The Order of Merit, a matchless honour indeed...
Written by Clr. Simon Frame, Book Editor   
Thursday, 16 February 2012

You see, my good wenches,
How men of merit are sought after....
Falstaff, Henry IV, Part 2:
Act II, Scene IV

With the all the biography's being released this year about Her Majesty's long life and glorious reign - of which there will no doubt be more book reviews of on ACM's website - I thought I might focus on Stanley Martin's book 'The Order of Merit'.

Click here to purchase copy through The Book Depository for $43.44, post and tax-free

The Order of Merit or O.M. is one of the highest honours that the Crown bestows and was most recently in the news following the appointment of our former Prime Minister the Hon John Howard to the Order.

O.M. Reverse and Obverse of the badge

Mr Howard is one of two distinguished Australians to currently hold the Order, the other being the  Australian ecologist and academic Robert, Lord May of Oxford. The late Dame Joan Sutherland was also a member of the Order of Merit.

The late Dame Joan Sutherland O.M. greeting the Prince of Wales O.M. at the 2009 Order Luncheon in Buckingham Palace

One of the stand-out features of the Order of Merit is the fact that the Order is the only Order bestowed by the Crown - either through the royal prerogative or as recommended by a realm government - that the monarch is not a member of themself.

The idea being that the honoured are in a league of their own, and that although the Monarch bestows the Order they are not a part of the honoured. An important distinction.

This of course will change somewhat however when Prince Charles ascends the Throne, as he received the Order in 2002 for services to environmentalism and his long service as Heir to the Throne. However the point remains, he received the Order for meritorious service and not automatically as a future sovereign.

The Order of Merit carries with it no title, has one class only and its history shows that it has been bestowed upon distinguished men and women from the fields of science, medicine, government, defence, the judiciary and the arts.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, receiving his O.M. in June 2007

The international background of recipients of the Order is shown as well. Many of the recipients started off life not as British or Commonwealth subjects at all.

The versatility of the Order and disparate backgrounds and beliefs of those honoured is clear.

It is also a common misconception that the Order of Merit is an order of chivalry. Rather, as its names suggests, it is a straight forward order of merit. It has no religious affiliation, no patron saint, no velvet mantles and its members don’t swear an oath of fealty to the Sovereign of the Order.

There was a military division of this Order, but during the current reign this has been allowed to fall into abeyance.

The author's enthusiasm for the subject matter is obvious from the secondary title of this book: 'One Hundred Years of Matchless Honour'. Stanley Martin believes that the Order of Merit is actually the pinnacle of the Honours system for Great Britain and therefore essentially the Commonwealth.Honorary appointments to the Order have included Commonwealth Citizens such as Mother Theresa and Nelson Mandela.

Martin does indeed make a good argument for his belief in the pre-eminence of the O.M. in his book, which makes it both an informative and entertaining study of the Order and its members from 1902 to 2002.

He describes, somewhat controversially, the older and higher ranking orders of chivalry of the Garter and of the Thistle as "less significant".

This is dangerous territory, as the Garter is the longest continuous order of chivalry in the world. It served as the model for other Orders such as the Burgundian Golden Fleece and the French Order of the St Michael and later the Holy Ghost, as well as later orders of merit around the world. Indeed the Garters impact on European diplomacy and on the artistic and cultural endeavour in Great Britain and the Commonwealth over the centuries since it was founded in 1348AD clearly demonstrates that is very significant.

The British, and later Commonwealth Realms, Honours System as it evolved has as one of its strengths the fact that there is a place for everyone in it, from a visiting head of state to a sheep farmer. It is sometimes counter-productive to compare the various Orders as they are meant for different people and in different professional spheres who have made a contribution. In this way our own Order of Australia falls short.

But this kind of debate is one of the strengths of this book: well researched information is given, a theory put forward and facts provided to back up that the theory regarding what the author believes is the pre-eminence of the Order.

The book tracks the long march in the 19th Century to create an Order that could honour the arts and sciences, the influence of the Prussian Pour Le Merite(which is the civilian variant of the more famous Blue Max - the military division of the Pour Le Merite) and the final cajoling and tenacity of Edward VII to get his way and create an Order that was exclusively the Crowns to bestow.

Edward VII, Founder of the Order

Stanley Martin's studies and conclusions on why-and-what constitutes an honour of distinction in today's society when titles and medals seem to have less cache than they once did, is an important contribution to the study of national honours.

The author portrays with clarity the gravitas that both this Order and its recipients possess.

