Declining a British honour

Declining a British honour

The following is a partial list of people who have declined a British honour, such as a knighthood or an honour, usually within the Order of the British Empire. In most cases, the honour was rejected privately; others were rejected publicly, or accepted and then returned later, as with John Lennon and Rabindranath Tagore.

Nowadays potential recipients are contacted by Downing Street, well before any public announcement is made, to confirm in writing whether they wish to be put forward for an honour. Therefore, those who now decline an honour when it is announced normally will have indicated acceptance beforehand, but not always (e.g. Keith Hill).

Some potential recipients have rejected one honour then accepted another one (such as Sir Alfred Hitchcock[1], or have initially refused an honour then accepted it, or have accepted one honour then declined another (such as actors Robert Morley and Vanessa Redgrave[2]), or refused in the hope of another (Roald Dahl refused being decorated as Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE),[1] allegedly because he wanted a knighthood so that his wife would be Lady Dahl).[citation needed]

Sometimes a potential recipient will refuse a knighthood or peerage, but will accept an honour that does not carry a title, such as the Order of Merit (OM) or Order of the Companions of Honour (CH): Bertrand Russell, Paul Scofield, Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter (although Pinter's widow, Lady Antonia Fraser, later received a DBE),[3] David Hockney, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Augustus John, Francis Crick and Paul Dirac are examples of this list category.

Many modern examples were identified in December 2003 when a confidential document containing over 300 names of such people was leaked to The Sunday Times.[4]


Honours declined


  • In 1657, Oliver Cromwell, already Head of State and head of Government, was offered the crown by Parliament as part of a revised constitutional settlement; he had been "instrumental" in abolishing the monarchy. Cromwell agonised for six weeks over the offer. In a speech on 13 April 1657 he gave his opinion that the office of monarch, once abolished, should stay so: “I would not seek to set up that which Providence hath destroyed and laid in the dust, and I would not build Jericho again”.[5]







Life peerage (barony)

As a part of the House of Lords reform in 1999, several members of the Royal family were offered life peerages, which would have allowed them the right to sit in the House of Lords, but all were declined.[13] They included:



Appointment to the Order of Merit (OM)

  • A. E. Housman, poet and classical scholar (in 1929)[28]
  • George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright, critic, and polemicist (in 1946; Shaw replied that "merit" in authorship could only be determined by the posthumous verdict of history).[26] Shaw had also wanted to decline a Nobel Prize for literature in 1925, but accepted it at his wife's behest as honouring Ireland. He did reject the monetary award, requesting it be used to finance translation of Swedish books to English.[29]

Appointment as a Companion of Honour (CH)

  • Francis Bacon, artist (in 1977; had previously declined appointment as CBE in 1960)[1]
  • Robert Graves, poet and novelist (in 1984; had previously declined appointment as CBE in 1957)[1]
  • L. S. Lowry RA, artist (in 1972 and 1976; had previously declined appointment as OBE in 1955 and CBE in 1961 and a knighthood in 1968; holds the record for the most honours declined)[1]

Appointment to the Order of the Bath

As Knight Companion

  • Admiral George Cranfield Berkeley in 1812, expecting a peerage; he settled for the KB in 1813[30]

Appointment to the Royal Victorian Order

As a Commander (CVO)

  • Craig Murray, former United Kingdom Ambassador to Uzbekistan (had previously declined appointments as LVO and OBE) [31]

Appointment to the Order of the British Empire

As a Dame Commander (DBE)

As a Commander (CBE)

As an Officer (OBE)

As a Member (MBE)

Renouncing an honour

As no official provision exists for renouncing an honour, any such act is always unofficial, and the record of the appointment in the London Gazette stands.[citation needed] However, the physical insignia can be returned to the Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood — though even this act is purely symbolic, as replacement insignia may be purchased for a nominal sum. Any recipient can also request that the honour not be used officially, e.g. Donald Tsang, Chief Executive of Hong Kong, was knighted in 1997 but has not used the title since the handover to China.[citation needed]

Those who have returned insignia include:

  • Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, journalist (returned MBE insignia in 2003 in "a growing spirit of republicanism and partly in protest at the Labour government, particularly its conduct of the war in Iraq")
  • Roy Bailey, folk singer (returned MBE insignia in August 2006 in protest at the British Government's foreign policy in Lebanon and Palestine)
  • Carla Lane, television writer (appointed OBE in 1989; returned insignia in 2002 in protest at the appointment of CBE of the managing director of Huntingdon Life Sciences because of the company's testing on animals)
  • John Lennon, musician (returned MBE insignia in 1969; returned with letter that read, "I am returning this MBE 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.")
  • Gareth Peirce, solicitor (gazetted CBE in 1999, but later she returned its insignia, blaming herself and apologizing to then Prime Minister Tony Blair for the misunderstanding)
  • Susan Wighton, AIDS worker (returned MBE insignia in 2006 in protest at the British Government's foreign policy in the Middle East)

Knights who have "renounced" their knighthoods include:

