The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (often shortened informally to "Order of the British Empire") is the "order of chivalry of British democracy", rewarding service in a wide range of useful activities. It was established on 4 June 1917 by King George V, and comprises five classes, in civil and military divisions, the most senior two of which make the recipient either a knight if male, or dame if female. There is also the related British Empire Medal, whose recipients are affiliated with, but not members of, the order.
The five classes of award to the Order are, in descending order of seniority:
- Knight Grand Cross or Dame Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (GBE)
- Knight Commander or Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (KBE or DBE)
- Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE)
- Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE)
- Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE)
Styles and honorary knighthoods
The senior two ranks of Knight or Dame Grand Cross and Knight or Dame Commander entitle their members to use the title of "Sir" for men and "Dame" for women before their forename. Most members are citizens of the United Kingdom or the Commonwealth realms that use the Imperial system of honours and awards.
Honorary knighthoods are appointments of citizens of nations of which Queen Elizabeth II is not Head of State and may permit use of post-nominal letters but not the title of Sir or Dame. Occasionally, honorary appointees are incorrectly referred to as Sir or Dame. The American Bill Gates was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order and is entitled to use the post-nominal letters KBE but is not addressed as Sir Bill or Sir Bill Gates. Bob Geldof is an Irish citizen and as an honorary appointee is entitled to use the post-nominal letters but not the title of Sir. Honorary appointees who later become a citizen of a Commonwealth realm can convert their appointment from honorary to substantive, then enjoy all privileges of membership of the order including use of the title of Sir and Dame for the senior two ranks of the Order. An example is Irish broadcaster Terry Wogan, who was appointed an honorary Knight Commander of the Order in 2005 and on successful application for dual British and Irish citizenship was made a substantive member and is now styled as Sir Terry Wogan KBE.
King George V founded the Order to fill gaps in the British honours system:
- The Most Noble Order of the Garter, Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle and the Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick honoured royals, peers, statesmen and eminent military commanders
- The Most Honourable Order of the Bath honoured senior military officers and civil servants;
- The Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George honoured diplomats and colonial officials;
- The Most Exalted Order of the Star of India and the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire honoured Indian royals and British and Indian officials of the British Raj; and
- The Royal Victorian Order honoured those who had personally served the Royal Family.
In particular, King George V wished to honour the many thousands of people who had served in numerous non-combatant capacities during the First World War. Originally, the Order included only one division; however, in 1918, soon after its foundation, it was formally divided into Military and Civil Divisions. The Order's motto is For God and the Empire.
At the foundation of the Order, the "Medal of the Order of the British Empire" was instituted, to serve as a lower award granting recipients affiliation but not membership. In 1922, it was renamed the "British Empire Medal". The British Empire Medal stopped being recommended by the United Kingdom as part of the 1993 reforms to the honours system, but was revived in 2012, starting with 293 BEMs awarded for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. In addition, the BEM is used by the Cook Islands and by some other Commonwealth nations.
The British monarch is Sovereign of the Order, and appoints all other members of the Order (by convention, on the advice of the governments of the United Kingdom and some Commonwealth realms). The next most senior member is the Grand Master, of whom there have been three: Prince Edward, the Prince of Wales (1917â"1936); Queen Mary (1936â"1953); and the current Grand Master, the Duke of Edinburgh (since 1953).
The Order is limited to 300 Knights and Dames Grand Cross, 845 Knights and Dames Commander, and 8,960 Commanders. There are no limits applied to the total number of members of the fourth and fifth classes, but no more than 858 Officers and 1,464 Members may be appointed per year. Foreign recipients, as honorary members, do not contribute to the numbers restricted to the Order as full members do. Although the Order of the British Empire has by far the highest number of members of the British Orders of Chivalry, with over 100,000 living members worldwide, there are fewer appointments to knighthoods than in other orders.
Though men can be knighted separately from an order of chivalry, women cannot, and so the rank of Knight/Dame Commander of the Order is the lowest rank of damehood, and second-lowest of knighthood (above Knights Bachelor). Because of this, Dame Commander is awarded in circumstances in which a man would be created a Knight Bachelor. For example, by convention, female judges of the High Court of Justice are created Dames Commander after appointment, while male judges become Knights Bachelor.
The Order has six officials: the Prelate; the Dean; the Secretary; the Registrar; the King of Arms; and the Usher. The Bishop of London, a senior bishop in the Church of England, serves as the Order's Prelate. The Dean of St Paul's is ex officio the Dean of the Order. The Order's King of Arms is not a member of the College of Arms, as are many other heraldic officers. The Usher of the Order is known as the Gentleman Usher of the Purple Rod; he does not â" unlike his Order of the Garter equivalent, the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod â" perform any duties related to the House of Lords.
From time to time, individuals are appointed to a higher grade within the Order, thereby ceasing usage of the junior post-nominal letters.
