What is Victoria Cross?

Mary McMahon

The Victoria Cross is Britain's highest military honor. It can be awarded to any member of the military, regardless of rank, and to civilians working under military command. This honor is offered to people who have demonstrated considerable valor in the face of the enemy, and by tradition, it is awarded by the sitting British monarch in a ceremony in London. Receiving a Victoria Cross, also known as the VC, is a great honor, and these medals are highly prized.

The Victoria Cross is named for the British Queen Victoria.
The Victoria Cross is named for the British Queen Victoria.

This medal was developed in 1856, and originally awarded to people who had served in the Crimean War. Queen Victoria wanted to be able to award a medal which did not distinguish on the basis of rank, giving all soldiers an equal opportunity to win high honor when they fought for Britain. By tradition, the Victoria Cross is supposed to be cast from the metal of cannons which were seized during the Siege of Sevastopol. Analysis of numerous VC medals has called this tradition into question, as some older medals appear to be made from metal of Chinese origin, rather than the original cannons, which are stored under guard so that they can be brought out when a new Victoria Cross is awarded.

Since 1856, the medals have been manufactured by Hancocks of London, a jewelry company which holds numerous royal warrants. The medal takes the form of a cross pattée, a cross with arms which widen at the edges and narrow in the center, and it has an inscription which reads “for valour.” A crown and lion device is centered in the middle of the cross.

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In addition to receiving the medal, people who are awarded a Victoria Cross are also entitled to an annuity. The amount of the annuity varies, with the government determining how much should be awarded. Some recipients of the Victoria Cross have dedicated their medals to museums, and periodically, a medal comes on the market, typically from survivors of a recipient who has died. Because the Victoria Cross is rare, with less than 2,000 awarded as of 2008, the medal fetches a high price when sold at auction to collectors.

Since 1920, forfeiting the Victoria Cross has not been permitted. King George V advocated for this rule change, arguing that while other military decorations and privileges can be stripped from people, the Victoria Cross should never be taken away, even if it meant that a murderer would wear it to the gallows. Several recipients were stripped of their Victoria Crosses prior to this rule change, and their medals were retroactively restored.

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