Of all the honors that the Queen of England bestows on her subjects, a knighthood is easily the most coveted. To British citizens, few titles could be greater than having a “Sir” or “Dame” in front of their name. So what kind of person would turn down such a title? Surprisingly enough, many notables have done so. Here are some of them.
1. David Bowie
A few rock stars have been knighted, including Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John and Sir Mick Jagger – much to the anger of his fellow Rolling Stone, Keith Richards, who felt that Jagger should have declined … like another of Sir Mick’s friends, David Bowie. Bowie turned down a knighthood in 2003. “I would never have any intention of accepting anything like that,” he said. “I seriously don't know what it's for. It's not what I spent my life working for.”
2. Vanessa Redgrave
The Oscar-winning actress is often considered one of the “grand Dames” of the British stage. But unlike Dame Judi Dench and Dame Helen Mirren, Redgrave actually turned down the title in 1999. Known for supporting various left-wing and humanitarian causes, she might have thought (like many others) that a knighthood would make her too much a part of the establishment. Still, she was happy to be awarded the next-highest honor, a CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).
3. L.S. Lowry
The artist, famous for paintings of the Lancashire industrial scene, turned down more honors from the Queen than any other individual – a total of five, including an OBE in 1955, a CBE in 1961 and a knighthood in 1968. Always a friend to the working class, he turned down the honors because, according to a friend, he did not want to “change his situation.”
4. Alfred Deakin
The Australian statesman turned down a knighthood in 1887, when Australia was still a colony of Great Britain. He went on to become one of Australia’s founding fathers (it became a nation in 1901) and serve as Prime Minister three times. It seems that his refusal of a knighthood was due to a combination of humility (he would turn down several honors) and his preference for Australia becoming a republic, severing the last of its political links to the British Empire. Australia continued to award knighthoods (conferred by the Crown) after winning independence from Britain, even though many saw them as a remnant of the colonial past. Though it has still not become a republic, Australia finally stopped awarding knighthoods in 1983.
5. Robert Morley
The actor and playwright, famous for playing a variety of rotund eccentrics, accepted an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1957, but turned down a knighthood in 1975. Other actors to turn down knighthoods included Trevor Howard, Alistair Sim and Paul Scofield.
6. Aldous Huxley
The essayist and author (Brave New World) refused a knighthood in 1959, only four years before his death. Random fact: Huxley, C.S. Lewis and John F. Kennedy all died on November 22, 1963.
7. Doris Lessing
When she was young, the Nobel Prize-winning author was an ardent communist, rebelling against the monarchy and the British political system. In 1993, at the age of 74, she refused to be made a Dame. “Surely," she said, "there is something unlikable about a person, when old, accepting honors from an institution she attacked when young?” Some years earlier, she had turned down an OBE, as the honor came from a “non-existent empire.” In 2000, however, she accepted a Companion of Honor (CH), claiming to prefer it because “you’re not called anything."
8. Henry Moore
The great sculptor, a major figure in the modern art movement, was always keen to remember his roots as the son of a Yorkshire coal miner. Hence, he turned down a knighthood in 1951 because he didn't want to be seen as an establishment figure.
9. Rabindranath Tagore
One of India’s great hyphenates – spiritual man, the first non-European to win a Nobel Prize (for literature, in 1913), poet, songwriter, dramatist, novelist, painter, educator – Tagore was offered a knighthood by King George V in 1915… and accepted it. However, he renounced his knighthood in 1919, following the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, in which hundreds of Indians, suspected of plotting an insurrection, were gunned down by British troops.
10. Michael Faraday
Just to prove that turning down knighthoods isn’t just for modern-day rebels, Faraday (1791-1867), the great chemist and physicist who discovered the electromagnetic field, also turned down a knighthood.
11. Stephen Hawking
Over a century later, another famed scientist, Stephen Hawking, also reportedly said no to the Queen. According to some, Hawking refused the honor because he believed the UK government wasn't giving enough funding to scientific causes.
Bonus: John Lennon
While turning down returning an MBE, Lennon spelled out his reasons in a letter to the Queen:
"Your Majesty, I am returning this in protest against Britain's involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against Cold Turkey slipping down the charts. With Love, John Lennon of Bag."