British Orders and Honours

by Scott Mehl

From some which are very rarely and exclusively awarded, to those with tens of thousands of members, the British Honours system is perhaps the most extensive of all the world’s monarchies. The reigning monarch is Sovereign of each order, and as ‘fount of honour’, all are awarded in his or her name. Most are granted on the advice of the government, however there are several which remain the sole gift of the Sovereign. As times have changed and the British Empire no longer exists as it once did, some orders have fallen into abeyance, however none have been formally abolished. In addition to those listed below, there are several ‘national’ orders within the various realms.

Before going on, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two wonderful sources of information – specifically photographs! They are The Royal Collection and Medals of the World. In addition to this article, be sure to check out The Queen’s Orders of Chivalry – a wonderful column written several years ago by Paul James.

The current active orders of the United Kingdom are:

Order of the Garter
Order of the Thistle
Order of the Bath
Order of Merit
Order of St Michael and St George
Royal Victorian Order
Royal Victorian Chain
Distinguished Service Order
Order of the British Empire
Imperial Service Order
Order of the Companions of Honour

In addition, there are several Orders which are dormant and no longer granted, however they have never been formally abolished. The Queen remains Sovereign of each of these:

Order of Saint Patrick
Order of the Star of India
Order of the Indian Empire
Order of the Crown of India

The Most Noble Order of the Garter

HM The Queen’s Star. photo: The Royal Collection

The Order of the Garter was founded in 1348 by King Edward III, and is the oldest and most senior order in the United Kingdom. The most accepted history is that while dancing, the Countess of Salisbury’s garter slipped from her leg. The King allegedly picked it up and uttered the phrase ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ – Shame to the person who thinks evil of it – which has since become the Order’s motto.

The Order is limited to the Sovereign, the Prince of Wales and 24 members. In addition, members of the Royal Family are known as Royal Knights and Ladies, while foreign sovereigns are known as Stranger (or Extra) Knights and Ladies. Members are appointed in recognition of their public service, contributions to national life or personal service to the Sovereign. Unlike many of the British Honours, the Order of the Garter is granted solely at the discretion of the Queen, and not on the advice of the government.

New members are traditionally announced on St George’s Day, April 23rd. On the Monday of Ascot Week in June, the members of the Order gather at Windsor Castle, where new members are invested with the insignia, followed by a luncheon in the Waterloo Chamber. Afterward, they all don their robes, hats and insignia and process on foot to St George’s Chapel for a service, at which any new members are installed.

The Collar with the George suspended. photo: The Royal Collection

The Collar is made of solid gold, consists of 24 alternating gold knots and 24 medallions featuring a red rose surrounded by the garter. Suspended in the front, is the ‘George’.

The George (Great George) is a gold and enameled pendant depicting Saint George on horseback slaying a dragon. This is always worn suspended from the Collar.

The Star (as pictured above) is an eight-pointed silver star, with a central disc featuring the heraldic shield of St George’s Cross, encircled by the garter.

The Lesser George

The Badge (Lesser George) is an oval-shaped pendant, depicting Saint George on horseback slaying a dragon, surrounded by the garter. It is worn suspended from the sash, on the right hip.

The Sash is a four-inch wide band of silk, in kingfisher blue, from the left shoulder.

For ceremonial occasions, such as the Garter Service, the ceremonial vestments are worn. These include the mantle, hat, and garter.

The Mantle is made of dark blue velvet lined with white taffeta, with a hood of crimson velvet. The garter, surrounding the St George Cross, is sewn onto the left shoulder of the mantle (other than the Sovereign’s, which features the Star of the order instead). The Collar is worn overtop of the mantle, attached at each shoulder with a white bow.

The Hat is a Tudor bonnet made of black velvet with a plume of white ostrich feathers.

The Garter is made of dark blue velvet edged with gold, bearing the motto of the Order in gold lettering. It is worn by men just below the left knee, and by women on the left arm.

Links:
British Monarchy: Order of the Garter
Wikipedia: Order of the Garter
Medals of the World: Order of the Garter
Wikipedia: St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle


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The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle

Queen Victoria’s Star. photo: The Royal Collection

The Order of the Thistle was formally established in 1687 by King James VII of Scotland (James II of England). It is Scotland’s senior order and the second highest order within the United Kingdom.

