The Order of the British Empire

11 April 2017

Two new British orders of chivalry were instituted 100 years ago this year, in June 1917: the Order of the British Empire, and the Order of the Companions of Honour. Until then, orders of chivalry were restricted both in terms of the number of awards which could be made, and the people to whom they were awarded, these being generally peers, high-ranking military personnel, members of the civil service, and those who had served the royal family. Moreover, women were eligible only for membership of a small number of the orders, there was very little that could be awarded to foreigners, and nothing specifically to recognise charitable work or, for example, contribution to the arts or science.

Both new orders had their origins in the First World War, when it was acknowledged that the current honours system was inadequate to recognise the contribution to the war effort of huge numbers of people in all walks of life, both on the field and off. A small committee was founded in early 1916 to discuss these matters and make recommendations. In July 1916 this became two committees, with some alterations and additions to their composition, and now including Sir Henry Farnham Burke, Norroy King of Arms. Reporting both to the King and the Government, and with various complex matters of precedence to take into consideration, it took around 18 months from the committee being founded for the first awards to be made.

It was agreed that the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire should consist of five ranks, like the French Legion of Honour, the original 5-grade order. A military division was introduced in December 1918. In some respects the new Order was modelled on the Royal Guelphic Order, which ceased to be conferred in Britain in 1837 with the death of the last Hanoverian monarch. Conferral of the first two ranks brought with it the title of 'Sir' for a man; the title of 'Dame' for a woman was an innovation of the Order of the British Empire. Also like it, there were few restrictions on the overall number of members of the order. Holders would be entitled to bear letters after their names. The ranks, in order of precedence, and postnominal letters, are:

Knight or Dame Grand Cross – G.B.E.
Knight or Dame Commander – K.B.E. / D.B.E.
Commander – C.B.E.
Officer – O.B.E.
Member – M.B.E.

The Order of the Companions of Honour was instituted as a way to honour those who rendered conspicuous service of national importance during the First World War. It was subsequently awarded for outstanding achievements in other arenas. Membership is restricted to the Monarch and sixty-five members from within the British Commonwealth. It is a single-class honour, so has no ranks, and carries with it neither title nor precedence, but is extremely prestigious. Members are entitled to use the initials C.H. after their names. In this year's New Year's Honours List six persons were made Companions of Honour, including:Sir Roger Bannister, the first person to run a mile in under 4 minutes; the famous percussionist, Dame Evelyn Glennie; and Sir Alec Jeffreys, the geneticist who developed DNA profiling.

Members of both orders are entitled to wear the badge of their order on ceremonial occasions, and to have that badge depicted with their coat of arms. Members of the top two ranks of the Order of the British Empire may wear the star on important occasions; the top three can encircle their shield of arms with a circlet bearing the Order's motto. Members of the most senior rank (G.B.E.) are also entitled to wear the mantle and collar on ceremonial occasions, and to be granted heraldic supporters.

 

1. Grants 148 p. 113 Whitelaw compressed

Arms of Viscount 'Willie' Whitelaw of Penrith, the Conservative politician who served under several Prime Ministers and whose appointments included Chief Whip (1964-70), Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (1972-73), Home Secretary (1979-1983), and Leader of the House of Lords (1983-1987). Pendent from his shield is the badge of the Order of the Companions of Honour, of which he was made a member in 1974. The badge of the Order is a rectangular panel inside an oval bearing the Order's motto, IN ACTION FAITHFUL AND IN HONOUR CLEAR, the whole surmounted by an Imperial Crown. On the rectangular panel are depicted an oak tree with the Royal Arms hanging from a branch, and a mounted knight in armour.

College of Arms MS Grants 148, p. 113

2. Grants 92 p. 320 Geddes compressed
Achievement of arms of Sir Eric Campbell Geddes, one of the first nineteen people to be appointed G.B.E., on 4 June 1917. With a background in transport and having held wartime posts including Director-General of Military Railways and Director General of Transportation in France, at the time of being awarded the G.B.E. he was controller of the Navy with responsibility for Admiralty dock facilities and shipyards, and was soon after made First Lord of the Admiralty. Such was the respect he earned that he was appointed to the Order of the Bath (Military) as a Knight Commander as well as to the Order of the British Empire in 1917. He was appointed a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (Civil) in 1919. These three awards are depicted on his achievement of arms, in the three badges pendent from the shield. After the War, Geddes went on to have a prominent rôle in politics and business.

