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What's the Difference Between the M.B.E, O.B,E. and C.B.E. in British Honours?

I'm an author fascinated by the British royal family and I write about the people and traditions that are synonymous with Britain.

The crossed silver oak leaves emblem for gallantry worn on the ribbon of the Order of the British Empire.

The crossed silver oak leaves emblem for gallantry worn on the ribbon of the Order of the British Empire.

What Are M.B.E.s, O.B.E.s and C.B.E.s?

In order, lowest to highest, the three awards are:

M.B.E.: Member of the British Empire.

O.B.E : Officer of the British Empire.

C.B.E.: Commander of the British Empire.

The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’s M.B.E., O.B.E and C.B.E. were created by King George V (1865-1936) to honour people who had made invaluable contributions in non-military roles throughout World War One. For example, nurses and doctors toiling in the U.K. as their military counterparts worked on the front line.

The order and the awards are still popular and widely respected over 100 years later (except by people who deem them elitist or outdated), but today the honours extend to celebrities, from actors to dancers, writers to musicians and sportspeople to entertainers. People do not have to accept the award offered, and there have been notable refusals in the order’s history, including author C.S. Lewis, Beatle George Harrison and author Roald Dahl (both allegedly wanted knighthoods) and artist L.S. Lowry who refused every honour offered to him.

George V during the First World War. He realised that civilian awards were needed.

George V during the First World War. He realised that civilian awards were needed.

A Different Kind of Honour

The order was markedly different from other honours in that civilians and women were eligible to receive awards from its inception. Holders have proved themselves in the face of adversity.

Today, nominations for awards can be made to officials at St. James’ Palace. A committee makes its selection of proposed awards and this list is forwarded to the Prime Minister for approval and lastly to Elizabeth II.

The M.B.E.’s, O.B.E.’s and C.B.E.’s are bestowed at new year and the monarch’s official birthday, currently in June, annually. Investitures then take place at a royal palace, often Buckingham Palace, where the recipients receive their awards. Details are published by the government and in the official register The London Gazette, this publication has been in operation since Charles II's reign. (1630-1685, r. 1660-1685.)

The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire has other ranks including Companion of Honour, knights and dames. These rank higher than M.B.E., O.B.E and C.B.E.

Any recipient of an award in the order can apply to the Royal College of Arms to have a bespoke coat of arms created for them.

An Order of the British Empire M.B.E. from 1918.

An Order of the British Empire M.B.E. from 1918.

Member of the Order of the British Empire – M.B.E.

This honour recognises a significant achievement or outstanding service, very often at local community level. It is a sign that the person has positively motivated and contributed to the neighbourhood, for example through a youth club or fundraising. It is also given to public figures who have achieved and can inspire others. Olympians are frequently given these awards after a successful event at the iconic games.

There is no limit to the number of members in the order at any time but a maximum of one thousand four hundred and sixty four may be created during one year.

The badge is a cross patonce of plain silver. It is worn on the left breast by males and from a decorative bow on the left shoulder by females. A lapel pin is available for everyday wear.

Australian social activist Bessie Rischbieth (1874-1967) wearing her O.B.E. circa 1930.

Australian social activist Bessie Rischbieth (1874-1967) wearing her O.B.E. circa 1930.

Officer of the Order of the British Empire – O.B.E.

The Officer of the British Empire award is given to people who make major contributions in a particular activity or area. These people would normally be known to the nation for their endeavours, for example an explorer or an actor.

The House of Commons Select Committee suggested in 2004 that the name should be altered to Order of British Excellence to make it sound less militaristic. This did not happen and no further mention has been made of a name change.

There isn’t a limit to the number of O.B.E. holders but a maximum of eight hundred and fifty eight are permitted to be created in one year. There are over one hundred thousand people alive who have received an O.B.E.

The badge for officers is a plain gold cross patonce. The O.B.E. is worn on a ribbon on the left breast by men and on a bowed ribbon on the left shoulder by women. A lapel pin is available for everyday use. The pins were introduced in 2006.

A C.B.E.

A C.B.E.

Commander of the Order of the British Empire – C.B.E.

Commander of the British Empire is awarded to a person who deserves recognition for their innovations, efforts and achievements at a national or regional level. Internationally recognised sportspeople, writers, directors and actors are frequently awarded this after a significant role or project. Although in 2004 the House of Commons Select Committee submitted that the word Commander should be changed to Companion, this did not occur.

There is a limit of eight thousand, nine hundred and sixty holders of this honour at any time.

The badge is worn by males on a ribbon around their neck and the females wear it from a bow on their left shoulder. The circlet of the order with the badge suspended from it may be shown on a recipient’s coat of arms.

A lapel pin is available for everyday use.

2021 Queen's Birthday Honours

People from all walks of life were honoured in June 2021 to celebrate Elizabeth II's 95th birthday. These included:

C.B.E.s

Michael Adamson, C.E.O. of the British Red Cross and Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director for Age UK for her work during the Covid pandemic. Dr. Philippa Gregory, novelist, also received an award for charity work and services to literature.

O.B.E.s

Composer Eleanor Alberga, Dr. Rachel Bragg, Professor Julian Lloyd Webber, (Composer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's brother) and women's football director Kelly Simmons M.B.E.

M.B.E.s

Headteacher Sally Alexander, Devena Banerjee from the vaccine taskforce for Covid 19, Jay Blades for services to crafts and Major (retired) William White, services to his local regimental museum and community.

According to the B.B.C. there were 1129 people on the 2021 birthday honours list and 50.2% were female. 695 people were honoured for their work in their community.

Here to Stay

In a nutshell, trying to make the world a better place, either on your doorstep or further afield can lead to the bonus of a prestigious honour. Love the idea or loathe the harkening back to the empire days, the Order of the British Empire seems here to stay.

Primary Sources

© 2021 Joanne Hayle

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