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.

0 thoughts on “Royal Titles Decoded: What Makes a Prince or Princess?

  • Elizabeth Davies says:

    Thanks for this. What I find interesting about the Gloucester and Kent titles is that the Dukedoms will “escape” from the royal family and become “ordinary” dukedoms with the next generation – the first time this has happened since pre Georgian times.
    Interesting too that the King’s siblings will not pass down their Dukedoms – because Andrew has no sons and Edward’s is a life peerage, but Harry’ might pass his Dukedom of Sussex to Archie.

    • An argument could be made that the Dukedom of Connaught and Streathearn ‘escaped’ for a year and a quarter in 1942-1943, as the 2nd Duke was a male-line great-grandson of Queen Victoria and had lost his HH and princely status as a toddler when the 1917 letters patent redefined who was entitled to what, thus making him technically a commoner until the moment when he inherited the Dukedom. Sadly he died of hyperthermia sleeping next to an open window on an extremely cold Canada night in 1943 and didn’t have any children to pass the title to.

      In addition Ernst August oF Hannover and Andreas of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha would probably maintain that they were still Duke of Cumberland and Teviotdale and Duke of Albany respectively, despite their ancestors being prevented from continuing to use them by the 1917 Titles Deprivation Act. Of course Ernst August and Andreas would likely also assert that they were also still royal, despite the Kingdom of Hannover having being annexed in 1866, and the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha being deposed in 1918, so they wouldn’t consider their British peerages to have ‘escaped’ being royal anyway.

      I suppose there’s also an argument to be made that the Dukedom of Fife also ‘escaped’, as it was created (twice, in two different peerages) for Alexander Duff, husband of Princess Louise, Princess Royal, then in 1912 the second of those two creations was inherited by their daughter, Alexandra, who just over six years previously had, along with her younger sister, been given a personal grant of HH and princely status. Her nephew, James, inherited the title after her death, and his son, David inherited from him, so it has been non-royal for two generations, but technically the man it was created for was also a non-royal, who just happened to be married to a royal, and the 2nd holder, his daughter, was born non-royal before the personal grant of HH and princely status, so it’s very much an edge case in terms of whether or not it counts as an ‘escape’.

      Certainly the Dukedoms of Gloucester and Kent will the be first two in a long time that ‘escape’ without any ambiguity or technicalities. I’m not entirely sure when the last unambigious escape was. I don’t think any Jacobean claims to titles would count as unambiguous, nor any titles which were originally created for either illegitimate children or mistresses of Stuart or Tudor Kings, so I think we’d have to look back as far as the later Plantegenets for the last truely unambiguous ‘escape’.

  • DAVID M. PODELL says:

    There are problems with the entry about the children of Prince Edward. I think it should read: “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 made Duke of Edinburgh. His daughter, Lady Louise Windsor, continued to use the same style as she had before her father became a duke.”

  • “Recently, his son James assumed the courtesy title Earl of Wessex, which Prince Edward will inherit in due course from Prince Philip’s titles.”

    Is this sentence a vistigial from a previous version of this article? Edward received a new creation of the Dukedom of Edinburgh just over a year ago. He did not ‘inherit’ his father’s titles though, as they had already been inherited in 2021 by his older brother Charles, then ceased to exist when they merged with the throne upon Charles’ accession in 2022. The only title Edward actually got in the new creation was the Dukedom of Edinburgh, and even then it was created as a life Peerage, not an hereditary one, and will therefore not be inherited by his son James. Edward was already created Earl Wessex and Viscount Severn back in 1999 as his wedding present from his mother, and had been further created Earl of Forfar in 2019. James had previously been known as Viscount Severn as his courtesy title, and ‘upgraded’ to being known as Earl of Wessex when Edward was created Duke of Edinburgh. It means that at some point when the current Duke of Edinburgh dies his son will stop using ‘Earl of Wessex’ as a courtesy title and instead become the actual Earl of Wessex himself, since he can’t inherit the Dukedom of Edinburgh, so outwardly it will seem at that point as though his title didn’t change, even though there is a difference between using your father’s secondary title as a courtesy and holding a title in your own right.

    • You’re absolutely right and I’ve fixed it now.

      I can’t believe I made the error of using “inherit”. That’s one of my pet peeves – when people use “inherit” in such a loose way that it loses all meaning.

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