The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire
The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, in short: OBE, is a British order that was founded on 4 June 1917 by King George V. In principle this order is awarded to citizens of the United Kingdom or other countries governed by the British Queen, bur citizens of other countries can also receive this order.
In 1918 the order was divided into a Military and a Civilian Division. The jewels and the stars are the same for both divisions, the Military and the Civilian Division, but military personnel wears a ribbon with a thin grey-white band in the middle.
The Order has a sovereign, a grand master (Prince Philip, duke of Edinburgh) and five ranks. His predecessors were Edward, Prince of Wales (1917–1936) and Queen Mary (1936–1953).
The motto of the order is “For God and the Empire”.
The five ranks of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
The sovereign of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is the reigning king or queen of the United Kingdom.
The British government appoints a grand master, since 1953 that has been Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Officially he is Grand Master and First and Principal Knight Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. On many occasions apart from the Order of the Garter and the Order of the Thistle he also wears the star of the Order of the British Empire. There is no special decoration for the grand master and the first Grand Cross.
Knights and Dames Grand Cross
The Knights and Dames Grand Cross wear the cross of the order on a chain or a broad ribbon over the right shoulder. The Grand Crosses wear a silver star on the left side of their chest. For special occasions Grand Crosses were a pink satin cloak lined with pearl grey satin with the star of the order on the left shoulder. They can use the letters GBE after their name and obtain personal nobility. This means that the wife or the widow of a Knight Grand Cross is called “Lady …..”.
Knights and Dames Commander
The Knights en Dames Commander wear the cross of the order on a ribbon around their neck. They wear a silver plaque on the left side of the chest. They can use the letters KBE (Knights) or DBE (Dames) after their name and obtain personal nobility (and can use the title Sir or Dame). This means that the wife or the widow of a Knight Commander is called “Lady …..”..
The Commanders wear the cross of the order on a ribbon around their neck, or for ladies on a bow on the left shoulder. They can use the letters CBE after their name.
The Officers wear the gold, not-enamelled cross of the order on a ribbon or bow on the left shoulder. They can use the letters OBE after their name
The Members wear the silver, not-enamelled cross of the order on a ribbon or bow on the left shoulder. They can use the letters MBE after their name .
The chains are given on loan, all other decorations are the property of the decorated persons.
The medal for merit and for gallantry.
There is also a medal linked to the order that is called the British Empire Medal, known as the Medal of the Order of the British Empire prior to 1922, and that is worn on the ribbon of the order. Military personnel wear a ribbon with a narrow grey-white middle band. It is common practice (also for foreigners) to use the letters “B.E.M.” after one’s name.
If this medal, that can also be worn and awarded outside the order, is granted for gallantry, two intertwining silver oak leaves are attached to the ribbon.
The medal shows a seated Britannia under a sun. On the exergue of the medal are the words “MERITORIOUS SERVICE” or “GALLANTRY”.
This medal was considered a “medal for the common man”. The British government which was very class-conscious awarded the medal for those persons who could not receive a knighthood, for example because they did manual labour. The wearers of the medal therefore also did not become members of the Order of the British Empire.
The medal for gallantry was highly regarded and was only awarded after special deeds of gallantry and self-sacrifice. The wearers of the medal were given the opportunity to trade in the medal for the George Cross, the second highest British decoration. Not everyone took that opportunity.
The medal was not warded in the United Kingdom between 1992 and 2012, although some Commonwealth countries did award the medal, including Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Papua New-Guinea, the Bahamas and the Cook Islands.
In 2012 the conservative government of Prime Minister Cameron revoked the decision of the Major government. John Major had wanted to reduce the class element by abolishing the medal. The medal returned in the Birthday Honours List of 2012 as a “working-class” honour”. The reintroduction was well received.
Any member of the Order of the British Empire is entitled to use the abbreviation of his or her rank, the so-called post-nominal letters after their name. This also applies to foreign “honorary” members. These letters are also used in the United States of America. The foreign members do not gain British nobility. However, it is not uncommon for politeness’ sake, to address an honorary knight-commander or an honorary knight-grand cross as “Sir” or “Lady” .
