The Order of St Michael and St George: 1818 to 2018 (part two)

The Order of St Michael and St George reaches its 200th anniversary this year. Here's the story of its second century.

KCMG insigniaThis second article (following part one) charting the history of the Order of St Michael and St George starts with its return to a peacetime role after the end of the great European war.

Post-war order

The order was not used during any major conflict after 1920, instead returning to mainly foreign and colonial use.

The main structural changes to the departments responsible for making nominations to the order included:

  • the formation of the Dominions Office in 1925, to deal with the self-governing nations of the old empire
  • the creation of the Burma Office in 1937, following that nation’s separation from India
  • the introduction of the Commonwealth Relations Office in 1947, to reflect the post-imperial settlement

Two typical progressions that show how the order functioned during the post-war period involve John Chancellor and Esme Howard. Chancellor became a companion in 1909 as secretary of the Colonial Defence Committee, and was promoted to KCMG while governor of Mauritius, while his advancement to grand cross was announced in Lloyd George’s resignation honours list of 1922 and reflected recent service as governor of Trinidad and Tobago (Gazette issue 32766).

Esme Howard began as a CMG in 1906 as consul-general for Crete, and was promoted to knight commander while envoy to Sweden, before receiving the GCMG in 1923, during his embassy to Spain.

The selection of members was shared by British and dominion ministers from the 1940s, and since then, The Gazette has made a clear distinction in reporting awards conferred on the basis of the recommendation of home and overseas ministers. The situation in Canada was complicated, as awards were made under the imperial system until 1920, after which British honours were rejected by the Canadian government, with the exception of two periods linked to the Bennett administration in the 1930s and World War 2, with the last list being issued to mark Dominion Day in 1946.

The 1939-45 war saw the Order of the British Empire filling the naval and military role that the Order of St Michael and St George had performed during the last conflict. A few individuals were promoted within the order during the war, but mainly for non-operational work, as with Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Newall, who was advanced from CMG to GCMG in 1940, when he became governor-general of New Zealand, while Lieutenant-General William Dobbie received the grand cross two years later, for his services as governor of Malta.

Around 1,400 appointments and promotions were gazetted during King George VI’s reign, with more than 700 from the dominions, colonies and protectorates. Most of the overseas places were appropriated by the Australian government, followed (in numerical terms) by Canada, New Zealand, Ceylon and Nigeria. A few nominations reflected wartime activity, such as the CMGs for Roger Makins, who served with the French Committee of National Liberation in Algiers; Major-General Gerald Templer, from the Control Commission for Germany; and Major-General John Glubb, the officer commanding the Arab Legion. The home GCMGs rarely strayed beyond Whitehall departments, although one was allocated to Viscount Portal for his work as president of the 1948 Olympic Games.

Queen Elizabeth

More than 3,600 individuals have joined the order since the accession of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952, and almost 700 have been promoted in the same period.

The coronation list of 1953 (Gazette issue 39863) demonstrated the range of the order at the start of the reign, and its continuing focus on overseas service. The grand cross was granted to the governor of Southern Rhodesia and the high commissioners to Pakistan and Malaya, with the KCMG for the secretary of the Government Hospitality Fund, the medical adviser to the Commonwealth Relations Office, the governors of Aden, the Seychelles and Sierra Leone, the ambassadors to Thailand and Uruguay, and the deputy under-secretary at the Foreign Office. The CMGs came from such diverse organisations as the Ross Institute for Tropical Hygiene and the Meteorological Office.

The nature of the home awards altered during the 1950s, reflecting a shift towards European institutions, as well as further structural changes to the ministerial departments, as the Colonial and Commonwealth Relations Offices combined to become the Commonwealth Office in 1966, and it later merged to form the present Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2018.

CMG Badge of Dame WarburtonWomen

The order was opened to women for the first time in 1965, when a DCMG was conferred on Nancy Parkinson of the British Council (Gazette issue 43529). Around 140 women have joined since then, including Anne Warburton CMG, who served as the first female ambassador from the Court of St James’s, while the first ordinary dame grand cross was Minita Gordon, the governor-general of Belize, who was invested in 1984 (Gazette issue 49665).

