Stephen Hawking, David Bowie, Aldous Huxley, And Others Who Declined Knighthood

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If you think that everyone who’s been summoned by Buckingham Palace to become a Sir or a Dame was thrilled about the idea, do think again. In fact, there are a number of notables who have politely, or not so politely, declined an invitation to knighthood by Her Majesty. Some said no due to personal ethics. Others declined knighthood or another royal honor as a protest against monarchy and empire.

The Rockstar who said no to the Queen

In 1999, David Bowie accepted an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music. That same year, the musician who zoomed record charts with hit songs such as “Space Oddity,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Moonage Daydream,” and “Alladin Sane” welcomed an appointment as Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. Nonetheless, Bowie turned down the Queen’s invitation to be named a Commander of the British Empire in 2000. Bowie also declined knighthood in 2003, explaining that he didn’t know what the award was for. The ‘thin white duke‘ who passed away in 2016 noted that an award from the Queen was not what he spent his life working for, explains Mental Floss.

David Bowie was one of many who've declined the Queen's invitation to knighthood
David Bowie at The Nokia Isle of Wight Festival 2004Featured image credit: Jo HaleGetty Images

Aldous Huxley did not accept a knighting

Brave New World and The Doors of Perception author Aldous Huxley also declined a royal offer of knighthood. The writer refused the Queen’s 1959 invitation because he felt the award would not be compatible with his lifestyle.

English novelist and essayist Aldous Huxley (1894 - 1963) turned down his chance to be a knightFeatured image credit: Edward GoochGetty Images

Neither did Dickens biographer Claire Tomalin

English journalist Claire Tomalin spurned a CBE for services to literature in 2001, but she doesn’t like to talk about it. Tomalin told The Guardian that while she admires Queen Elizabeth, she believes the monarchy as a whole is obsolete and anachronistic.

“I have great respect for the Queen personally, but I don’t believe in the monarchy. I’m not a servant of the crown or the empire. I’m a writer and the greatest honor I can possibly have is that people should read my books. William Shakespeare, Samuel Pepys – they don’t need to be Lord or Sir.”

Claire Tomalin refused to be named a Dame
Dickens biographer Claire Tomalin declined the Queen's invitation to be a DameFeatured image credit: Ben A. PruchnieGetty Images

Other notable persons who declined knighthood

In 1977, Howard Gayle became the first Black professional football (soccer) player in Liverpool. In 2016, the retired athlete was offered an MBE for his participation in the Show Racism the Red Card campaign. Gayle declined the nomination, noting that his African ancestors would ‘turn in their graves’ if he accepted the honor.

“Unfortunately, I had to decline the nomination for the reason that my ancestors would be turning in their graves after how Empire and Colonialism had enslaved them. This is a decision that I have had to make and there will be others who may feel different and would enjoy the attraction of being a Member of the British Empire and those 3 letters after their name, but I feel that It would be a betrayal to all of the Africans who have lost their lives, or who have suffered as a result of Empire.”

Howard Gayle at a charity match in 2010.
Featured image credit: Jarle VinesWikimedia Commons

Rastafarian poet, reggae musician, and self-described ‘bad boy’ Benjamin Zephaniah was invited to become an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2003. Benjamin said no.

“Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear that word ’empire.’ It reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalized. I am not one of those who are obsessed with their roots, and I’m certainly not suffering from a crisis of identity. My obsession is about the future and the political rights of all people. Benjamin Zephaniah OBE? No way Mr. Blair, no way Mrs. Queen. I am profoundly anti-empire.”

Rastafarian writer Benjamin Zephaniah refused the Queen's offer of knighthood Featured image credit: Eamonn M. McCormackGetty Images

Anti-establishment film director Ken Loach turned down the Queen’s invitation to knighthood in 1977. Loach, whose films focus on homelessness, poverty, teen pregnancy, and other social issues declined knighthood because he didn’t want to join a club populated with villains. The moviemaker told BBC News that he said no to knighthood due to his lack of respect for the ideals represented by the honor.

“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.”

Ken Loach is among those who refused knighthood for ethical reasons
Freewheeling film director Ken Loach refused the Queen's invitation to be knightedFeatured image credit: Gareth CattermoleGetty Images

Why Stephen Hawking opted out of knighthood

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking may have declined knighthood in the 90s due to England’s failure to fund scientific research. Hawking, who passed away March 14, did not publicly elaborate on his reasons for saying ‘no thank you’ to Her Majesty, but iNews recently revealed correspondence from that time in which the theoretical physicist noted his dissatisfaction with Britain’s failure to fund scientific research:

“There is a possibility that very severe cuts will be made in the grants awarded to UK research groups. These grants are the lifeblood of our research effort; cutting them will hurt young researchers and cause enormous damage both to British science and to our international reputation.”