When George V originally created the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire on June 4, 1917, he envisaged it as a way to honor those who’d served their country in battle or on the home front. The country was still in the throes of World War I, which killed almost an entire generation of young men, and he was looking at a way to reward those few who had survived. The Order included several ranks, with knights and dames at the top; members get letters after their name.
Ranks in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire
The first two ranks (GBE and KBE/DBE) make one a Knight or Dame and thus allow the honorific Sir or Dame, except where it’s a foreign national, in which case the title is made “honorary” and no Sirs or Dames are used. The first three ranks have total maximums; for example, there can’t be more than 8,960 CBEs at any one time. The last two ranks are subject only to annual limits.
- GBE: Knight or Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (300 maximum)
- KBE/DBE: Knight (K) or Dame (K) Commander of the Order of the British Empire (845 maximum)
- CBE: Commander of the Order of the British Empire (no more than 8,960 at the same time)
- OBE: Officer of the Order of the British Empire (no more than 845 per year)
- MBE: Member of the Order of the British Empire (no more than 1464 per year).
How the Order of the British Empire is organized
These honors are for British people only, except where given as honorary awards; the Queen’s other Realms have their own equivalents. It is formally divided into civilian and military divisions. Queen Elizabeth is the Order’s sovereign, and its Grand Master is Prince Philip. The Order has six officials: The Prelate (always the Dean of London), the Dean, the Secretary, the Registrar, the King of Arms, and the Usher.
A committee oversees the awards and receives nominations from the public and from public bodies. In the past, it discussed whether to change the old-fashioned title Dame to Lady. 21st-century honorees have sometimes been heard to say the wished it had changed; that they were too young to be dames!
National Archives documents suggested that King George V wanted fewer awards
The Order became permanent in 1922 but documents released by the National Archives in 2011 suggested that, by 1933, King George V was starting to have doubts. That year, a Whitehall committee formed to look at how many awards were being handed out and how many knighthoods created.
His spokesman was Sir Frederick Ponsonby, Keeper of the Privy Purse, and the king’s opinion was diametrically opposed to the committees, which thought that the Order wasn’t handing out enough awards.
Today, the honors are extended to those who have served the country in some significant way, and covers everything from world-famous figures (Sir Elton John) to a milkman who kept an eye out for and prevented crimes, and who showed up for his investiture in a cow suit. Queen Elizabeth was seemingly amused, but her great-grandfather was probably turning in his grave!
More about the Honours system:
- The National Archives: Review of Honours Scales
- British Royal Family: What is the British Honours System?
- British Royal Family Examiner: Honours articles
- The British Monarchy: Investitures
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