The order’s constitution has never included a medal of St Michael and St George, and instead more junior foreign service has usually been rewarded with admission to the lower grades of the British Empire, or to the Imperial Service Order, until that award was largely discontinued in the 1990s.

The most recent New Year list of 2018 (Gazette issue 62150) retained the overseas flavour, as well as including a less conventional award for the astronaut Helen Sharman, and appointments for the former and current national security adviser (hinting that perhaps Ian Fleming’s James Bond is the best known fictional CMG).

They were joined by the ambassadors to Ireland and Iraq and the high commissioner to Bangladesh, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office also recognised the work of staff in its Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Human Resources directorates. The CMGs from beyond Whitehall included a professor of Arctic ecology and the director general of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, who both contributed to international collaboration.

A few political appointments were made during the present reign, including a KCMG in John Major’s resignation list to reflect Malcolm Rifkind’s service as foreign secretary, while the GCMGs include Paddy Ashdown, the international community’s high representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and George Robertson, the defence secretary who later became secretary general of NATO and is the present chancellor of the Order of St Michael and St George.

The grand cross has been presented to a few foreign heads of state during informal rather than state visits, as happened in 2000, when the Queen gave the GCMG insignia to President de Marco of Malta. The link the order forged with Malta during the Regency is recalled in the insignia of Malta’s National Order of Merit, which was instituted in 1990 and uses a blue and red riband of the same pattern as the Order of St Michael and St George, and a collar which also incorporates white Maltese crosses.


The order’s membership reflects several elements, including the policy of Commonwealth governments, of which the three most active in this context were Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. The impact of the overseas lists can be seen from the following statistics, which show the Commonwealth and home numbers as reported in The Gazette from the start of the present reign to the end of February 2018:





Commonwealth lists

  • Australia





  • New Zealand





  • Papua New Guinea





  • Other










United Kingdom lists










The Commonwealth element has reduced significantly since the Queen’s accession, as nations gained their independence and developed their own honours systems. Within a decade of the coronation countries such as Cyprus, Ghana, Malta and Somaliland had made their final nominations to the order, while the 1980s saw the withdrawal of the Australian states and Fiji, followed by the departure of Mauritius and New Zealand in the 1990s.

The approach of many overseas governments towards the order differed from that of the Queen’s home ministers, who mainly used it to reward foreign service. This contrasted with the distribution in Commonwealth countries, where the order was largely used for domestic purposes, as shown by the recommendations from New Zealand’s final decade, which included the fields of broadcasting, linguistics, medicine and the wool industry.

The Commonwealth presence at New Year 2018 was restricted to one list, reporting recommendations from the government of the Bahamas and marking services to business, education and religion. The single list recalled the limited base from which the order was launched in 1818, but that base is now in the Caribbean rather than the Mediterranean. The present policy also involves the grand cross being conferred on the governors general of certain Caribbean islands, despite their small populations and the existence of local honours. Recent examples include the governor-general of Barbados, who became a GCMG, even although she already held the rank of dame of St Andrew in her nation’s Order of Barbados (Gazette issue 62195).


Seal of the orderThe ordinary and additional appointments to the order – the Crown awards – were notified officially in The London Gazette after 1868, while honorary awards were usually gazetted from the late 1870s until the early part of King George V’s reign. Almost 13,000 Crown awards were notified between 1868 and 2018, with the distribution across a few broad categories being shown below. While the classification is fairly subjective, the statistics show the clear impact of World War 1 on the membership:          

  • Foreign Office & other UK departments: 26.9 per cent
  • Defence forces (navy, army & air): 24.7 per cent
  • Australia (pre- & post-federation): 9.7 per cent
  • Canada: 3.8 per cent
  • New Zealand: 3.6 per cent
  • South Africa (pre- & post-union): 2.2 per cent
  • Colonies: 22.7 per cent
  • Others: 6.4 per cent

Appointment to the order is made by warrant signed by the sovereign and countersigned by the grand master and/or the chancellor, with a seal showing the two saints and inscribed ‘Sigillum ordinis sancti Michaelis et sancti Georgii’.