Declining a baronetcy

Many offers of baronetcies have been declined from their inception, as this honour was one way until recent times for the Crown to raise money from landed gentry families. When a baronetcy becomes vacant on the death of a holder, the heir may choose not to register the proofs of succession, effectively declining the honour. The Official Roll of Baronets is kept at the Home Office by the Registrar of the Baronetage. Anyone who considers that he is entitled to be entered on the Roll may petition the Crown through the Home Secretary. Anyone succeeding to a baronetcy therefore must exhibit proofs of succession to the Home Secretary. A person who is not entered on the Roll will not be addressed or mentioned as a baronet or accorded precedence as a baronet. The baronetcy can be revived at any time on provision of acceptable proofs of succession, by, say, the son of a son who has declined to register the proofs of succession.[39] About 83 baronetcies are currently listed as awaiting proofs of succession. Notable "refuseniks" include (Sir) Jonathon Porritt, lately of Friends of the Earth and (Sir) Ferdinand Mount, the journalist.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am "Some who turned the offer down". London: The Guardian. 22 December 2003. )
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac Harvey McGavin (22 December 2003). "Honoured? No thanks, say elite of arts and TV". London: The Independent. 
  3. ^ Singh, Anita (2010-12-31). "Lady Antonia Fraser leads New Year Honours 2011 list". The Daily Telegraph (London). 
  4. ^ Katz, Liane (2003-12-22). "MPs to investigate 'secretive' honours system". The Guardian (London). 
  5. ^ Roots, Ivan (1989). Speeches of Oliver Cromwell. Everyman's Classics. London: Dent. p. 128. ISBN 0460012541. 
  6. ^ Biography of Benjamin Diraeli at the National Portrait Gallery
  7. ^ Queen Victoria, a Biographical Companion, page 330
  8. ^ "Dukedom for Salisbury Expected". New York: The New York Times. 3 September 1901. 
  9. ^ [1]Scribner's Magazine 28: 124. 1900. 
  10. ^ Young, Michael (1982). The Elmhirsts of Dartington: the Creation of an Utopian Community. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. p. 344. ISBN 0071009051. 
  11. ^ a b Nikkhah, Roya (17 April 2011). "Lord Cleese of Fawlty Towers: Why John Cleese declined a peerage". Sunday Telegraph. Retrieved 17 April 2011. 
  12. ^ Major to turn down Peerage
  13. ^ Brown, Colin; Schaefer, Sarah (1999-11-03). "Fury over Blair offer of life peerages to Royals". The Independent (London). Retrieved 21 October 2011. 
  14. ^ Richardsons in Scotland and Ireland
  15. ^
  16. ^ Cadigan, Neil (2008). A Man Among Mavericks – Lester Brain: Australia's Greatest Aviator. Sydney: ABC Books. pp. 211–212. ISBN 0733320961. 
  17. ^ Mckie, Robin (1 February 2009). "Anti-matter and madness". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2011-10-21. 
  18. ^ O'Connor, J J; Robertson, E F. "Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac". Retrieved 2011-10-21. 
  19. ^ David Bradshaw, ed (2007). "Chronology". The Cambridge Companion to E. M. Forster. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-83475-9. Retrieved 2008-05-27. 
  20. ^ "Former MP turns down knighthood". London: Streatham Guardian. 18 June 2010. Retrieved 201-10-21. 
  21. ^ Blacker, Zöe (8 January 2004). "Architecture gains two honours". Architects' Journal. Retrieved 18 September 2010. 
  22. ^ "Lewis, Essington (1881 - 1961) Biographical Entry - Australian Dictionary of Biography Online". Retrieved 2010-09-14. 
  23. ^ Buckingham Palace. "Mr Neil MacGregor appointed to the Order of Merit, 4 November 2010". The Royal Household. Retrieved 4 November 2010. 
  24. ^ "Frank Pick". Design Museum. Retrieved 30 April 2011. 
  25. ^ New Zealand Dictionary of National Biography
  26. ^ a b Martin, Stanley (2007). "George Bernard Shaw". The Order of Merit: one hundred years of matchless honour. London: Taurus. p. 484. ISBN 9781860648489. 
  27. ^ Inglis, Fred (14 May 2009). "Bringing off the miracle of resurrection". Times Higher Education Supplement. London. Retrieved 30 August 2011. 
  28. ^ Biography of Housman, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  29. ^ Gibbs, A. M. (2005). Bernard Shaw: A Life (pp. 375–376). Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida. pp. 554. ISBN 0-8130-2859-0. 
  30. ^ "Berkeley, Hon. George Cranfield (1753-1818)" Retrieved 2011-10-21
  31. ^ Craig Murray, "On Being Hurt" Retrieved 2011-10-21
  32. ^ C.S., Lewis (1994). W. H. Lewis, Walter Hooper. ed. Letters of C.S. Lewis. New York: Mariner Books. pp. 528. ISBN 0156508710. "Churchill offered Lewis the investiture following the Conservative Party’s return to power in 1951." 
  33. ^ Andrew Alderson and Nina Goswami (2005-08-05). "When Sir Ian heard who the lawyer was, it is likely he let out a long, hard sigh". The Sunday Telegraph. Retrieved 2011-07-07. 
  34. ^ William Newman, "Max Newman – Mathematician, Codebreaker and Computer Pioneer", p. 177 from pp. 176-188 in B. Jack Copeland, ed., Colossus: The Secrets of Bletchley Park's Codebreaking Computers, Oxford University Press, 2006
  35. ^ Banks-Smith, Nancy. "Reputations: Frankie Howerd". The Guardian (London).,1169,1161366,00.html. Retrieved 2010-05-01. 
  36. ^ "Winner shuns 'toilet-cleaner OBE'". BBC News. 2006-05-28. Retrieved 2010-05-01. 
  37. ^ Demetriou, Danielle (2003-11-27). "Benjamin Zephaniah declines an OBE in protest against colonialism". The Independent (London). Retrieved 2010-05-01. 
  38. ^ "Lingerie firm founder rejects MBE", BBC News, 20 June 2007
  39. ^ Whitaker's Almanac, 2005, p. 83, et seq.

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