Across the pond, President Trump recently bestowed the USA’s highest honour, the Medal of Freedom, upon Masters winning golfer Tiger Woods. But here in the UK we have our own honours system – a tradition steeped in history that recognises the achievements of a wide range of extraordinary people. Which other country can boast its very own “fountain of honour”?
In a spirit of patriotism, we thought we’d give you a quick rundown of the main honours, where they come from, who gets one, and what to wear when you win yours.
The fountain of honourYou want a gong? There’s only one person who can confer that honour upon you, and that’s the “fountain of honour” herself, the Queen. The practice dates to medieval times when instead of granting lands and riches to his favourite noblemen, the king instead began to gift medals and membership of chivalric orders – posh clubs – instead.
For most of our island history, only top military brass plus those of noble descent could be awarded an honour from the monarch. That changed during WWI, when for the first time, George V began to bestow honours on commoners. The first ‘Orders of the British Empire’ were awarded in 1917 to men and women who made a major contribution to the war effort.
These days, the Cabinet Office makes the decisions about who gets what, something which is periodically a source of controversy. In 1922, Prime Minister Lloyd George became embroiled in scandal when his fixer Maundy Gregory was accused of selling honours – £10k would fetch you a knighthood, £40,000 a baronetcy.
Since then, Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and David Cameron have all found themselves in the spotlight under suspicion of handing honours to cronies and big donors. But disregarding the Westminster swamp for a moment, the publication of the honours lists – one at New Year, the other to mark Her Majesty’s official birthday on 8th June – are one of the best ways we have to celebrate the work of the exceptional, the hardworking, the selfless and the daring.
What’s whatThe top civilian honour available to a man or woman is the Order of the Garter. Only 24 people can hold the title at the same time, so if you think you’re good enough, you’ll have to wait until one of the current members passes away before you find out if the Queen agrees. Lord Sainsbury and former PM, Sir John Major are current members.
The Order of Merit – This order, restricted to a select 64 members, is for exceptional achievement in the arts, learning, literature and science. It currently includes ex-speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd, along with Sir David Attenborough and Sir James Dyson. There are, meanwhile, 64 Companions of Honour, an honour conferred for longstanding contribution to the arts, science, medicine or government. Delia Smith, J.K.Rowling and Sir Paul McCartney belong to this order.
A knighthood affords the title of Sir or Dame. Probably the coolest title ceremony, it involves the Queen or member of the Royal family “dubbing” or touching you on the shoulders with a sword and telling you to arise. A knighthood is conferred for exceptional achievement in your chosen field.
The Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), as we said, was originally awarded during WWI but is now the top award for civilian service to the country. An Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) comes next, followed by a Member of the British Empire (MBE) – the lowest tier on the scale of excellence. In addition to these orders, during his time at Downing Street, David Cameron revived an old honour, the British Empire Medal (BEM), which is now awarded to those unsung heros who do good works in our communities.
Other main honours include the Order of the Bath – nothing to do with personal hygiene – it’s for military or civil service personnel. The Order of St Michael and St George is mainly for service related to foreign and Commonwealth matters. The Royal Victorian Order rewards those who have “served the Queen or the monarchy in a particular way.”
If you’re to receive an honour, the last thing you want to do is commit a faux pas at the investiture – of which there are around 30 spread over the year. You’ll probably be invited to attend either the Ballroom at Buckingham Palace, or the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle.
Arrive in good time, dressed in your best suit, do what you’re told and upon entering the room in which the investiture is to happen, wait patiently for the Queen or other member of the Royal Family to arrive. Her Majesty will make her entrance accompanied by her bodyguard and two Gurkhas – insurance in case things turn nasty. You’ll sing the national anthem then wait your turn to be called forward to receive your honour from the Queen.
The best advice when it comes to honours is never to go looking for a gong. If you’re offered one, accept with grace; and once honoured, never show off about it.