Birthday Honours: All the people who've turned down an honour from the Queen or King

Sir Dr. Brian May, musician, songwriter and animal Welfare Advocate, from Windlesham, is made a Knight Bachelor by King Charles III at Buckingham Palace.
-Credit: (Image: PA)

For many it's the honour of a lifetime, to receive recognition from the monarch for your lifetime's work. But not everyone feels the same about being offered a New Year or birthday honour from the King or Queen. In most cases of course we never find out who has turned them down. Most the time the offer of an honour is rejected privately. But the odd few are more vocal about it.

There have also been occasional leaks from official sources over the years. And then a handful have even accepted and later renounced an honour. In a bid to avoid friction or controversy, potential recipients are contacted before any public announcement to confirm in writing that they wish to be put forward for an honour.

During the Queen’s 70 years on the throne the contribution of many thousands of people – some well-known and many lesser-known – were recognised in the biannual honours lists, which were published between May and June on the monarch’s official birthday and at new year. This year's New Year's list it will of course again be King Charles' honours announcement.

But there have been a number of well-known people who have turned it down including authors, painters, and music stars like Cardiff-born author Roald Dahl, singer David Bowie, and film director Alfred Hitchcock. The artist L.S. Lowry declined four different honours on five separate occasions, which is currently a record.

When approached about six weeks before the announcement, several personalities have responded with a polite ‘no’ to the Queen on more than one occasion. In 2012 the Cabinet Office confirmed 277 people had declined a New Year or birthday honour from 1951 to 1999. Although once rare to admit publicly after the official list was released it became more common for stars to speak out.

In 2003, the Sunday Times published a list of almost 300 people who had declined an honour between 1951 and 1999. In 2020, the Guardian reported based on a Freedom of Information request, that the number of people refusing an honour in 2020 was 68 out of 2,504 offered, or 2.7%.

Who has refused an honour?

Back in 2003 a list of living celebs who had refused gongs was leaked, which included David Bowie and Helen Mirren (though she later accepted a damehood). We've looked at some of the big names who have said "No thanks".

Michael Sheen

Michael Sheen holding his OBE
Michael Sheen wasn't alone in deciding to return a major honour -Credit:Getty Images

After receiving a Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2009 for services to drama, the Welsh actor quietly handed back the award in 2017 after looking into the history of the relationship between England and Wales for a lecture.

"By the time I had finished writing that lecture...I remember sitting there going, 'Well, I have a choice — I either don't give this lecture and hold on to my OBE, or I give this lecture and I have to give my OBE back,'" Sheen said in a conversation with The Guardian columnist Owen Jones in 2020.

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders attending the Glamour Women Of The Year Awards in 2016
-Credit:David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

The comedy pairing turned down OBEs "for services to comedy drama" in 2001. It was only later they explained they had rejected the honour. Saunders subsequently told Source magazine: “If I felt I deserved a Damehood I’d accept it. At the time, we felt that we were being paid very well to have a lot of fun. It didn’t seem right somehow. We didn’t deserve a pat on the back. It felt a bit fake to stand alongside people who devoted their lives to truly worthy causes.”

David Bowie

David Bowie
David Bowie -Credit:PA/Sukita and The David Bowie Archive

Bowie himself later explained his decision not to join the list of musical knights including Sir Mick Jagger, Sir Paul McCartney, and Sir Elton John. He said: “I would never have any intention of accepting anything like that. I seriously don’t know what it’s for. It’s not what I spent my life working for.”

When asked about Jagger accepting the honour he said: “It’s not my place to make a judgment on Jagger – it’s his decision. But it’s just not for me.”

Roald Dahl

Author Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl -Credit:PA

The Cardiff-born author of some of the world's best-loved children's books, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, rejected a knighthood in the 1986 New Year’s Honours. The information was revealed by a Freedom of Information Act submission by the Telegraph. However, the reason for turning down the honour wasn’t included.

Nigella Lawson


The celebrity chef has revealed in the past that she turned down the offer of an OBE in 2001 saying: “I’m not saving lives and I’m not doing anything other than something I absolutely love.”

Stephen Hawking

Professor Stephen Hawking
Professor Stephen Hawking -Credit:Joe Giddens/PA Wire

In 2008 Hawking said he had been approached with an offer of a knighthood in the late 1990s but had turned it down. His decision was later said to have been down to the government's dealing with science funding and cuts. He had already been appointed a CBE.

Paul Weller

The musician rejected his CBE in 2006. In a statement his spokesperson said: “Paul was surprised and flattered but it wasn’t really for him.”

John Lennon

John Lennon of The Beatles in Bangor August 1967
Paul Weller

The Beatle initially accepted an MBE but, later, in 1969, he decided to return it in protest of Britain’s foreign policies. In a letter, he explained: “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.”

John Cleese

John Cleese
John Lennon of The Beatles -Credit:Daily Post Wales

The Monty Python star was offered a CBE in 1996 but said they were "silly". He was offered a peerage by Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown in 1999 but declined because he felt staying in England during the winter months to fulfil his role as a working peer was "too much of a price to pay".