College of Arms MS Grants 92, p. 320

3. Misc Enrolments p. 55 compressed
Statutes of the Order of the British Empire, transcribed into the College of Arms record volume, 'Miscellaneous Enrolments'. The statutes shown here include ones concerning the composition of the Order, which was to be of the Sovereign and a Grand Master, and five classes of members. They decree that the Grand Master is to be a Prince of the Blood Royal and should be considered to be the First or Principal Knight Grand Cross; he should hold the Great Seal of the Order and enforce its Statutes. The current Grand Master is H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh. The page also includes the statute allowing honorary membership to be granted to foreigners.

College of Arms MS Miscellaneous Enrolments p. 55

 

4. Misc Enrolments p. 57 compressed
This College of Arms manuscript record includes photographs of the badge and star of the Order of the British Empire, as they appeared at its foundation in 1917. The design was changed in 1936 and the figure of Britannia replaced with the busts of George V and Queen Mary.

College of Arms MS Miscellaneous Enrolments p. 57

 

5. Coronation Elizabeth II vol 4 Item 49 Lon Gaz Suppl p. 6227 compressed
As the Order of the British Empire is awarded to persons who have rendered exceptional service to their country, it is to be expected that a high number of those attending The Queen's Coronation in 1953 should hold the award. This page from the supplement to the London Gazette published in November 1953 listing persons in the Coronation procession shows that a high proportion of The Queen's honorary physicians, surgeons, dental surgeons and chaplains, honorary chaplains in the army and navy, and aides-de-camp in the army, were holders of the C.B.E. and O.B.E. with, on this page, two M.B.E.s and two K.B.E.s.

College of Arms MS Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II vol 4, item 49 (Supplement to the London Gazette p. 6227)

 

6. Coronation Elizabeth II vol 4 Item 49 Lon Gaz Suppl p. 6325 compressed
Among the sovereigns categorised as 'rulers of states under Her Majesty's protection' participating in the Coronation procession, one, the Sultan of Perak, held the rank of Officer of the Order of the British Empire, and three that of Knight or Dame Grand Cross: the Sultan of Johore, the Sultan of Zanzibar, and Queen Salote of Tonga.

College of Arms MS Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II vol 4, item 49 (Supplement to the London Gazette p. 6325)

 

7. Coronation Elizabeth II vol 4 Item 39 -Lon Gaz Suppl p. 6352 compressed
The dress code for the Coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 was published in the London Gazette in the name of the Earl Marshal, the authority for the arrangement of state ceremonies. It includes regulations about wearing the decorations of the orders of knighthood. This copy is bound into one of a series of volumes of papers concerning the Coronation which is held at the College of Arms.

College of Arms MS Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II vol 4, item 49 (Supplement to the London Gazette p. 6352)

 

8. Grants 112 p. 37 Fairbanks compressed
The American actor, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr., a decorated Second World War Naval Officer, was made an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (K.B.E.) in 1949 for his contribution to Anglo-American relations. He was also granted the arms depicted here. The shield has the circlet of the Order of the British Empire around it, and the badge of the order pendent. The shield's design symbolises the knot of friendship between the US and UK.

College of Arms MS Grants 112, p. 37

 

9. Grants 163 p. 98 Hillary compressed
Arms of Sir Edmund Hillary, K.G., who with Tenzing Norgay was the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest, in 1953. He was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (K.B.E.) that year. In February 1987 he was one of the first to be appointed to the newly created Order of New Zealand. New Zealand ceased to use the British honours system in 1996, retaining only those awards which are in the personal gift of the monarch (such as the Royal Victorian Order) and not those granted by the monarch on the recommendation of the government (such as the Order of the British Empire). In 1995 he was appointed a Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter. In his achievement of arms, penguins were chosen as supporters to symbolise his expeditions in Antarctica: in 1958 he was in the first team to reach the South Pole overland since Captain Scott in 1912. The achievement include depictions of the Garter (the circlet surrounding the shield) and the badges of both the Order of New Zealand and the Order of the British Empire.

