Q & A: Royal British Titles
Britain’s royalty and nobility fascinate the world. We wonder what all those titles mean and who all those people we’ve seen at royal weddings and funerals are. The British royal family is like other families, made up of spouses, children, grandchildren, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. The head of the British royal family is Queen Elizabeth II, and she is the one who decides who are bona fide members of the family and what titles they will carry.
Who are the Duke of York and the Duke of Kent and how did they get their titles?
To answer the question – a duke is the highest rank you can achieve without being a king or a prince. Historically a duke is a high-ranking nobleman, land-owner or a prince, and in feudal times was the lord over part of the country. Today the titles are largely symbolic and there are 28 dukedoms. Some people (like Prince Charles) have several dukedoms and some dukedoms are unassigned. When a duke who does not have an heir dies, the title returns to the royal family to be given out to someone new.
Not everyone who carries the title duke or earl is a member of today’s royal family. Britain has a system of peerage, which ranks members of the nobility and aristocracy. Many titles of nobility were won many years ago through great wealth, favors to the king or good deeds and are passed on from one generation to the next. This is known as the inherited peerage. For example, Earl Spencer, the brother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, is the ninth man in his family to carry that title.
Other noble titles are given on merit or on special occasions. The life peerage are titles that the monarch confers on exceptional people during their lifetimes, and those titles do not pass to children or descendents. Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister of Britain, is now Baroness Thatcher. The British prime minister consults with the queen about who is deserving of a life peerage, and several people are elevated to the peerage every year. Life peers get a seat in the House of Lords, but a law passed in 1999 limits the right of hereditary peers to have a seat.
The order of the titles in British Isles nobility from highest to lowest are:
• Duke ( duchess): The name is derived from the Latin dux, which means leader. Most dukedoms carry a place name, although that means little today.
• Marquess or marquis (marchioness): This title appeared in England with the Norman Conquest and was given to nobles in charge of border areas. The name is related to “frontier.”
• Earl (countess): The name comes from a Norse word, jarl, which meant leader. It is equivalent to a count in European nobility.
• Viscount (viscountess): Pronounced “VI-count”, this title derives from the Latin comes for a companion and was sort of an assistant nobleman in the old days.
• Baron ( baroness): The lowest rank of nobility came to England with the Normans, also, and the word is derived from the Norman word for a “freeman”. The highest title of a life peerage.
Below these are the lower nobility, who carry the titles:
• Baronet: This title is granted to members of the upper classes, referred to as the gentry.
• Knight (dame): In medieval times, knights were the soldiers of the king or of princes. Now, the queen grants knighthood to her subjects who have achieved great success in their professions. Paul McCartney, the former Beatle, has been knighted as has Elton John.
• Esquire: In medieval times, a candidate for knighthood. Nowadays, it is applied to members of the gentry just below knights.
The queen bestowed titles on her sons at their marriages and gave her daughter a special title. She has several titles that are hers to do with as she wishes. If an inherited peer dies without an heir, the title becomes the crown’s property. Some titles that the queen’s sons hold are part of the Scottish or Irish peerage. The princes’ titles can be inherited by their sons.
According to the royal family’s official Web site, here are the members of the family today:
• Queen Elizabeth II. When Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born in 1926, no one expected her to become the queen. Her father, the Duke of York, was Prince Albert, the second oldest son of King George V, and his older brother, Prince Edward, was the heir apparent to the throne. Prince Edward did become King Edward VIII when George V died in early 1936. But in one of the most famous scandals of the 20th century, Edward abdicated the throne because he wanted to marry a twice-divorced American woman named Wallis Simpson. So, in late 1936, Prince Albert became King George VI, and his older daughter became the heir presumptive, meaning that unless her parents had a son, she would succeed to the throne. Elizabeth became queen at her father’s death in 1952.
• Elizabeth is the only member of the royal family who is referred to as "Her Majesty,” an address that is reserved for kings and queens. Everyone else in good standing is “His Royal Highness” or “Her Royal Highness.”
• Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. The queen’s husband, like the queen, is a great-great-grandchild of Queen Victoria, and he was a member of both the Greek and Danish royal families. He spent a great deal of his childhood in England and served in the Royal Navy. He gave up his royal title and became a British citizen as a young adult. He received his noble title just before he and then Princess Elizabeth wed in 1947. He can’t be king because that would actually give him a rank higher than his wife’s.
