When being knighted entailed higher taxes and the responsibility of supplying an armed man on horseback to the British Crown, it is understandable why an individual might refuse the privilege. But even with the modern title being strictly honorary, 2% of the 3,000 people annually chosen by civil servant committees from public and governmental nominations still reject the offer. While most do so quietly, a 2003 London’s Sunday Times article leaked an official document detailing decliners, which was designed to avoid repeat invitations. This list explores the top ten people to decline knighthood and their surprisingly varied reasons for refusal.
10. David Bowie
Although many popular English rockers such as Sir Mick Jagger and Sir Paul McCartney have accepted the honor, David Bowie refused to become a knight in 2003. He was nonetheless made Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government and took an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music, both in 1999. Throughout his career, the musician has sold an estimated 250 million records and has been received 9 platinum, 11 gold and 8 silver records.
Bowie also refused being named a Commander of the British Empire three years prior to rejecting knighthood. In a 2003 interview, the singer explained his decisions stating, “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.” Based on this, it appears that Bowie prefers specific honors which highlight his artistic talent, as opposed to the more general titles offered by Queen Elizabeth II.
9. Albert Finney
It is unlikely that British stage and film star Albert Finney will be singled out again for a royal honor after rejecting recognition twice. Having achieved prominence with his breakthrough role in Tom Jones (1963), for which he was given the Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer, Finney enjoyed continued on-screen success. He is the recipient of the Golden Globe, Emmy and Screen Actors Guild awards and was nominated four times for the Academy Award. His more recent films include Erin Brockovich (2000), Big Fish (2003) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007).
In 1980, Finney turned down Commander of the Order of the British Empire which is the middle rank of five classes of an order of chivalry originally established by King George V in 1917 to honor non-combatants after WWI. After starring in Erin Brockovich, he rejected the far more prestigious rank of knight. Finney was straightforward in telling the press that he declined because of perceived “snobbery.”
8. Aldous Huxley
In 1959, famed writer and drug-enthusiast Aldous Huxley rejected the offer of the lowest rank of knighthood, Bachelor Knight. Huxley is best known for his Brave New World (1932) which explores a futuristic society altered by reproductive technology and sleep learning. He later dabbled in screenwriting but his adaptation of Alice in Wonderland was rejected by Walt Disney because he could, “only understand every third word.” A proponent of LSD, Huxley was famously injected with two massive doses of the psychedelic as he lay dying of natural causes.
This humanist and pacifist was also interested in mysticism and the paranormal. Huxley was very politically active, which may account for his rejection of the honor of knighthood. Having worked as a farm laborer in his early adult years, the author held socialistic ideals. After moving to Hollywood in 1937, he joined the Vedanta Society of Southern California and taught Hindu meditation and spirituality classes.
7. Vanessa Redgrave
Proclaimed by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller as the “greatest living actress of our times,” Vanessa Redgrave declined being knighted in 1999. Her father, actor Michael Redgrave, accepted the title of Commander of the British Empire. While she may be Hollywood royalty, being the only British actress to receive the Oscar, Emmy, Tony, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards, she will remain a commoner in the British Empire. She is best known for her stage work and her film roles in Mary, Queen of Scots (1971), Julia (1977) and Howards End (1992).
Noting that it is lèse majesté to even talk of declining the title of Dame, Redgrave believes that her greatest honor is being a Goodwill Ambassador for Unicef. While she may not be direct, her championing of radical political causes speaks for itself. She has expressed sympathy for the IRA, PLO and Chechen separatists. In her 1977 Best Supporting Actress speech she attacked “Zionist hoodlums.”
6. Stephen Hawking
Despite accepting an honorary fellowship from the Royal Society of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, physicist Stephen Hawking has publicly declined knighthood. Hawking is best known for his contributions to the fields of cosmology and quantum gravity which explore the Big Bang Theory and black holes. His 1988 bestseller, “A Brief History of Time”, stayed on the Sunday Times bestseller list for a record breaking 237 weeks. He is afflicted with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) which has left him nearly paralyzed.
Hawking has been vocal about rejecting the title, explaining in interviews that he “dislikes the whole concept.” The scientist is also an open critic of the British government’s “mismanagement” of science funding. In particular, he dislikes the merger of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council with the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, believing they should remain separate entities for optimal discovery.