College of Arms MS Grants 163, p. 98

 

10. Grants 101 p. 77 Kindersley compressed
This is an example of a patent granting supporters to be added to existing arms. Supporters are granted here because Sir Robert Molesworth Kindersley has been made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire. Kindersley was a merchant banker, a director of the Bank of England, and in 1924 was appointed to the committee formed to establish a realistic plan for German reparation payments. One of several important rôles was that of organiser of the National Savings movement. In 1941 he was created Baron Kindersley, of West Hoathly in the County of West Sussex, in recognition of his war work.

College of Arms MS Grants 101, p. 77

 

11. Grants 145 p. 137 Secombe compressed
Arms of Sir Harry Secombe, the entertainer, comedian and singer, showing the badge of the Order of the British Empire, of which he was made a Commander (C.B.E.) in 1963. The grant of arms is dated 25 October 1983, and makes punning references to his name and career. The motto GO ON reads as 'Goon', in reference to the Goon Show, the comic radio show which made him a household name. What in heraldic terminology (blazon) is described as Argent two Bars wavy Azure, i.e. two wavy blue lines on a white or silver background, depicts the sea, which taken in combination with the mermaid's comb makes up 'Secombe'.

College of Arms MS Grants 145, p. 137

 

12. Grants 87 p. 200 Melba compressed
Arms of Dame Nellie Melba, Australian operatic soprano and one of the most famous singers of the Victorian period and early twentieth century. Born Helen Mitchell but always known as Nellie, she took 'Melba' as her stage name partly in honour of her home city of Melbourne. During the First World War she raised over £100,000 for the Red Cross. She was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (D.B.E.) in 1918 in recognition of her war work. This is reflected in her coat of arms, granted in 1920, which depicts both a nightingale, in reference to her singing, and a red cross. It is blazoned: Azure on a Plate between in chief two Mascles and in base a Nightingale Or a Cross couped Gules. Her shield is displayed within the circlet of the Order of the British Empire, from which the badge is pendent.

College of Arms MS Grants 87, p. 200

 

The badge of the Order of the British Empire is a cross patonce. The badges of the first three ranks are made of silver-gilt, with the arms of the cross enamelled in blue / grey, but the badge of a G.B.E. is slightly larger than that of the other two ranks. The badge of an O.B.E. is plain silver-gilt, with no enamel. The badge of an M.B.E. is of frosted silver. The badge of an O.B.E. and an M.B.E. is worn from a ribbon pinned to the breast or shoulder; that of a K.B.E. / D.B.E. and C.B.E. suspended from ribbon round the neck (for a man) or pinned to the shoulder (for a woman); that of the G.B.E., the highest rank, worn on a sash which goes over the right shoulder with the badge on the left hip (for a man) or pinned to the left shoulder on a ribbon in a bow (for a woman).

13. KBE compressed

The star and neck badge of a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (K.B.E.).

From a private collection

 

14. MBE CBE OBE compressed
In 1936, elements of the design of the insignia were changed. The figure of Britannia in the centre was replaced by the images of George V and Queen Mary, facing left. The colour of the ribbon was changed from purple, with a scarlet stripe down the centre for members of the military division, to rose pink with a pearl grey stripe down each edge and an additional stripe down the centre for members of the military division. This photograph shows, from left to right: badge of a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (M.B.E.), old style; neck badge of a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (C.B.E.), new style; badge of an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.), military division, new style.

From a private collection

 

15. BEM compressed
The Medal of the Order of the British Empire was instituted in June 1917, as a lower award which meant recipients were affiliated to the order but not members. Recipients were entitled to use the postnominal 'B.E.M.'. In 1922 it was discontinued and replaced with two awards: the Medal of the Order of the British Empire for Meritorious Service (usually known as the British Empire Medal) and the Medal of the Order of the British Empire for Gallantry (usually known as the Empire Gallantry Medal). The latter was awarded for acts of bravery and in 1940 was replaced by the George Cross. The British Empire Medal was received not from The Queen, but from the Lord Lieutenant of the recipient's county. A review of the Honours System in 1993 concluded that the circumstances in which the medal was awarded were so similar to those of the award of an M.B.E. that it was unnecessary to continue both, particularly as the B.E.M. did not give recipients the honour of receiving their award from The Queen, and so the medal ceased to be awarded in Britain (although it continued to be awarded in Commonwealth countries). However, in 2011 it was decided to reinstate it, with the first awards to be made in 2012, to coincide with The Queen's Diamond Jubilee.
This medal dates from after 1936, as can be seen from the ribbon, which is of the same design as that used for the five classes of the Order of the British Empire.

