A version of this story appeared in the August 12 edition of CNN’s Royal News, a weekly dispatch bringing you the inside track on Britain’s royal family. Sign up here.
With the summer well and truly upon us and most of the Windsor clan taking a brief break, we thought we’d use the opportunity to take a look at royal titles.
Who has one? Who doesn’t? When do royals get them and why? And, of course, why do some give them up or lose them? Questions like these crop up all the time, and frankly, given all the tradition and historical context involved, we don’t blame you if it gets a bit confusing.
Obviously, heading up the British monarchy you have the sovereign, and when you address them, it’s “His” or “Her Majesty.” Beyond that, most titles are a gift of the monarch.
Let’s kick off with what you call the sovereign’s spouse. The traditional title for a female spouse is Queen Consort – which came up earlier this year after Queen Elizabeth II shared her hope that the Duchess of Cornwall would one day use that honorific. With husbands, it has historically been … trickier. We all know that Prince Philip opted for the Duke of Edinburgh, but Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, went with the title of Prince Consort.
With a monarch’s children, there are automatic titles in play. The eldest son always becomes the Duke of Cornwall. He is also traditionally granted the title of Prince of Wales – a role in which Charles was invested in 1969.
Beyond the first-born son, all children and grandchildren in the male line of the monarch are born a prince or princess.
It’s worth noting here that royal parents can decline the gift of a title, which the Queen’s daughter, Anne, chose to do for her children. Additionally, royal parents may want their offspring to follow similar styling to themselves. So, in the case of the Queen’s youngest son, Edward, Earl of Wessex, and his wife, Sophie, their children are styled as those of an Earl and are called Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor and James, Viscount Severn.
Great-grandchildren only get the coveted title if they are direct heirs to the throne, like the Cambridges’ eldest, Prince George.
But wait, don’t his siblings have titles, too? You’re quite right – but it’s worth noting that the Queen made special exceptions for them to have equal titles, rather than it being standard for all the Cambridge kids. It’s for this reason that the Sussexes’ two children, Archie and Lilibet, aren’t prince or princess yet. However, that will change once Charles, their grandfather, becomes king.
You’ll also have noticed that senior members of the family are often referred to as “HRH” or “His” or “Her Royal Highness.” With an HRH comes the expectation that you will perform duties on behalf of the monarch. Nevertheless, there are a few members of the family who hold HRHs but don’t represent the Queen, like Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice.
And, of course, there have been instances when a royal has been asked to stop using the honorific, as was the case with Prince Andrew earlier this year, or they choose to give theirs up, as with the Sussexes. It doesn’t mean that Andrew and Harry are no longer princes – that label is still their birthright – and they are still in the line of succession. There are also fairly recent examples of the title being stripped away – think of Diana, Princess of Wales, Andrew’s ex-wife Sarah, Duchess of York, or Edward VIII following his abdication.
Spouses of princes also usually get courtesy titles. So, when Harry wed Meghan Markle in 2018, she became Princess Henry of Wales – though she rarely goes by this, opting for her gifted title of the Duchess of Sussex instead.
If you’ve got all that down, let’s move on to the peerage system. This dates from medieval times and was designed to ensure the monarch was surrounded by a stable group of nobles to assist in governing the kingdom. The most exclusive rank is that of a duke, followed by marquess, earl, viscount and, finally, baron. These can be gifted to anyone – royal or non-royal subjects.
If the precedence of peerages weren’t baffling enough, it’s further complicated by the fact that an individual can hold multiple peerages of differing ranks. Wives of peers also receive courtesy titles, but husbands generally don’t.
Titles are, for the most part, seen as ceremonial. But there are still hereditary ones – duke or baron – that can give you the chance to sit in the House of Lords, one of two of the houses of the British Parliament, and to vote on laws. As royals are supposed to be politically independent, they don’t take any seats themselves.