While the post-nominal's 'V.C' or 'O.B.E.' are more widely known by the public, it becomes obvious after looking through the many names upon whom this Order has been bestowed that those two letters O.M. are indeed a "Matchless Honour".

Edward Elgar, Florence Nightingale, Lord Kitchener, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Jan Smuts, Lawrence Olivier, E.M. Forster, Yehudi Menuhin, Isaiah Berlin and David Attenborough are just some of the amazing names of the 189 people honoured in the Order's history.

The Queen with Baroness Thatcher at the 2009 Order Luncheon at Buckingham Palace

Honorary Members have included Dwight Eisenhower and Albert Schweitzer.

It is fair to say that given the calibre of those upon whom the Order is bestowed, both substantive and honorary members, it is truly one of the highest honours in the world. Far more prestigious – and rarer – than a Nobel Prize for example.

The author presents the easily readable bios of all those upon whom this Order was bestowed up until the year 2002, the year the book was published. The biography's are sorted into Chapters of the groupings of the recipients profession: Chapter 8 – The Military Men, Chapter 9 – The Scientists, Chapter 13 – The Scholars.

Far from being a gushing analysis of this high honour, Martin delves into areas that one wouldn’t expect in this book.

Chapter 20 is entitled Those Who Turned it Down and is devoted to those who refused the honour, and why they did so.

The following Chapter is entitled The Unappointed – Who Would Not Have Disgraced It. This was the only chapter of the book I was not comfortable with. Firstly it is only the personal opinion of the author. Secondly I almost felt it was an implicit criticism of the Monarch, and her predecessors, for not bestowing it on these figures.

However the quotes throughout show that one of the reasons that the Order is held in such esteem by its recipients and in many ways was a key ingredient in them having accepted the honour, is that it is the personal gift of the Sovereign, free of governmental or political influence.

Indeed there is something rather charming and enigmatic about the way in which the Monarch - who as Stanley Martin makes clear takes soundings from others including her Private Secretary - chooses who to offer the Order of Merit to. It is completely the Sovereign's choice.

In 1996 the Queen made the pre-eminent British artist, and father of over fourteen children by several different women, the nude painter Lucian Freud a Member of the Order. Only three years later Her Majesty bestowed the Order on Cardinal Basil Hume for his services to the nation through his leadership of the Catholic Church. The versatility of the Order was shown once again.

You could not imagine two more different people than the artist David Hockey and the statesman John Howard, however their membership into the order was announced on the same day and they will formally enter the Order together later in the year.

The naysayers who commented on Mr Howard's appointment to the Order in the New Year, will be disappointed to read that "winning a referendum" was never historically a reason for the bestowal of the Order.

They will also read about the wide range of political creeds that those bestowed with the Order come from. The distinguished chemist, Dorothy Hodgkin - who is credited with developing X-ray crystallography - was a lifelong Marxist, and the South African statesman Jan Smuts was a former Boer guerrilla general.

The first Australian to receive the Order of Merit was Samuel Alexander, the Jewish -Australian philosopher in 1929. Subsequent Australians include the artist Sir Sydney Nolan and the eminent jurist Sir Owen Dixon.

As Mr Martin's book was published in 2002 – to celebrate the centenary of the Order – it does not note recent developments in the Order in the last ten years. I only mention them in this review because they show the stature in which the Order is held.

The book is illustrated throughout with many pictures of the members of the Order. As well as photographs of them, there are Spy characterisations of some and also some of the charming portraits of Members that are commissioned by the Sovereign for the records of the Order.

In Canada the Royal Victorian Order was the only prerogative Order that the Sovereign could bestow independent of Government advice.

When the Queen bestowed the Order of Merit on the former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in 2007 - made without as far as any one knows any consultation with the Canadian Government - the said Government hastily changed their Honours System so the internationally famed O.M. was a recognised as a Canadian Royal Honour second only to the Victoria Cross but ahead of the Order of Canada.

In Australia, the Government list of Honours precedence places the O.M. higher than the Companion of the Order of Australia. This is a simple recognition of the Order of Merit's pedigree and gravitas.

After reading this book it is hard not appreciate in a much greater degree both the institution that bestows this honour and those who are honoured.

Some of recipients are famous names, others less so, indeed many are sadly forgotten despite but fact that they were all giants in their respective fields.

Stanley Martin's book The Order of Merit: One Hundred Years of Matchless Honour can be bought through the Book Depository for $43.44, post and tax-free. If you order it by clicking here you will help Australians for Constitutional Monarchy.