NO SIR

20 Brits Who Refused Knighthood and Other Honors (Photos)

From David Bowie to C. S. Lewis, see who didn’t want to be called ‘Sir.’

Getty Images ; AP Photo

Getty Images ; AP Photo

Who would want a sword placed next to your neck, even if you'll be called Sir after that? Plenty of accomplished figures, according to new British government records (PDF) showing a list of 227 people who declined honors—such as knighthood—from the queen between 1951 and 1999, and who have since died. Here are 20 (supposedly) modest souls who are on the list—or they are not, God bless the queen, because they are still alive. Why doesn't David Bowie want to be Sir David, and Doris Lessing the alliterating Dame Doris?

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David Bowie

Bowie turned down a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 2000 because, he said, "I seriously don't know what it's for." Maybe he wanted to be Major Tom instead. He also claims to have turned down knighthood in 2003.

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Roald Dahl

The beloved children's author was actually somewhat of a grump, so it's not surprising that he rebuffed the honor of Officer of the British Empire (OBE) in 1986.

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Evelyn Waugh

How many readers know the origin of this website's name? It is thanks to Waugh, whose novel Scoop is about a newspaper called Daily Beast. When Waugh threw a dinner party in 1956, he noted that there ought to be "Non Vintage champagne for all but me." So it came as a surprise to learn that Waugh passed off a chance to rise into the realm of the vintage himself when he turned down a CBE in 1959.

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John Lennon

Paul is Sir Paul, and John was once made a Member of the British Empire but returned it in 1969. He attached a note 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," referencing his Plastic Ono Band song that was written after he decided to quit heroin. But he was a knight, at least to himself, since he signed the letter "Sir John of Bag."

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Alfred Hitchcock

The director surely preferred America as much as he preferred the T-bone at "21," but you'd think he declined an honor for the sake of his wife—because, well, The Lady Vanishes. Not so: Hitchcock turned down a measly CBE in 1962, only to accept a Knight Commander in 1980, shortly before his death.

Martin Cleaver / AP Photo

Doris Lessing

“Surely, there is something unlikable about a person, when old, accepting honors from an institution she attacked when young?” said the Nobel-winning author in 1992, refusing a damehood and pointing out the Order of the British Empire came from a “nonexistent empire.” Lessing did accept a Companion of Honor (CH) in 2000, preferring it because “you’re not called anything." Her fellow author J.G. Ballard also had a great takedown of the empire when he declined a CBE in 2003, calling it a “preposterous charade.”

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Paul Dirac

You don't need to invent quantum mechanics to get a knighthood, but it helps. The physicist Paul Dirac accepted a Nobel Prize in 1933, but didn't want a knighthood in 1973, although he received an Order of Merit. It was reported that other physicists like Michael Faraday (who discovered the electromagnetic field and died in 1867) and Stephen Hawking (who's still living) also turned down knighthoods.

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Francis Crick

Dirac wasn't the only scientist on the list. Crick, the codiscoverer of DNA, rejected a CBE in 1963. Like Dirac, he also preferred the Nobel Prize, winning one in 1966.

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Lucien Freud

As Ivana Lowell, the daughter of Freud's wife, Caroline Blackwood, said, the painter was “not a very nice man.” But the British Empire thought otherwise, and offered the brilliant artist of flesh, who died last August, a CBE in 1977. He refused, perhaps angry that his friend and sometimes rival, Francis Bacon—over the years, the pair painted piercing, mesmerizing portraits of each other—was offered one 17 years before him. He, too, turned it down, but both accepted a CH later.

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John Cleese

It's been widely reported that the actor didn't want to become Baron of Fawlty Towers when he declined a life peerage in 1999, saying he “did not wish to spend winters in England,” and a CBE in 1996, thinking it “silly”—this from a Monty Python, the foremost authority on silliness.

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Vanessa Redgrave

Another actor reportedly offered the highest rank in the British Empire is Vanessa Redgrave, who was born to Sir Michael and Lady Rachel. She accepted a CBE in 1967 but apparently turned down a damehood in 1999. Who needs it? She had already played Mary, Queen of Scots.

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L.S. Lowry

The painter of sleepy industrial landscapes, ever the friend to the working class, seems to hold the record for most honors declined with five, including an OBE in 1955, a CBE in 1961, and a knighthood in 1968.

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Benjamin Zephaniah

When the poet was offered an OBE in 2003 by then–prime minister Tony Blair's government, he replied: "Stick it, Mr. Blair and Mrs. Queen." Zephaniah isn't the only poet to have refused an honor. Philip Larkin said no to an OBE in 1968. Robert Graves rejected a CBE in 1957 and a CH in 1984—the author of I, Claudius ought to know that dubious honors, and not only in Roman times, can come with a heavy price.

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Michael Winner

Another zinger came from the filmmaker Michael Winner, who was reportedly offered an OBE in 2006 but called it the sort of thing "you get if you clean toilets well."

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C.S. Lewis

His friend J.R.R. Tolkien was The Lord of the Rings (and a CBE), but C.S. Lewis didn't want that baggage when he was to be made a commander in 1951—he apparently didn't want to be politically associated with Winston Churchill's Conservative Party, which offered him the honor.

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Trevor Howard

They call David Lean's Brief Encounter the most British of films, what with its perfect manners over passion, declarations of love not made, an affair that did not happen. It was only natural that the star, Trevor Howard, who as Alec did not give into his desires for Celia Johnson's Laura, was offered a CBE in 1982, so that he would live out his days as a perfectly measured British gentleman. Too bad that Howard did not want it.

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Graham Greene

Even in his literary world, Greene didn't want to be confined to one country, preferring instead the globe-trotting novels of intrigue like The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter. Why would he want to be a CBE in 1956? He promptly turned it down, and went on with his travels. He died in Switzerland in 1991.

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Jon Snow

The news anchor Jon Snow has said that he once received a government letter asking whether he wanted an OBE. He had to check a “yes” or “no” box. He checked “no.” “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. He thought journalists shouldn't accept honors from the government anyway.

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Aldous Huxley

The mighty British Empire ought to know better than to offer a knighthood to Aldous Huxley, the author of the quintessential World State novel Brave New World. He ended up with zero titles and no strings, just the way John would have liked it.

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Henry Moore

You can see the sculptures of Moore practically everywhere. Born the son of a coal miner, perhaps he thought it too pretentious to be made a knight, and refused in 1951.