From 1940 the Sovereign could appoint a person as a Commander, Officer or Member of the Order of the British Empire for gallantry, for acts of bravery (not in the face of the enemy) which ranked below the level required for the George Medal, with the grade being determined by the same criteria as usual and not by the level of gallantry (and with more junior people instead receiving the British Empire Medal). Oddly, this meant that it was awarded for lesser acts of gallantry than the George Medal, but, as an Order, was worn before it and listed before it in post-nominal initials. From 14 January 1958, these awards were designated the Order of the British Empire for Gallantry.
Any individual made a member of the Order for gallantry could wear an emblem of two crossed silver oak leaves on the same riband, ribbon or bow as the badge. It could not be awarded posthumously and was effectively replaced in 1974 with the Queen's Gallantry Medal. If recipients of the Order of the British Empire for Gallantry received promotion within the Order, whether for gallantry or otherwise, they continued to wear also the insignia of the lower grade with the oak leaves. However, they only used the post-nominal letters of the higher grade.
Vestments and accoutrements
Members of the Order wear elaborate costumes on important occasions (such as quadrennial services and coronations), which vary by rank (the designs underwent major changes in 1937):
- The mantle, worn by only Knights and Dames Grand Cross, was originally made of yellow satin lined with blue silk, but is now made of purple satin lined with pearl-grey silk. On the left side is a representation of the star (see below).
- The collar, also worn by only Knights and Dames Grand Cross, is made of gold. It consists of six medallions depicting the Royal Arms, alternating with six medallions depicting the Royal and Imperial Cypher of George V ("GRI", which stands for "Georgius Rex Imperator"). The medallions are linked with gold cables depicting lions and crowns.
On certain "collar days" designated by the Sovereign, members attending formal events may wear the Order's collar over their military uniform, formal day dress, or evening wear. When collars are worn (either on collar days or on formal occasions such as coronations), the badge is suspended from the collar. Collars are returned upon the death of their owners, but other insignia may be retained.
At less important occasions, simpler insignia are used:
- The star is an eight-pointed silver star used by only Knights and Dames Grand Cross and Knights and Dames Commander. It is worn pinned to the left breast. Varying in size depending on class, it bears a crimson ring with the motto of the Order inscribed. Within the ring, a figure of Britannia was originally shown. Since 1937, however, the effigies of George V and Mary of Teck have been shown instead.
- The badge is the only insignia used by all members of the Order. Until 1937, it was suspended on a purple ribbon, with a red central stripe for the military division; since then, the ribbon has been rose-pink with pearl-grey edges, with the addition of a pearl-grey central stripe for the military division. Knights and Dames Grand Cross wear it on a riband or sash, passing from the right shoulder to the left hip. Knights Commander and male Commanders wear the badge from a ribbon around the neck; male Officers and Members wear the badge from a ribbon on the left chest; all females other than Dames Grand Cross wear it from a bow on the left shoulder. The badge is in the form of a cross patonce (having the arms growing broader and floriated toward the end), the obverse of which bears the same field as the star (that is, either Britannia or George V and Queen Mary); the reverse bears George V's Royal and Imperial Cypher. Both are within a ring bearing the motto of the Order. The size of the badges varies according to rank: the higher classes have slightly larger badges. The badges of Knights and Dames Grand Cross, Knights and Dames Commander and Commanders are enamelled with pale blue crosses and crimson rings; those of Officers are plain gold; those of Members are plain silver.
- The British Empire Medal is made of silver. On the obverse is an image of Britannia surrounded by the motto, with the words "For Meritorious Service" at the bottom; on the reverse is George V's Imperial and Royal Cypher, with the words "Instituted by King George V" at the bottom. The name of the recipient is engraved on the rim. This medal is nicknamed "the Gong", and comes in both a full-sized and miniature versions â" the latter for formal white-tie and informal black-tie occasions.
- A lapel pin for everyday wear was first announced at the end of December 2006, and is available to recipients of all levels of the Order, as well as to holders of the British Empire Medal. The pin design is not unique to any level. The pin features the badge of the Order, enclosed in a circle of ribbon of its colours of pink and grey. Lapel pins must be purchased separately by a member of the Order. The creation of such a pin was recommended in Sir Hayden Phillips' review of the honours system in 2004.
The chapel of the Order is in the far eastern end of the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral, but it holds its great services upstairs in the main body of the Cathedral. (The Cathedral also serves as the home of the chapel of The Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George.) Religious services for the whole Order are held every four years; new Knights and Dames Grand Cross are installed at these services. The chapel was dedicated in 1960.