The Order is limited to the Sovereign and 16 members. In addition, members of the Royal Family and foreign sovereigns can be appointed as ‘extra’ Knights and Ladies. To date, only King Olav V of Norway has been the only foreign sovereign to be admitted, in 1962. Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, as Duchess of York, was the first woman other than Queens Regnant to be admitted to the order in 1937 by special statute. The present Queen altered the statutes of the order in 1987 allowing women to be admitted as Ladies of the Thistle. Members are appointed in recognition of their public service, contributions to national life or personal service to the Sovereign. Like the Order of the Garter, the Thistle is awarded at the sole discretion of the Sovereign.

New members are traditionally announced on St Andrew’s Day, November 30th. During the Sovereign’s visit in June or July each year, a service for the Order is held at the Thistle Chapel at St Giles’ Church in Edinburgh, at which point any new members are installed. Most recently, it was announced in May 2012 that the Queen had appointed Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Earl of Strathearn and Baron Carrickfergus, a Knight of the Thistle.

The Collar with the St Andrew suspended

The Collar is made of solid gold, consisting of alternating links depicting thistle and rue. Suspended in the front is the ‘St Andrew’.

The St Andrew is a gold and enameled pendant depicting Saint Andrew, in a green gown and purple coat, holding a white saltire, on a field of gold rays. It is worn suspended from the Collar.

The Star is a silver St Andrew’s saltire, with clusters of rays between the arms. The central disc shows a circle of green enamel, bearing the motto of the order in gold. Within the circle is a thistle, in green and purple enamel, on a gold field.

The Badge is an oval-shaped pendant, depicting Saint Andrew holding a white saltire, surrounded by the motto of the order, “Nemo me impune lacessit” (“no one provokes me with impunity”). It is worn suspended from the sash, on the right hip.

The Sash is a four-inch wide band of silk, in dark green, work from the left shoulder.

For ceremonial occasions, such as the Thistle Service, the ceremonial vestments are worn. These include the mantle and hat.

HM The Queen in the Sovereign’s robes. photo: REUTERS/David Moir

The Mantle is made of dark green velvet lined with white taffeta, tied with green and gold tassels. The star of the order is depicted on the left shoulder of the mantle. The Collar is worn overtop of the mantle, attached at each shoulder with a white bow.

The Hat is made of black velvet with a plume of white ostrich feathers with a black egret or heron’s top in the middle.

Links:
British Monarchy: Order of the Thistle
Wikipedia: Order of the Thistle
Medals of the World: Order of the Thistle
Wikipedia: St Giles’ Cathedral
St Giles’ Cathedral: The Thistle Chapel

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The Most Honourable Order of the Bath

photo: The Royal Collection

The Most Honourable Order of the Bath was formally established by King George I on May 18 1725, The name comes from the medieval practice of bathing as part of the ritual of purification before being knighted. Traditionally, these knights were created in connection with coronations of a new sovereign, and occasionally other major royal ceremonies. However, it was in 1725 that King George I formally established the order as a military order with one class. Through the years, the order has been revised several times, establishing separate military and civil divisions and creating multiple classes. In addition, women were admitted to the order in 1971, with Princess Alice, The Duchess of Gloucester the only woman to date appointed to the highest rank of Dame Grand Cross. It is mostly awarded for Military service, as well as given to foreign heads of state.

Knight/Dame Grand Cross – wear the Grand Cross star on the left chest, with the badge suspended from the sash. Collars and ceremonial vestments (mantle and hat) are worn on certain days and for ceremonial events. On ‘Collar Days’, as designated by the Sovereign, the collar is worn with the badge suspended from a necklet (or bow, for women).

Knight/Dame Commander – wear the Commander’s star on the left chest, with the badge suspended from a necklet (for men), or a bow on the left breast (for women)

Companion – wear the badge suspended from a necklet (for men) or a bow on the left breast (for women).

Appointments to the Order of the Bath are made throughout the year, with a service held every four years at the Henry VII Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey. The service is presided over by the Grand Master of the Order, while the Sovereign attends only every other service.