• The Prince of Wales. The queen has given her oldest son, Prince Charles, several titles, chief among them Prince of Wales. That is the traditional title carried by the heir to the British throne. He is also Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick and Baron Renfrew, Lord of the Isles, and Prince and Great Steward of Scotland. His sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, are second and third in the line of succession after Charles. Their mother, of course, was Diana, who died in 1997.
• The Duke of York. The queen’s second son, Andrew, is also Earl of Inverness and Baron Killyleagh, titles his mother gave him when he married. His wife, Sarah Ferguson, became the Duchess of York, and even though the couple divorced in 1996, she is known as Sarah, Duchess of York. She is no longer “Her Royal Highness” though. Their daughters are Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie. Because Prince Andrew has no sons, his title will not be passed on to an heir. It is the crown’s property, and when the current Duke of York dies, a king or queen in the future could give the title to another man.
• The Earl of Wessex. The youngest son of the queen prefers to be called Edward Windsor when he is working as a television producer, but he is listed as the Earl of Wessex in the royal family. He became an earl at his marriage in 1999 to Sophie Rhys-Jones, who is now the Countess of Wessex. It is unusual for the son of a sovereign to have a title as low as earl.
• The Princess Royal. The queen gave her only daughter, Princess Anne, this special title in 1987. It is a title that traditionally can only be given to the monarch’s oldest daughter, but not all oldest daughters get the title. The Princess Royal, married for the second time and the mother of two, is considered the hardest working member of the royal family, sponsoring many charitable causes.
• Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester. Princess Alice is the widow of the Duke of Gloucester. Her husband, Prince Henry, was the third son of King George V, the queen’s grandfather. The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. Prince Richard is Princess Alice’s son and the queen’s cousin, and the duchess is his wife, the former Birgitte van Deurs. He inherited his father’s title, even though he was a second-born son because his older brother died in an accident some years before his father died.
• The Duke and Duchess of Kent. The duke is the queen’s cousin, Prince Edward. His father was the fourth son of King George V. The Duke of Kent inherited his title from his father, who died in an accident in 1942. The Duchess of Kent is the former Katharine Worsley.
• Prince and Princess Michael of Kent. Prince Michael is the younger brother of the Duke of Kent. The prince’s wife is known as Princess Michael of Kent, even though her given name is Marie-Christine. That is the nobility’s way of indicating that she is a princess by marriage, not by birth. Prince Michael is no longer in the line of succession for the throne. He gave up his spot when he married Princess Michael, a Roman Catholic divorcee, but the two still perform royal duties and represent the queen at weddings and funerals.
• Princess Alexandra. She is the sister of the Duke of Kent and Prince Michael of Kent. Her husband is Sir Angus Ogilvy, and they have two children.
The following 10 people are in line of Succession to the British Throne.
1. HRH The Prince of Wales (b. 1948)
2. HRH Prince William of Wales (b. 1982)
3. HRH Prince Henry of Wales (b. 1984)
4. HRH The Duke of York (b. 1960)
5. HRH Princess Beatrice of York (b. 1988)
6. HRH Princess Eugenie of York (b. 1990)
7. HRH The Earl of Wessex (b. 1964)
8. Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor (b. 2003)
9. HRH The Princess Royal (b. 1950)
10. Peter Phillips (b. 1977)
Can a member of the royal family do as they please?
It is true that members of the royal family do not have any formal constitutional functions. They do not, however, have the same freedom as other citizens to behave and say in public what they wish. For example, if they intend to make a speech which could be considered controversial, it is courteous for them to send a copy of their speech beforehand to the appropriate government minister. The Sovereign and his heir do not vote in elections, general or local ones, because they must remain politically neutral and it would be considered unconstitutional for them to do so.
Until 1999, the members of the royal family who held a hereditary peerage were subject to a ‘legal incapacity to vote’, as members of the House of Lords. The House of Lords Act of 1999 has removed that disqualification for all peers who lost the right to sit in the House of Lords, including the Prince of Wales, the Dukes of Edinburgh, York, Gloucester, and Kent, and the Earl of Wessex. Further, the members of the royal family do not stand for election to political or non-political positions. The royal family’s public role is to stand for unity and neutrality.
