Although the Anglo-Saxon monarchs are known to have rewarded their loyal subjects with rings and other symbols of favour, it was the Normans who introduced knighthoods as part of their feudal government. The first English order of chivalry, the Order of the Garter, was created in 1348 by Edward III. Since then, the system has evolved to address the changing need to recognise other forms of service to the United Kingdom.
As the head of state, the Sovereign is the "fount of honour", but the system for identifying and recognising candidates to honour has changed considerably over time. Various orders of knighthood have been created (see below) as well as awards for military service, bravery, merit, and achievement which take the form of decorations or medals. Most medals are not graded. Each one recognises specific service and as such there are normally set criteria which must be met. These criteria may include a period of time and will often delimit a particular geographic region. Medals are not normally presented by the Sovereign. A full list is printed in the "order of wear", published (infrequently) by the London Gazette.
Honours are split into classes ("orders") and are graded to distinguish different degrees of achievement or service, according to various criteria. Nominations are reviewed by honours committees made up of government officials and private citizens from different fields, who meet twice a year to discuss the candidates and make recommendations for appropriate honours to be awarded by the Queen.
A list of approximately 1,350 names is published twice a year, at the New Year and on the date of the Sovereign's (official) birthday. Since their decisions are inevitably subjective, the twice-yearly honours lists often provoke criticism from those who feel strongly about particular cases. Candidates are identified by public or private bodies, by government departments, or are nominated by members of the public. Depending on their roles, those people selected by the honours committee are submitted either to the Prime Minister, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, or Secretary of State for Defence for their approval before being sent to the Sovereign for final approval. Certain honours are conferred solely at the Sovereign's discretion, such as appointments to the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Thistle, the Royal Victorian Order, and the Order of Merit. The honour's insignias are then presented by the Sovereign or her designated representative. The Prince of Wales, the Duke of Cambridge and the Princess Royal have deputised for the Queen at investiture ceremonies at Buckingham Palace.
By convention, a departing prime minister is allowed to nominate Prime Minister's Resignation Honours, to reward political and personal service. In recent history, only Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have not taken up this privilege (although Brown did issue the 2010 Dissolution Honours to similar effect).
The current system is made up of six orders of chivalry and four orders of merit. The statutes of each order specify matters such as the size of the order, the use of post-nominal letters and insignia design and display.