The two highest ranks are “knightly”, which means that a noble knightly title has been conferred: gentlemen use “Sir” in front of their name and ladies “Dame” (with the abbreviation of the rank after their name). The custom is that the wife of a knight uses the title Lady (however, this does not apply to the husband of a Dame). Knights and Dames Grand Cross and Knights and Dames Commander who are not a subject of the British Queen (i.e. not a British citizen or a citizen of another country governed by the Queen) cannot use the knightly title. An example is Bill Gates who was knighted as Knight Commander of the British Empire and therefore cannot call himself “Sir William”, but can use the title “William Henry Gates III, KBE” (unless he is naturalized as a British citizen).
The award of Dame Commander is granted much more than Knight Commander. This is because high-ranking female judges cannot become a Knight Bachelor (knight but not in a order of knights) as their male colleagues. They are therefore appointed in the Order of the British Empire.
The post-nominal letters
Ribbons of the civil and military divisions of the Order of the British Empire .
In the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth it is common to indicate the ownership of medals, titles and membership of a certain order by post-nominal letters after one’s name. The following post-nominal letters are ordained for the Order of the British Empire:
KBE and DBE
The letters GMBE (Grand Master of the Order of the British Empire) are uncommon.
The decorations of the Order of the British Empire
Star of a Knight Commander
The cross is a golden cross with light-blue enamel and rounded off points. In the middle is a gold medallion with the portraits of the crowned King George V and Queen Mary. Surrounding this is a red band with the order’s motto in gold script. On the reverse side is the gold monogram of King George V as king and emperor of the United Kingdom and India. Over the gem is a gold crown in relief.
The grand cross is fairly large and heavy, but the crosses decrease in size the lower the rank of the order. Prior to 1937 Britannia, the British virgin, was also on the medallion. Until 1937 the ribbon was purple or, for the Military Division, purple with a broad red band in the middle.
The gold enamelled chain has eleven large and twelve small links. The large links represent sea lions with tridents, the smaller links have the royal coat of arms and the initials “GRI”.
The star is made of silver and has eight points. The medallion of the order is placed on the star.
The plaque is made of silver and has four short and four long beams. The medallion of the order is placed on the plaque.
Prior to 1937 the ribbon was purple but now it is pink-red with pearl-grey edges. The military division has a grey middle band that used to be red. The cloak was purple satin when it was first designed, but it was redesigned in 1937 and is now pink satin.
The silver medal shows Britannia. Surrounding her is the text “For God and the Empire” and “For Merituous Service”. The reverse side shows the monogram of the founder.
All ranks and medals are worn in miniature on tails and sometimes on smoking jackets. Military personnel wears models or images of decorations, miniatures or, on their daily uniform, a baton.
The officials or officers of the Order of the British Empire
The British orders have “officers” that govern the order and fulfil ceremonial duties. Only the Order of the British Empire has officers as a rank in the order and therefore they call the “officers” “officials”. There is a prelate, the Bishop of London, a dean, a secretary, an archivist, a master of arms and a master of ceremonies, the “Gentleman Usher of the Purple Rod”. In the 20th century there have been five purple rods, the current purple rod since 30 November 2000 is Alexander Graham. His predecessors were all appointed Knight Grand Cross of the Order.
The history of the Order of the British Empire
Chain and star
The order is the most recent and has more members than the other British order of knights. King George V introduced the order because his country had become more democratic since World War I and decorations were needed for those people who served king and country. The Orders of the Bath and Saint Michael and Saint George were only awarded to the governing elite. In the first years after the order was introduced many looked down on the Order of the British Empire.
The introduction of a new order of the British state, for the first time in a century, was in response to the unique manner in which the British population was involved in the conduct of war during World War I. For the first time war was not just a matter of mercenaries and noble officers fighting a government war, for the first time the entire population was involved in the war effort. The world wars of the 20th century demanded greater sacrifices, both on the frontline and on the home front, than ever before. The Order of the British Empire was the first British order that included women. The order was also used to award foreigners who had helped Britain, specifically against Germany and Turkey. At the beginning of the war it was a bitter pill for the officials in London that the army and the navy monopolized so many of the only available orders, the exclusive Order of the Bath and the equally prestigious Orders of Saint Michael and Saint George
In 1918 the Order of the British Empire was divided into a Military Division and a Civil Division. There is no difference in rank between the two divisions. If a member of the military has received an MBE with silver middle band (signifying the Military Division) this shall be replaced, after merits in civilian life by an OBE of the Civil Division, without the middle band.