From a private collection

 

16. Foreign Orders p. 32 compressed
The French Légion d'honneur (Legion of Honour) was first founded by the Emperor Napoleon in 1802. From the reign of Louis XVIII, who on the restoration of the monarchy refounded the order in 1815, it has consisted of five degrees, a model which was adopted for the Order of the British Empire. This drawing is from one of a number of volumes concerning 'Foreign Orders' belonging to Sir George Nayler, an Officer of Arms from 1792 and Garter King of Arms from 1822. It shows the badge of a Commander of the Legion of Honour, sent to Sir James Kempt in 1824. Kempt was an Army Officer who led the 8th Brigade at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and at the time of being sent this badge was Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, Canada. The figure on the badge is King Henry IV of France, chosen by King Louis XVIII to replace the figure of Napoleon (the design was changed again in 1830 when the House of Bourbon was overthrown by the House of Orléans).

College of Arms MS 'Foreign Orders' p. 32

 

17. Guelphic Order p. 237 compressed
This pen and ink sketch, tinted with watercolour, shows a member of the Royal Guelphic Order in full regalia. He wears the blue mantle, star (sewn onto the mantle), collar and badge. The image is from a volume which belonged to Sir George Nayler, an Officer of Arms from 1792 and Garter King of Arms from 1822. All British orders of chivalry have officers, usually including a King of Arms (who need not be an Officer of Arms of the College of Arms). Nayler was involved with several orders, and was Genealogist of the Order of the Bath from 1792, King of Arms of the Royal Guelphic Order from 1815, and King of Arms of the Order of St Michael and St George from 1818. The Order of the British Empire also has a King of Arms: the current holder of this ceremonial position is Lieutenant General Sir Robert Fulton, K.B.E.

College of Arms MS 'The Guelphic Order' p. 237

 

18. Guelphic Order p. 206 compressed
This illustration shows the badge of the Royal Guelphic Order, military division (as symbolised by the crossed swords), front and back. The front of the badge depicts the white horse of Hanover inside a blue enamel circle bearing the order's motto, NEC ASPERA TERRENT, and the back bears the cypher GR. The volume containing these images, which is of the nature of a scrapbook on the order, includes a piece of the blue ribbon from which the badge should be hung, stuck onto the page.

College of Arms MS 'The Guelphic Order' p. 206

 

19. Guelphic Order p. 24 compressed
This painting is of the ceremonial collar of the Royal Guelphic Order. When the Order of the British Empire was founded during the First World War it was assumed there would be no collar, due to the expense of manufacture. By 1923, however, it was considered that a collar would be appropriate, in order to bring the order into line with other orders so that it would not be considered inferior to them. After several designs were rejected, that submitted by George Kruger-Gray was approved by the Royal Mint Advisory Committee in 1925 and formally by the King in 1926. The first collars were delivered to the Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood in 1927. Like the collar of the Royal Guelphic Order, that of the Order of the British Empire includes the cypher of the monarch reigning at the time of its foundation (George V), but the collar of the Order of the British Empire features stylised sealions rather than lions, and alternates the medallions bearing the cypher with medallions bearing the royal arms.

College of Arms MS 'The Guelphic Order' p. 24

 

20. Guelphic Order p. 23 compressed
Signature of George, Prince Regent, approving the badge of the new Royal Guelphic Order in 1815. The volume into which this document is bound was owned by Sir George Nayler, who in 1815 was York Herald and the King of Arms of the Royal Guelphic Order.

College of Arms MS 'The Guelphic Order' p. 23

By decision of the College of Arms all proceeds arising from the sale of The Armorial of Haiti will be donated to the international effort for the relief of Haiti
after the calamitous earthquake of 12 January 2010.

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