The Victoria Cross – A Military History

We explore the origins of the Victoria Cross and why it’s the highest military decoration awarded in the British armed forces today.

[© Crown copyright 1970]

Victoria Cross History

Michel de Montaigne- Valour is the stability, not of legs and arms, but of courage and soul.

The Victoria Cross first came into existence on the 29th January 1856 when Queen Victoria signed a royal warrant creating the award. She later approved a Victoria Cross medal design on 3rd March the same year. Prior to 1854 the highest award for the military in the British Army was the ‘Order of the Bath’, but it was only awarded to senior officers. Due to the severity of the Crimean War it was decided that there needed to be a medal which could be awarded to anyone that, ‘displayed courage and valour in the face of the enemy against insurmountable odds’. By the time the Victoria Cross had actually been created and agreed upon hostilities had ceased; the first award was made 12 months after.

Victoria Cross Medal

Victoria Cross Medal

Queen Victoria took a special interest in the new award to be named after her, in particular the design of the medal. After the first designs of the medal were presented to her she selected one that resembled an existing campaign medal- the Army Gold Cross from the Peninsular War. Queen Victoria suggested that it should be a little smaller and made significant alteration of the Victoria Cross’s motto. Originally it read ‘for the brave’ but the Queen struck this out, changing it to ‘for valour’, in case anyone should think that soldiers who were awarded the medal were the only ones considered brave.

The initial choice of metal (copper) was not to the Queen’s liking. She stated that "The Cross looks very well in form but the metal is ugly; it is copper and not bronze and will look very heavy on a red coat." With that it was decided that the medal would be cast in bronze, supposedly the metal was taken from two melted-down cannons captured during the Crimean War.

[Image © Crown copyright 2005]

Victoria Cross Awarded

Since its introduction in 1856 the Victoria Cross has been awarded 1,357 times but it has only been issued 15 times since World War Two (January 2018 figures). The most recent Victoria Cross to have been awarded went to Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey of the Parachute Regiment for gallantry in the presence of the enemy. On the 22nd August 2013, Lance Corporal Leakey showed complete disregard for his own wellbeing and was instrumental in the evacuation of casualties during an assault on a Taliban stronghold.

Queen Victoria was meticulous with the design of the medal, ensuring it stood out. The fact that she spent the time and personally oversaw its creation is a testament to her belief in the cause and the men deemed worthy of this prestigious award.

Written by Mark Turville.

Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

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