British Honors and Orders: The ceremonies and medals worn by members of the royal family.
Garter • Thistle • St. Patrick • Merit • Companions of Honour •
Bath • St. Michael and St. George • Royal Victorian • British Empire •
George Cross • CA, AU, NZ • Order of V&A • Indian Empire • Royal Family Order
Motto: Honi soit qui mal y pense (Shame on him who thinks this evil)
Chapel: St. George’s Chapel, Windsor
Ranks: Knight or Lady
Post-nominal initials: KG or LG
This order, founded by King Edward III in the mid-1300s, is the most senior and the oldest British Order of Chivalry. The origin of the emblem of the Order, a blue garter, is not known exactly. The myth is that it was inspired by an incident which took place when the King was dancing with the Countess of Salisbury. The Countess’s garter fell to the floor and the King then picked it up and tied it to his own leg. Those watching were amused, but the Edward scolded them saying, ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ (Shame on him who thinks this evil). This then became the motto of the Order. Modern scholars, however, think it is more likely that the motto and Order were inspired by the strap used to attach pieces of armor, and that the motto could have referred to critics of Edward’s claim to the throne of France.
Every June, the Knights of the Garter gather at Windsor Castle, where new knights take the oath and are invested with the insignia. Then there is a luncheon held in the Waterloo Chamber, after which the knights process to a service in St. George’s Chapel.
The Garter outfit consists of blue velvet robes and black velvet hats with white feathers. The Queen, as Sovereign of the Order, attends the service along with other members of the Royal family. Other royals vested with the order are the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales, and The Princess Royal. [Top]
Motto: Nemo me impune lacessit (No one harms me with impunity)
Chapel: Thistle Chapel, St. Giles’ Cathedral
Ranks: Knight or Lady
Post-nominal initials: KT or LT
The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle represents the highest honor in Scotland, and it is second only to England’s Order of the Garter. It is possible that the Order may have been founded by James III, who was responsible for the changes in royal symbolism in Scotland, including the adoption of the thistle as the royal plant.
It was not until 1911 that the Order finally had an official chapel, adjacent to St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, in which its services and ceremonies could be held. When a new knight appointed to the Order, the Thistle Installation Service is held in the Chapel of the Order of the Thistle in St. Giles’ Cathedral every other year, during the week that Her Majesty The Queen is present at Holyrood.
The star of the Order (above) consists of a silver St. Andrew’s saltire (cross), with clusters of rays between the ‘arms’. In the center is a green circle bearing the motto of the Order, and within the circle there is a thistle on a gold field. The badge depicts St. Andrew in the same form as the star. On the reverse, it depicts a thistle, on a green ground and surrounded by the Order’s motto. [Top]
Motto: Quis separabit?
Chapel: St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin
Post-nominal initials: KP
Founded: 1783; discontinued 1922
The Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick was founded in 1783 by King George III, to reward those in high office in Ireland and Irish peers who supported the government. It served as the national Order of Ireland, much like the Garter for England and the Thistle for Scotland. St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is the patron of the order. Its motto “Quis separabit?” is Latin for “Who will separate us?”. This is a reference to Bible passage Romans 8:35, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”
The badge is made of gold and depicts a shamrock bearing three crowns, on top of a cross of St. Patrick and surrounded by a blue circle bearing the motto. Also seen is the date of the Order’s foundation in Roman numerals (“MDCCLXXXIII”). The star of the Order is an eight-pointed star figure. Each point is shown as a cluster of rays. In the center is the same motto and design that appears on the badge. The Order went into abeyance with the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 (now the Republic of Ireland), but became officially extinct in 1974 with the death of the last surviving recipient, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester. The Queen, however, remains the Sovereign of the Order, and one of its officers, the Ulster King of Arms, also survives. [Top]
Motto: For merit
Chapel: Chapel Royal, St. James’s Palace
Post-nominal initials: OM
Founded by Edward VII in 1902, the Order of Merit is a very special distinction ‘given to such persons … as may have rendered exceptionally meritorious service in Our Crown Services or towards the advancement of the Arts, Learning, Literature, and Science or such other exceptional service as We are fit to recognise’. The Order of Merit is in the sole gift of the Sovereign.
The Order is restricted to 24 members as well as additional foreign recipients (there are very few of the latter, although many have been given to such notable persons including Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela). There is also a military division included in the 24; although the last member of this was Lord Mountbatten, the military division has never been abolished. [Top]
Motto: In action faithful and in honor clear
Post-nominal initials: CH
This Order was instituted in 1917 by George V at the same time as the Order of the British Empire was founded, and it is sometimes regarded as a junior class of the Order of Merit. The Order consists of the Sovereign and 65 ordinary members; foreigners are admitted only as honorary members and certain additional members are appointed by statute in commemoration of special occasions.