The Collar with the Badge suspended. photo: The Royal Collection

The Collar is made of gold, features alternating imperial crowns and grouping of flowers (roses, thistles, and shamrocks), connected by silver knots.

The Star is an eight-point silver star with a central disc featuring three crowns in gold, surrounded by a red band with the order’s motto in gold lettering. For the Military Division, the star features a Maltese cross on top of the silver star, as well as the center disc being surrounded by laurel branches and beneath it, a scroll with the words “Ich Dien” (I serve) in gold. (For Knight/Dame Commanders, an eight-point silver cross pattée is used in place of the silver cross.)

The Badge is a gold oval with three crowns and the three flowers (roses, thistles, and shamrocks) emanating from a scepter on the reverse. This is then surrounded by a ring with the order’s motto. For the Military Division, the badge is similar to the star, without the silver star or cross pattée in the background.

The Sash is of crimson silk, worn over the right shoulder.

For ceremonial occasions, the ceremonial vestments are worn. These include the mantle and hat.

The Mantle is made of crimson satin lined with white taffeta, with a representation of the star on the left side. It is tied with a cordon of white silk, with two tassels of crimson silk and gold. The Collar is worn overtop of the mantle, attached at each shoulder with a white bow.

The Hat is made of black velvet, high-crowned with an upright plume of white feathers at the front.

Links:
Wikipedia: Order of the Bath
Medals of the World: Order of the Bath
Wikipedia: Henry VII Lady Chapel
Westminster Abbey: Order of the Bath

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The Order of Merit

photo: The British Monarchy

The Order of Merit was established by King Edward VII in 1902 to recognize service in the military, science, arts and literature, and promotion of culture. The order is limited to the Sovereign and 24 members from Commonwealth realms. In addition, honorary members can be appointed from other nations. There is a military division included in the 24 members, however, this has not been awarded since 1965, to Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Like the Orders of the Garter and Thistle, the Order of Merit is granted at the sole discretion of the Sovereign, in a single class.

Unlike many of the other honours, the Order of Merit is usually not included in the twice-annual Honours Lists. Instead, each appointment is announced separately, and new members are invested privately by the Queen, or at one of the investitures held throughout the year. The members come together once every five years for a service at the Chapel Royal, St James’ Palace. This service is usually held in October, the last being in 2012.

The Badge of the order is a red and blue enameled cross topped with a gold imperial crown; at the center, a blue-enameled disc with ‘For Merit’ in gold, circled in white enamel, all surrounded by a gold wreath of laurel. The reverse features the Sovereign’s monogram in the center of the disc. The military division featured crossed swords at the center of the badge.

The Ribbon of the order is comprised of equal stripes of red and blue. Men wear the badge suspended from a neck ribbon, while women wear it from a bow on the left shoulder.

Links:
Wikipedia: Order of Merit
Medals of the World: Order of Merit

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The Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George

photo: Medals of the World

The Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George was established on April 28, 1818 by the Prince Regent, and is granted to recognize “services rendered to the Crown in relation to the foreign affairs of the Empire.” The order consists of the Sovereign, a Grand Master (since 1967 HRH The Duke of Kent), and up to 125 Knights/Dames Grand Cross, 375 Knight/Dame Commanders, and 1750 Companions. In addition, members of the Royal Family and foreigners can be appointed as extra, or honorary, members. A service is held every four years at a chapel in St Paul’s Cathedral, at which time any new Knights/Dames Grand Cross are installed in the chapel.

Knight/Dame Grand Cross – wear the star on the left chest, with the badge suspended from a sash worn from the right shoulder. On occasions when the collar is worn, no sash is worn and the badge is suspended from the collar. In addition, the Knights/Dames Grand Cross wear the mantle on ceremonial occasions.

Knight/Dame Commander – wear the star on the left chest, with the badge suspended from a necklet for men, or a ribbon on the left shoulder for women.

Companion – wear the badge suspended from a necklet for men, or a ribbon on the left chest for women.

The Star of the Knight/Dame Grand Cross is a seven-armed star of silver, with gold rays between each pair of arms. (For Knight/Dame Commander, the star is an eight-pointed star formed by two Maltese crosses, and doesn’t include the gold rays.) Both feature a red St George’s cross. The center disc features a depiction of St Michael trampling Satan, encircled with a blue ring bearing the motto of the Order – Auspicium Melioris Aevi (Token of a better age).