The members of the royal family are bound by the Act of Settlement and the Royal Marriages Act when planning to marry. Since the spouse of a member of the royal family is instantly in a special position, as the possible parent or ancestor of a future sovereign, it is indeed perfectly relevant for the Crown to have a say in whom a member of the royal family marries. If any member of the royal family refuses to accept that authority they may act as they wish, but forfeit their rights and privileges. If they wish to retain the privileges of their rank, they have a duty of obedience to the law – and it is perfectly reasonable that permission to marry should be part of the law (every European royal family have “house Laws” regulating marriage). Even in “ordinary” families, parents indicate their consent or disapproval of the choice of spouse of a family member, and the consequence of disobedience may occasionally lead to alienation in a family. There isn’t anything particularly odd or unusual about this.
In the case of the royal family, Princess Margaret’s decision not to marry Peter Townsend was not least because she was persuaded that as someone so close to the Throne she had a duty of obedience to royal tradition and to the teachings of the Church of England (as they then stood). In both the cases of the Duchess of Windsor and Princess Margaret, it was not the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 which stood in the way of their marriages. Rather, it was the laws of the Church of England, and the impossibility at that time of being married to a divorced person and being able to receive the Sacraments (a necessary part of the Coronation service).
When a man marries a princess or a queen, does he take his wife’s rank?
When a man marries a princess or a queen, he does not take his wife’s rank and become automatically a prince or a king. In English Common Law a man retains his own name upon marriage. Conversely, when a woman marries a prince or a king, she becomes automatically a princess or a queen; this is in keeping with English Common Law, whereby a woman is entitled to her husband’s name. If the husband of a queen were permitted to be known as king, he would then technically rank higher than his wife the queen.
The husband of a princess or a queen can have a peerage or a title conferred upon him by the Sovereign. Three examples when a peerage or a title was bestowed on the spouse of a princess or a queen:
• 1961: when Antony Armstrong-Jones, husband of HRH Princess Margaret, was made Earl of Snowdon.
• 1947: when Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, husband of HRH Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II), was made Duke of Edinburgh on the day of his wedding.
• 1857: when Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, husband of Queen Victoria, was granted the title Prince Consort.
It is worth noting that the British Constitution does not make any provision for the position of a husband to a Queen. A man who marries a princess who later becomes queen or who marries a queen regnant, does not become king. Queen Victoria succinctly summarized the situation:
'It is a strange omission in our Constitution that while the wife of a King has the highest rank and dignity in the realm after her husband assigned to her by law, the husband of a Queen regnant is entirely ignored by the law.’
Why Is Queen Elizabeth II “HM” and not “HRH”?
The style His (or Her) Majesty is reserved for those individuals who are kings or queens. Elizabeth II as queen is styled Her Majesty. If she was a princess who was the daughter of a king or queen, she would be styled Royal Highness (HRH). (HM was “HRH Princess Elizabeth” during her father’s lifetime.)
In the United Kingdom, the style HM is also the style of the wife or the widow of a king.
The children of HM The Queen (Charles, Anne, Andrew and Edward) are styled HRH because they are children of the sovereign, a queen. Their style and title are allowed to them as children of the sovereign.
The children of HRH Princess Margaret (David and Sarah) are not HRH because princesses do not usually transmit their titles to their children. They are the children of a royal mother but take their rank from their father.
Queen Elizabeth II
HRH The Duke of Edinburgh (Prince Philip of Greece) (b. 1921)
HRH The Prince of Wales (Prince Charles) (b. 1948)
HRH The Princess Royal (Princess Anne) (b. 1950)
HRH The Duke of York (Prince Andrew) (b. 1960)
HRH The Earl of Wessex (Prince Edward) (b. 1964)
HRH Prince William of Wales (b. 1982)
HRH Prince Henry (Harry) of Wales (b. 1984)
(sons of The Prince of Wales)
HRH Princess Beatrice of York (b. 1988)
HRH Princess Eugenie of York (b. 1990)
(daughters of The Duke of York)
Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor (b. 2003)
(daughter of The Earl of Wessex)
Peter Phillips (b. 1977)
Zara Phillips (b. 1981)
(children of The Princess Royal)
Nephew and Niece:
David Armstrong-Jones, Viscount Linley (b. 1961)
Lady Sarah Chatto (née Armstrong-Jones) (b. 1964)
(children of Princess Margaret)
What is the address of HM The Queen?
When sending a letter to HM, the envelope should read as follows:
The Private Secretary to HM The Queen
London SW 1