The Order is conferred on men and women for services of national importance. Prime Ministersof Commonwealth countries may make nominations. The badge, clasped on by an imperial crown, has a blue-enamelled border bearing the motto of the Order, ‘In action faithful and in honour clear’. [Top]
Motto: Tria Juncta in uno (Three joined in one)
Ranks: Knight/Dame Grand Cross, Knight/Dame Commander and Companion
Post-nominal initials: GCB, KCB/DCB and CB
The name of this Order is of medieval origin. It comes from the ritual washing (baptismal washing), a symbol of spiritual purification, which formed part of a knight’s preparations for the conferment of knighthood. The honor wasn’t conferred until the candidates had been prepared by performing various rituals made to purify the soul. They did this by fasting, vigils and prayer, and cleansing themselves by bathing.
The Order now consists of the Sovereign (The Queen), the Great Master (The Prince of Wales) and three classes of members. The statutes provide for 120 Knights and Dames Grand Cross (GCB), 295 Knights and Dames Commander (KCB and DCB) and 1,455 Companions (CB). The Order is principally awarded to officers of the Armed Services, as well as to a small number of civil servants. In 1971 women were admitted to the Order for the first time.
The Star of the military knights and Dames Grand Cross is composed of rays of silver, charged with an eight-pointed (Maltese) cross. In the centre, on a silver background, are three imperial crowns within a band of red enamel inscribed with the motto of the Order. This is surrounded by two branches of laurel; where the stems cross is placed a blue scroll inscribed Ich Dien (‘I serve’), the motto on The Prince of Wales’ insignia. The Star of the civil Grand Cross is similar in appearance, but doesn’t have the Maltese cross, laurel wreath and scroll. The motto is Tria juncto in uno (‘Three joined in one’), a motto first used in James I’s (and VI of Scotland) reign. This may refer to either the Union of England, Scotland and France; the Union of England, Scotland and Ireland; or to the Holy Trinity.
Every four years members of the Order attend a service of remembrance, dedication and praise which is held in the presence of the Grand Master (The Prince of Wales). During the Service, the Installation takes place in the Henry VII Chapel. Every eighth year, Her Majesty The Queen attends the service. Foreign nationals may receive honorary membership of the Order and receive the insignia, although they are not able to use the style ‘Sir’. Two former Presidents of the United States have received GCBs: Ronald Reagan (1989) and George Bush, Sr. (1993). [Top]
Motto: Auspicium Melioris Aevi (Token of a better age)
Chapel: A Chapel in St. Paul’s Cathedral
Ranks: Knight/Dame Grand Cross, Knight/Dame Commander and Companion
Post-nominal initials: GCMG, KCMG/DCMG, CMG
This Order was instituted in April 1818 by the Prince Regent, later George IV, and it was intended to commemorate the placing of the Ionian Islands under British protection; originally, it was intended for distinguished citizens of the islands, and also of Malta. In the beginning, the Order was conferred upon those holding high position and commands in the Mediterranean; the islands there, acquired in the Napoleonic Wars, were at that time very strategically placed and of great importance to Britain.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, due to the expansion of the British Empire, the Order was then extended to those who had given distinguished service in the Dominions and Colonies, as well as foreign affairs.
The Order’s motto is Auspicium melioris aevi (‘Token of a better age’). The banners of arms of the Knights and Dames Grand Cross are hung in the Chapel of the Order, which is in St Paul’s Cathedral. The Star and Badge of the Order feature the cross of St George, the Order’s motto, and a representation of the archangel Michael holding in his right hand a flaming sword and trodding upon Satan. [Top]
Chapel: The Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy
Ranks: Knight/Dame Grand Cross, Knight/Dame Commander, Commander, Lieutenant and Member
Post-nominal initials: GCVO, KCVO/DCVO, CVO, LVO and MVO
The Royal Victorian Order is given by The Queen to people who have served her or the Monarchy in a personal way. These may include officials of the Royal Household, family members or even British Ambassadors who have helped organize a State Visit.
The Order was founded in April 1896 by Queen Victoria as a way of rewarding personal service to her. The Order is the Sovereign’s personal gift. The anniversary of the institution of the Order is June 20, the day of Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne. [Top]
Motto: For God and the Empire
Chapel: St. Paul’s Cathedral
Ranks: Knight/Dame Grand Cross, Knight/Dame Commander, Commander, Officer, Member
Post-nominal initials: GBE, KBE/DBE, CBE, OBE and MBE
The Order of the British Empire was created during the First World War in 1917 by George V. The King wanted an honor that could be widely given in recognition of the large numbers of people in the UK and throughout the Empire who were helping the war effort. For the first time, women were included in an order of chivalry, and it was decided that the Order should also include foreigners who had helped the British war effort.
