The Order of Merit (French: Ordre du Mérite) is a dynastic order recognising distinguished service in the armed forces, science, art, literature, or for the promotion of culture. Established in 1902 by King Edward VII, admission into the order remains the personal gift of its Sovereign, the reigning monarch of the Commonwealth realms, and is limited to 24 living recipients at one time from these countries plus a limited number of honorary members. While all members receive the ability to use the post-nominal letters OM and a medallion for life, the Order of Merit's precedence amongst other honours differs between Commonwealth realms.
The first mention of a possible Order of Merit was made following the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, in correspondence between First Lord of the Admiralty The Lord Barham and William Pitt, though nothing eventuated from the idea. Later, it was thought by Queen Victoria, her courtiers, and politicians alike, that a new order, based on the Prussian order Pour le Mérite, would make up for the insufficient recognition offered by the established honours system to achievement outside of public service, in realms such as art, music, literature, industry, and science. Victoria's husband, Albert, Prince Consort, took an interest in the matter; it was recorded in his diary that he met on 16 January 1844 with Robert Peel to discuss the "idea of institution of a civil Order of Merit" and three days later he conferred with the Queen on the subject. The concept did not wither and, on 5 January 1888, British prime minister the Marquess of Salisbury submitted to the Queen a draft constitution for an Order of Merit in Science and Art, consisting of one grade split into two branches of knighthood: the Order of Scientific Merit — for Knights of Merit in Science, with the post-nominal letters KMS — and the Order of Artistic Merit — for Knights of Merit in Art, with the post-nominal letters KMA. However, Sir Frederic Leighton, President of the Royal Academy, advised against the new order, primarily because of its selection process.
It was Victoria's son, Edward VII, who eventually founded the Order of Merit on 26 June 1902 — the date for which his coronation had been originally planned — as a means to acknowledge "exceptionally meritorious service in Our Navy and Our Army, or who may have rendered exceptionally meritorious service towards the advancement of Art, Literature and Science"; all modern aspects of the order were established under his direction, including the division for military figures. From the outset, prime ministers attempted to propose candidates or lobbied to influence the monarch's decision on appointments, but the Royal Household adamantly guarded information about potential names. After 1931, when the Commonwealth of Nations came into being and the former Dominions of the British Empire became independent states, equal in status to the UK, the Order of Merit remained an honour open to all the King's realms; thus, as with the monarch who conferred it, the order ceased to be purely British.
From its inception, the order has been open to women, Florence Nightingale being the first woman to receive the honour, in 1907. Several individuals have refused admission into the Order of Merit, such as Rudyard Kipling, A. E. Housman, and George Bernard Shaw. To date, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, remains the youngest person ever inducted into the Order of Merit, having been admitted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1968, when he was 47 years of age.
All citizens of the Commonwealth realms are eligible for appointment to the Order of Merit. There may be, however, only 24 living individuals in the order at any given time, not including honorary appointees, and new members are personally selected by the reigning monarch of the 16 realms, presently Queen Elizabeth II, with the assistance of her private secretaries; the order has thus been described as "quite possibly, the most prestigious honour one can receive on planet Earth." Within the limited membership is a designated military division, with its own unique insignia; though it has not been abolished, it is currently unpopulated, the Earl Mountbatten of Burma having been the last person so honoured. Honorary members form another group, to which there is no numerical limit, though such appointments are rare; individuals from countries in the Commonwealth of Nations that are not headed by Elizabeth II are still considered foreigners, and thus are granted only honorary admissions, such as Nelson Mandela (South Africa) and Mother Teresa (India).
Upon admission into the Order of Merit, members are entitled to use the post-nominal letters OM, and are entrusted with the medallion of the order, consisting of a golden crown from which is suspended a red enamelled cross. itself centred by a disk of blue enamel, surrounded by a gold laurel wreath, and bearing in gold lettering the words FOR MERIT; the insignia for the military grouping is distinguished by a pair of crossed swords behind the central medallion. The ribbon of the Order of Merit is divided into two stripes of red and blue; men may wear their badges on a neck ribbon, while women carry theirs on a ribbon bow pinned to the left chest, and aides-de-camp may wear the insignia on their aiguillettes. Since 1991, it has been required that the insignia be returned upon the recipient's death.