Queen Elizabeth II Decrees that all of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s Children Will Be Princes and Princesses

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in Canada in 2010

Queen Elizabeth II issued new Letters Patent on December 31, 2012 declaring that all of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s children will have the title of Royal Highness and be styled Princes and Princesses. The document states, “The QUEEN has been pleased by Letters Patent under the Great Seal of the Realm dated 31 December 2012 to declare that all the children of the eldest son of The Prince of Wales should have and enjoy the style, title and attribute of Royal Highness with the titular dignity of Prince or Princess prefixed to their Christian names or with such other titles of honour.”

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at a Gala honouring athletes at the Summer Olympics Games in London, 2012

The Queen’s Letters Patent revises King George V’s 1917 decree that only the eldest son of the Prince of Wales’s eldest son was entitled to be styled His Royal Highness and a Prince. According to this document, the daughters and younger sons of the Prince of Wales’s eldest son were to be styled as children of a Duke. These ducal titles would change to royal titles once the Prince of Wales succeeded to the throne.The Queen’s decree ensures that if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s eldest child is a daughter, she will be styled a Princess rather than a Lady.

The recent Letters Patent reflect the succession reforms that are currently in the process of being ratified by the governments of the United Kingdom and the fifteen other commonwealth realms that have the Queen as Head of State. The reforms introduce absolute primogeniture, which would make the eldest child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge a direct heir to the throne regardless of gender. These reforms have prompted a broader analysis of royal titles to ensure they reflect a scenario where the eventual heir might be a woman with a younger brother. The equalization of titles for the monarch’s great-grandchildren of both genders is part of this process of succession reform.

The coronation of King Edward II, the first English Prince to be styled Prince of Wales

The new titles for the potential future daughters and younger sons of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge also reflects a longstanding tradition of sovereigns modifying the statutes surrounding royal titles to reflect the unique political circumstances of their reigns and composition of their families. The first eldest son of an English monarch to receive the title of Prince of Wales was Edward of Caenarvon, the future King Edward II. The Prince was born during his father’s campaign against Llewelyn the Last and the adoption of Llewelyn’s title by an English Prince symbolized the conquest of Wales by England.

Subsequent English Kings viewed Wales as a suitable setting for their heirs to gain experience as rulers and medieval English Princes of Wales often spent part of their adolescence presiding over a Welsh court. In Scotland, the heir to the throne held the title of Duke of Rothesay from the fifteenth century. The Duchy of Cornwall has provided an independent income for the monarch’s heir since the reign of King Edward III in the fourteenth century. The current Prince of Wales is also Duke of Cornwall and Duke of Rothesay, reflecting these centuries old traditions.

Princess Anne, the current Princess Royal

The eldest daughter of a monarch also enjoyed a special status throughout much of English history. The Magna Carta signed by King John in 1215 affirmed the obligation of the barons of the realm to contribute to the dowry of the King’s eldest daughter while King Edward III declared it high treason to seduce the King’s unmarried eldest daughter in the Treason Act of 1351.

This special status was formalized during the reign of Charles I and his French born consort Queen Henrietta Maria. The King’s eldest daughter Mary received the title of “Princess Royal” reflecting her unique status as the monarch’s eldest daughter, and the French practice of styling the King’s firstborn daughter “Madame Royale.”  The title of Princess Royal continues to be bestowed upon the eldest daughter of the monarch at the sovereign’s discretion. Queen Elizabeth II bestowed the title on her only daughter, Princess Anne in 1987.

The titles for younger children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the monarch were not formalized until comparatively recently. As I discussed with the Globe and Mail in December, popular attitudes toward large royal families have been ambivalent or hostile for much of English history. The birth of two healthy sons guaranteed a stable succession and the arrival of daughters promised advantageous dynastic marriages with other monarchies. A large number of male royalty, however, often contributed to periods of political instability during the Middle Ages. Examples include the Wars of the Roses and the rebellion of King Henry II’s four sons against their father.

Portrait of King Charles I, Queen Henrietta Maria and their two eldest children by Antony Van Dyke

When Charles I and Henrietta Maria became parents of a second daughter in 1635, after two sons and the future Princess Royal, the Venetian Ambassador reported, “The generality are more pleased than if it had been a boy, because girls ensure posterity as much as boys, and the kingdom is relieved of the danger to which states sometimes succumb from there being too many princes of the blood royal.”

Although the Ambassador speaks of “princes of the blood royal” in a general sense, the formal title of Prince or Princess was not guaranteed to younger children or male line grandchildren of monarchs until the beginning of the reign of King George I in 1714. Just as the title of Princess Royal reflected the French background of Queen Henrietta Maria, the formalization of titles for the extended royal family reflected the traditions of the status conscious House of Hanover.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their nine children

With the advent of constitutional monarchy, popular criticism of large royal families changed from concerns regarding political instability to objections to the expense required to provide incomes for numerous princes and both dowries and annuities for younger princesses. The thirteen surviving children of King George III and the nine children of Queen Victoria prompted parliamentary debates concerning whether junior members of the royal family should be entitled to public largess.

