The Order of Merit is a special honour awarded to individuals of great achievement in the fields of the arts, learning, literature and science.
The Order was founded by King Edward VII at the time of his coronation in 1902, to be ‘given to such persons, subjects of Our Crown, as may have rendered exceptionally meritorious services in Our Crown Services or towards the advancement of the Arts, Learning, Literature, and Science or such other exceptional service as We are fit to recognise’.
The Order of Merit is in the sole gift of the Sovereign and is restricted to 24 members as well as additional foreign recipients.
Past British holders of the Order have included: Florence Nightingale and Lord Lister (medicine); artists Alma Tadema, Holman Hunt, Augustus John and Graham Sutherland; sculptor Henry Moore; composers Sir Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten; writers Thomas Hardy, James Barrie, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, Graham Greene and Ted Hughes; former Prime Ministers Sir Winston Churchill and Earl Attlee; General Baden-Powell (founder of the Scout Movement); Field Marshal Haig and Kitchener, and Admirals Jellicoe, Beatty and Earl Mountbatten of Burma; aircraft designer Sir Geoffrey de Havilland; and the late Cardinal Basil Hume.
There are very few foreign recipients, although those given the Order have included Dr Albert Schweitzer, General Eisenhower, Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Nelson Mandela.
There is also a military division included in the 24. Although the last member of this was Lord Mountbatten, the military division has never been abolished.
The badge is an eight-pointed cross of red and blue enamel surmounted by the imperial crown; in the centre, upon blue enamel and surrounded by a laurel wreath, are the words in gold lettering ‘For Merit’