What is the difference between an MBE, CBE, OBE and a knighthood?

OUTSTANDING public figures and everyday heroes – such as World War Two veteran Captain Sir Tom Moore – have been honoured by the Queen with an MBE, OBE or CBE.

But many of us are confused about the prestigious awards, which are handed out twice a year in the UK. Here's all you need to know.


What’s the difference between an MBE, OBE and CBE?

The British honours system rewards people with Honours, Decorations and Medals in public recognition of their merit, service or bravery.

The most well-known awards represent different ranks in the Order of the British Empire.

Instituted in 1917 by George V, these awards were created during the First World War to reward services to the war effort by people not on the front line.

However, they are now awarded to civilians as well as members of the armed forces.

They include (in order of precedence):

Knight or Dame of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire GBE, KBE or DBE (Knight or Dame):

  • The two senior ranks of the Order of the British Empire are Knight or Dame Grand Cross, and Knight or Dame Commander. Both of these ranks entitle their members to use the title of Sir for men and Dame for women before their forename.
  • This honour is awarded to those who have made major contributions to any activity, usually at national level. Knighthoods and damehoods are traditionally presented with a touch of a sword by the King or Queen.

Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE):

  • This is awarded for having a prominent but lesser role at national level, or a leading role at regional level. You can also get one for a distinguished, innovative contribution to any area.

Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE):

  • This is awarded for having a major local role in any activity, including people whose work has made them known nationally in their chosen area.

Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE):

  • Awarded for an outstanding achievement or service to the community. This will have had a long-term, significant impact and stand out as an example to others.

Those receiving the accolades are announced a few days before the end of the year and around the Queen's state birthday.

Her Majesty celebrates two birthdays each year: her actual birthday on April 21 and her official birthday on (usually) the second Saturday in June.

British honour recipients are officially announced in The Gazette.

Anyone can nominate someone for an honour on the gov.uk website.

Famous people who are Knights and Dames include Sir David Attenborough, Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Mary Berry and Sir Winston Churchill.

Former Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish has also been knighted.

Those honoured with a CBE include Stephen Hawking, Lorraine Kelly and Helena Bonham Carter.

Can women be knighted?

There is no female equivalent to a knighthood as women are appointed to an order of chivalry.

Women who are appointed to the Most Noble Order of the Garter or the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle are given the title of Lady rather than Dame – which is used instead of the male title Sir.

What are MBEs, OBEs and CBEs awarded for?

The honours were created in 1917 by King George V during the First World War as a way of rewarding civilians and servicemen in support positions for their contribution to the war effort.

Now they are used to recognise an achievement or service to the community in any area, such as the arts, charity or education.

According to the Cabinet Office, a CBE is awarded for having a prominent but lesser role at national level, or a leading role at regional level. You can also get one for a distinguished, innovative contribution to any area.

An OBE is awarded for having a major local role in any activity, including people whose work has made them known nationally in their chosen area.

An MBE is given for an outstanding achievement or service to the community.

This will have had a long-term, significant impact and stand out as an example to others.

The New Year's Honours themselves date back to 1890 – read our history of the awards to find out more.

WHAT CAN PEOPLE GET HONOURS FOR?

  • Making a difference to their community or field of work
  • Enhancing Britain’s reputation
  • Long-term voluntary service
  • Innovation and entrepreneurship
  • Changing things, with an emphasis on achievement
  • Improving life for people less able to help themselves
  • Displaying moral courage

What is the Order of the British Empire?

The British honours system actually has several orders, mostly relating to the monarchy, military and colonial officials.

But King George V wanted to fill the gap by creating an order which would honour normal people.

However, the order has come under some criticism due to its connection with the now extinct British Empire.

The Government has considered changing the name to the Order of British Excellence, but decided not to make any changes until after the order's centenary in 2017.

Is a CBE the same as a Sir?

The CBE is the third highest of the order's five ranks.

But only the top two can use the title of Sir, for a man, or Dame, for a woman.

The second highest rank is a KBE or DBE – a Knight or Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

The top rank in the Order is a GBE – a Knight or Dame Grand Cross – but these are only given out very rarely.

But, confusingly, people can still become a Sir or a Dame without receiving a KBE or a GBE as they can be knighted separately.

Sir Elton John, for example, has a CBE but has also been made a Knight Bachelor, along with other celebs such as Sir Bruce Forsyth and Sir Ian McKellen.

Only Brits can be made a Knight Bachelor, but foreigners can be awarded an honorary KBE.

What does an MBE, OBE or CBE entitle you to?

Anyone selected for an honour will be invited to attend an "investiture" ceremony at a royal residence where the Queen, or sometimes Prince Charles, Prince William or Princess Anne, will award them with their insignia – a medal – of the order.

This usually takes place a few months after the honours list is announced, but recipients can start using their new title or letters after their name as soon as the awards are announced.

Members can also have a special element added to their coat of arms showing their membership of the order.

Who made the 2020 Queen's Birthday Honours list?

A total of 1,495 honours make up the 2020 list, with 414 given to unsung heroes who responded to the coronavirus pandemic.

Hundreds of key workers — including nurses, delivery drivers, supermarket staff and volunteers — are among those who receive honours for their selfless and caring deeds.

Mary Berry said she was "overwhelmed to receive the very great honour" of being made a Dame.

Man Utd star Marcus Rashford, 22, was awarded the MBE for services to vulnerable children during the crisis.

He said: "My mum is the real deserving recipient of the honour."

David Suchet received a knighthood in the Queen's Birthday Honours list for services to drama and charity after a distinguished history on stage and in TV.

Maureen Lipman, 74, has been made a dame for services to charity, entertainment and the arts, after being a regular presence on TV since the 1960s.

Lorraine Kelly has bagged a CBE – one of the highest honours.

Has anyone ever refused an honour?

Famous people to have rejected honours include David Bowie, who turned down an OBE in the Queen's birthday honours in 2000.

Stars to decline OBEs include celebrity cook Nigella Lawson, comedy duo French and Saunders and Fawlty Towers star John Cleese.

John Lennon is one of the few recipients to return his honour, sending back his MBE in 1969 in protest against Britain's involvement in the Nigerian civil war.

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