Throughout history, one of the greatest honours an ordinary citizen could achieve was to be recognised and ennobled by their monarch. 

This gesture of appreciation and acknowledgement on the part of the king or queen was the very basis of the entire system of aristocracy that has endured to modern times. 

For a non-royal or non-noble person to be elevated in social stature as a reward for their great works was widely regarded as an esteemed and valuable honour. 

Even in modern times, as society has largely moved away from the aristocratic social systems and sovereign states, there’s still a great deal of respect for those ordinary people who achieve measures of greatness that are recognised but the king or queen. 

A contemporary example of this is the annual granting of Knighthoods and Damehoods to notable achievers from all areas of business and industry, as well as all levels of society. 

Yet it seems that not all of these notable achievers are grateful recipients of these royal honours. There are occasions when those who have been recognised for their worthy works or contributions to society feel strongly opposed to accepting such a reward, so much so that they publicly reject their offer of ennoblement or return their royal gift of recognition. 

This right to refuse a royal offering is not the reserve of the rich and famous – ordinary people do, on occasion, choose not to accept the offer of a noble title. Yet it tends to be the celebrity rejections that hit the newspaper headlines. It could even be argued that this publicity may have an influence on the decision to refuse such an honour. 

Here are just a few of the celebrities of recent times who have turned down knighthoods, damehoods or other esteemed royal honours such as OBEs, CBEs and MBEs. 

Celebrities Who Turned Down Knighthoods and Royal Honours

John Lennon 

The outspoken pop star John Lennon was awarded an MBE along with his fellow Beatles band members but later returned it. 

Yoko Ono and Lennon in March 1969 – Joost Evers / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

George Harrison

Ex-Beatle George Harrison also received an MBE but later chose to reject the offer of an OBE. 

David Bowie

Legendary pop icon famously turned down the offer of a royal honour not once but twice, first declining the offer of a CBE and then later rejecting the offer of a knighthood. 

L S Lowry

The famous Lancashire-born artist L S Lowry was believed to have refused a number of royal honours offered to him during his career, including a knighthood. 

John Cleese

The actor and comedian John Cleese turned down a CBE and a peerage offered in recognition of both his career and political efforts.

It’s not just male celebrities who have opted not to receive this royal honour, a number of famous women have also turned down the offer of a damehood or similar honour. 

Here are some female celebrities who have rejected royal honours. 

Dawn French & Jennifer Saunders

The comedy duo famously rejected their OBEs which had been awarded to them for their contribution to the comedy arts. 

Nigella Lawson

Cookery writer and TV personality Nigella Lawson was offered an OBE in recognition of her work but opted to turn it down. 

Nigella Lawson – Brian Minkoff- London Pixels, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Why Do Celebrities Turn Down Knighthoods? 

When celebrities refuse these famous royal honours, there’s usually great excitement in the media, with everyone wanting to know the reasons why they would reject such a time-honoured gift of recognition. 

The celebrities in question become in-demand for interviews, talk shows and soundbites that will help the curious public understand their reasoning and logic. 

This of course brings much attention and speculation to the gesture, which may well have been the intention, but it also provides an opportunity for the celebrity in question to stake a stand for something or to make public their closely held values. 

Here are some of the reasons the celebrities above shared about their decision to turn down knighthoods or damehoods. 

• Lack Of Affinity With The Monarchy

David Bowie is quoted as saying that he would never have any intention of accepting anything like a royal honour, claiming, “It’s not what I’ve spent my life working for.”

Similarly, John Cleese is reported to have explained his decision to refuse a CBE simply as describing the honour as ‘silly’. He later alluded to the fact that his offer was motivated more by political endeavours than by worthy works. 

• Not Feeling Worthy

Jennifer Saunders reportedly said of her OBE refusal; “If I felt I deserved a Damehood I’d accept it.” She went on to say that being paid so well to have fun meant that she and her costar Dawn French didn’t deserve the recognition and that it felt fake to stand alongside people who had dedicated their lives to worthy causes. 

Fellow TV celebrity Nigella Lawson cited a similar reason for turning down the offer of an OBE, explaining that she wasn’t saving lives, simply doing what she loved. 

• Political Protest

Even though legendary Beatles member John Lennon did initially accept his MBE, along with his fellow band members John, Paul and Ringo. However he later returned the gift with a note explaining his motives which included Britain’s political involvement in the conflicts of the time. 

• Avoiding A Name Change

When it comes to the painter Lowry’s refusal, it’s tempting to think that his working-class roots and devotion to the lowest ranks of society would explain his rejection of a royal honour and noble title. However, according to a close friend, the real reason was as simple as Lowry preferring not to change his name. His preference for a quiet, ordinary and private life may also have influenced his decision. 

• A Gesture Of Disappointment

Although George Harrison accepted his MBE alongside his other Beatles band members in 1965, he opted to not accept the offer of an OBE towards the end of his career. It’s believed his decision was based on the perceived slight that his award was inferior to the knighthood granted to fellow ex-Beatle Paul McCartney. 

Whatever the motives and reasons behind these famous refusals, the fact that their rejection of these royal honours are such newsworthy stories reveals just how highly regarded knighthoods and damehoods remain for a large section of the public. 

While not everyone may feel deserving of this level of recognition, or they may disagree with the gesture on moral grounds, simply receiving the offer of these honours denotes a certain level of achievement, something that the vast majority of the population still aspires to.