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?

Princes Charles, George and William

Their Royal Highnesses

Let’s try to understand why certain members of the royal family are known as His (or Her) Royal Highness and others aren’t. Are there rules that determine this? What are those rules?

Well, of course there are rules. There are good statistical reasons to believe that anyone with British ancestry is related to a British monarch if you go back far enough. So we need to limit the spread of “royal-ness” so that only the people nearest the throne are allowed to use royal titles. And, for the purposes of this article, for “royal titles” we mean the right to call yourself His (or Her) Royal Highness – which almost always means you’re also a prince or princess.

The rules are actually pretty simple. There are three of them. You are an HRH if you fulfill one of the following criteria:

  1. You are a child of a monarch.
  2. You are a child of a son of a monarch.
  3. You are a child of the eldest living son of the Prince of Wales.

The first two rules were laid down by George V in Letters Patent in 1917. The last one was amended by Elizabeth II in 2012 – previously only the eldest living son of the eldest living son of the Prince of Wales would have qualified.

Notice that the rules are rather sexist – men do better out of the rules than women do. Also, note that the rules say “a monarch” and not “the monarch”. That’s important as it explains why people like the Dukes of Kent and Gloucester are both HRH (they are both sons of sons of George V).

You can also gain the title HRH by being a woman who marries someone with the title. It doesn’t, typically, work that way for men marrying women with the title. One important exception is Prince Philip who was made HRH the day before he married Princess Elizabeth. And in 1996, Elizabeth II added a rule saying that a woman who divorced an HRH would lose her right to the title.

So let’s look at who currently has the title. We’ll start with the current Queen and her descendants.

  • Elizabeth II is not HRH (because she’s HM – Her Majesty – which is better)
  • Prince Philip was made an HRH as he married Elizabeth
  • The Queen’s four children are all HRH
  • Prince Charles’ two sons are both children of the son of a sovereign – so they are HRH
  • Prince William’s children are all children of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales – so they all qualify
  • Prince Harry’s future children, however, will not qualify under the current rules (but they will qualify once Prince Charles becomes king)
  • Princess Anne’s children suffer from the sexism in the rules and do not qualify – neither, therefore, do their children
  • Prince Andrew’s two daughters are children of a son of a monarch and, therefore, qualify. Any children they have will not.
  • Prince Edward’s children do qualify. But he has asked for them not to use their royal titles. So they use the titles of children of an Earl.

Moving back a generation, we get to Princess Margaret and her children. Princess Margaret was the child of a monarch (George VI) so she was HRH. Her children do not qualify (in the same way that Princess Anne’s children didn’t).

Edward VIII had no children, so he need not concern us, and we can move back to the other descendants of George V. George V had six children. They are all dead, but some of his grandchildren are still alive. And the ones who are children of George’s sons are entitled to be HRHs. Those are:

  • Prince Richard, The Duke of Gloucester
  • Prince Edward, The Duke of Kent
  • Prince Michael of Kent
  • Princess Alexandra

The descendants of George’s daughter, Princess Mary, are excluded for the same reasons as the children of Princess Anne and Princess Margaret – the sexism built into the rules.

It’s worth noting that the children of the Gloucesters and Kents are all great-grandchildren of a monarch and, as such, none of them are HRHs. As an aside, this means that the next time the dukedoms of Gloucester and Kent are inherited, they will cease to be royal dukedoms.

You can see from this, I hope, that having or not having the right to be called HRH is not a good indicator of how high up the line of succession a person is. The first person in the line who isn’t an HRH is James, Viscount Severn at number 11. The lowest person on the list who is an HRH is Princess Alexandra at number 49. 35 of the people in the top 50 of the line are not HRHs.