The Badge of the order is a seven-armed star in white enamel. The central disc features a depiction of St Michael trampling Satan on the front, and St George on horseback slaying a dragon on the back. Both are circled by a blue ring with the motto of the Order.

The Sash of the order is Saxon blue with a central crimson stripe.

The Collar of the order is of gold, with alternating links featuring crowned lions, Maltese crosses, and the ciphers ‘SM’ and ‘SG’. At the center are two winged lions each holding a book and seven arrows, surmounted by an imperial crown. The collar is worn on certain “collar days” throughout the year, as well as ceremonial occasions.

The Queen in ceremonial robes. photo: The Royal Collection

The Mantle is worn on ceremonial occasions such as coronations and investitures. It is Saxon blue satin lined with crimson silk, tied with a cordon of blue and scarlet silk and gold, with two tassels. The star of the order is depicted on the left chest. The collar is worn overtop of the mantle, attached at each shoulder with a white bow.

Links:
Wikipedia: Order of St Michael and St George
Medals of the World: Order of St Michael and St George
Wikipedia: St Paul’s Cathedral
St Paul’s Cathedral: Official Site

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The Royal Victorian Order

photo: Medals of the World

The Royal Victorian Order was established by Queen Victoria on April 21, 1896, and is granted at the sole discretion of the Sovereign, for personal service to the Monarchy. In addition to citizens of Commonwealth realms, the RVO is often awarded to foreigners, particularly during State visits. The official chapel of the order is the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy. However, due to limitations on space for the large number of members, services are instead held every 4 years at St George’s Chapel, presided over by the Sovereign and the Grand Master (since 2007, the Princess Royal). The Royal Victorian Order is granted in five classes, as well as a medal in three grades – gold, silver, and bronze.

Knight/Dame Grand Cross – wear the star on the left chest, with the badge suspended from a sash worn from the RIGHT shoulder. On occasions where the collar is worn, no sash is worn and the badge is suspended from the collar. In addition, the Knights/Dames Grand Cross is worn on the mantle on ceremonial occasions.

Knight/Dame Commander – wear the star on the left chest, with the badge suspended from a necklet (for men) or a bow on the left shoulder (for women).

Commander
– men wear the badge on a ribbon on the left chest; women, on a bow on the left shoulder.

Lieutenant – men wear the badge on a ribbon on the left chest; women, on a bow on the left shoulder.

Member – men wear the badge on a ribbon on the left chest; women, on a bow, on the left shoulder.

The Collar of the order contains octagonal links depicting a gold rose on a blue background, alternating with longer links featuring one of four inscriptions relating to Queen Victoria – ‘Victoria’, ‘Britt. Reg.’ (Queen of the Britains), ‘Def. Fid.’ (Defender of the Faith), and ‘Ind. Imp’ (Empress of India). At the center is a larger medallion with an image of Queen Victoria atop a saltire, all on a blue and red enameled background.

The Star of the order features a depiction of the badge atop an eight-point silver star for Knights/Dames Grand Cross. For Knights/Dames Commander, the badge is depicted atop a silver maltese cross with silver rays between the arms.

The Badge of the order is a white-enameled Maltese Cross, with a central disc topped with a Tudor crown. The disc features a red enameled field bearing Queen Victoria’s cipher in gold, all surrounded by a blue enameled ring with ‘VICTORIA’ in gold.

The Sash is blue with narrow red-white-red stripes at the outer edge. For foreign members, there is also a narrow central white stripe. This is used for all the ribbons and bows as well.

The Medal, issued in Gold, Silver, and Bronze, features the name and image of the reigning sovereign (at the time of award), with ‘DEI GRATIA REGINA (or REX) F.D. (by the grace of God, Queen (or King), Defender of the Faith). On the reverse is the sovereign’s cipher within a laurel wreath.

The Mantle is worn by Knights/Dames Grand Cross on certain ceremonial occasions. It is blue satin with red trim, lined with white satin, and tied with a cordon with two tassels. The Star of the order is depicted on the left chest. The Collar is worn overtop of the mantle, attached at each shoulder with a white bow.