Only the two highest ranks grant official knighthood, an honor that allows the recipient to use the title “Sir” (male) or “Dame” (female) before their first name. Honorary knighthoods are given to those outside the United Kingdom or the Commonwealth, but the recipient is not given the usage of “Sir” or “Dame”.
Today, the order recognises distinguished service to the arts and sciences, public services outside the Civil Service and work with charitable and welfare organisations. Once every four years, two thousand members of the Order attend a service there to celebrate the OBE. [Top]
The George Cross came into being during World War II. The blitzkreig on many British cities prompted a brave and noble response from civilians, who put their lives on the line in dangerous situations defending their country. King George VI witnessed several of these acts personally and decided to create The George Cross for Bravery and the George Medal (not pictured). The entire island of Malta was awarded the Cross for their resistance to heavy German bombing. The island was thenceforth known as Malta GC. [Top]
The Orders of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand
In all three of these Orders, the earlier concepts Christianity and chivalry usually associated with orders are excluded so that they can be given to all, regardless of religious background. The Orders’ insignia feature national elements in their designs: a snowflake and Maple leaf for Canada, a mimosa flower for Australia and a combination of Maori and European elements for New Zealand. The Queen has her own badges as Sovereign of each Order.
During King George VI’s reign, many countries within the Empire became independent Commonwealth nations, appointing their own heads of state and even instituting their own honors systems. Countries such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand retained The Queen as their head of state but created their own honors systems. People are nominated by the government ministers and formally approved by The Queen. The Orders are conferred by the Governor-General in that particular country.
Motto: Desiderantes meliorem patriam (“They desire a better country”)
Ranks: Companion, Officer, Member
Post-nominal initials: CC, OC, CM
Officially instituted on July 1, 1967, during the 100th anniversary celebrations of the formation of the Dominion of Canada. The order itself is a white enamel snowflake suspended from a crown. The center image is a maple leaf on a white enamel background, surrounded by a red enamel ring with the motto of the order.
Established on February 14, 1975, “for the purpose of according recognition to Australian citizens and other persons for achievement or for meritorious service”.
Officially instituted on February 6, 1987, and modelled on Britain’s Order of Merit. The badges are an oval medallion with the Arms of New Zealand in gold and colored enamel, worn on a white and ochre ribbon. The order recognizes “outstanding service to the Crown and people of New Zealand in a civil or military capacity”.[Top]
Royal Family Orders
George IV started the practice of presenting Family Orders, or portraits of the Sovereign set in diamonds suspended from a ribbon. Before 1820, the Sovereign’s portrait set in a jewelled frame had been worn by both ladies and gentlemen at Court, and especially by female members of the Royal family. George IV’s successors continued this practice, with most sovereigns presenting jewelled portraits of themselves suspended on different coloured ribbon for each monarch – George V was white, George VI was rose pink, and The Queen’s chartreuse yellow.
The Orders are worn on formal occasions by female members of the Royal family only. The Queen and her sister, Princess Margaret, were given their awards by their father, George VI, and both wore them at their parents’ coronation. More than one Order can be worn at the same time – Her Majesty wears the orders of her father (George VI) and grandfather (George V). The late Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother wore the Orders of both The Queen and George VI.[Top]
This order was a British Royal Family Order instituted on February 10, 1862 by Queen Victoria herself. Though it has not been used since Victoria’s death, it was never abolished. That means Queen Elizabeth II is Sovereign of the Order, though the awards are never made.
Like the Royal Family Order, this decoration was given to females only, courtiers and family members alike.
The badge consisted of a medallion of Queen Victoria and Albert, the prince Consort, differing in the width and jewelling of the border as the Classes descend. The fourth substitutes a jewelled cipher. All four were surmounted by a crown, which was attached to a bow of white moire
ribbon. The honour conferred no rank or title upon the recipient, being more of a personal memento rather than a state decoration. [Top]
The Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire is an order of chivalry founded by Victoria in 1877. The Order includes members of three classes:
* Knight Grand Commander (GCIE)
* Knight Commander (KCIE)
* Companion (CIE)
No appointments have been made since 1947, the year India became independent. The only surviving members of the Order of the Indian Empire are Elizabeth II (the British Queen) and HH The Maharaja of Dhrangadhra (a Knight Commander). Elizabeth II is also the only surviving member of the Order of the Star of India. The badge was worn by Knights Grand Commanders on a dark blue riband, or sash, passing from the right shoulder to the left hip, and by Knights Commanders and Companions from a dark blue ribbon around the neck. It included a five-petalled crown-surmounted red flower, with the image of Victoria surrounded by a dark blue ring with the motto at the centre. (Imperatricis auspiciis – Latin for “Under the auspices of the Empress”, a reference to Victoria, the first Empress of India.)[Top]
Images are from The Royal Collection 2006 © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Order of the Indian Empire image taken from Roses by James Underwood Crockett and the editors of TIME-LIFE Books.