Order of the Garter
Motto: Honi soit qui mal y pense (Shame on him who thinks this evil)
Chapel: St. George’s Chapel, Windsor
Ranks: Knight or Lady
Post-nominal initials: KG or LG
Founded by King Edward III in the mid-1300s, the Garter is the most senior British Order of Chivalry in both the civilian and military realm. The king established the order as he rebuilt Windsor Castle, the royal residence at which the Garter ceremony is held.
The origin of the garter emblem is clouded. The myth is that it was inspired by an incident which took place when the king was dancing with the Countess of Salisbury. The Countess’s garter fell to the floor and the King then picked it up and tied it to his own leg. Edward scolded those around him saying, ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense‘ (Shame on him who thinks this evil). This then became the motto of the Order. Modern scholars, however, think it is more likely that the motto and Order were inspired by the strap used to attach pieces of armor, a reference to Edward’s constant battles with the French and his claim to the throne of France.
Reforms in the rites of the Order were made under King Charles I in the 1620s through the 1630s. Historians viewed it as the King enhancing the Order’s “high church, religious associations”. Richard Cust, professor of early modern history at the University of Birmingham, argues instead that the reforms centered more on the “celebration of courage, martial achievement, and noble companionship” which “tells us a good deal about how Charles understood his relationship with his nobles, and the honorific and chivalric values that lay at the heart of his kingship”.
The Garter ceremony continues to this day. Each June, the Knights of the Garter gather at Windsor Castle where new knights take the oath and are invested. Then there is a luncheon held in the Waterloo Chamber, after which the knights walk in a procession in their robes to a service in St. George’s Chapel.
The Garter outfit consists of blue velvet robes and black velvet hats with white feathers. The King, as Sovereign of the Order, attends the service along with other members of the Royal family. At the head is King Charles III, as well as the Prince of Wales, the Princess Royal,
Order of the Thistle
Motto: Nemo me impune lacessit (No one harms me with impunity)
Chapel: Thistle Chapel, St. Giles’ Cathedral
Ranks: Knight or Lady
Post-nominal initials: KT or LT
The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle represents the highest honor in Scotland, and it is second only to the Order of the Garter. Founded by James VII and II in 1687, a monarch can bestow this order of chivalry upon people who have made distinguished contributions to the life of Scotland.
It was not until 1911 that the Order finally had an official chapel at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh. The Order consists of sixteen members, and unlike the Order of the Garter, a new member is invested only when another has died.
Symbolism: St. Andrew’s saltire (cross) bearing the motto of the Order, and within the circle there is a thistle on a gold field.
Order of St. Patrick
Motto: Quis separabit? (Who will separate us?)
Chapel: St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin
Post-nominal initials: KP
Founded: 1783; discontinued 1922
The Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick was founded in 1783 by King George III to reward those in high office in Ireland and Irish peers who supported the government. It served as the national Order of Ireland, much like the Garter for England and the Thistle for Scotland. St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is the patron of the order. Its motto, “Who will separate us?” is a reference to Bible passage Romans 8:35, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”
The badge is made of gold and depicts a shamrock bearing three crowns, on top of a cross of St. Patrick and surrounded by a blue circle bearing the motto. Also seen is the date of the Order’s foundation in Roman numerals (“MDCCLXXXIII”). The star of the Order is an eight-pointed star figure. The Order went into abeyance when the Irish Free State was created (now the Republic of Ireland) in 1922, but became officially extinct in 1974 with the death of the last surviving recipient, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester.Embed from Getty Images
Order of Merit
Motto: For merit
Chapel: Chapel Royal, St. James’s Palace
Post-nominal initials: OM
Founded by Edward VII in 1902, the Order of Merit is a very special distinction ‘given to such persons … as may have rendered exceptionally meritorious service in Our Crown Services or towards the advancement of the Arts, Learning, Literature, and Science or such other exceptional service as We are fit to recognise’. The Order of Merit is in the sole gift of the Sovereign.
The Order is restricted to 24 members as well as additional foreign recipients (there are very few foreign recipients, including Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela). There is also a military division included within the members; although the last member of the military division was Lord Mountbatten, the branch has never been abolished.
Royal Family Orders
George IV started the practice of presenting Family Orders, a small badge that is a portrait of the Sovereign surrounded in diamonds suspended from a ribbon. George IV’s successors continued this practice and each monarch’s reign has a different colored ribbon. The order for George V was blue, George VI was rose pink, and the late Queen’s order was yellow. The Queen always wore the order of her father and grandfather.
The Orders are worn on formal occasions by female members of the Royal family. More than one Order can be worn at the same time – the late Princess Margaret wore her sister’s and her father’s orders. King Charles III will have a new ribbon color for his reign, yet to be determined.
Companions of Honor
Motto: In action faithful and in honor clear
Post-nominal initials: CH
This order was instituted in 1917 by George V. It consists of the Sovereign and 65 ordinary members; foreigners are admitted only as honorary members. In very exceptional circumstances individuals are appointed by statute in commemoration of special occasions.
The Order is conferred on men and women for services of national importance. Prime Ministers of Commonwealth countries may make nominations.
Order of the Bath
Motto: Tria Juncta in uno (Three joined in one)
Ranks: Knight/Dame Grand Cross, Knight/Dame Commander and Companion
Post-nominal initials: GCB, KCB/DCB and CB
The name of this order stems from the Christian medieval tradition of baptismal washing, a symbol of spiritual purification. The honor could not be conferred until the candidate had been prepared in this way.
