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, who is the 'fountain of honour', acting upon 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. Commonwealth governments are also entitled to recommend their citizens for British orders, though most have established their own honours systems. Certain honours are awarded at the personal discretion of the monarch.

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 sovereign taps the recipient on the shoulder with a ceremonial sword.

Honours are sometimes refused or returned; see list of people who have declined a British honour.

Table of contents
1 Honours conferred
2 Orders of Chivalry and other orders
3 Honorary Awards
4 See also

Honours conferred

  • Hereditary peerage - No longer attached to a seat in the House of Lords, and now normally only given to members of the Royal family. Last award to a non-royal was in 1984, to former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. There are five ranks of hereditary peerage: duke, marquess, earl, viscount, and baron.
  • Life peerage - All life peers hold the rank of baron, and automatically have the right to sit in the House of Lords. These titles exist only during their own lifetime and are not passed to their heirs. Some life peerages are created not as an honour, but to enable the holder to sit in the House of Lords, either as a legislator or as a judge. Introduced under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 and Life Peerages Act 1958.
  • Baronetcy - Similar to a knighthood and carrying the title Sir, the Baronetcy is a hereditary honour. Baronets are not members of the peerage.
  • Knighthood - Descended from mediaeval chivalry, knights exist within the orders of chivalry and within the class known as Knights Bachelor (usual recipients include High Court judges). Knighthood carries the title Sir. The female equivalent Dame only exists within the orders of chivalry.
  • Other orders, decorations and medals which do not carry titles, but entitle the holder to place post nominals, e.g. OM, CMG, etc., after his or her name.

Orders of Chivalry and other orders

Containing only grade, which is knightly:

Divided into three grades (Knight or Dame Grand Cross, Knightor Dame Commander, and Companion), the two highest being knightly:

Divided into five grades (Knight or Dame Grand Cross, Knight or Dame Commander, Commander, Officer or Lieutenant, and Member), the two highest being knightly:

Containing only one grade, which is not knightly:

  • The Order of Merit (1902) - Normally given to persons of exceptional distinction, limited to twenty-four members.
  • The Order of the Companions of Honour (1917) - Limited to sixty-five members, and known as the Prime Minister's version of the Order of Merit.


  • The Most Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem (1888) - A semi-official order, whose patron is the Sovereign. Members can wear the insignia, but cannot use the titles or initials.

Several orders became obsolete in the twentieth century:

  • The Most Illustrious Order of St Patrick (1783-1922) - the Irish equivalent of the Garter.
  • The Most Exalted Order of the Star of India (1861-1947) - the senior Indian order.
  • The Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire (1878-1947) - the junior Indian order.

Honorary Awards

Citizens of countries which do not recognise the Queen as head of state sometimes have honours conferred upon them, in which case the awards are "honorary" - the holders are entitled to place initials behind 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. Recipients of honorary awards who later become subjects of Her Majesty may apply to convert their awards to substantive awards.

There is no law preventing foreigners from holding a peerage, though only Commonwealth citizens can sit in the House of Lords. However, the Canadian prime minister was able to advise the Queen not to grant Conrad Black a titular honour while he remained a Canadian citizen.

See also