Links:
Wikipedia: Royal Victorian Order
Medals of the World: Royal Victorian Order
Wikipedia: Chapel of the Savoy

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The Royal Victorian Chain

photo: Medals of the World

The Royal Victorian Chain is an award established by King Edward VII in 1902, as a personal recognition from the Sovereign. It is similar in appearance to the Royal Victorian Order, although it is separate from that Order. There is no precedence accorded to its recipients and is awarded at the sole discretion of the Sovereign.

The Chain is of gold, featuring alternating links featuring a Tudor rose, a thistle, a shamrock and a lotus flower, representing England, Scotland, Ireland and India). At the center is a red-enameled cipher of King Edward VII, surrounded by a laurel wreath (for men), topped with an imperial crown. Suspended from the cipher is a badge, identical to the badge of the Royal Victorian Order.

Men wear the chain as a collar, while women wear a bow on the left shoulder, with the four emblems linked to the cipher, with the badge suspended.

photo: Medals of the World

Links:
Wikipedia: Royal Victorian Chain
Medals of the World: Royal Victorian Chain

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The Distinguished Service Order

The Distinguished Service Order was established on September 6, 1886 by Queen Victoria, as a way of recognizing officers in the armed forces for distinguished service during wartime. Although occasionally issued to junior officers, it has traditionally only been granted to senior officers in the various armed forces.

The insignia is a white-enameled cross, edged in gold. At the center is a red-enameled disc bearing an Imperial Crown in gold, the entire disc being surrounded by a green enameled laurel wreath. The reverse is almost identical, with the cypher of the current Sovereign in place of the Imperial Crown. The cross is suspended from a ribbon framed at the top and bottom by gold bars engraved with laurel. The ribbon is red with blue edges. Additional bars, in plain gold, can be awarded for further distinguished service, and are worn affixed to the ribbon.

Links:
Wikipedia: Distinguished Service Order
Medals of the World: Distinguished Service Order

 

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The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire

The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire was founded by King George V in 1917, and is awarded for ‘distinguished service to the arts and sciences, public services outside the Civil Service and work with charitable and welfare organizations of all kinds’. It is the most commonly awarded Order, with over 100,000 living members throughout the Commonwealth realms, as well as honorary members from foreign nations. A service is held every four years at St Paul’s Cathedral, most recently in 2012, presided over by the Sovereign and the Grand Master (since 1953, The Duke of Edinburgh). The order is granted in five classes.

Knight/Dame Grand Cross – wear the star on the left chest, with the badge suspended from a sash worn from the right shoulder. On occasions when the collar is worn, no sash is worn and the badge is suspended from the collar. In addition, the Knights/Dames Grand Cross wear the mantle on ceremonial occasions.

Knight/Dame Commander – wear the star on the left chest, with the badge suspended from a necklet for men, or a ribbon on the left shoulder for women.

Commander – wear the badge suspended from a necklet for men, or a ribbon on the left shoulder for women.

Officer – wear the badge suspended from a ribbon, or bow for women, on the left chest.

Member – wear the badge suspended from a ribbon, or bow for women, on the left chest.

The Star of the Order is an eight-pointed silver star for Knights/Dames Grand Cross. Knights/Dames Commander wear a smaller four-pointed star with small silver rays between each arm. At the center of each is a depiction of King George V and Queen Mary, encircled by a crimson enameled ring with the motto of the order – ‘For God And The Empire’ – in gold.

The Badge of the Order is a cross patronce with the same central disc as appears on the star. The reverse features the cypher of King George V, also encircled with the motto. The cross is topped with an imperial crown. For Knights/Dames Grand Cross, Knights/Dames Commander, and Commanders, the cross is of blue enamel, with the circlet in crimson enamel; for Officers it is all in gold; for Members it is in silver.

The Sash of the Order is rose-pink with pearl-grey stripes on the edge. For the Military Division, there is also a pearl-grey central stripe.

The Collar of the Order is of gold, featuring alternating links featuring the Royal Arms, and the cypher of King George V. These are linked with gold cables depicting lions and crowns.

