The Day John Lennon Returned His MBE to the Queen
Almost anyone could have guessed it wasn't going to end well as soon as the Queen of England bestowed one of the country's highest honors upon John Lennon.
Lennon was made a Member of the Most Honorable Order of the British Empire along with the rest of the Beatles on Oct. 26, 1965, an act of recognition demonstrating the immense pride the nation took in the band's incredible worldwide success. Lennon said he had to be talked into accepting the award by Beatles manager Brian Epstein, and true to his customarily anti-establishment persona, he proved fairly flippant at the award ceremony.
"She said to me, 'Have you been working hard lately?' And I couldn't think what we had been doing so I said, 'No, we've been having a holiday,'" Lennon later recalled. "We'd been recording, but I couldn't remember."
He later joked that he thought the letter informing the band members they'd been selected was a notice that they'd been drafted, and claimed to have tossed it into a pile of fan mail. "We thought being offered the MBE was as funny as everyone else thought it was," Lennon added. "We all met and agreed it was daft ... then it all just seemed part of the game we’d agreed to play."
That was a game Lennon had largely lost interest in playing by the late '60s, but he'd become increasingly savvy about how to leverage his celebrity in order to further his favorite causes. In the fall of 1969, Lennon was focused on ending British military involvement in global conflicts such as the wars in Vietnam and Biafra, and he decided to use the award he'd never really wanted in order to prove a point.
Watch John Lennon's News Conference
Lennon calling a news conference for Nov. 25, 1969, announcing his intention to return his MBE to the Queen and outlined his reasons for doing so, which were succinctly summed up in a typically cheeky note that read as follows:
I am returning my MBE as a 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.
With love. John Lennon of Bag
As expected, Lennon's decision sparked a public outcry – but he later pointed out that many never thought he deserved this recognition in the first place. "Lots of people who complained about us getting the MBE received theirs for heroism in the war," he said with a shrug. "They got them for killing people. We deserved ours for not killing people. In a way, it was hypocritical of me to accept it, but I'm glad I did, really, because it meant that four years later I was able to use it to make a gesture."
He was relatively distinct in choosing to return his MBE in such a high-profile way, but Lennon was far from alone in rejecting royal awards: The BBC used a Freedom of Information request to unearth a list of other would-be recipients in 2012, including novelist Roald Dahl and painter L.S. Lowry (who refused multiple honors on five separate occasions).
Ultimately, Lennon's show of disapproval for the British government didn't make much of an impact on foreign policy. But it did further sour his relationship with the country's authorities, and further cemented his reputation as just the sort of outspoken, politically active celebrity that President Richard Nixon would be happy to have deported from the U.S. during the tumultuous early '70s.
As for the award itself, it disappeared for years, finally turning up in early 2009 after being located in a vault in St. James' Palace in Westminster. Preserved alongside Lennon's letter to the Queen and stored in its original presentation case, it attracted immediate attention from Beatles historians who urged the crown to put it on public display.
The request was quickly denied, with the explanation that "if a recipient had not asked for insignia back before they die then it is assumed that they did not wish it to be returned, and any request from any other person for its return at a later date would be going against the original recipient’s wishes."
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