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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.