What is the Order of Merit?

When was the Order of Merit established in the United Kingdom? And who are the Order’s most notable recipients? Here’s all you need to know about the ‘most exclusive club in the world.’

Order of Merit

When was the Order of Merit established?

The Order of Merit was founded by Edward VII on 23 June 1902. It was founded to reward those who had provided "exceptionally meritorious service in Our Crown Services or towards the advancement of Arts, Learning, Literature, and Science."

In the Order of Wear, an official list which describes the order in which honours, decorations and medals should be worn, the Order of Merit is ranked immediately after Knights and Dames Grand Cross of the Order of The Bath and before Order of The Star of India.

What happens when someone is appointed to the Order of Merit?

The Order of Merit carries no title of knighthood, though a member is entitled to add “O.M.” after his or her name.

Once appointed to the Order, members are given a red and blue enamel badge. In the centre of the badge are the words ‘FOR MERIT’. The letters are in gold lettering and are surrounded by a laurel wreath. Since 1991, when a member dies the badge must be returned to the Queen, who then gives it to a new member.

The Queen also has a portrait painted of each member of the Order of Merit, which becomes part of the royal collection.

Who is eligible for the Order of Merit?

The Order of Merit is often referred to as the "most exclusive club in the world". This is because although all citizens of the Commonwealth realms are eligible for appointment, the Order of Merit is limited to only 24 living members at any one time.

Both men and women can be admitted into the order, with Florence Nightingale (Gazette issue 28084) the first woman to receive the honour in 1907. However, no other woman received membership again until 1965 when British chemist Dorothy Hodgkin was appointed (Gazette issue 43610).

The British monarch can also appoint foreigners as ‘honorary members.’ As well as those outside of the Commonwealth, people who are from countries in the Commonwealth of Nations which are not headed by The Queen are also considered foreigners. There have only been 11 honorary members of the Order of Merit, including the likes of Mother Teresa, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nelson Mandela. However, there have been no honorary members since the death of Mandela in December 2013.

Who has received the Order of Merit?

The first twelve members of the Order of Merit were appointed on 26 June 1902 (Gazette issue 27470). They included:

  • The Earl Roberts – a general who was one of the most successful British military commanders in history having fought in the Second Anglo-Afghan War and led British Forces to success in the Second Boer War
  • The Lord Rayleigh – a scientist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1904 "for his investigations of the densities of the most important gases and for his discovery of argon in connection with these studies"
  • William Edward Hartpole Lecky - an Irish historian who wrote the eight-volume History of England during the Eighteenth Century
  • Sir William Huggins – an English astronomer best known for his pioneering work in astronomical spectroscopy
  • George Frederic Watts – a British painter and sculptor associated with the Symbolist movement

Many of Britain’s most celebrated composers, writers, scientists and politicians have been admitted into the Order of Merit, including:

However, it’s also reported that many other British greats have refused to be members of the order, including Rudyard Kipling, A. E. Housman, and George Bernard Shaw.

Who is currently in the Order of Merit?

There are currently 19 members in the Order of Merit, with five spaces vacant since the deaths of Sir Aaron Klug (Gazette issue 54193), Sir Michael Atiyah (Gazette issue 53120), Sir Michael Howard (Gazette issue 57645), Lord May of Oxford (Gazette issue 46746) and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (Gazette issue 44611). The current members of the Order of Merit are:

See also

What is the 'Order of Wear' for British honours, decorations and medals?

American citizens with honorary British knighthoods and damehoods

Birthday and New Year honours lists (1940 to 2020)

Image: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

Publication updated: 21 September 2021

Any opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and the author alone, and does not necessarily represent that of The Gazette.