The Honours System, Put Simply

The honours system has existed for centuries, and served to recognise “people who have: made achievements in public life [and/or] committed themselves to serving and helping Britain”. The honours system has entered the media realm again recently, as speculation over a knighthood for Nigel Farage grows. Although the granting of honours is well publicised, few people understand the complex workings of the honours system, and what it takes to receive one.

What honours can be given?

Below is an exact extract from the British Government, outlining the awards that can be given:

Companion of Honour

This is awarded for having a major contribution to the arts, science, medicine, or government lasting over a long period of time.


This is awarded for having a major contribution in any activity, usually at national level. Other people working in the nominee’s area will see their contribution as inspirational and significant, requiring commitment over a long period of time.

Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE)

This is awarded for having a prominent but lesser role at national level, or a leading role at regional level. You can also get one for a distinguished, innovative contribution to any area.

Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE)

This is awarded for having a major local role in any activity, including people whose work has made them known nationally in their chosen area.

Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE)

Awarded for an outstanding achievement or service to the community. This will have had a long-term, significant impact and stand out as an example to others.

British Empire Medal (BEM)

Awarded for a ‘hands-on’ service to the local community. This could be a long-term charitable or voluntary activity, or innovative work of a relatively short duration (3 to 4 years) that has made a significant difference.

Overseas Territories Police and Fire Service Medals

Given for service in British Overseas Territories.

Royal Victorian Order (RVO)

An award given by the Queen – usually to people who have helped her personally, like members of the Royal household staff or British ambassadors.

The George Cross

First level civilian medal for bravery: for acts of heroism and courage in extreme danger.

The George Medal

Second level civilian medal for bravery: for acts of great bravery.

The Queen’s Gallantry Medal

Third level civilian medal for bravery: for inspiring acts of bravery.

The Queen’s Commendation for Bravery and The Queen’s Commendation for Bravery in the Air

For risk to life.


UK Citizens:

Anyone can nominate someone for an honour. However, be prepared for paperwork, and a rather long wait.

Your first step should be to assess if the person you are considering for nomination, is deserving of an honour. The Government provides the following list of “what people get honours for”:

  1. Making a difference to their community or field of work
  2. Enhancing Britain’s reputation
  3. Long-term voluntary service
  4. Innovation and entrepreneurship
  5. Changing things, with an emphasis on achievement
  6. Improving life for people less able to help themselves
  7. Displaying moral courage

Your prospective nominee’s field of work can also important. The Government states “honours are given to people involved in fields including”:

  1. Community, voluntary and local services
  2. Arts and media
  3. Health
  4. Sport
  5. Education
  6. Science and technology
  7. Business and the economy
  8. Civil or political service

If you decide that the person you are nominating fits perfectly into the aforementioned categories,  you must then fill out approximately 8 pages of the “Nomination for a UK National Honour” form, providing specific detail. You can not specify the honour you feel is appropriate, as that is a matter for those assessing the nominations, and more importantly, the Monarch.

After filling out, and submitting your nomination, you should be prepared to wait up to 18 months for a response.

Non-UK Citizens:

You are also able to nominate a non-UK citizen, this will require a different form, but mainly the same categories.

Citizens of nations who share the Queen as their Head of State are entitled to many of the same honours. For example, Australians are entitled to the following Royal honours:

  • The Most Noble Order of the Garter
  • The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle
  • Order of Merit
  • Royal Victorian Order
  • Venerable Order of Saint John
  • Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal (Awarded by the Queen to living holders of the Victoria Cross and George Cross)
  • Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012)

However, those without the Her Majesty as their Head of State will only be entitled to honorary awards.


The recipients of honours are announced in one of two lists throughout the year.

  • The New Year Honours List • The Queen’s Birthday Honours List


For UK citizens who are residents in Britain, the presentation of their award will almost certainly take place in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace. However, if you are a Commonwealth citizen (in a nation sharing the Queen as Head of State) you will most likely receive your honour via the Governor or Governor-General. This is not always the case, however, as you may attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

Image rights: CAckroyd @ Wikimedia


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