In the early Middle Ages the highest honours were reserved for the royal family and their immediate favourites. The Order of the Garter, founded by Edward III in 1348, was jealously restricted: Pitt, Peel, and Gladstone were never included, and Disraeli only after he had become earl of Beaconsfield. The Scottish Order of the Thistle, refounded by James II, was restricted to peers until 1876 when Sir William Stirling-Maxwell, a mere baronet, was admitted. The knights of St Patrick, instituted by George III in 1783, were equally exclusive. Particular favourites might receive rapid advancement: Edward II made his friend Gaveston earl of Cornwall in 1307 to the indignation of the rest of the nobility; Richard II created Michael de la Pole earl of Suffolk in 1385. These were rare instances. The title of duke, highest in the land, was carefully restricted. Between 1572 and 1603 there were no English dukes at all, and between 1553 and 1660 the title was given to only one non-royal, Charles I's favourite Buckingham. Titles were, of course, augmented by other honours—lavish grants of estates (particularly at the expense of vanquished opponents), places of profit at court, functions at the coronation ceremony. Though there were always complaints that unworthy persons were being honoured, the circle remained very small indeed. At the end of Henry VII's reign, there were no more than 44 peers, and by 1603 it had increased only to 55.
The process of extending honours, which began in the 17th cent., had a number of causes. The penury of the Stuarts forced them to sell honours, and in addition to a sharp increase in titles, new orders of baronetcies—hereditary knights—were introduced. The victory of the nobility in 1688 opened the gates for Whig grandees to be promoted—no fewer than 23 were created dukes between 1688 and 1720. The parliamentary system meant that, more than ever, honours became an indispensable part of government, particularly since the crown had far fewer estates to give away. Promotions in the peerage eked out creations. Superannuated politicians like Sir Thomas Robinson were pacified by peerages, borough patrons like Sir James Lowther bought over. It was a powerful blow to the Fox–North coalition in 1783 when George III made it clear that he would not grant peerages at its request, since it advertised that supporting the coalition was not the way to win royal favour. The award of honours for conspicuous gallantry came rather late, with the Victoria Cross during the Crimean War. The Order of Merit in 1902 was an attempt to create an order for men of letters that the politicians would not seize, but even then George V failed to carry a nomination against Lloyd George's disapproval. The great breakthrough for democracy came in 1917 with the establishment of the Order of the British Empire—significantly at the same time that the dynasty changed its name to Windsor to get closer to the people. Though the order was still ranked, it reached further into the people than ever before, and included substantial numbers of women. Even so, there was unease among some when the Beatles were given an MBE in 1965. Since, in an egalitarian society, there are few opportunities to wear crosses and ribands, the Order of the British Empire has begun to sell ties.
There is considerable debate about the nature and role of honours in a democratic society. The present confusion may be illustrated with reference to the peerage. By origin peerages were not necessarily hereditary and it was an early object of noble ambition to make them so. Eventually the principle was established and when in 1856 the crown attempted to create life peerages for judges, they were declared unlawful. By the time life peerages were brought in in 1958, governments had lost the confidence to recommend hereditary titles. None were created until William Whitelaw was made a viscount on Mrs Thatcher's advice in 1983. How long the royal prerogative to create hereditary peers can remain valid if not employed is an interesting question.
J. A. Cannon
"honours system." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/honours-system
"honours system." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved October 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/honours-system
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.