The order now consists of the Sovereign (The Queen), the Great Master (The Prince of Wales) and three classes of members:
- Knights and Dames Grand Cross (GCB)
- Knights and Dames Commander (KCB and DCB)
- Companions (CB).
The motto Tria juncto in uno was first used in James I/VI’s reign. This may refer to either the Union of England, Scotland and Ireland or to the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit).
Every four years members of the Order attend a service of remembrance, dedication and praise which is held in the presence of the Grand Master. The late American President Ronald Reagan was awarded a Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honorable Order of the Bath in 1989.
Order of St. Michael and St. George
Motto: Auspicium Melioris Aevi (Token of a better age)
Chapel: A Chapel in St. Paul’s Cathedral
Ranks: Knight/Dame Grand Cross, Knight/Dame Commander and Companion
Post-nominal initials: GCMG, KCMG/DCMG, CMG
This was instituted in April 1818 by the Prince Regent, later George IV, and it was intended to commemorate the placing of the Ionian Islands under British protection; originally, it was intended for distinguished citizens of the islands, and also of Malta. Due to the expansion of the British Empire, the Order was then extended to those who had proven distinguished service in the overseas dominions.
The Star and Badge of the Order feature the cross of St George, the Order’s motto, and a representation of the archangel Michael holding in his right hand a flaming sword and stepping on Satan to crush him.
Royal Victorian Order
Motto: Victoria (Victory)
Chapel: The Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy
Ranks: Knight/Dame Grand Cross, Knight/Dame Commander, Commander, Lieutenant and Member
Post-nominal initials: GCVO, KCVO/DCVO, CVO, LVO and MVO
The Royal Victorian Order is given by The Queen to people who have served her or the Monarchy in a personal way. These may include officials of the Royal Household, family members or even British Ambassadors who have helped organize a State Visit.
The Order was founded in April 1896 by Queen Victoria as a way of rewarding personal service to her. The Order is the Sovereign’s personal gift. The anniversary of the institution of the Order is June 20, the day of Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne.
Order of the British Empire
Motto: For God and the Empire
Chapel: St. Paul’s Cathedral
Ranks: Knight/Dame Grand Cross, Knight/Dame Commander, Commander, Officer, Member
Post-nominal initials: GBE, KBE/DBE, CBE, OBE and MBE
The Order of the British Empire was created during the First World War (The Great War) in 1917 by George V. The King wanted an honor that could be given in recognition of the large numbers of people in the UK and throughout the Empire who were helping the war effort. It also was the first to include foreigners who had helped the British in the war effort.
Only the two highest ranks grant official knighthood – the recipient can use “Sir” or “Dame” before their first name. Honorary knighthoods are given to those outside the United Kingdom or the Commonwealth, but they cannot use “Sir” or “Dame”.
Today, the Order is given to honor distinguished service to the arts and sciences, public services (outside the Civil Service) and work with charitable organizations.
The George Cross for Bravery
The George Cross was created during World War II by King George VI, father of the present Queen. The blitzkreig on many British cities prompted civilians to put their lives on the line in to defend their country. George VI witnessed several of these acts personally and decided to create The George Cross for Bravery and the George Medal. The entire island of Malta was awarded the Cross for their resistance to heavy German bombing. The island was thenceforth known as Malta GC.
The Orders of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand
In all three of these Orders, the earlier concepts Christianity and chivalry usually associated with orders are excluded so that they can be given to all, regardless of religious background. The Orders’ insignia feature national elements in their designs: a snowflake and Maple leaf for Canada, a mimosa flower for Australia and a combination of Maori and European elements for New Zealand. The Queen has her own badges as Sovereign of each Order.
During King George VI’s reign, many countries within the Empire became independent Commonwealth nations, appointing their own heads of state and even instituting their own honors systems. Countries such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand retained The Queen as their head of state but created their own honors systems. People are nominated by the government ministers and formally approved by The Queen. The Orders are conferred by the Governor-General in that particular country.
Motto: Desiderantes meliorem patriam (They desire a better country)
Ranks: Companion, Officer, Member
Post-nominal initials: CC, OC, CM
Officially instituted on July 1, 1967, during the 100th anniversary celebrations of the formation of the Dominion of Canada. The order itself is a white enamel snowflake suspended from a crown. The center image is a maple leaf on a white enamel background, surrounded by a red enamel ring with the motto of the order.
Ranks: Knight/Dame, Companion, Officer, Member, Medal of the Order of Australia
Post-nominal initials: AK/AD, AC, AO, AM, OAM
Established on February 14, 1975, “for the purpose of according recognition to Australian citizens and other persons for achievement or for meritorious service”.
› New Zealand
Ranks: Ordinary, Honorary, and Additional
Post-nominal initials: ONZ
Officially instituted on February 6, 1987, and modelled on Britain’s Order of Merit. The badges are an oval medallion with the Arms of New Zealand in gold and colored enamel, worn on a white and ochre ribbon. The order recognizes “outstanding service to the Crown and people of New Zealand in a civil or military capacity”.
The Order of Victoria and Albert
This order was a British Royal Family Order instituted on February 10, 1862 by Queen Victoria herself. Though it has not been used since Victoria’s death, it was never abolished. That means Queen Elizabeth II is Sovereign of the Order, though the awards are never made.
Like the Royal Family Order, this decoration was given to females only, courtiers and family members alike.
The badge consisted of a medallion of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, but as the Classes of the order descended, there was a difference in appearance. The fourth Class is instead a jeweled cipher, and all four were surmounted by a crown, which was attached to a bow of white moire ribbon. This order is more of a personal memento rather than an official state decoration.
Images are from The Royal Collection 2006 © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.