Letters Patent - George V, 1917

Royal Titles Decoded: What Makes a Prince or Princess?

Royal titles in the United Kingdom carry a rich tapestry of history, embodying centuries of tradition while adapting to the changing landscape of the modern world. This article delves into the structure of these titles, focusing on significant changes made during the 20th and 21st centuries, and how these rules affect current royals.

The Foundations: Letters Patent of 1917

The framework for today’s royal titles was significantly shaped by the Letters Patent issued by King George V in 1917. This document was pivotal in redefining who in the royal family would be styled with “His or Her Royal Highness” (HRH) and as a prince or princess. Specifically, the 1917 Letters Patent restricted these styles to:

  • The sons and daughters of a sovereign.
  • The male-line grandchildren of a sovereign.
  • The eldest living son of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales.

This move was partly in response to the anti-German sentiment of World War I, aiming to streamline the monarchy and solidify its British identity by reducing the number of royals with German titles.

Notice that the definitions talk about “a sovereign”, not “the sovereign”. This means that when the sovereign changes, no-one will lose their royal title (for example, Prince Andrew is still the son of a sovereign, even though he is no longer the son of the sovereign). However, people can gain royal titles when the sovereign changes – we will see examples below.

Extension by George VI in 1948

Understanding the implications of the existing rules as his family grew, King George VI issued a new Letters Patent in 1948 to extend the style of HRH and prince/princess to the children of the future queen, Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II). This was crucial as, without this adjustment, Princess Elizabeth’s children would not automatically have become princes or princesses because they were not male-line grandchildren of the monarch. This ensured that Charles and Anne were born with princely status, despite being the female-line grandchildren of a monarch.

The Modern Adjustments: Queen Elizabeth II’s 2012 Update

Queen Elizabeth II’s update to the royal titles in 2012 before the birth of Prince William’s children was another significant modification. The Letters Patent of 2012 decreed that all the children of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales would hold the title of HRH and be styled as prince or princess, not just the eldest son. This move was in anticipation of changes brought about by the Succession to the Crown Act of 2013, which ended the system of male primogeniture, ensuring that the firstborn child of the Prince of Wales, regardless of gender, would be the direct heir to the throne. Without this change, there could have been a situation where Prince William’s first child (and the heir to the throne) was a daughter who wasn’t a princess, whereas her eldest (but younger) brother would have been a prince.

Impact on Current Royals

  • Children of Princess Anne: When Anne married Captain Mark Phillips in 1973, he was offered an earldom but declined it. Consequently, their children, Peter Phillips and Zara Tindall, were not born with any titles. This decision reflects Princess Anne’s preference for her children to have a more private life, albeit still active within the royal fold.
  • Children of Prince Edward: Initially, Prince Edward’s children were styled as children of an earl, despite his being a son of the sovereign. Recently, his son James assumed the courtesy title Earl of Wessex, when Prince Edward was created the Duke of Edinburgh. His daughter, Lady Louise Windsor, continued to use the same style as she did before her father became duke – the style for the daughter of a duke being identical to that for the daughter of an earl.
  • Children of Prince Harry: When Archie and Lilibet were born, they were not entitled to princely status or HRH. They were great-grandchildren of the monarch and, despite the Queen’s adjustments in 2012, their cousins – George, Charlotte and Louis – were the only great-grandchildren of the monarch with those titles. When their grandfather became king, they became male-line grandchildren of a monarch and, hence, a prince and a princess. It took a while for those changes to be reflected on the royal family website. This presumably gave the royal household time to reflect on the effect of the children’s parents withdrawing from royal life and moving to the USA.

Special Titles: Prince of Wales and Princess Royal

  • Prince of Wales: Historically granted to the heir apparent, this title is not automatic and needs to be specifically bestowed by the monarch. Prince Charles was created Prince of Wales in 1958, though he had been the heir apparent since 1952. Prince William, on the other hand, received the title in 2022 – just a day after the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
  • Princess Royal: This title is reserved for the sovereign’s eldest daughter but is not automatically reassigned when the previous holder passes away or when a new eldest daughter is born. Queen Elizabeth II was never Princess Royal because her aunt, Princess Mary, held the title during her lifetime. Princess Anne currently holds this title, having received it in 1987.

The Fade of Titles: Distant Royals

As the royal family branches out, descendants become too distanced from the throne, removing their entitlement to HRH and princely status. For example, the Duke of Gloucester, Duke of Kent, Prince Michael of Kent and Princess Alexandra all have princely status as male-line grandchildren of George V. Their children are all great-grandchildren of a monarch and, therefore, do not all have royal styles or titles. This reflects a natural trimming of the royal family tree, focusing the monarchy’s public role on those directly in line for succession.


The evolution of British royal titles reflects both adherence to deep-rooted traditions and responsiveness to modern expectations. These titles not only delineate the structure and hierarchy within the royal family but also adapt to changes in societal norms and the legal landscape, ensuring the British monarchy remains both respected and relevant in the contemporary era.

Charles III, crowned

Where does royal power come from?

Yesterday’s coronation showed Britain doing what Britain does best – putting on the most gloriously bonkers ceremony the world has seen for decades. From Penny Mordant with a giant sword to Charles and Camilla seemingly playing a very important game of musical chairs, along with some of the strangest costumes you’ll see outside of a ComicCon, it was enough to ensure that the eyes of the world were all on Westminster Abbey for a few hours.

Much of the strangeness of the pageantry stems, of course, from the fact that bits and pieces of the ceremony date back hundreds of years. But there’s one crucial piece of the ceremony that really should have been updated over 300 years ago because not making this change means that there’s a big lie at the very heart of the ceremony.

It’s a lie about where the monarch’s power comes from.

Through most of the centuries that we’ve been crowning our monarch in Westminster Abbey, Britain has been a Christian nation. The coronation service has, therefore, been a Christian service. And it has, at its heart, a belief that the power wielded by the monarch comes from God. And that remains at the heart of the ceremony to this day. In the most sacred part of the ceremony (the bit that takes place behind screens because it’s too important for us to see) the new monarch is anointed with oil while the Archbishop of Canterbury says this:

Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who by his Father was anointed with the oil of gladness above his fellows, by his holy anointing pour down upon your head and heart the blessing of the Holy Spirit, and prosper the works of your hands: that by the assistance of his heavenly grace you may govern and preserve the peoples committed to your charge in wealth, peace, and godliness; and after a long and glorious course of ruling a temporal kingdom wisely, justly, and religiously, you may at last be made partaker of an eternal kingdom; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

And it bit later on (as the king is being handed various bits of regalia) the Archbishop says this:

With this sword do justice, stop the growth of iniquity, protect the holy Church of God and all people of goodwill, help and defend widows and orphans, restore the things that are gone to decay, maintain the things that are restored, punish and reform what is amiss, and confirm what is in good order: that doing these things you may be glorious in all virtue; and so faithfully serve our Lord Jesus Christ in this life, that you may reign for ever with him in the life which is to come. Amen.

Both of these extracts ask for Jesus to help the monarch by giving them the power to reign over the kingdom in the way that God would like. This all makes perfect sense in the days of the Divine Right of Kings, but there are at least two good reasons why it no longer makes any sense today:

  • Firstly, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 made it perfectly clear that British monarchs don’t reign because God wants them to. No, it’s now the British parliament that gives them the power to reign over the country. And the fact that it’s parliament that is the source of royal power is enshrined in law in the Bill of Rights (1689) and the Act of Succession (1701).
  • And, secondly, Britain is no longer a majority Christian country. Claiming that the monarch takes their power from a supernatural being that large numbers of us don’t believe in just isn’t sustainable in our modern society.

Before yesterday, we heard a lot about how diverse this ceremony was going to be. But that’s really not what I saw on the day. Yes, there was a procession of leaders from many different faiths. But having taken their seats, they just sat there for the duration of the ceremony. The only non-Christian who seemed to have a role in the ceremony seemed to be our Hindu prime minister giving a reading from the Bible (which seemed slightly imperialist to me, to be honest). Other than that, the most diverse thing I saw was the leaders of a number of other Christian denominations giving blessings. Maybe having a Catholic Cardinal and a Greek Orthodox Patriarch speaking in an Anglican cathedral counts as diverse for some people, but it didn’t exactly seem groundbreaking to me.

I first started feeling slightly uncomfortable about the link between the royal family and the Church of England during the late Queen’s funeral last year. But, at that point, I was able to put my misgivings aside as I knew that she was a deeply religious woman and I could (to an extent) see it as a personal choice. I’m sure that the new King is also religious, but he’s on record as wanting to be a more modern and representative monarch and I’m afraid that just doesn’t sit well with all the wall-to-wall Anglicanism.

To me, this just looks like an unanswerable argument for the disestablishment of the Church of England.

If Charles wants to be the figurehead of a society that contains people of many different faiths (and, let’s not forget, no faith at all) then he cannot be seen to privilege his personal faith over those of other people. Surely, he has to become just a member of his church and not its Supreme Governor. Of course, that’s a bit tricky when, at the start of yesterday’s ceremony, the Archbishop asked him:

Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England?
And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?

And he replied:

I am willing.

CHARLES do solemnly and sincerely in the presence of God profess, testify, and declare that I am a faithful Protestant, and that I will, according to the true intent of the enactments which secure the Protestant succession to the Throne, uphold and maintain the said enactments to the best of my powers according to law.

It seems unlikely that he’ll want to go back on an oath he gave just yesterday. But I don’t see how he can pretend to be a modern and representative monarch without doing this.

I’m not saying that he needs to stop going to church if he wants to. That’s personal to him (and his family on special occasions like Christmas and Easter). He can continue his mother’s traditions of family outings to the churches at Sandringham and Balmoral for as long as he wants (although I do wonder at what point we’ll have an heir who knows it’s all nonsense and is just going through the motions – perhaps we already do!)

No, all I want is to break the link between the Monarchy and the Church of England (and if we have to remove the link between the House of Lords and the Church of England at the same time, I really wouldn’t object). Surely it’s obvious in the 21st century no church should be given a position of privilege over all the others.

Imagine, if you can, a version of yesterday’s ceremony that was truly inclusive and multicultural. One that didn’t lie about where the monarch’s power comes from. It could still have room for Penny Mordant and her giant sword, the Pursuivants of Arms and whatever other ancient British traditions you want. But it could also bring in the most ridiculous pageantry from the other Commonwealth realms and other faiths. It would be magnificently insane. And it wouldn’t exclude any of the people of His Majesty’s realms.

I think that’s something worth aiming for. And I hope it happens in time for William’s coronation.

The Queen in 1952

Seventy Years of Change

Her Majesty has, of course, seen changes in many areas of society in the seventy years of her reign. But here, we’re most interested in the line of succession. So we thought it would be interesting to look at the line of succession on the day that she took the throne and see what had happened to the people who were at the top of the line of succession on that day. It’s a very different list to today’s.

  1. The Prince Charles, Duke of Cornwall
    We start with the one person who is in exactly the same place as he was seventy years ago. Prince Charles was three years old and hadn’t yet been made Prince of Wales.
  2. The Princess Anne
    Princess Anne has fallen a long way in seventy years. The birth of younger brothers (back in the days when sex mattered in the line of succession) and those brothers having families of their own mean that she is now down at number 17.
  3. Princess Margaret
    We’ve run out of the Queen’s descendants after only two places (today, they fill the top 24 places in the line) so we move to her sister. Princess Margaret had fallen to 11th place before her death in 2002.
  4. Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester
    We’ve now run out of descendants of George VI, so we need to look at his brothers. This is the father of the current duke. He fell to 8th place before dying in 1974.
  5. Prince William of Gloucester
    The Duke of Gloucester’s eldest son had fallen to position 9 before sadly dying before his father in 1972.
  6. Prince Richard of Gloucester
    As his eldest son predeceased their father, it was Prince Richard who became Duke of Gloucester when the first duke died in 1974. He is currently in 30th place.
  7. Prince Edward, Duke of Kent
    The first Duke of Kent had died ten years earlier, so it was his son, Prince Edward, who held the title, at the age of 16, who was duke in 1952, He fell out of the top 30 in 2012.
  8. Prince Michael of Kent
    Prince Michael had fallen to 16th place before his marriage to a Catholic, in 1978, excluded him from the line of succession. He was reinstated in 2015 (because the Succession to the Crown Act meant that marriage to a Catholic was no longer a reason for exclusion) but he reappeared outside of the top 30.
  9. Princess Alexandra of Kent
    Princess Alexandra had dropped down the list pretty consistently throughout her life. From 1999 she popped in and out of the top 30 a few times. but she left it for the last time in 2003.
  10. Princess Mary, Princess Royal
    The youngest child and only daughter of George V, Princess Mary had called to 17th in line before she died in 1965.
  11. George Lascelles, The 7th Earl of Harewood
    Fell out of the top 30 in 1994 before dying in 2011.
  12. David Lascelles, Viscount Lascelles
    Fell out of the top 30 in 1993.
  13. Gerald Lascelles
    Fell out of the top 30 in 1982 and died in 1998.
  14. Princess Arthur of Connaught, Duchess of Fife
    Fell to 17th before dying in 1959
  15. James Carnegie, 3rd Duke of Fife
    Fell out of the top 30 in 1981 and died in 2015
  16. Olaf V, King of Norway
    A bit of a leap as we find the royal family of Norway surprisingly close to the top of the list. King Olaf was a grandson of Edward VII (through Edward’s daughter Maud). He kell out of the top 30 in 1979 and died in 1991.
  17. Prince Harald of Norway
    Prince Harald became king of Norway in 1991. He fell out of the top 30 of the British line of succession in 1977.
  18. Princess Ragnhild of Norway
    Princess Ragnhild fell out of the top 30 in 1973 and died in 2012.
  19. Princess Astrid of Norway
    Princess Astrid fell out of the top 30 in 1964.
  20. Carol II of Romania
    The next-closest royal family to ours is the Romanians. Carol II was a great-grandson of Victoria. The death of George VI moved him up a place from 21 to 20 and he remained there until his death the following year. Carol hadn’t actually been King of Romania since he was forced to abdicate in 1940.
  21. Carol Lambrino
    The question of Carol Lambino’s legitimacy is a question of some dispute – so he may not have been on the line of succession at all. But, if he was, he fell out of the top 30 in 1963 and died in 2006.
  22. Paul-Philippe Hohenzollern
    As son of the possibly-illegitimate Carol Lambino, Paul-Phillippe’s place of the line of succession is also in question. But, anyway, he fell out of the top 30 in 1962.
  23. Prince Nicholas of Romania
    Prince Nicholas fell out of the top 30 in 1961 and died in 1978.
  24. Elisabeth of Romania
    Fell to number 27 before dying in 1956.
  25. Maria of Yugoslavia
    Fell to position 30 before dying in 1961.
  26. Peter II of Yugoslavia
    Peter was no longer King of Yugoslavia, having been deposed in 1945. He fell out of the top 30 in 1961 and died in 1970.
  27. Prince Tomislav of Yugoslavia
    Fell out of the top 30 in 1960 and died in 2000.
  28. Prince Andrew of Yugoslavia
    Fell out of the top 30 in 1959 and died in 1990.
  29. Princess Ileana of Romania
    Fell out of the top 30 in 1954 and died in 1991.
  30. Archduke Stefan of Austria
    Fell out of the top 30 in 1953 and died in 1998.

I think that’s an interesting list for a few reasons:

  • The fact that we’ve gone from two of the Queen’s descendants to twenty-four of them on the list (but even that’s not as big a difference as happened during Victoria’s reign).
  • Only ten of the people on the list are still living.
  • There’s a large number of foreign royalty on the list – basically, the second half of the list is taken up by members of the royal families of Norway, Romania and Yugoslavia. This is obviously because of the way that royal families inter-married up until early in the 20th century. We see far less of that now.

So what do you think? Was the 1952 list a surprise to you? Did you expect it to be as different as it is from the current list?

Princess Elizabeth and the baby Prince Charles

How Charles was very nearly not a prince

There’s been a lot of talk over the last year or so about why the children of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex don’t have titles. But did you know that Prince Charles was very nearly not born a prince? It’s an interesting story and shows that Archie and Lilibet’s situation isn’t as strange as you might think.

Let’s start by reviewing the rules about who is or isn’t a prince. For centuries, this was controlled by ill-defined customs and it was as recently as 1917 that George V issued Letters Patent defining the rules on who would receive a royal title (that is, who would be able to use HRH and be a prince or princess). The rules he came up with were as follows:

  • Children of a monarch
  • Children of the sons of a monarch
  • The eldest son of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales

The last rule on that list was tweaking by the Queen in 2012, so it now reads:

  • Children of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales

The effect of that change was that the second and third children of Prince William became Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis – which they wouldn’t have been before the change.

When we look at these rules, we can see that they define the princely status of the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of a monarch. It makes sense that the only great-grandchildren who get royal titles are the children of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales as they are the people who will be the core of the royal family in the future. The bit about “the eldest son” might need to be changed when if the eldest child of a Prince of Wales is a daughter – but that’s a problem for a later date.

The list also explains some of the questions that are frequently asked about titles.

  • Archie and Lilibet Mountbatten-Windsor aren’t currently entitled to princely status (but that will change when their grandfather is king)
  • The children of Princess Anne were never going to have royal titles (but they would have received noble titles if Mark Phillips had accepted the earldom he was presumably offered when he married Anne)
  • The Duke of Gloucester, Duke of Kent, Princess Alexandra and Prince Michael of Kent all have royal titles because they are the grandchildren of George V

The only anomaly left is that the children of Prince Edward are entitled to royal status but don’t use it. This was a decision taken by their parents. The children do have that status, they just choose not to use it. The children are entitled to override their parents’ decision when they reach their eighteenth birthdays, but Lady Louise has just passed that milestone and there has been no announcement of her title changing.

So, as I said above, this explains why Archie and Lilibet Mountbatten-Windsor are not currently given royal status. This is how royal experts always expected it to work. No-one should be surprised at the situation. And the situation will change when Prince Charles becomes king. They will then be the children of a son of a monarch and will become Prince Archie and Princess Lilibet. I believe that this will be the first example of someone gaining princely status because a new monarch took the throne.

But it might not have been that way. There could have been an earlier example.

Think back to October 1948. George VI is on the throne. He has two daughters – Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. Both women were grandchildren of George V when they were born and were therefore born princesses as the daughters of a son of a monarch. Princess Elizabeth married the Duke of Edinburgh in November 1947 and by October 1948 it was well-known that she was expecting her first child.

But consider that child – who we now know to be Charles. He was born as a grandson of a monarch, but not the child of the son of a monarch. Being the son of a daughter of a monarch, he would not be expected to receive a royal title. He would, presumably, have been known as the Earl of Merioneth (his father’s subsidiary title). And when Anne was born two years later, she would have been Lady Anne Windsor. Similarly to Archie and Lilibet, they would have both been given royal titles when their mother became queen in 1952 but, until then they would have suffered under the gender bias of George V’s rules.

However, their grandfather noticed the problem and pre-empted it. In October 1947 (a few weeks before Charles was born) he issued Letters Patent declaring that all children of Princess Elizabeth would be given royal status. Unfortunately, he only changed the rules specifically for her children and didn’t think to put a rule in place that would cover any future situations where we had a princess who was first in line to the throne and old enough to be having children (something that will become more common now that monarchs tend to live longer and we’ve abolished male-preference primogeniture). Just another little point that will need adjusting as the royal family tries to work in a less sexist manner – but that’s a topic for another article.

I confess that I hadn’t heard this story until a few weeks ago and I’m rather embarrassed to admit that I failed to realise how close we came to having someone who was second in line to the throne who didn’t have a princely title. Did you know about this?

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

The Funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh

The funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh takes place in London tomorrow. Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, there will only be thirty guests at the event, and (by my calculations) twenty of them are on the line of succession. Let’s have a look at the list.

  1. HM The Queen. She’s obviously not on the line of succession – having popped off the top of it in 1952.
  2. Prince Charles, The Prince of Wales. Charles is number 1 on the list and is the Duke’s eldest son and, therefore, the person who inherits the title Duke of Edinburgh.
  3. Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. The wife of the Prince of Wales. She’s not on the line of succession.
  4. Princess Anne, The Princess Royal. The Duke’s second child and only daughter. She’s surprisingly far down the line of succession, at number 15.
  5. Timothy Laurence. The husband of the Princess Royal. Not on the line of succession.
  6. Prince Andrew, Duke of York. The Duke’s third child and second son. He’s currently number 8 on the line of succession.
  7. Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex. The Duke’s youngest child and third son. He’s currently number 12 on the line of succession. Edward is expected to be granted a new Dukedom of Edinburgh once the title merges with the Crown (i.e. when Prince Charles becomes king).
  8. Sophie, Countess of Wessex. The wife of the Earl of Wessex. She’s not on the line of succession.
  9. Prince William, Duke of Cambridge. The eldest son of the Prince of Wales. He’s number 2 on the line of succession.
  10. Kate, Duchess of Cambridge. The wife of the Duke of Cambridge. She’s not on the line of succession.
  11. Prince Henry (Harry), Duke of Sussex. The second (and youngest) son of the Prince of Wales. He’s number 6 on the line of succession.
  12. Peter Phillips. Eldest child of the Princess Royal and the Duke’s eldest grandchild. He’s number 16 on the line of succession.
  13. Zara Tindall. Second and youngest child of the Princess Royal. She’s number 19 on the line of succession.
  14. Mike Tindall. Husband of Zara Tindall. He’s not on the line of succession.
  15. Princess Beatrice of York. Eldest daughter of the Duke of York. She’s number 9 on the line of succession.
  16. Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi. Husband of Princess Beatrice. He’s not on the line of succession.
  17. Princess Eugenie of York. Second daughter of the Duke of York. She’s number 10 on the line of succession.
  18. Jack Brooksbank. Husband of Princess Eugenie. He’s not on the line of succession.
  19. Lady Louise Windsor. Eldest child of the Earl of Wessex. She’s number 14 on the line of succession.
  20. James, Viscount Severn. Second child of the Earl of Wessex. He’s number 13 on the line of succession. He’s higher than his older sister because they were born before the abolition of male-preference primogeniture.
  21. Prince Edward, Duke of Kent. The Queen’s first cousin. He’s number 39 on the line of succession.
  22. Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester. The Queen’s first cousin. He’s number 29 on the line of succession.
  23. Princess Alexandra, Lady Ogilvy. The Queen’s first cousin. She’s between 52 and 55 on the line of succession (it’s unclear because we’re not sure about the status of some of her nephews and nieces who may have converted to Catholicism – I should write a blog post about that).
  24. Bernhard, Hereditary Prince of Baden. The Duke’s great nephew. He’ll be on the line of succession, but somewhere down in the 600s.
  25. Prince Donatus, Landgreve of Hesse. A distant cousin of the Duke. As a descendant of Queen Victoria, he’ll be on the line of succession, but who knows where!
  26. Philipp, Prince of Hohenlohe-Langenburg. The Duke’s great nephew. He’ll be on the line of succession but somewhere down in the 600s.
  27. The Earl of Snowdon. The Queen’s nephew. He’s number 24 on the line of succession.
  28. Penelope Knatchbull, Countess Mountbatten of Burma. First cousin by marriage of the Duke. She’s not on the list.
  29. Lady Sarah Chatto. Niece of the Queen. She’s number 26 on the line of succession.
  30. Daniel Chatto. Husband of Lady Sarah Chatto. He’s not on the line of succession.

Some interesting compromises have been made. None of the Duke’s great-grandchildren is in attendance. At 13, Viscount Severn will be the youngest mourner and the Queen will be the eldest (followed, I think, by the Duke of Kent). There’s no room for divorced or separated spouses. And the absence of the Duchess of Sussex (who couldn’t fly due to her pregnancy) freed up a space for someone else.

What interesting things have you noticed in the list?

[Update: I’ve fixed a typo and a factual error in the text – as pointed out in the comments below.]

No Overtaking sign

Different Lines

If you’ve watched the video where I talk about this site, you’ll know that one of the main reasons why I started getting interested in the royal family was that there were so many people asking such bad questions about it over on Quora. Here are some of the examples I use in the talk:

  • Who will succeed the Queen of England? (England hasn’t had a Queen since 1707)
  • Why does Britain always have a queen, not a king? (Genetics, mostly)
  • Who would be king if Prince Charles dies before Queen Elizabeth II? (That’s a trick question, isn’t it? If Prince Charles dies, we would still have the same queen)
  • What must Prince Charles actually feel about his mother pulling him from the line of succession and designating his son as heir to the throne? (Umm… what? Perhaps get your news from a more trustworthy source)
  • Did the Queen assassinate Diana, Princess of Wales? (No)

These all, obviously, stem from people getting their news from increasingly uninformed sources. And would it be discourteous of me to suggest that the width of the Atlantic Ocean seems to be a factor in the amount of fact-checking that some journalists carry out?

But there are also the questions that simply don’t understand how the line of succession. Sometimes, people seem to see the British royal family as something out of Game of Thrones and they forget that a constitutional monarchy is rather different from what you would find in Westeros. The word “constitutional” is there for a very good reason. Questions in this category look like this:

  • Can the Queen skip a generation and hand the crown to Prince William?
  • If Prince Charles and Prince William died, would Prince Harry be next in line?
  • If Prince Charles dies before the Queen, why wouldn’t Prince Andrew be King?

People who ask questions like this don’t understand the most fundamental aspect of the line of succession. The order of the names on the list is fixed. That’s important, so let me repeat it in bold – The order of the names on the list is fixed.

To explain what I mean by that, let’s look at an example. Here is the current top of the list:

  1. Prince Charles
  2. Prince William
  3. Prince George
  4. Princess Charlotte
  5. Prince Louis
  6. Prince Harry
  7. Archie Mountbatten-Windsor
  8. Prince Andrew
  9. Princess Beatrice
  10. Princess Eugenie

The list can be changed in various ways. People are added to the list as they are born. A new baby is inserted after its parent (and after any older siblings) and everyone below that insertion moves down a place. People are removed from the list when they die and everyone below that removal moves up a place. When the sovereign dies, whoever is at the top of the list pops off and becomes the new sovereign (and everyone in the list moves up a place).

There are a few more obscure things that could happen. Someone could convert to Catholicism and be removed from the list. In that case, they are treated (as far as the line of succession is concerned, at least) as though they have died. They are removed from the list and everyone below them moves up a place.

It’s important to note that when someone dies and is removed from the list, it is only that one person who is removed. Any descendants of the deceased remain on the list just moved up a place because of the death above them in the list.

All of this leads to the inviolable rule that I mentioned above. The order of the names on the list is fixed. Once you are on the list, you can never move above or below anyone else on the list. The line of succession is strictly a “no overtaking” lane. With that in mind, we can now answer the three questions above.

  • Can the Queen skip a generation and hand the crown to Prince William? (No, the Queen can’t change the line of succession at all. It is written in law. I suppose she could ask the governments of all sixteen Commonwealth realms to remove Charles from the list – but that seems very unlikely.)
  • If Prince Charles and Prince William died, would Prince Harry be next in line? (No, after Prince William, the next person in line is Prince George. He would become king and a regent would be appointed until he became an adult.)
  • If Prince Charles dies before the Queen, why wouldn’t Prince Andrew be King? (Because Prince Charles currently has two sons and four grandchildren – and all of those people do not get removed from the list if Prince Charles dies.)

I need to make a small confession. The order of the list isn’t quite as fixed as I said. I can think of one instance where two people have swapped places on the list. It’s because of the Succession to the Crown Act (2013). This was the Act of Parliament that did away with male-preference primogeniture for the line of succession. It means that men no longer take precedence over their older sisters. But things were in flux for a while. Let me explain.

Lady Davina Windsor is the eldest daughter of the Duke of Gloucester. In 2004, she married Gary Lewis and they had two children. Their daughter, Senna, was born in 2010 and their son, Tāne, followed in 2012. When Senna was born, she was number 24 on the list but by the time Tāne was born, she had dropped to number 26 and (because the Succession to the Crown Act hadn’t been passed at the time) Tāne went in at number 26 when he was born, pushing Senna down to number 27. The Act was passed in 2013, came into effect on 26 March 2015 but (crucially) affected boys born after 28 October 2011.

So on 25 March 2015, Tāne was at position 28 and Senna was at 29. But on the following day, when the Act came into force, they swapped places and Senna overtook her brother and moved to position 28. Please don’t try to check these facts on the site. I have to confess that, currently, our site isn’t clever enough to accurately represent the pre-Act state of affairs.

But with that one relatively obscure exception, the order of the line of succession is fixed. This means that it becomes easy to play “what if?” and see what would happen if various people on the list met unfortunate and premature ends. Simply write down the existing line of succession in order and cross off the names of any people you want to kill off in your scenario. Any people left over will already be in the correct order for your imaginary line of succession.

Have fun with it. Try removing various people from the list and see what interesting alternatives you come up with. Let us know if you find anything particularly fascinating or tragic.

p.s. I mentioned in passing that if Prince George became king before becoming an adult, then a regent would be appointed. Current rules say that would be the first adult on the line of succession who is resident in the UK. Until very recently, that would have been Prince Harry. I’m not sure how recent events might affect that.

End of the line

End of the Line (Part 2)

We left the line of succession at the start of 1901. Victoria was still on the throne and Prince Moritz of Saxe-Altenburg was at the other end at number 806. Later that year, Victoria dies and her son, Edward VII, takes the throne. But by the time we take up the story again in 1921, Edward has died and his son, George V, is on the throne. George’s son, Edward, is Prince of Wales and his brother, Albert is second in line. Of course, both of the brothers will have a turn on the throne over the coming decades. Edward will briefly reign as Edward VIII before abdicating and handing the throne to Albert, who will reign as George VI.

At the other end of the list, in position 1001, we find that Prince Moritz of Saxe-Altenburg died in 1907 and his place at the end of the list has been taken by another obscure Württemberg cousin – Wilhelm von der Trenck.

By 1941, things have moved on at the top of the lists. George V died in 1936 and the throne passed to his son, Edward VIII, who held it briefly before abdicating and handing it over to his brother, George VI.  At number two on the list, we see the thirteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth, who will later become Elizabeth II. Following her is her sister, Princess Margaret – and then we have the king’s brothers and sister – the Duke of Gloucester, the Duke of Kent and Princess Mary, Princess Royal, along with their children.

At the end of the list, Wilhelm now has brother and sisters who follow him in the succession. Bottom of the list, at number 1466, we see his younger sister, Ilsa. It’s worth pointing out that the list has increased in size by almost 50% in only 20 years.

In 1961, Elizabeth II has been on the throne for nine years. She now has three children who are taking up the places at the top of the list and they are followed by her uncles, aunts and cousins. But things haven’t changed at the bottom of the list, where we still find Isla von der Trenck. The list now has 2169 names on it.

By 1981, a new generation is starting to appear at the top of the list – represented by Princess Anne‘s son, Peter Phillips, at number 5. And Princess Margaret now has two children at numbers 7 and 8 so the Queen’s uncles and aunt have all been shunted down a few places.

At the bottom, Isla von der Trenck has married Wolfram Vogel and has started to have children. Her first child was a girl, called Karin, but as her siblings are both boys, and the line of succession still gives preference to the male line, Karin Vogel is last in the list at position 3326.

The 2001 list was the last one to be published by William Addams Reitwiesner. The Queen now has six grandchildren on the list and descendants of George VI now take up the first 16 places. At the other end, Karin Vogel still has no younger sisters (and seems unlikely to gain any as her mother is now seventy) and hasn’t had any children of her own, so she is still last in line – at number 4973.

The Reitwiesner site has one further list which was compiled by David Lewis and claims to be up to date to 1st January 2011 (but I’ve just noticed it omits Princess Margaret who died in 2002 – so I don’t know how much I trust it). The top of the list shows that the Queen has two more grandchildren (the children of the Earl and Countess of Wessex) and her first great-grandchild (Savannah Phillips – daughter of Peter Phillips).

The end of the list seems completely unchanged since the 2001 version, so I’m not sure that it’s at all accurate. It still shows Karin Vogel as the last person on the list (at number 5753). Any children she had would go after her, but David Lewis seems to believe that she hasn’t had any. I have found a Wall Street Journal article about Vogel that was published in April 2011. The piece includes a video which has a brief interview with her. I guess that if she did have children, the WSJ journalist would have mentioned it.

To close, I thought it would be interesting to plot a graph of how the number of people in the line of succession increases over time – from 10 in 1701 to almost 5,000 in 2001.

End of the line

End of the Line

When the Act of Settlement came into force in 1701, the line of succession was very short. William III was on the throne (ruling alone following the death of Mary II in 1694) and his successor was Mary’s sister Anne. Following Anne, the Act of Settlement named Sophia of Hanover as next in line, with her descendants following her. The complete line of succession looked like this:

  1. Princess Anne
  2. Sophia of Hanover
  3. Prince George (son of Sophia – later to become George I)
  4. Prince George (son George I – later to become George II)
  5. Sophia Dorothea of Hanover (daughter of George I)
  6. Maximillian (son of Sophia)
  7. Christian (son of Sophia)
  8. Ernest August (son of Sophia)
  9. Sophia, Duchess of Prussia (daughter of Sophia of Hanover)
  10. Frederick (son of Sophia, Duchess of Prussia)

I hope that’s clear, despite the family’s habit of reusing names.

So, at that time, the 13-year-old Prince Frederick was the last person in the line of succession.

Of course, over the next three hundred years, the number of people in the line of succession has grown massively. Currently, it seems that there are something around 6,000 people on the list (that’s all legitimate, non-Catholic descendants of Sophia of Hanover). Thanks to the work of American genealogist, William Addams Reitwiesner we have complete snapshots of the line of succession every twenty years from 1701 until 2001 (and following Reitwiesner’s death another list was added in 2011 by David Lewis). It might be interesting to look at those lists and see how large the line becomes over time.

By 1721, the list has expanded to fifteen people, but Frederick is still last on the list. He has married his cousin, Sophia Dorethea and (because she is higher up the list than him) their six children all follow her on the list rather than him. At the top of the list, Both Princess Anne and Sophia of Hanover have both died (Sophia died first by a matter of weeks, which is why Britain never had a Queen Sophia) and Sophia’s eldest son is now George I.

The list has more than doubled in size to 31 people by 1741. George I has died, George II is king and his eldest son, Frederick, is top of the list and Prince of Wales. Unfortunately, Frederick will die before his father and it’s his eldest son who will later be the next monarch as George III. At the bottom of the list, we still have the descendants of Sophia Dorethea and Frederick. They have ten children and nine grandchildren – and the last person on the list is their seventeen-year-old granddaughter, Anna Amalia.

In 1761, George III has become king and his heir is his eldest brother, Edward. His eventual successor, his son George IV, won’t be born until the following year. Anna Amalia is still the last person on the list. As the youngest female descendant of Sophia Dorethea and Frederick, she can only be displaced from that position by her children – and, as she has become an abbess, that seems unlikely.

In 1781, George III is still on the throne and his eldest son, who will become George IV, is first in the line of succession. Third in line, you can see Prince William who will become William IV and fourth in line is Prince Edward who will become the father of Queen Victoria.  The line now contains 105 people and Anna Amalia is still hanging on in last place.

By 1801, not much has changed at the top of the list. George III is still king and the only real change is that Prince George (the future George IV) has a daughter called Charlotte who has pushed everyone else down a place. She will die in 1817, long before her father – which is why we’ve never had a Queen Charlotte. At the bottom of the list, we see that Anna Amalia died in 1787 and her place has been taken by Sophia Albertina, the youngest daughter of Anna Amalia’s older sister, Louisa Ulrika. Sophia Albertina is also an abbess. At this point, there are 141 names on the list.

In 1821, we see a few changes at the top of the list. George IV is now king but as his only daughter, Charlotte has died, his heirs are his younger brothers Frederick (who will die before George) and William (who will become William IV) and William’s daughter, Elizabeth. The next brother, Edward, has died, but his daughter, Victoria, is at number four on the list. At the end of the list, Sophia Albertina has no children, so she’s still at the end – at number 192.

By 1841, Victoria is on the throne. As she has only just married and has no children, her heir is her uncle, Ernest Augustus, King of Hanover. The last few kings of Britain had also been kings of Hanover but, as a woman, Victoria had not been allowed to inherit that throne. At the bottom of the list, Sophia Albertina has died, and her place at the end of the line has been taken by Augustus who is now the least significant descendant of Sophia Dorethea and Frederick. He is 270th in the list.

Over the next twenty years, to 1861, Victoria has nine children and the eldest of them, also called Victoria, has given her two grandchildren. So the first eleven places on the list are taken up by the queen’s descendants. The first person on the list is Prince Albert who will later reign as Edward VII. Augustus died in 1853, so his place at the end of the list (at number 391) has been taken by his cousin, Anna Pavlovna, who was Dowager Queen of the Netherlands. Anna did have children, but they were all entitled to a higher place in the line of succession through their father, William II of the Netherlands.

Victoria is still queen in 1881. Most of her children have given her grandchildren and her descendants now take up the first 33 places on the list. First on the list is still Prince Albert (Edward VII), second is Albert’s son, Prince Albert Victor (who will predecease his father) and third is Albert’s second son, Prince George, who will become George V. Anna Pavlovna died in 1865 and her place at the end of the list has been taken by her cousin, Peter of Oldenburg. There are 571 people on the list.

Victoria will die in 1901, but at the start of the year (when the lists are compiled) she is still queen. There are now 74 of her descendants taking up the first places on the list. In fact, the first four places are taken up by future kings – Prince Albert (Edward VII), his son Prince George (George V) and George’s two eldest sons, Prince Edward (Edward VIII) and Prince Albert (George VI). Peter of Oldenburg died in 1881 (just months after the previous list was compiled) and his place has been taken by his cousin, Prince Moritz of Saxe-Altenburg. As we’ve seen a couple of times before, Moritz had children but as he was married to Princess Augusta of Saxe-Meiningen who was also on the list, but higher up (at 490 at this point in time), the children followed her in the list rather than him.

As the nineteenth century gives way to the twentieth, and Victoria’s reign draws to a close, this seems like a good time to end this article. Next time we’ll bring the story up to date by discussing the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first.

The Duchess of Cornwall

The Queen Consort

There has been a lot of nonsense talked about the title that the Duchess of Cornwall will use when the Prince of Wales becomes king. I think it’s worth trying to understand the situation a bit better.

Part of the problem here is that we’re towards the end of the longest reign in British history. A large proportion of British people have never known any other monarch and some things that would have been obvious to previous generations (because they saw many changes of the monarch) seem to have been forgotten.

Let’s start by reviewing the different types of queens that we see in the UK. There are three:

  1. Queen regnant. This is a woman who is the current monarch. She is the monarch because of a close familial relationship with the former monarch. Elizabeth II is a queen regnant, as was Victoria – but there have been surprisingly few of them throughout history (because of the male-preference primogeniture that drove our line of succession until very recently). The correct title to use to refer to the queen regnant is Her Majesty, The Queen.
  2. Queen consort. This is a woman who is married to the king. She is not necessarily royal by birth, but she has married into the royal family. The current queen’s mother was a queen consort, as was Queen Mary (the wife of George V) before her. Most British kings have had a queen consort. Possibly slightly confusingly, the correct title to use to refer to the queen consort is exactly the same one that you would use to refer to the queen regnant – Her Majesty, The Queen.
  3. Dowager queen. This is a woman who was a queen consort, but whose husband has now died. Following the death of George VI in 1952, his wife, Queen Elizabeth, became a dowager queen. In fact, at that point, there were two dowager queens alive in Britain, as George V’s widow, Queen Mary, didn’t die until March 1953. The correct title to use to refer to a dowager queen is Queen [Firstname], so in February 1952 George VI’s widow, Elizabeth, became known as Queen Elizabeth. To avoid confusion with her daughter, who had just become queen regnant, the term “The Queen Mother” was often used as well.

Queens regnant are the only kind of queen who are given a regnal number. So our current queen is Elizabeth II. There has been one previous queen regnant using that name (Elizabeth I, 1533-1603) and three queens consort – Elizabeth Woodville (wife of Edward IV), Elizabeth of York (wife of Henry VII) and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (wife of George VI).

So, given all that, why all the confusion over the future title of the Duchess of Cornwall? It all comes down to this announcement which was published on the Prince of Wales’ web site on the announcement of his engagement in 2005.

Mrs Parker Bowles will use the title HRH The Duchess of Cornwall after marriage. It is intended that Mrs Parker Bowles should use the title HRH The Princess Consort when The Prince of Wales accedes to The Throne.

There are a couple of things going on here. Firstly, it tells us that Camilla will use the title “Duchess of Cornwall” after the marriage. And that’s what we see in day to day usage today. Obviously, she is entitled to the female versions of all of Charles’ titles. And a wife would generally be expected to use the female version of her husband’s most senior title. But Camilla is avoiding using the title “Princess of Wales”. We can only assume that this is because of the strong connection that the public still feels between that title and its previous owner.

And, secondly, there’s this new title “Princess Consort” which they suggest Mrs Parker Bowles will use once Charles becomes king. This is presumably to mollify the more traditionalist parts of the British Establishment who got very excitable when they heard that a divorcee and adulterer was likely to marry the first in line to the throne.

But this is all just titles. Camilla is the Princess of Wales even though she doesn’t use the title. And when her husband becomes king, she will be queen consort. That’s what the wives of kings are. No matter what title the couple ask us to use for her, there is no escaping the fact that she will be queen consort.

And then, early in 2018, that statement vanished from the Clarence House web site. The royal-watching industry went into meltdown as columnists all presented this as evidence that Charles was going back on his word and that he now, secretly, wanted to install his mistress as queen. Now I’ve been involved in more than my fair share of web site reorganisations and stuff always goes missing, so I really don’t want to leap to conclusions about this. It’s possible that they just removed all the older press releases from the site. It seems unlikely to me that they’d expect to just sweep it under the carpet and the whole of the British public would just forget about the old announcement.

So here’s what we know.

  • When Prince Charles becomes king, Camilla will be queen consort
  • As queen consort, she would usually be styled as Her Majesty The Queen
  • In 2005, Clarence House said that she would be styled as Her Royal Highness The Princess Consort
  • That announcement is no longer available on the Prince of Wales’ web site

That’s it. That’s all the facts. Anything other than that is pure supposition.

But if you wanted me to make predictions, here’s what I’d say. I think that the 2005 announcement was a political move, made to appease the establishment. Over the last fourteen years, significant moves have been made to change those people’s opinions of Camilla and she now seems to be a lot more popular than she was back then. Those efforts will continue and it would not surprise me in the slightest if the “Princess Consort” idea was quietly dropped when the time comes for Charles’ coronation.


Britain’s Royal Families

People often seem to overemphasise the differences between the various royal families that have reigned in Britain. Saying that Elizabeth I was the last Tudor monarch and James I/VI was the first of the Stuarts can make people believe that they were completely unrelated, when, actually, James was only Elizabeth’s first cousin twice removed. This is even more obvious when we say that Victoria was the last of the Hanoverians and Edward VII was the first of the Saxe-Coburgs. Edward was Victoria’s son and the name of the royal house only changed because Edward used his father’s name.

There is only one British royal family. The current queen can trace her ancestors back well over a thousand years. With this in mind, in this article we’ll trace the history of the royal family back to the Norman Conquest and explain how each monarch is related to their successor.

We’ll start with William I. As his epithet implies, he conquered Britain in 1066. He wasn’t related to the previous Anglo-Saxon royal family. But I should mention that his son, Henry married a descendant of Alfred the Great, so the family does link to the previous rulers of the island.

House of Normandy

So we start the House of Normandy with William I. He was succeeded by his son, William II who was, in turn, succeeded by his brother Henry I. Henry was briefly succeeded by his daughter Matilda (and that’s a fascinating story that we should probably cover in more detail in the future). When Matilda was unable to hold on to power, she was succeeded by her cousin, Stephen. But when Stephen died, the throne went to Matilda’s son, Henry II, bringing in the House of Plantagenet.

House of Plantagenet

The succession was very smooth for most the long period of Plantagenet rule. Henry II was followed by his son, Richard I, who was then followed by his brother, John. John was succeeded by his son, Henry III, and then Henry’s son Edward I. Edwards I, II and III all followed and all were the son of the previous king. Then there’s a minor blip when Edward III was succeeded by his grandson, Richard II. Richard’s father was Edward, the Black Prince who died before his father, Edward III.

Richard II was followed by his cousin, Henry IV who was succeeded by his son, Henry V, and his grandson Henry VI. And then things are a little confused for a while as we get to the Wars of the Roses. This diagram might help.

Some descendants of John of Gaunt
The most important descendants of John of Gaunt

John of Gaunt was  a son of Edward III. Following the death of Richard II, in 1399, John’s son Henry was next in line and the succession followed that (obvious) route for three generations until Henry VI was on the throne. But in 1455 a civil war broke out and Henry’s second cousin, Edward IV seized the throne in 1461. Henry seized it back in 1470, but this reign was short-lived and Edward regained the throne the following year. When Edward IV died in 1483, he was succeeded briefly by his son, Edward V and then by his brother, Richard III. Richard’s reign was short and he was defeated in battle by another second cousin who installed himself as Henry VII – the first of the Tudor monarchs.

House of Tudor

Henry VII was the first monarch of the house of Tudor and was succeeded by his son, Henry VIII. Henry VIII was followed by his son, Edward VI, but from then on, the Tudor succession gets a little more complicated. Edward VI wrote a will naming Jane Grey, his first cousin once removed, as his successor but on Edward’s death Jane found it impossible to hold on to the throne and she reigned for only nine days. She was succeeded by Edward’s half-sister, Mary I, who was, in turn, succeeded by another half-sister, Elizabeth I. At that point, the Tudor succession dries up and we need to look elsewhere in the family tree.

House of Stuart

When a monarch dies without children, we look to their siblings for the next monarch. And once there are no more siblings, we need to search back through previous generations to find the nearest relative. When Elizabeth I died, she was the last legitimate descendant of Henry VIII. We therefore need to look at descendants of Henry VIII’s father, Henry VII. Henry VII had a daughter, Margaret, who had married the Scottish king, James IV. They had a son, James V, who had a daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, who had a son who was on the Scottish throne as James VI. After Elizabeth’s death, James was her nearest living relative (her cousin twice removed) and became the English king as James I.

The succession was easy for the Stuarts for a while. James I/VI was followed by his son, Charles I, who was followed by his son Charles II (I’m omitting, of course, the small matter of the Civil War and the temporary removal of the monarchy). Charles II was followed by his brother, James II/VII.

Then things get a bit strange again. James II/VII was deposed in the Glorious Revolution and was replaced by his daughter, Mary II, and her husband, William III. On Mary’s death, William reigned alone until he died and was succeeded by Mary’s sister Anne.

But none of Anne’s children lived very long and it became clear that this branch of the Stuart succession had dried up. Once again the search had to go back a couple of generations. This time, the search was complicated by the fact the Catholics had been banned from the British throne and most of the descendants of James I/VI were Catholics. The first protestant on the list was Electress Sophia of Hanover and (as she died a few weeks before Anne) her son became George I. He was Anne’s second cousin.

House of Hanover

We’re past all the complexities now. It’s plain sailing from here. George I was followed by his son, George II. George II was succeeded by his grandson, George III (as George III’s father, Prince Frederick had died). George III was followed by his son, George IV and George IV was succeeded by his brother, William IV. William IV was followed by his niece, Victoria

House of Saxe-Coburg / House of Windsor

And we’re into the twentieth century. You can probably all fill in the details from here.

Victoria was followed by her son, Edward VII. He was followed by his son, George V. He was followed by his son, Edward VIII, who was then followed by his brother, George VI. And he was followed by his daughter, Elizabeth II.

And as I write this, it seems likely that Elizabeth II will be succeeded by her son, Prince Charles, her grandson, Prince William, and her great-grandson, Prince George.


So there you have it. Almost a thousand years of British royal history. And they are all related to each other. Our current queen can trace a direct ancestry back to William the Conqueror.

Britain doesn’t have a number of different royal families. It has one royal family – which just goes by different names.