Since the Regency, nine grand masters have served the order, starting with Sir Thomas Maitland and the first Duke of Cambridge during the Hanoverian era. The second Duke of Cambridge held the office for more than 50 years until his death in 1904, and the duty then passed to George, Prince of Wales (later King George V), who left the office vacant until he nominated his son Edward, Prince of Wales, in 1917.

On his accession in 1936, King Edward VIII granted the role to his uncle, the Earl of Athlone, and two non-royal holders followed the earl’s death in 1957, with the Earl of Halifax, a former foreign secretary and ambassador, being succeeded by Earl Alexander of Tunis, a former governor-general of Canada. The royal dimension returned in 1967 with the appointment of the Queen’s cousin – Edward, Duke of Kent – as the ninth grand master.

The insignia worn by the grand master and the members of the order, with its symbols recalling the Ionian Islands, Malta and Napoleon, has not been altered in any material way since 1818. The main changes since then were a move from gold to silver-gilt in the 1880s to save cost; the addition of the crowned letters ‘MG’ to the grand master’s badge in 1905; a general reduction in the size of the badges and stars from 1910; the conversion of the CMG badge from breast to neck wear in 1917; and minor variations of style during the present reign, including a few that were introduced when women began to join the order in the 1960s.


The order’s chapel is located in St Paul’s Cathedral in London and was opened in 1906. It contains stalls for the sovereign and the officers of the order, together with a small proportion of the membership, with roughly 20 places each for the grand cross and companion grades, and 30 for the KCMGs

The chapel contains heraldic and other memorial plates, which are attached to the book rests and other locations around the building. The plates record several hundred past officers and members of the order, including some of those mentioned earlier such as John Chancellor, William Dobbie, Esme Howard and Cyril Newall. The floor also contains more elaborate heraldic memorials to a few members, including the Marquess of Linlithgow, who was the first governor-general of Australia.

The order holds two main ceremonies, investitures and annual services. The first ceremony is normally performed by the Queen or her representative after the publication of the New Year and Birthday honours lists. Some private investitures are reported in the Court Circular, as with the KCMG conferred on David Ormsby-Gore (later Lord Harlech) in 1961, when he became ambassador at Washington, where he had to deal with the Cuban missile crisis and the assassination of President Kennedy. Private presentations are also arranged for most honorary GCMGs.

The second ceremony, the annual service, has been held in St Paul’s Cathedral since the chapel was opened, apart from during the war years. The event is usually attended by the grand master, and often involves removing the heraldic banners of deceased GCMGs and erecting those of their successors. There are no installations of the kind associated with orders such as the Garter and the Bath, although some of the officials are installed.

The procedure in 1937, for example, involved the installation of the Earl of Athlone as grand master and the Marquess of Willingdon (a former governor-general of Canada) as chancellor, while the banners of Louis Mallet (ambassador to Turkey), Lord Islington (governor of New Zealand) and Percy Cox (high commissioner in Mesopotamia) were removed, and banners were set up for the Marquess of Willingdon (chancellor), Cecil Hurst (legal adviser to the Foreign Office) and Malcolm Robertson (ambassador to Argentina).

The Duke of Kent was installed as the ninth grand master of the Order of St Michael and St George in July 1968, and celebrates the 50th anniversary of his installation later this year.

About the author

Russell Malloch is a member of the Orders and Medals Research Society and an authority on British honours.

Images: KCMG Insignia (Lord Harlech); CMG Badge (Dame Anne Warburton); Seal of the Order of St Michael and St George, © Russell Malloch

See also

The Order of St Michael and St George: 1818 to 2018 (part one)