It was the intention of King George V that the Order of the British Empire would be awarded widely after the war. In this manner the Order of the British Empire became the counterpart of orders such as the Order of Orange Nassau in The Netherlands.
The first decorations had a picture of Britannia in the medallion. In 1935 this was replaced by the crowned portraits of King George V and Queen Mary. Originally, the medals were awarded everywhere in the British empire, but when dominions Canada and Australia objected to awarding British nobility to their citizens, they introduced their own medals, not linked to nobility. Medals were still awarded in New Zealand, but they also have now introduced their own medals. In Papua New-Guinea at the recommendation of the prime minister of that country, appointments, sometimes connected to the two highest ranks which means an automatic ennoblement.
The number of decorated persons in the two lowest ranks is unlimited and each year no more than 858 officers and 1464 members are appointed. According to the articles of association there are 100 Grand Crosses, 845 Knights- Commanders and 8960 Commanders.
It is noticeable that appointments in the two highest ranks are honorary and therefore mainly awarded abroad. However, the rank of Dame-Commander is the most common method to ennoble a lady. If an important judge is knighted as Knight Bachelor, his female colleague shall be included in one of the two highest ranks of the Order of the British Empire.
In 2004 a report by Hayden Phillips about the order was discussed in a committee of the House of Commons. The members of the House pleaded for a change of name; “Order of British Excellence” would be more modern and “companion” rather than “Commander” would sound less military. The government did not adopt these recommendations.
The recommendation by Sir Hayden to introduce, like in the European countries (and Canada) a buttonhole decoration to be worn on the lapels, was implement in 2007. The government chose not to use a system of rosettes and gold and silver braids, as is common in The Netherlands, but introduced a rosette to be worn be all ranks and medal holders. The chaton or embroidered star of the Grand Crosses is affixed to the cloak.
Heraldry and ceremonial of the Order of the British Empire
Coat of arms of a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire
Otherwise than in The Netherlands and Belgium, the United Kingdom has strict rules for the heraldry, mandated by law. Not everyone can bear a coat of arms. The unauthorized use of a coat of arms and a heraldic privilege, such as including timbres in the coat of arms, is liable to prosecution. This is being enforced in England and Wales by the Earl Marshall, Scotland has its own heraldic authority, a master of arms called the Lord Lyon King of Arms, who monitors the supervision of heraldic and the unauthorized use of coats of arms and timbres.
Heraldic privileges and customs are linked to the Order of the British Empire. The Grand Crosses can hang the chain over their coat of arms. Grand Crosses and Commanders also hang a round band around their coat of arms, called a “circlet” with the motto of the order. This circlet is placed either around or partially behind the coat of arms. The Knights and the Dames-Commanders hang their decoration on a ribbon under the circlet.
Grand Crosses can place two shield bearers in their coat of arms. Other members of the order give the decoration a suitable place in their coat of arms. It is not uncommon to show a cross of one of the two lower orders in the Order of the British Empire next to or diagonally above the shield in an “honourable place”. .
Otherwise than in most countries on the continent of Europe, in the United Kingdom orders of knights are still active organizations, that meet and celebrate ceremonies. Since 1966 the order has a small chapel in the crypt of Saint Paul’s in London. Once every four years the order meets in the nave of the cathedral and the new Grand Crosses are ceremoniously installed. The ceremony is surrounded by great pomp and circumstance, on that occasion the British Queen and the Knights and Dames Grand Cross were their pink-red cloaks and their golden chains. The officers of the order and the clergy are also beautifully attired. The grand cathedral admits 2000 of the approximately 100,000 members of the order. On that occasion they also wear their decorations on their morning dress or uniform . The modest chapel is decorated with symbols of the Order of the British Empire, but there is no place for the banners and coats of arms, swords and helmets with crests as in the Order of the Bath or the Order of the Garter.