5. E. M. Forster
The noted English novelist declined knighthood in 1949 but later accepted the Order of the Champions of Honour in 1953 and the Order of Merit in 1969, just a year before his death at the age of 90. Both titles recognize excellence in literature but are considered lesser privileges. A lifelong bachelor and former BBC Radio broadcaster, he is best known for penning “A Passage To India”, “Howards End”, and “A Room with a View.”
Although he never went on-record as to why he rejected the title, there is speculation that he did not want to draw attention because of his hidden homosexuality. In fact, Forster’s sexual orientation was not revealed until “Maurice” was published shortly after his death. The writer suppressed this beautiful love story about two men attending Cambridge due to fear of public rejection for nearly 60 years.
4. George Bernard Shaw
Due to distaste for honors in general, George Bernard Shaw rejected an offer of knighthood. While he also helped to found the London School of Economics and published scores of socialist pamphlets for his beloved Fabian society, Shaw is best known for his playwriting. He is the only person to win both the Nobel Prize in Literature, likely for “Saint Joan” (1925) and the Oscar, for his contributions to literature and the screenplay Pygmalion (1938). He only accepted the Nobel Prize at the behest of his wife, who felt it was a tribute to Ireland. He nonetheless rejected the monetary prize, asking that it be charitably used to translate Swedish works into English.
In spite of his famously large ego, Shaw rejected the offer of knighthood and an informal offer of the Order of Merit upon that refusal. In so doing, the playwright commented coarsely that only the retrospective judgment of history defined merit in authorship. His prickly personality also gave birth to a new adjective, “Shavian,” a word used to describe the often abrasive traits he embodied.
3. Paul Dirac
Quite the eccentric, Paul Dirac had a multitude of personal reasons for declining being knighted twice. Widely considered to be one of the world’s greatest physicists, he is the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, winning in 1933 at the age of 31. He was given this recognition, along with Erwin Schrödinger, for his work in atomic theory. He predicted the existence of antimatter and formulated the eponymous Dirac equation which explains the movement of elementary fermion particles.
Dirac refused the honor of knighthood, principally because he did not want to be forever addressed by his first name (which may account for his 1973 acceptance of the Order of Merit with no such requirement). However, he was also known to shy away from attention, often sporting disguises to thwart media attention. He was likely autistic, mentally abused by his overbearing father and preferred silence in the company of others. Albert Einstein once remarked of Dirac, “this balancing on the dizzying path between genius and madness is awful.” He eventually came out of his shell after marrying, and his new wife encouraged his more mainstream obsessions with Mickey Mouse and Cher.
2. Michael Faraday
Queen Victoria rewarded Michael Faraday for his lifetime of scientific achievement with the use of a Hampton Court house and a knighthood. He only accepted the former. Despite his lack of formal training, the British physicist and chemist is best known for his contributions to electromagnetism. His electromagnetic rotary devices paved the way for electricity to be a viable power source in technology. The farad, a unit of capacitance which quantifies the ability of a capacitor to store energy in an electric field, is named for him.
Faraday had a pattern of rejecting honors bestowed upon him in his later career and wanted to “remain plain Mr. Faraday to the end.” It is likely that his religious beliefs played a role in these rejections– He was part of the now-defunct Sandemanians, a strict Presbyterian sect that rejected worldly recognition. In fact, Faraday agonized over whether to merely attend dinner with the Queen. He acquiesced under a sense of civic duty and was excommunicated by his church until he repented and underwent considerable atonement.
1. L. S. Lowry
Modest but exceedingly gifted painter L. S. Lowry turned down more royal honors than any other known individual– a total of five. This self-described simple man preferred a minimal palate to depict primarily metropolitan scenes, using only white, ivory, black, yellow ochre and Prussian blue. He was named an official war artist during WWII and was appointed to paint Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953.
Lowry worked as a rent collector for the Pall Mall Property Company in Manchester for over forty years. This occupation required him to walk the city observing street life which he later depicted on canvas in his quiet evenings. It is speculated that Lowry declined royal recognition because he did not want to draw attention to his day job and be categorized a hobby artist. The painter declined knighthood and appointments to the Commander of the Order of the British Empire and Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.