Precedence and privileges
Knights Grand Cross and Knights Commander prefix Sir, and Dames Grand Cross and Dames Commander prefix Dame, to their forenames. Wives of Knights may prefix Lady to their surnames, but no equivalent privilege exists for husbands of Knights or spouses of Dames. Such forms are not used by peers and princes, except when the names of the former are written out in their fullest forms. Male clergy of the Church of England or the Church of Scotland do not use the title Sir or Dame as they do not receive the accolade (i.e., they are not dubbed "knight" with a sword), although they do append the post-nominal letters.
Knights and Dames Grand Cross use the post-nominal, GBE; Knights Commander, KBE; Dames Commander, DBE; Commanders, CBE; Officers, OBE; and Members, MBE. The post-nominal for the British Empire Medal is BEM.
Members of all classes of the Order are assigned positions in the order of precedence. Wives of male members of all classes also feature on the order of precedence, as do sons, daughters and daughters-in-law of Knights Grand Cross and Knights Commander; relatives of Ladies of the Order, however, are not assigned any special precedence. As a general rule, individuals can derive precedence from their fathers or husbands, but not from their mothers or wives (see order of precedence in England and Wales for the exact positions).
Knights and Dames Grand Cross are also entitled to be granted heraldic supporters. They may, furthermore, encircle their arms with a depiction of the circlet (a circle bearing the motto) and the collar; the former is shown either outside or on top of the latter. Knights and Dames Commander and Commanders may display the circlet, but not the collar, surrounding their arms. The badge is depicted suspended from the collar or circlet.
Current Knights and Dames Grand Cross
- Sovereign: Queen Elizabeth II
- Grand Master: Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
- King of Arms: Admiral Sir Peter Abbott, GBEÂ KCB
Knights and Dames Grand Cross
Successor awards in other Commonwealth realms
Appointments to the Order of the British Empire were discontinued in those Commonwealth realms that established a national system of honours and awards such as the Order of Australia, the Order of Canada, and the New Zealand Order of Merit. In many of these systems, the different levels of award and honour reflect the Imperial system which they replaced. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand all have (in increasing level of precedence) Members of, Officers of, and Companions to (rather than Commanders of) their respective orders, with both Australia and New Zealand having Knights and Dames as their highest classes.
India, while remaining an active member of the Commonwealth, chose to institute its own set of honours awarded by the President of India who holds a position roughly similar to that of the monarch in Britain. These are commonly referred to as the "Padma Awards" and consist of Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri in descending order. These do not carry any decoration or insignia that can be worn on the person and are not allowed to be used as titles along with invididuals' names.
The Order has attracted some criticism for its naming having connection with the idea of the now-extinct British Empire. Benjamin Zephaniah, a British Jamaican poet, publicly rejected an OBE in 2003 because, he asserted, it reminded him of "thousands of years of brutality". He also said that "It reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised."
In 2004, a House of Commons Select Committee recommended changing the name of the award to the Order of British Excellence and changing the rank of Commander to Companion, as the former was said to have a "militaristic ring".
A notable person to decline the offer of membership was the author C. S. Lewis (1898â"1963), who had been named on the last list of honours by George VI in December 1951. Despite being a monarchist, he declined so as to avoid association with any political issues.
The members of The Beatles were made MBEs in 1965. John Lennon justified the comparative merits of his investiture by comparing military membership in the Order: "Lots of people who complained about us receiving the MBE [status] received theirs for heroism in the war â" for killing peopleâ¦ We received ours for entertaining other people. I'd say we deserve ours more." Lennon later returned his MBE insignia on 25 November 1969 as part of his ongoing peace protests. Other criticism centres on the claim that many recipients of the Order are being rewarded with honours for simply doing their jobs; critics claim that the civil service and judiciary receive far more orders and honours than leaders of other professions.
Chin Peng, long-time leader of the Malayan Communist Party, was appointed an OBE for his share in fighting against the Japanese during World War II, in close cooperation with the British commando Force 136. It was withdrawn by the British government (and became undesirable for Chin Peng himself) when the Communist leader headed his party's guerrilla insurgency against the British in the Malayan Emergency after the War.
- British honours system
- Knight Bachelor
- List of Knights Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire
- List of Dames Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire
- List of honorary British Knights
- United Kingdom order of precedence
- Honours Committee
- Honours, Decorations & Awards UK Government
- The London Gazette lists recipients of honours
- Cambridge University Heraldic and Genealogical Society, (2002), "The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire"
- Galloway, Peter (1996). The Order of the British Empire. Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood. ISBNÂ 0-907605-65-6.Â
- "Knighthood and Chivalry" (1911). EncyclopÃ¦dia Britannica, 11th ed. London: Cambridge University Press
- Velde, F. R. (2003). "Order of Precedence in England and Wales"
- The Chapel of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Frederic Hood, with a foreword by Prince Philip
- Search recommendations for the Order of the British Empire on The UK National Archives' website
- The Chapel of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire â" OBE Chapel Exterior detail