George V’s 1917 Letters Patent are best known for abolishing the British royal family’s German titles but the limits the King placed on the titles of “Prince” and “Princess” also responded to popular criticism of the expense of a large royal family. The 1917 Letters Patent were resented by junior members of the royal family, most notably the Princes of Hanover, descendants of George III’s fifth son, the Duke of Cumberland, who lost their formal designation as Princes of Great Britain in 1917. The Hanovers continue to style themselves as Royal Hignesses and British Princes and Princesses in defiance of the 1917 Letters Patent.

King George VI and his consort Queen Elizabeth in British Columbia in 1939

George V’s son, George VI and granddaughter, Elizabeth II have continued to modify the statutes governing royal titles to reflect the unique circumstances of their families. George VI retroactively granted his brother, the former Edward VIII, the style of Prince and Duke of Windsor as a son of a sovereign after his abdication while expressly denying the Duchess of Windsor the title of Her Royal Highness. When the current Prince of Wales was born in 1948, George VI acknowledged his daughter’s place as heir presumptive by giving his grandson the title of Prince. Without the 1948 Letters Patent, the baby would have been known as the Honourable Charles Mountbatten, Earl of Merioneth until his mother’s ascension to the throne.

Queen Elizabeth II’s decision to grant the title of Royal Highness and Prince or Princess to all the children of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge reflects the current succession reforms and the long history of monarch’s excercising the royal perogative to determine the titles of their descendants. Just as George V’s responded to popular concerns about the size of the titled royal family and George VI acknowledged his grandchildren’s place in the succession, Elizabeth II has equalized the titles of her future great-grandchildren to reflect the planned introduction of absolute primogeniture.

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5 thoughts on “Queen Elizabeth II Decrees that all of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s Children Will Be Princes and Princesses

  1. Carolyn, I had noticed a minor error in your text: the Magna Carta was signed on June 15th, 1215, not in 1212 as you had stated.

    My question is more current to today’s Royal Family: Does the Letters Patent of December 31st 2012 affect the status of the children of H.R.H. The Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex and H.R.H. The Countess of Wessex? According to the Letters Patent of 1917 decreed by His Late Majesty King George V, James, Viscount Severn, and the Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor would be both styled as Royal Highness and hold the rank of Prince, or Princess, as grandchildren of the Sovereign! ! ! When they were born, it had been announced via a press release, that they would be styled and ranked as children of an earl rather than as a member of the Royal Family.

    Some Constitutional Monarchists argue that a press release does NOT override the Sovereign’s Will and Authority as the Proclamation by King George V in His Letters Patent of 1917! ! ! On the other hand, there are others who would argue that the Queen’s Will is expressed through press releases and through other mediums.

    Personally, I do NOT see a simple press release can override a Document that would either have the Great Seal of the Realm, or the Privy Seal of the Sovereign affixed unto and sealed with wax! ! ! Where do you stand on this issue?

    Keep up the good work.


    Ronald A. McCallum, B.A. (History and Political Science)

    P.S. I happen to be a grandson of a Knight Commander of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire who had been knighted, by King George VI, for his contribution to the British Community(es) in the Argentine Republic in 1941.

    • Thanks for your comment! I’ve fixed the date of the signing of the Magna Carta. My understanding of the titles of the Earl and Countess of Wessex’s children is that the Earl and Countess preferred that Lady Louise and James, Viscount Severn use the titles of an Earl’s children but that their titles were not officially changed by Letters Patent. When Lady Louise and the Viscount Severn come of age, they may choose to use the titles of Royal Highness and Prince or Princess. Thanks again for your thoughtful comment & question.

  2. If the new Royal Succession Act becomes law, allowing right of absolute, not male, primogeniture, I wonder what your thoughts are on the subject of dynastic name changes ?
    At present, in theory, a new ‘house’ or ‘dynasty’ is brought about when the succession passes through a female and thereby changes to the family name of the female’s consort.
    In effect, the only time this has happened was with the death of Victoria, when Edward VII became first (and only) monarch of the house of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha.(changed for political reasons to Windsor). Our own Queen would ‘normally’ have been the last of the Windsors – had she not decreed that her son should continue the name of Windsor, instead of his father’s mother’s name (Mountbatten). All other Queens Regnant (even poor Queen Anne, with 19 children !) died without a direct living heir, with the exception of Mary I of Scotland, whose husband bore the same family name (Stewart/Stuart) anyway.
    The point is, that under current procedure, there could be a lot of reigning queens in the future, and therefore changes in dynastic name. I would hope that our present Queen’s example would become enshrined in law, namely that a Queen Regnant automatically passes on her dynastic name to her son or daughter who succeeds her.

  3. Pingback: British Nobility Titles Explained: What To Know About The U.K. Peerage System - Newswatch

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