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British honours system

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The honours system of the United Kingdom is a means of awarding those, deserving on merit, for achievement or service to the country. The awards exist within a graduated series of importance and with names sometimes dating back centuries.

The recipients are chosen by the Sovereign, the 'fountain of honour', on the advice of the Prime Minister. Private nominations are also made to the Prime Minister's Office and foreign nationals are recommended by the Foreign Secretary. Certain awards, notably some of the orders of chivalry, are the sole preserve of the monarch to award.

Honours are usually conferred twice a year - on the Sovereign's official birthday and at the New Year. There is usually an elaborate ceremony for bestowing honours, the most famous of which is the well-known "knighting" ceremony, in which the soverign taps the recipiant on the shoulder with a ceremonial sword.

Honours conferred include:

  • Life Peerage - All life peers hold the rank of baron, and until the House of Lords Act 1999 used to automatically sit in the House of Lords. These titles exist only during their own lifetime and are not passed to their heirs. Introduced under the Life Peerages Act 1958.
  • Baronetcy - similar to knighthood, but a heritable honour.
  • Knighthood - Derived from the ideas of medieval chivalry, all knights are allowed to bear the title 'Sir' and gain a number of obscure privileges. Women receiving the honour are styled 'Dame'.
  • Orders of Chivalry - knighthoods with special names:
    • The Most Noble Order of the Garter (1348) Initials KG or LG.
    • The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle (1687). Initial KT.
    • The Most Honourable Order of the Bath (1725) - has two types, military and civil. Ranks are Knight or Dame Grand Cross (GCB), Knight or Dame Commander (KCB or DCB) and Companion (CB).
    • The Order of Merit (1902) - limited to 24 persons. Initials OM.
    • The Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (founded in 1818 by George IV) - Ranks are Knight or Dame Grand Cross (GCMG), Knight or Dame Commander (KCMG or DCMG) and Companion (CMG). Often given to senior civil servants and said to stand for "God Calls Me God", "Kindly Call Me God" and "Call Me God".
    • The Royal Victorian Order (1896) - Ranks are Knight or Dame Grand Cross (GCVO), Knight or Dame Commander (KCVO or DCVO), Commander (CVO), Lieutenant (LVO) and Member (MVO).
    • The Royal Victorian Chain (1902)
    • The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (1917) - has a military and a civil division. Ranks are Knight or Dame Grand Cross (GBE), Knight or Dame Commander (KBE or DBE), Commander (CBE), Officer (OBE) and Member (MBE).
    • The Order of the Companions of Honour (1917) - Limited to 65 people. Initals CH.
    • The Most Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem (1888)

Non-British citizens sometimes have honours conferred upon them, in which case the awards are "honorary" - the holders are entitled to suffix the order to their name but not style themselves "Sir .....". Examples of foreigners with honorary knighthoods are Bob Geldof and Rudolph Giuliani, while Arsène Wenger and Gerard Houllier[?] have honorary OBE's.

See also: British and Commonwealth orders and decorations



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