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Development and history of the Honours System

The origin of the Sovereign as the fountain of honour is an ancient one.

Throughout history, monarchs realised the value and necessity of rewarding gallantry in battle and loyal service, often by awarding gifts of land or money, or some sort of title or sign of merit as a mark of distinction.

This was particularly the case when the first sovereign of a new dynasty succeeded to or took the throne and therefore needed to ensure that their supporters' loyalty was rewarded.

After the Norman Conquest in 1066, William I granted land to his allies in exchange for continuing loyalty and military service. For example, he created feudal earldoms to protect the English border against Welsh raids.

Occasionally, land or titles were granted by a king (for example Charles II) in recognition of his illegitimate children, who could not succeed to the throne.

After medieval times, gifts of land, money or weapons which were given as rewards for political or personal service, or help in battle, were replaced by the awarding of knighthood, insignia of Orders of chivalry and other honours.

From the reign of Richard II onward, gifts of gold or silver chains to be worn round the neck as a reward for loyal service were frequently given. Chains of honour were given to certain officers of the crown as a special mark of distinction. Known as 'collars of the King's Livery', such chains were worn as pledges of loyalty.

Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, appointment to the Orders of chivalry in England was restricted to members of the aristocracy and high-ranking military figures. From that period onward, the appointments were drawn from wider backgrounds.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as Parliament's legislative role grew and government by a Cabinet of ministers headed by the Prime Minister evolved, the method of selecting people for honours also changed.

As with the Sovereign's other public functions, the king or queen conferred honours on the advice of their ministers, rather than on their own Royal initiative.

Queen and Honours

Honours are granted to deserving and high-achieving people from every section of the community, from school crossing officials and charity workers to leaders of industry.

The UK honours system rewards people for merit, service or bravery.

An honour, decoration or medal is a public way of illustrating that the recipient has done something worthy of recognition.

As the 'fountain of honour' in the United Kingdom, The Queen has the sole right of conferring all titles of honour, including life peerages, knighthoods and gallantry awards.

Anybody can make a recommendation for a British national to receive an honour.

And awards can be made to deserving and high-achieving people from every section of the community, from school crossing officials and charity workers to leaders of industry.

Since The Queen confers honours mostly on the advice of the Cabinet Office, recommendations for honours must be sent to the Ceremonial Secretariat of the Cabinet Office, not Buckingham Palace.

While most honours are awarded on the advice of the Government, there are still certain honours in the United Kingdom that the Sovereign confers at his or her own discretion.

The only honours for which the Sovereign personally selects recipients are: the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Thistle, the Order of Merit, the Royal Victorian Order and the Royal Victorian Chain, Royal Medals of Honour and Medals for Long Service.

Honorary decorations and awards are occasionally granted to people from other countries who have made a significant contribution to relations between the United Kingdom and their own country. These awards are granted on the advice of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Recipients of honours receive their awards from The Queen or The Prince of Wales at a ceremony known as an Investiture.

Orders are also sometimes exchanged between the Sovereign and overseas heads of state.

Since the mid-twentieth century, the exchange of Orders has become less personal and more formal and diplomatic. The award, return or removal of Orders can still be highly symbolic.

Examples are The Queen's conferring the Order of Merit on President Mandela, or her return of the Romanian Order received from President Ceausescu and her instruction to erase the President's name from the Register of the Order of the Bath.

Today, Orders bestowed on The Queen, and reciprocal awards to foreign heads of state, can be seen as formal and official awards by which one nation honours another.

Honours Nomination

Anybody in the UK can make a recommendation for a British national to receive an honour.

The aim is to ensure that the large numbers of people not in the public eye who give valuable service are recognised.

They could be charity volunteers, members of the emergency services or Armed Forces, industrial pioneers or specialists in various professions.

While The Queen is 'fountain of honour' in the United Kingdom, honours are actually awarded on the advice of the Cabinet Office.

For this reason, honours nominations are handled not by Buckingham Palace but by the Honours and Appointments Secretariat, part of the Cabinet Office.

In order to nominate someone, you should obtain a copy of the nominations form and read the guidance notes.

These can be downloaded and printed off from the Honours website of the Cabinet Office, or obtained through writing, telephoning or emailing the Cabinet Office for paper copies.

You can contact the Cabinet Office Honours and Appointments Secretariat at:

Honours and Appointments Secretariat Admiralty Arch South London SW1A 2WH. Tel: 0207 276 2777

Read more about the system and download a nomination form from

www.honours.gov.uk.

This is an umbrella project covering the following sub-projects:

  • Knighthoods
  • Order of the British Empire
  • Order of the Garter
  • Order of the Thistle
  • Order of Merit
  • Companions of Honour
  • Order of the Bath
  • Order of St. Michael and St. George
  • Royal Victorian Order
  • Royal Family Orders
  • Commonwealth Honours
  • Video gallery
  • Military Honours and Awards