The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh in ceremonial robes. photo: Zimbio

The Mantle is worn on ceremonial occasions. It is crimson silk lined with pearl grey silk tied, with the star of the order depicted on the left chest. The Collar is worn overtop of the mantle, attached at each shoulder with a white bow.

Links:
Wikipedia: Order of the British Empire
Medals of the World: Order of the British Empire – Civil Division
Medals of the World: Order of the British Empire – Military Division
Wikipedia: St Paul’s Cathedral
St Paul’s Cathedral: Official Site

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The Imperial Service Order

Imperial Service Order (for men) during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. photo: Medals of the World

The Imperial Service Order was established by King Edward VII in 1902 and was awarded for “long and meritorious service” in the Civil Service. There is one class – Companion – as well as the Imperial Service Medal. The Order is no longer awarded, but the Medal remains actively granted.

Imperial Service Order (for women) during the reign of King George V. photo: Medals of the World

The insignia for the Order features a central disc of gold, with the cipher of the current Sovereign surrounded by the motto ‘For Faithful Service’. The disc is topped with an Imperial Crown. For men, the disc is backed by an eight-point silver star. For women, it is surrounded by a silver laurel wreath. Men wear the insignia suspended from a ribbon on the left chest, while women wear it suspended from a bow on the left shoulder. The Ribbon is red with a wide blue stripe at the center.

Imperial Service Medal

The Medal is a silver disc bearing the image of the current Sovereign. The reverse has an image of a man resting after work, with the motto.

Links:
Wikipedia: Imperial Service Order
Medals of the World: Imperial Service Order


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Order of the Companions of Honour

The Order of the Companions of Honour was established in June 1917 by King George V and is awarded for recognized services of national importance, often in the fields of the arts, literature, music, science, politics, industry and religion. Awarded in a single class – Companion – the order is limited to the sovereign and 65 members from Commonwealth realms, in addition to honorary members from other countries.

The insignia features a gold panel depicting an oak tree, with a shield of the Royal Arms hanging from one branch. Next to the tree is a mounted knight in armor. The panel is surrounded by a blue enameled oval, with the motto of the order – ‘In Action Faithful and in Honour Clear’ – in gold. The oval is topped by an imperial crown. Men wear the insignia suspended from a neck ribbon of crimson with gold threaded edges. Women wear it suspended from a bow on the left shoulder.

Links:
Wikipedia: Companions of Honour
Medals of the World: Companions of Honour

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The Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick

Queen Victoria’s Star. photo: The Royal Collection

The Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick was established by King George III in 1783, as the senior order in Ireland, and third most senior order within the British honours. The first member (part of the original fifteen Knights) was Prince Edward, the future Duke of Kent and father of Queen Victoria. The order was later expanded to 22 members. After the establishment of the Irish Free State, only for new members were appointed, the last being the future King George VI. The last living member was the Duke of Gloucester, who died in 1974.

Links:
Wikipedia: Order of St Patrick
Medals of the World: Order of St Patrick

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The Most Exalted Order of the Star of India

Queen Victoria’s Star. photo: The Royal Collection

The Most Exalted Order of the Star of India was established by Queen Victoria on June 25, 1861, and is the fifth highest order within the British honours. However, it has not been awarded since 1948, and the last living member died in 2009. It was granted in three classes – Knight Grand Commander, Knight Commander, and Companion.

Links:
Wikipedia: Order of the Star of India
Medals of the World: Order of the Star of India

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The Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire

photo: The Royal Collection

The Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire was established by Queen Victoria in 1878, and was awarded in three classes – Knight Grand Commander, Knight Commander, and Companion. It has not been awarded since 1947, and the last living member died in 2010.

Links:
Wikipedia: Order of the Indian Empire
Medals of the World: Order of the Indian Empire

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The Imperial Order of the Crown of India

photo: Medals of the World

The Imperial Order of the Crown of India was established by Queen Victoria in 1878, as an order only for women. Queen Elizabeth II remains the sole living member of the order, having been granted the order, along with her sister Princess Margaret, in 1947.

Links:
Wikipedia: Order of the Crown of India
Medals of the World: Order of the Crown of India

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