Then, lastly, there are knighthoods, which are bestowed by the monarch for exceptional achievement and are handed out on the advice of the government. Men who are knighted are called “Sir” and women are known as “Dame.” Other non-hereditary awards that can be handed out by the monarch include Commander, Officer or Member of the Order of the British Empire (more recognizably known as CBE, OBE or MBE). The sovereign can also choose to confer a British Empire Medal or invest an individual into the orders of the Garter or Thistle.
Phew, ok, that wraps up our overview of the intricate titles systems in play. It’s a complicated arrangement rooted in centuries of tradition. There are some who think it’s outdated and perpetuates the British class system. But whatever your perspective, it doesn’t look likely to change any time soon.
Still having a tough time following along? Watch our handy video explainer here.
WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING?
Queen welcomed to Balmoral in private.
The 96-year-old monarch was welcomed to Balmoral Castle in Scotland by a guard of honor on Tuesday, but the event was held privately. The event was adapted for the Queen’s “comfort,” the palace told CNN. Traditionally, the monarch inspects a military unit at the property’s gates to mark her return to the residence. Britain’s PA Media news agency reports that the Queen traveled to Scotland in late July but was understood to have been staying elsewhere on the estate before moving to her main Balmoral retreat this week. The Queen is often joined by family members over the summer at her Scottish residence, but she is expected to break her vacation in September to briefly travel back down to England for audiences with the outgoing Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and his successor.
Prince Edward closes Commonwealth Games with message of hope.
The Earl of Wessex wrapped up the 2022 Commonwealth Games by praising the athletes for inspiring future generations of competitors. Taking the podium at the Alexander Stadium in Birmingham for the closing ceremony on Monday, the Queen’s youngest son told a packed crowd: “Every four years, we endeavor to come together to celebrate our Commonwealth through sport. Thanks to the manner, style and enthusiasm with which you have competed, officiated, supported, organized and volunteered, you have, once again, brought the spirit and values of the Commonwealth to life.” The prince added, “You have inspired us and hopefully future generations. You have also demonstrated what unites us.” Edward – who has been the vice-patron of the games since 1990 – was a frequent spectator at the various sports, often bringing his wife, Sophie, and children, James and Louise, along, too.
Harry and Meghan to receive humanitarian award.
The Sussexes and their Archewell Foundation are to be honored at a charity event next week for their work advocating for Afghan refugees. The award from Human First Coalition will be given to the couple during a benefit event in New York City on Monday. Archewell’s executive director, James Holt, is reportedly set to accept the honor on their behalf. The event will feature traditional Afghan food, music and a bazaar. US Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut will also be picking up an award for his services to Afghan refugees at the ceremony, which coincides with the first anniversary of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
DID YOU KNOW?
After 70 years, you’d think the Queen had done it all. And yet, this week we were surprised to find out that her signature is to be featured on UK coinage for the very first time. To coincide with her Platinum Jubilee, the Royal Mint – the official maker of UK coins – is releasing a three-coin set that celebrates important aspects of her reign: awards and honors, her work with charities and the Commonwealth.
Irish artist and illustrator P.J. Lynch, who designed each of the £5 coins, revealed his inspiration, saying: “I initially focused on The Queen’s hands; she is so often shaking hands – it is how she welcomes and communicates with the people she meets. It led me to consider her signature, which is so symbolic, an instrument of state when she signs official documents, but also her personal promise and commitment.”
The Prince of Wales marked International Youth Day on Friday with a call to action to champion the next generation while also acknowledging the challenges it has faced in recent years. In his video message, Charles noted that “from the impact of a public health crisis, and now a cost-of-living challenge, to the threat of climate change, there has been much to erode the hope of the younger generation.”
However, he said the day provided an opportunity to recognize the achievements of younger generations and praised “the resilience and ambition” they present “in the face of unprecedented global challenges.” Take a look at his full remarks here.
ONE LAST THING…
Just a quick one, Royal News readers – we wanted to let you know that we’re going on another short two-week break as the summer draws to a close (gosh, that flew by, didn’t it?). But worry not, we’ll be resuming our regular weekly service from September 2.
Take care and see you soon,
Max and Lauren