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Order of the British Empire

The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is a British order of chivalry established on 4 June 1917 by King George V. The Order includes five classes in civil and military divisions; in decreasing order of seniority, these are:

Only the two highest ranks entail admission into knighthood, an honour allowing the recipient to use the title 'Sir' (male) or 'Dame' (female) before their name. Honorary knighthoods, given to individuals who are not nationals of a realm where Queen Elizabeth II is Head of State, permit usage of the honour as a post-nominal but not as a title before their name. These recipients are classified as honorary members of the Order they receive, and do not contribute to the numbers restricted to that Order as full members do.

There is also a related British Empire Medal, whose recipients are not members of the Order, but who are nonetheless affiliated with the Order. This medal is no longer conferred in the United Kingdom or its dependencies, but is still used by the Cook Islands and by some other Commonwealth nations.

The Order's motto is For God and the Empire. It is the most junior of the British orders of chivalry and has more members than any other.


King George V founded the Order to fill gaps in the British honours system: The Most Honourable Order of the Bath which honoured only senior military officers and civil servants; The Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George honoured diplomats; 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 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.

This Order of Knighthood has a more democratic character than the exclusive Order of the Bath or the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George, and in its early days was not held in high esteem. (The initials "CBE" were said to stand for "Covers Bloody Everything.") This, however, has changed over the years.

Several past American statesmen and diplomats who have performed service for or on behalf of the United Kingdom have been given the designation as a member of the OBE. However, since membership requires swearing allegiance to a foreign head of state (currently Queen Elizabeth II), the title is officially considered "honorary", and the person is/was not "officially" titled Sir or Dame.


The British monarch is Sovereign of the Order and appoints all other members of the Order (by convention, on the advice of the Government). The next-most senior member is the Grand Master, of which there have been three: Edward, Prince of Wales (1917–1936), Queen Mary (1936–1953) and the current Grand Master is HRH The Duke of Edinburgh (1953–present).

The Order is limited to 100 Knights and Dames Grand Cross, 845 Knights and Dames Commander, and 8960 Commanders. There are no limits on the total number of members of the fourth and fifth classes, but no more than 858 Officers and 1464 Members may be appointed per year. Appointments are made on the advice of the governments of the United Kingdom and some Commonwealth realms. By convention, female judges of the High Court of England and Wales are created Dames Commander after appointment. Male judges, however, are created Knights Bachelor.

Although the Order of the British Empire has by far the highest number of members of the British Orders of Chivalry, there are fewer appointments to knighthoods than in other orders. Most Knights Commander are honorary members or British subjects living abroad, with only a handful being residents of the United Kingdom. The grade of Dame Commander, on the other hand, is the most common grade of dame in the British honours system and is awarded in circumstances where men would be created Knights Bachelor.

Most members are citizens of the United Kingdom or other Commonwealth realms. Citizens of other countries, however, may be admitted as "honorary members". They do not count towards the numerical limits aforementioned, nor are holders of the GBE, KBE or DBE addressed as "Sir" or "Dame". They may be made full members if they subsequently become citizens of Commonwealth realms. See List of honorary British Knights.

At the foundation of the Order, the "Medal of the Order of the British Empire" was instituted. In 1922, it was renamed the "British Empire Medal". Recipients, who are not members of the Order itself, are grouped into the Civil and Military Divisions. Only junior government and military officials are awarded the medal; senior officials are directly appointed to the Order of the British Empire. The United Kingdom's Government has not recommended the awarding of the medal since 1992, though some Commonwealth realms continue the practice.

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, like many other heraldic officers. The Usher of the Order is known as the Gentleman Usher of the Purple Rod; he does not, unlike his Order of the Garter equivalent (the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod), perform any duties related to the House of Lords.

If one is appointed a higher class within the order, one must return one's existing insignia in exchange for the more senior one and cease using the junior post-nominal letters. Some people, however, have been appointed to both divisions, such as Dame Kelly Holmes who has been appointed an MBE in the military division and a DBE in the civil division, and is therefore known as "Dame Kelly Holmes DBE MBE".

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 only by Knights and Dames Grand Cross, was originally made of purple satin lined with white silk, but is now made of rose pink satin lined with pearl grey silk. On the left side is a representation of the star (see below).
  • The collar, also worn only by 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 only by Knights and Dames Grand Cross and Knights and Dames Commander. It is worn pinned to the left breast. The Star, which varies in size depending on class, bears a crimson ring bearing the motto of the Order. Within the ring, a figure of Britannia was originally shown. Since 1937, however, the effigies of George V and his wife Queen Mary 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, plus 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, 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 by 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.
  • In 1957, it was decided that 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. Since 1974, however, appointments for gallantry have not been made; instead, a separate Queen's Gallantry Medal has been awarded.
  • 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 version--the latter for formal white-tie and informal black-tie affairs.
  • A lapel pin for everyday wear was first announced at the end of December 2006 and will soon become available to recipients of all levels of the Order as well as 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 at the price of £15.00. The creation of such a pin was recommended in Sir Hayden Phillips' review of the honours system in 2004 and brings the British more in line with the honours systems in other commonwealth realms such as Canada and Australia, which have used lapel pins for many years.


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

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 Grand Cross and Knights Commander prefix "Sir", and Dames Grand Cross and Dames Commander prefix "Dame", to their forenames (never surnames, so Sir Antony Sher can be shortened to Sir Antony, but not Sir Sher). Wives of Knights may prefix "Lady" to their surnames, but no equivalent privilege exists for husbands 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. Clergy of the Church of England do not use the titles of "Sir" or "Dame" and do not receive the accolade (i.e. are not dubbed knight with a sword, as are other knights, but not dames), 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".

