighted he would have become known as ‘Sir Archibald’, and would have thus had a first name he disliked forcibly exposed to the public and to friends. P.G. Wodehouse made a similar joke in Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (1954) about a character named Mr. Trotter, who dodged a knighthood because he did not want his embarrassing first name (Lemuel) exposed.
Jokes like these abound in the lives of honours recipients, their friends, and those who aspired to win honours. The system has been and continues to be a topic of fun and levity. But behind the jokes is a serious business. In modern, anonymous, fragmented societies these centralized systems are all the more important because they aim to bring people together under one set of rules and labels that have widespread currency. Contemporary societies readily confuse and conflate success, greatness, size, fame, and volume with rightness. In the last few years this confusion has had increasingly absurd results, but it has been around for a long time, in many different cultures and contexts. This is why it is so important to understand exactly how modern states celebrate their heroes, and especially to understand the limitations, omissions and other quirks of this process – to disenchant the mysticism of honours. The process by which Britain has chosen and continues to choose its honorees has been opaque, confusing, and poorly understood. Sir James may be a modern knight, but that tells you little about who he really is.
People get honours for achievements like:
Honours are given to people involved in fields including: