A Title Explainer

Embed from Getty Images

There’s a lot of confusion out there right now about the various titles and how this all works, so I thought I’d summarize it as briefly as I can. Part of the issue – besides, of course, the fact that this is quite literally a foreign concept in many countries – is that the succession has been relatively stagnant for several years, and so individuals are so closely associated with certain titles. In fact, titles are inherently dynamic (pun kind of intended).

For many of you, this won’t be anything new, but for those struggling with who is who and why, here you go:

Monarch/Sovereign/King/Queen Regnant

The styles hold the same rank. This is the top job, and the one held for the last 70 years by Queen Elizabeth II and recently taken over by King Charles III. When the monarch is male, he is The King. When the monarch is female, she is The Queen. The term queen regnant is occasionally used to differentiate between a queen who is a monarch and a queen who is a consort – Elizabeth II was a queen regnant, but her mother, also known as Queen Elizabeth (The Queen Mother), was a queen consort (aka, a king’s spouse).

Queen/Prince Consort

The consort is the monarch’s spouse. This position is currently held by Queen Camilla, Charles III’s wife. Historically, since the monarch was almost always a man, the consort was a woman. In the previous reign, because the monarch was a woman, her consort was Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. A queen’s husband is never a king, because a king outranks a queen. At the very least, a king is considered an equal power to a queen.

As such, since the reign of Queen Anne in the 18th century down, the spouses of queen regnants have never been ranked higher than “prince.” Occasionally, they are known officially as Prince Consorts, as Queen Victoria’s husband was towards the end of his life. It’s not, however, a de facto title a queen’s husband can inherit. A lot of checks are put on male spouses power given the history of marital power balances and the (now outdated) practice of marrying foreign princes. The UK has been very consistent about its wariness of international influence(!)

Prince of Wales

Since the reign of Edward I in the 13th century, this is the title bequeathed by the monarch to their eldest son. It is not automatic, but in fact has to be given by the monarch. It is notable, for example, that King Charles named his son, Prince William, Prince of Wales so quickly. Historically, it hasn’t always happened that way due to various, unique circumstances.

Princess of Wales

To-date, this is the title that legally belongs to the Prince of Wales’s spouse. It is currently held by Catherine, formerly known as The Duchess of Cambridge. In the previous reign, this title was legally held by Queen Camilla, however she chose to style herself as Duchess of Cornwall due to the title’s close association with King Charles’s first wife, Diana.

I read somewhere that upon taking on this title, Catherine was now a “princess in her own right.” No. Just as she did her title Duchess of Cambridge, she holds her titles due to her marriage to William.

I’ve also seen a lot of social media posts describing Diana, Princess of Wales as the “one, true Princess of Wales.” This title obviously wasn’t created for Diana, just as Prince of Wales wasn’t created for Charles. These titles date back centuries and the first *English* Princess of Wales was Joan of Kent, wife of the Black Prince and mother of Richard II.

Hypothetically speaking, if Prince George’s eldest child is a girl, thanks to updated laws of succession, he could name her Princess of Wales as his heir. At that point, it’s unclear what her husband would be called.

Duke & Duchess of Cornwall

Like Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall is a title that belongs to the monarch’s eldest son – in this case, William. Unlike Prince of Wales, its inheritance is automatic. So, as we saw last week – when Charles ascended the throne, William immediately assumed the title Duke of Cornwall. And he would have remained styled as such until Charles named him Prince of Wales. So, William is both Duke of Cornwall and Prince of Wales, but the latter outranks the former. He also remains Duke of Cambridge, so that title remains in what is now a very long list. It would, however, be incorrect to refer to him as such.

Princess Royal

This is a title traditionally held by the monarch’s eldest daughter. It is not meant to indicate an heir, so it shouldn’t be equated with Prince of Wales. It’s more a way of elevating the eldest daughter above any younger sisters, and was once used as extra decoration for bestowing honor attached to her potential marriage abroad. The practice is actually French – it was brought to England by Charles I’s wife, Henrietta Maria, daughter of Henri IV of France. In France, the title was known as Madame Royale.

This title is currently held by Princess Anne, who was Queen Elizabeth’s only daughter. In theory, William can someday bequeath it on his daughter, Princess Charlotte. Notably, the title doesn’t expire with the reign of the Princess Royal’s parent. As such, Anne will keep her title through the end of her life. If she outlives King Charles, William won’t be able to give it to Charlotte until after Anne’s death.

Princesses “of the blood”

This term is occasionally thrown around, and what it means is a princess born into the Royal Family, as opposed to a princess who marries into it. Princess Anne, Princess Beatrice, and Princess Eugenie are all princesses “of the blood” – their blood is quite literally royal blood, to the extent we accept that terminology and its insinuations these days. Queen Camilla, Catherine, The Countess of Wessex, and The Duchess of Sussex are not princesses of the blood – their titles are held due only to their marriages.

So, to answer the question(s), are Catherine/Meghan *really* princesses? Yes. They have been since their weddings since they married princes. Even as royal duchesses, they were legally princesses. It would be technically incorrect, however, to refer to either of them as Princess Catherine/Princess Meghan – since they aren’t blood princesses, they are actually Princess William/Princess Harry (or Henry), however it would be more appropriate to refer to them by their titles (Princess of Wales and Duchess of Sussex).

And in case this is bringing “Princess Diana” to mind – yes, that was technically incorrect(!) But it’s fine, and expected that that’s how the vast majority of people will refer to the Princess of Wales. It’s entirely possible there will be more uses of “Princess Catherine” or “Princess Kate” and not only is that not a huge deal, but the Palace has already said (years ago now) it’s okay.

Subsidiary Titles

Several high-ranking titles have subsidiary titles that are bequeathed to the eldest son. For example, Queen Elizabeth’s youngest son, Prince Edward, is The Earl of Wessex. His eldest son, James, is known as the Viscount Severn. When Archie Mountbatten-Windsor was born in 2019, his parents declined to name him Earl of Dumbarton, a subsidiary title of The Duke of Sussex. Someday, Archie will have every right to style himself Duke of Sussex after his father’s death, regardless of whether or not he is styled a “prince.”

Hopefully this helps. Any questions and feel free to drop them in the comments.

4 thoughts on “A Title Explainer

  1. LEW

    Good stuff and a useful reminder Rebecca. I’ve seen some of the complaints about “Diana’s title” and think people are forgetting that it is now held by her beloved sons wife. I cannot for one second imagine she would have had any issue with that.

    Yes too for her seamless graduation from “Lady Di” to “Princess Diana”. She will never be anything else now in the eyes of the world and although technically incorrect it feels fitting, to me at least.

  2. Lori

    Longtime reader, first-time commenter here. I’m curious if you can give some insight into the titles of Edward’s children. I’ve read that Edward and Sophie did not want their children to receive Prince/Princess titles, thus they are Viscount Severn and Lady Louise, but I also read that allegedly Sophie said that they could elect to use Prince/Princess titles at age 18. Is that correct? I’m assuming a change like that would require approval of the monarch, and now that James and Louise are nephew and niece of a monarch and not the grandchildren of a monarch (and Lady Louise is already 18), is it safe to assume their titles will remain unchanged?

    Any idea why Edward and Sophie didn’t just forego titles for their children in the first place – was it simply so their children would have the option in the future, or is there something else at play that I’m unaware of? As an American, I fear I’m always a few steps behind when it comes to understanding British titles!

    I always manage to learn something (and often many things!) from your posts and always very much appreciate your insights, especially in the last 8 days. Thank you for your diligent work! It’s always a pleasure to read your posts.

    1. Hi – thanks for reading and the kind words! On the Wessexes, yes, that’s essentially correct. As grandchildren of the sovereign, Edward and Sophie could have opted to name them Princess Louise and Prince James. However, there was a sizable gap between the birth of Louise in 2003 and her next-youngest cousin, Princess Eugenie, in 1990. In the interim, the Royal Family had changed significantly and there was already talk about the idea of “streamlining” the monarchy in coming years, particularly once Charles became king. In other words, when Andrew’s children were born, it was still a possibility his daughters could be working royals. By the time Edward’s children were born, it was clear they wouldn’t be. As such, Edward and Sophie decided not to weigh their children down with royal titles that would potentially a burden to them pursuing more normal lives. The Wessexes also had the unique experience of trying to forge – or maintain – careers and finding that impossible given their then-seniority in the Royal Family. You’re in or you’re out and they chose to be in – a template that was very much leveraged in 2020 with the Sussexes.

      Louise and James have noble titles, but not royal. And frankly that’s less remarkable in the UK. It’s also easier to drop. So, yes, technically it’s “Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor,” but it wouldn’t be noteworthy for the “Lady” to be dropped in everyday – particularly academic or professional – life.

      I don’t see that changing in the new reign or now that Louise is 18. I don’t think the King would be in favor of it, but really, I don’t get the sense a more high-profile life is anything the Wessexes are gunning for.

Leave a Reply