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.

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?

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.