Knights and Dames Grand Cross and Knights and Dames Commander who are not citizens of Commonwealth realms are not entitled to the prefix "Sir" or "Dame", but may still use the post-nominal abbreviations. For example, American Bill Gates was made a Knight Commander, yet he is not entitled "Sir William" or "Sir William Gates III", but he may use "William Henry Gates III, KBE". Honorary knights do not receive the accolade. If recipients later become citizens of Commonwealth realms then they are usually made substantive members of the Order and entitled to begin using the Sir prefix as well. Irish broadcaster Terry Wogan was appointed an honorary KBE in 2005. He subsequently took dual British and Irish nationality, was made a substantive member, and he is now entitled to use the name "Sir Terry Wogan".

Knights and Dames Grand Cross are also entitled to receive 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.


The order has attracted some criticism for its connection with the idea of the British Empire. The poet Benjamin Zephaniah publicly rejected an OBE in 2003 because he said it reminds him of "thousands of years of brutality — it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised". In 2007, Joseph Corré — co-founder of Agent Provocateur — rejected an MBE because he said he found then-Prime Minister Tony Blair "morally corrupt".

Others have declined honours but tended, at the request of the Prime Minister's office, not to reveal it until some years later. 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".

There was also some criticism of the system after cricketer Paul Collingwood was awarded an MBE for his role in the 2005 Ashes series, which consisted of playing in one Test match, making the below-par scores of 7 and 10. Additionally, the Australian adversaries in this match were equally loyal subjects. (However, to counter this argument, Australia no longer uses the Imperial Honours system, but has its own independent honours system, incorporating the Order of Australia).

Cynics (notably within the civil service) also joke that OBE stands for 'Other Buggers' Effort', implying that senior civil servants who receive the award usually benefit from the hard work of their subordinates.

John Lennon once criticised military membership in the order, saying:

Lots of people who complained about us receiving the MBE received theirs for heroism in the war—for killing people. We received ours for entertaining other people. I'd say we deserve ours more. Source: P. 183, The Beatles Anthology. By Beatles, Brian Roylance, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr. Chronicle Books, 2000

Current Knights and Dames Grand Cross

*Sir Henry Fox, GBE (1974)
*Sir Lindsay Ring, GBE (1975)
*Sir Robin Gillett, Bt, GBE, RD (1976)
*Sir Robert Mark, GBE, QPM (1977)
*Sir Peter White, GBE (1977)
*Sir Ronald Davison, GBE, CMG, QC (1978)
*Sir Peter Le Cheminant, GBE, KCB, DFC (1978)
*Sir Yuet-Keung Kan, GBE, JP (1979)
*Sir Hugh Beach, GBE, KCB, MC (1980)
*Sir Ronald Gardner-Thorpe, GBE, TD, DCL, DL (1980)
*Sir Robert Freer, GBE, KCB (1981)
*Sir Christopher Leaver, GBE (1981)
*Sir Anthony Morton, GBE, KCB, DL (1982)
*Sir Anthony Jolliffe, GBE, DL (1982)
*Sir Alan Traill, GBE, QSO (1984)
*ACM Sir John Gingell, GBE, KCB, KCVO (1984)
*Sir Frank Kitson, GBE, KCB, MC (and bar), DL (1985)
*Sir David Rowe-Ham, GBE (1986)
*Sir Greville Spratt, GBE, TD, DL (1987)
*Sir Kenneth Newman, GBE, QPM (1987)
*Sir Kenneth Berrill, GBE, KCB (1988)
*Sir Christopher Collett, GBE, FRA (1988)
*Sir Hugh Bidwell, GBE (1989)
*Sir Sze Yuen Chung, GBE, GBM (1989)
*Sir Thomas Eichelbaum, GBE, QC (1989)
*ACM Sir David Harcourt-Smith, GBE, KCB, DFC (1989)
*Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward, GBE, KCB (1989)
*The Rt. Hon. The Lord Alliance, GBE (1989)
*Sir Alexander Graham, GBE (1990)
*FM The Lord Vincent of Coleshill, GBE, KCB, DSO (1990)
*Admiral Sir Jeremy Black, GBE, KCB, DSO (1991)
*ACM Sir Patrick Hine, GCB, GBE (1991)
*Sir Brian Jenkins, GBE, FCA (1991)
*Sir Anthony Skingsley, GBE, KCB (1992)
*Sir Francis McWilliams, GBE, FREng (1992)
*Sir Kenneth Eaton, GBE, KCB, FEng, FIEE (1994)
*ACM Sir William Wratten, GBE, CB, AFC (1998)
*The Rt. Hon. The Lord Rothschild, OM, GBE, FBA (1998)
*Sir Stephen Brown (judge), GBE (1999)
*The Rt. Hon. The Lord George, GBE, PC, DL (2000)
*ACM Sir Anthony Bagnall, GBE, KCB, FRAeS (2002)
*Sir Michael Perry, GBE (2002)
*Sir Ronald Waterhouse, GBE, QC (2002)
*Sir Cyril Taylor, GBE (2004)
*The Rt. Hon. The Baroness Butler-Sloss, GBE, PC (2005)
*Sir David Cooksey, GBE (2007)
* General Sir Timothy Granville-Chapman, GBE, KCB, ADC Gen (2007)


See also



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