45 Years Ago: John Lennon Returns His MBE to the Queen
As soon as the Queen of England decided to bestow one of the country's highest honors upon John Lennon, almost anyone could have guessed it wasn't going to end well.
Along with the rest of the Beatles, Lennon was made a Member of the Most Honorable Order of the British Empire on Oct. 26, 1965, an act of recognition demonstrating the immense pride the nation took in the band's incredible worldwide success. According to Lennon, he had to be talked into accepting the award by Beatles manager Brian Epstein, and true to his customarily flippant and 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 recalled. "We'd been recording, but I couldn't remember."
Later, joking that he thought the letter informing the band members they'd been selected was a notice that they'd been drafted, Lennon claimed to have tossed it into a pile of fan mail and and added, "We thought being offered the MBE was as funny as everyone else thought it was … We all met and agreed it was daft ... then it all just seemed part of the game we’d agreed to play."
By the late '60s, that was a game Lennon had largely lost interest in playing, but he'd become increasingly savvy about how to leverage his celebrity in order to further his favorite causes. In the fall of 1969, that was a list that included 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.
Calling a press conference for Nov. 25, 1969 (a portion of which you can watch above), Lennon announced 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 he'd known there would be, Lennon's decision sparked a public outcry -- but as he later pointed out, plenty of people never thought he deserved an MBE in the first place. "Lots of people who complained about us getting the MBE received theirs for heroism in the war," he shrugged. "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."
Although he was relatively distinct in choosing to return his MBE in such a high-profile way, Lennon was far from alone in rejecting royal awards; in 2012, following a Freedom of Information request, the BBC unearthed a list of other would-be recipients, including novelist Roald Dahl and painter L.S. Lowry (who refused multiple honors on five separate occasions).
Ultimately, although Lennon's show of disapproval for the British government didn't make much of an impact on foreign policy, 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 -- a request that 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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