The Monarchy Today The Royal Family History of the Monarchy Art and Residences Home
November 2002
Print page
Introduction
Out and about
Focus
Mailbox
Gallery
Quiz
GREAT BRITONS: CELEBRATING THE CENTENARY OF THE ORDER OF MERIT

The Order of Merit celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Find out about this unique British Order of Chivalry, and read about some of the extraordinary figures who have received the honour.

Members of the Order of Merit in October 2002 Current holders of the Order of Merit, the Order specially awarded to scientists, artists, writers, scholars and politicians
> View large picture in new window

What do Oscar-winning dramatist Sir Tom Stoppard, former prime minister Lady Margaret Thatcher, and DNA scientist Professor Francis Crick have in common? Not much, you may think, but they are all members of one of the most prestigious British Orders of Chivalry - the Order of Merit. Awarded for exceptional service to the Crown or for the advancement of arts, learning, law and literature, the Order is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

The Order is unique in several ways. First, it is the only Order specifically for artists, scientists and intellectuals. The Order is also special as it is one of the few given by The Queen without any political recommendation - the others are the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Thistle and the Royal Victorian Order.

King Edward VII, founder of the Order of Merit King Edward VII was the founder of the Order of Merit, and he took a very keen interest in it throughout his life
> View large picture in new window

In fact, monarchs have played a key role in the Order of Merit from its very beginning. It was founded by King Edward VII on 23 June 1902, just before his coronation. He  had always taken great interest in honours, and was to found several new ones during his reign. In April 1902 he wrote to his prime minister, the Marquess of Salisbury:

"For many years it has been my great wish that an Order of Merit should be instituted, so as to reward in a special manner Officers of the Navy and Army, and civilians distinguished in arts, sciences and literature. I have always been so impressed by the Prussian Order, Pour Le Mérite, which I believe was founded originally by Frederick the Great, that I have always wished that a similar one might be created for England."

But the idea of a British Order recognising outstanding intellectual, artistic and military achievement was not new. Some 50 years before Edward VII's suggestion, an order for exceptional merit had been proposed by his mother, Queen Victoria. It was perhaps an offshoot of the widespread Victorian interest in celebrating great lives, and a new recognition of achievements in the arts and sciences as well as in politics and war.

An entry in Queen Victoria's diary of January 1844 refers to a conversation between the young queen, Prince Albert and Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister:

"Albert and I suggested the desirability of some day considering, and perhaps establishing, an Order as we have nothing of the kind which might be given for merit, or as a mark of particular favour, in fact, for distinguished talents and personal service to The Sovereign. Sir Robert thought this might be a very good thing, particularly if the Order was carefully bestowed."

Badges of the Order of Merit Badges of the Order of Merit with their blue and red ribbons
> View large picture in new window

Nothing came of it at the time, although the idea was raised over the following decades on different occasions. In 1887, the year of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, the idea got as far as draft statutes for an Order of Merit in science and art prepared by the then Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury. The statutes provided for two groups of award, the first for Knights of Artistic Merit, and the second for Knights of Scientific Merit. Queen Victoria approved the statutes, and Lord Salisbury began consulting relevant figures in government and the arts.

But the Order was not yet to come about. The government of Lord Salisbury did not have a firm majority in Parliament, and any small risk of adverse opinion - on any matter - was felt to be potentially embarrassing. Lord Salisbury advised Queen Victoria that the time was not right, and the project was postponed.

When King Edward VII came to the throne, he was not easily to be put off. He soon brought up the matter with Lord Salisbury again, and this time the Order became reality. The Letters Patent, dated 23 June 1902, provided for the institution of "an Order to be called and known for ever hereafter by the name, style and designation of 'The Order of Merit' whereof We, Our heirs and successors, for ever, shall be Sovereign". It was originally to be given to "such persons, being subjects of Our Crown, as may have rendered exceptionally meritorious service in Our Navy and Our Army or towards the advancement of Art, Literature, and Science".

In the reign of the present Queen the Statutes of the Order were amended once more to broaden the basis of admission to "such persons, being subjects of our Crown, 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 see fit to recognise."

The Queen honouring Mother Teresa during a visit to India Macedonia-born Mother Teresa receiving the insignia of the Order of Merit from The Queen during Her Majesty's visit to Calcutta in 1983
> View large picture in new window

Today the Order of Merit has only one class. There used to be civilian and military divisions but there have been no military members since Lord Mountbatten of Burma, murdered in 1979. The Order's Members divide into five groups: scientists, artists, musicians, writers and people active in public life.

The Order is administered by the Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood, based at St. James's Palace. The Central Chancery was founded by Edward VII to maintain the Orders of Chivalry and organise the presentation of honours at Investitures. Secretary and Registrar of the Order is Sir Edward Ford, former Private Secretary to The Queen.

New appointments are not announced in the annual Honours Lists, but are published separately as each appointment is made. The badge is usually presented by The Queen in a private audience at Buckingham Palace. Nelson Mandela, an Honorary Member of the Order, received his Badge in South Africa during The Queen's visit in 1995.
 

