CS Lewis, who with his Oxford colleague JRR Tolkien, ranks with Ian Fleming, Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle as among the best known 20th century British authors among Americans, turned both Winston Churchill and the Queen down flat, newly released British documents show.The Order of the British Empire was established by George V originally to honor Britons who contributed to the country’s victory in World War Two. The awards come in five grades, from the highest (Knight or Dame Grand Cross) down to the lowest rank of Member. The top two tiers offer knighthoods or their female equivalent; Americans and other non-Brits are eligible for honorary memberships but don’t get to call themselves “Sir”. (Becoming an actual knight involves swearing allegiance to the current king or queen, something we Americans swore off a long time ago.)The awards are made by the monarch on the recommendation of the government of the day. Lewis was offered the highest non-knightly grade; had he accepted he would have been known as CS Lewis, CBE.The documents don’t give reasons for the turn down, but a number of other literary and cultural figures over the years also declined: John Lennon accepted, but returned his to protest Britain’s pro-Nigeria stance during the Biafran war.In keeping with custom, Lewis never revealed that he had rejected the honor, and presumably would not want this known even now. [UPDATE: As reader Will Vaus points out (see comment below), after Lewis’ death, his brother included in a collection of Lewis’ correspondence the letter Lewis wrote graciously declining the honor because he thought it would be misunderstood. VM does not know whether CS Lewis would have wanted the letter published.] It is receiving attention now because somebody with nothing better to do pursued a freedom of information lawsuit to get the names of everyone who ever turned a royal honor down. A good constitutional royalist, Lewis would have agreed with Walter Bagehot:
…secrecy is, however, essential to the utility of English royalty as it now is. Above all things our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it. When there is a select committee on the Queen, the charm of royalty will be gone. Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic. We must not bring the Queen into the combat of politics, or she will cease to be reverenced by all combatants; she will become one combatant among many.
Bagehot wrote in a time when there was no freedom of information act, and royal secrets could be kept without offense. How the British monarchy will survive in an age without secrets, in an age when laws require that all magic be bathed in full daylight remains to be seen.