Why Michael Sheen Handed Back an Honor from Queen Elizabeth: 'I'd Be a Hypocrite'

After receiving an OBE in 2009 for services to drama, the Welsh actor quietly handed back the award in 2017

Michael sheen and queen Elizabeth
Michael Sheen and Queen Elizabeth. Photo: Kurt Krieger - Corbis/Corbis via Getty; Buckingham Palace via Getty

Michael Sheen is opening up on why he returned an honor presented to him by Queen Elizabeth.

After receiving a Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2009 for services to drama, the Welsh actor quietly handed back the award in 2017 after looking into the history of the relationship between England and Wales for the 2017 Raymond Williams Society lecture.

"By the time I had finished writing that lecture...I remember sitting there going, 'Well, I have a choice — I either don't give this lecture and hold on to my OBE, or I give this lecture and I have to give my OBE back,' " Sheen said in a conversation with The Guardian columnist Owen Jones released Tuesday.

Despite feeling "incredibly honored" at receiving the award, Sheen expressed discomfort with practices such as handing the Prince of Wales title to an English-born heir to the throne — a tradition that started in 1301 when King Edward I gave his son the title of Prince of Wales to subdue a Welsh rebellion.

"These things have power," Sheen said.

The 51-year-old actor, who played Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2006's The Queen, chose not to announce his decision at the time.

"I didn't mean any disrespect, but I just realized I'd be a hypocrite if I said the things I was going to say in the lecture about the nature of the relationship between Wales and the British state," he said.

michael sheen
Michael Sheen. Lewis Whyld - WPA Pool/Getty
michael sheen and Lorraine Stewart
Michael Sheen.

The Crown depicted the monarchy's complicated relationship with Wales in season three when Prince Charles spent a semester at Wales's Aberystwyth University to learn to deliver his investiture speech in the country's native language.

Dr. Edward "Tedi" Millward, who died in April 2020, successfully taught Prince Charles to deliver his speech in Welsh — and the teacher even told The Guardian that his pupil's accent was "quite good" by the end of his lessons.

"I am deeply saddened to hear of Dr. Millward’s death,” Charles said in a statement after the news of Millward's death. "I have very fond memories of my time in Aberystwyth with Dr. Millward over fifty-one years ago.

michael sheen
Michael Sheen. Dominik Bindl/Getty Images

"While I am afraid I might not have been the best student, I learned an immense amount from him about the Welsh language and about the history of Wales.

"After all these years, I am forever grateful to him for helping foster my deep and abiding love for Wales, her people, and her culture. I send my most heartfelt sympathy to his family."

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Sheen is not the only celebrity to return or refuse an honor from the monarchy. John Lennon returned his MBE to the Queen as an act of protest against the Vietnam war, while David Bowie turned down two awards — a CBE in 2000 and then a knighthood in 2003.

Musician Paul Weller, actors Jim Broadbent, actress Jennifer Saunders, poet Benjamin Zephaniah, playwright Alan Bennett and chef Nigella Lawson are also among the list of those who have opted not to accept the honors.

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