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Medals for bravery or participation in campaigns can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians and Romans, where plaques of brass or copper were awarded for outstanding feats of bravery. However, the first British medals to be issued and classed as such, didn’t appear until 1588 when they were struck by Queen Elizabeth I upon the defeat of the Spanish Armada. They were made from gold and silver and were fitted with rings and chains for suspension around the neck.

In 1643 King Charles I awarded a medal for conspicuous conduct to Robert Welch, for recovering the Royal Standard during the first battle of the English Civil War, the Battle of Edgehill. He thus is seen as the first British Monarch to make an award in the form of a military medal for prowess on the battlefield. In 1650 Oliver Cromwell issued the first campaign medal which was awarded to both officers and men. It was known as the Dunbar Medal and commemorated the defeat of the Scots Royalists at Dunbar. This medal too was suspended from the neck.

The first official war medal, as we know them today, was the 1815 Waterloo Medal. It was issued with a ribbon and an instruction stating ‘...the ribbon issued with the medal shall never be worn but with the medal suspended on it.’ From this time on medals were struck for nearly every engagement and later medals were introduced as honours and awards.

There is today some confusion about the difference between Honours and Awards, and Orders, Decorations and Medals. An Honour is an appointment made to an Order (eg. The Order of Australia), whilst Awards cover Decorations and Medals.

Decorations include the Victoria Cross, the Star of Courage, both the Conspicuous Service Cross and Medal. Medals cover the Member of the Order of Australia and the Medal of the Order of Australia (the term ‘medals’ includes the badges of the 4th and 5th classes of orders and decorations which are worn as medals) as well as for campaigns and long service.

A current popular method of wearing medals is in the style known as ‘court mounted’. This method of mounting has the ribbons going back behind the medals and it was designed to stop the medals ‘clinking’ against each other as the personnel moved about in the British Royal Courts.

© Warrant Officer C. JOBSON 1998

More information:
Department of Veterans’ Affairs