George Harrison

Ringo Starr (left) and George Harrison (right) of The Beatles face the press on the news that their manager Brian Epstein has died. The group has heard the news whilst on a meditation weekend in Bangor, north Wales.  Picture taken 27th August 1967
John Cleese -Credit:Getty Images

The former Beatle turned an OBE down in 2000 – after Paul McCartnery was awarded a knighthood. Every Beatles member was awarded an MBE in 1965 though John Lennon returned his. It's thought he was put forward for his contribution to music but there was speculation Harrison would have been insulted that bandmate McCartney got his knighthood three years before. “Whoever it was who decided to offer him the OBE and not the knighthood was extraordinarily insensitive,” friend Roy Connolly told the Independent. “George would have felt insulted – and with very good reason.”

Ken Loach

Nuneaton-born filmmaker Ken Loach
Ringo Starr (left) and George Harrison (right) -Credit:Mirrorpix

Ken Loach turned down an OBE in 1977. His films focus on social issues such as poverty and homelessness. He told the Radio Times in 2001: “It’s all the things I think are despicable: patronage, deferring to the monarchy, and the name of the British Empire, which is a monument of exploitation and conquest. I turned down the OBE because it’s not a club you want to join when you look at the villains who’ve got it.”

Jon Snow

Nuneaton-born filmmaker Ken Loach -Credit:Dominic Lipinski/PA
Nuneaton-born filmmaker Ken Loach -Credit:Dominic Lipinski/PA

Having declined an OBE in 2000, the former Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow went on to make a documentary in 2002 entitled Secrets of the Honours System. He remains critical of the use of the term ‘Empire’ in our honours system. “I tried to find out why I’d been given it and was unable to get a clear answer or, indeed, to find out who had proposed me," he said afterwards.

Danny Boyle

Producer and director Danny Boyle
Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow -Credit:Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

Film director Danny Boyle turned down an honour because he thought it was "was wrong" to claim credit for his work as the man behind the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. "It's just not me," he said, adding that thousands of people were involved in executing the ceremony.

“You can make these speeches about ‘this is everybody’s work, blah blah blah’. And you’ve got to mean it, and I did mean it, and it is true, and it’s the only way you can carry on something like that: through the efforts of all the people. I don’t know whether I’ll ever get invited back to the palace.”

Bernie Ecclestone

Producer and director Danny Boyle -Credit:Getty Images
Producer and director Danny Boyle -Credit:Getty Images

The former Formula One Group's chief executive, who pleaded guilty to fraud for failing to declare £400m held in a trust, turned down an honour in the early 2000s stating in a 2019 interview that while he was glad if he had done some good, this was not his main intention when setting out in business, so he did not feel he deserved an honour.

LS Lowry

The famed painter is believed to hold the record for the most refusals, having reportedly turned down five honours, including a knighthood, a CBE, and an OBE. His close friend Harold Riley later revealed that the artist was a private and guarded person who would not have wanted to change his name, which contributed to his decision not to accept the honours.

Huw T Edwards

The Welsh trade unionist and Welsh Labour politician was uncomfortable with honours and refused a knighthood on at least two occasions in subsequent years. He had previously accepted an MBE, later renouncing it.

Rudyard Kipling

Former Formula One Group's Chief Executive Bernie Ecclestone -Credit:AP
Former Formula One Group's Chief Executive Bernie Ecclestone -Credit:AP

The writer and poet declined a knighthood in 1899 and again in 1903. His wife said that Kipling felt he could "do his work better without it". Kipling also declined the Order of Merit in 1921 and again in 1924. Kipling expressed his own view on the importance of titles and poetry in his poem "The Last Rhyme of True Thomas".

Honor Blackman

-Credit:Getty Images
-Credit:Getty Images

Before her death in 2020, the Bond actress was a vocal supporter of Republic, the campaign for an elected head of state in the UK – so it’s hardly surprising that she turned down a CBE in 2002. Blackman also publicly criticised fellow Bond star Sir Sean Connery for his tax evading habits. “I don’t think you should accept a title from a country and then pay absolutely no tax towards it,” she said in 2012, “I don’t think his principles are very high.”

Benjamin Zephaniah

The poet, who died this year, publicly rejected an OBE in 2003 in protest at British government policies and the British Empire. Writing in the Guardian, he said the word 'empire' “reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised." The writer described himself as "profoundly anti-empire".

Jim Broadbent

The national treasure turned down an OBE in 2002, humbly stating that he wasn’t comfortable with actors receiving Royal recognition.

“I think [honours] ought to go to those who really help others,” he told the Telegraph. “Besides, I like the idea of actors not being part of the Establishment. We’re vagabonds and rogues.”

Broadbent then went on to take issue with the system’s subtext, saying: “I don’t think the British Empire is something that I particularly want to celebrate.”

Albert Finney

Actress Honor Blackman -Credit:Getty Images
Actress Honor Blackman -Credit:Getty Images

The late actor declined a CBE in 1980, and a knighthood in 2000. In a scathing attack on the honours system, the Bourne star described the idea of knighting people as a disease, adding that it “perpetuates snobbery.”

Andrew Davies

The Welsh screenplay writer, best known for House of Cards and his adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, is reported to have turned down an honour but no reason has been given.

Alan Rickman

Alan Rickman  has died from cancer aged 69

The late actor is said to have turned down a CBE during his career. However, he never made his reasoning public at the time. There has since been a posthumous campaign to get Rickman knighted, but so far there’s been no talk of it happening.

John Lydon


The famously-anti British establishment was reportedly offered an MBE. A few decades before, he was part of the Sex Pistols when their song 'God Save the Queen' was released in the week of the Queen's silver jubilee. Not surprisingly, he turned it down.