The Welsh actor was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 2009 at the New Year’s Honours for his services to drama.
Sheen shared the news that he had given the award back during an interview with journalist Owen Jones, stating that he had done so as he did not want to be a “hypocrite”.
The 51-year-old told Jones that the decision had been prompted by his extensive research into Welsh history, a “crash course” that he had taken on after being asked to speak at the Learning and Work Institutes annual Raymond William Memorial Lecture in November 2017.
“In my research to do that lecture, I learnt a lot about Welsh history […] and by the time I’d finished writing that lecture on this laptop that I’m talking to you on right now,” he said. “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 added that he had realised he would have been a “hypocrite” if he were to keep the award and still give the lecture about “the nature of the relationship between Wales and the British state, and the history of it”.
An increasing focus on the history of the British empire’s racism and its legacy, including the award’s connection to the country’s imperial past, has led to scrutiny surrounding the Queen’s honours.
The Underworld star clarified that he had “meant no disrespect by giving it back” and stated that he did not want to “cause a big fuss about it”.
“I genuinely felt incredibly honoured when I was given it and it meant a lot to me and my family,” added Sheen. The actor went on to recognise that the award had “helped in all kinds of ways” with his career, especially the “non-acting stuff”.
When asked why it had taken three years for news of his decision to come out, the Bafta award-winning actor revealed that he had not wanted to go out of his way to publicise it.
However, Sheen noted that he had always planned to be “transparent” if anyone ever asked him about it, which no one had until Jones.
The actor also spoke about the recent debate surrounding the name of the Second Severn Crossing motorway bridge between England and Wales.
The bridge was renamed the Prince of Wales Bridge in April 2018. A petition against the renaming received more than 30,000 signatures.
“These things [names] have power,” said Sheen. “The idea of the Prince of Wales and that being an Englishman and the history of that… why Edward made his son the Prince of Wales because it was part of keeping down the Welsh rebellion.
“These are things that happened so long ago but these things are resonant.”
Sheen is not the first person to either return or decline a Queen’s honour. Howard Gayle, Liverpool Football Club’s first black player who campaigned with the anti-racism organisation Show Racism the Red Card, rejected an MBE in 2016.
In a Facebook post, Gayle wrote that he had declined the award “for the reason that my ancestors would be turning in their graves after how empire and colonialism had enslaved them”.
Earlier this year, Sheen starred as game show host Chris Tarrant in ITV’s Quiz, a series based on the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? scandal that saw Major Charles Ingram and his wife Diana bag the £1 million cash prize in 2001.
His comedy Staged returns to BBC One next month.