The Queen presenting Sir Tom Stoppard with his OM Playwright Sir Tom Stoppard receiving his Order of Merit in an audience with The Queen in 2000
> View large picture in new window

Members receive no rank or title apart from the initials OM after their name. The Order's only outward form is a simple Badge. This consists of an eight-pointed cross of red and blue enamel surmounted by the Imperial crown. In the centre, upon blue enamel and surrounded by a laurel wreath, are the words 'FOR MERIT' in letters of gold. On the reverse, also surrounded by a laurel wreath, is the Royal Cypher.

The Badge hangs from a ring attached to the top of the crown, through which a ribbon, half blue and half crimson, is passed. It is worn round the neck by men and on a bow by women.

The Order of Merit is one of the rarest of honours. It is restricted to 24 Members at any one time, plus additional foreign recipients. To date there have only been 168 Ordinary Members of the Order (honorary appointments of figures outside the Commonwealth are additional). As a result, the list of holders - past and present - reads like a stellar roll-call of some of the greatest thinkers and doers of the twentieth century.

The Queen presents Sir Roger Penrose with his OM Mathematician Sir Roger Penrose is presented with the insignia of the Order of Merit, 25 July 2000
> View large picture in new window

Those appointed by Edward VII included Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, physicist Lord Kelvin and antiseptics pioneer Lord Lister - all part of the original group of twelve Members. Later appointments included artists George Frederick Watts and William Holman Hunt, nursing heroine Florence Nightingale and novelist George Meredith.

During the reign of George V the honour was bestowed on luminaries such as writers Thomas Hardy and Henry James, poet Robert Bridges, Sir James Barrie (creator of Peter Pan), composers Sir Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, scientist Sir Joseph Thomson (discoverer of the electron), Sir Ernest Rutherford (the physicist who won the Nobel prize for work on radioactivity) and First World War Field Marshal Earl Haig.

Novelist Henry James Novelist Henry James sketched by Sargent, 1912
> View large picture in new window

In George VI's reign, those appointed to the Order included socialist Sidney Webb, architect of Delhi and London's Cenotaph Sir Edward Lutyens, poet T.S. Eliot, philosopher Betrand Russell, and prime ministers Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee.

The present Queen has appointed 78 Members during the 50 years of her reign. The first was Wilder Graves Penfield, a distinguished brain surgeon. Others have included painters Graham Sutherland and Ben Nicholson, engineer Geoffrey de Havilland, sculptor Henry Moore, composers Benjamin Britten and William Walton, novelists E. M. Forster and Graham Greene, philosopher Isaiah Berlin, stage and film actor Laurence Olivier, war-time pilot and charity campaigner Leonard Cheshire, jet engineer Frank Whittle and painter Lucian Freud.
 
Florence Nightingale Nursing heroine Florence Nightingale was the first woman to receive the Order of Merit
> View large picture in new window

Women have been eligible for the Order from its beginning. First to receive it was Florence Nightingale in 1907, at the age of 88. Subsequent recipients have included chemist Dorothy Hodgkin in 1965, historian Dame Veronica Wedgwood in 1969, Dame Cicely Saunders in 1989, Baroness Thatcher in 1990, Dame Joan Sutherland in 1991 and Dame Ninette de Valois in 1992.

The Order is granted to members of Commonwealth realms as well as individuals from the UK. Recipients from the Commonwealth have included Mackenzie King and Lester Pearson from Canada (1947); painter Sidney Nolan (1983) and opera singer Dame Joan Sutherland (1991) from Australia; and the historian John Beaglehole from New Zealand in 1970. Honorary members from overseas have ranged from American Army General Dwight Eisenhower, made OM by George VI in 1945, to Mother Teresa of Calcutta, honoured by The Queen during her visit to India in 1983.

This fellowship of great minds meets only on rare occasions. The first gathering of Members of the Order was held by The Queen on the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Order in 1977, when a Service of Thanksgiving was held in the Chapel Royal at St. James's Palace, followed by lunch at Buckingham Palace.

The Queen has since made it a practice to invite all the holders of the Order of Merit to either a service of thanksgiving or a lunch at Buckingham Palace every five years.

This year's centenary was marked with a service of thanksgiving in the Chapel Royal at St. James's Palace on 31 October. Attended by many current members, as well as widows or widowers of former holders of the Order, the service coincided with the hallowing of the refurbished Chapel Royal for The Queen's Golden Jubilee.

After the service, the guests sat down to lunch with The Queen, Prince Philip and The Prince of Wales - who received the honour in June 2002 - in the State Apartments of St. James's Palace. 

Although a private occasion, one thing is certain. With a crowd of thinkers expert in fields as diverse as twistor theory (mathematician Sir Roger Penrose), molecular biology (Sir Aaron Klug) and modern politics (Lady Thatcher and Lord Jenkins of Hillhead), the table-talk must have been scintillating.

 

Focus
> Exhibition
> Members of the
Order of Merit  

> The refurbished
Chapel Royal

ARCHIVE
2004
December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January
2003
December
November
October
September
Search Insight
Email to a Friend
Text Only News How Do I? Children Magazine Faq's Links Search Sitemap Credits Visitor's Book