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British Royal Family Titles

Photo: Getty

I could honestly write a book about the title the BRF uses (and I’m sure someone has) but I want to start by saying that you can call them whatever you prefer. This is just for people who might be interested in learning about the technicalities of titles in the BRF.

First thing to know is that (most commonly) titles only change with birth, death, marriage and divorce. There are some other instances where they can change but this is usually what triggers a change in titles.

Secondly, while there are rules, protocols and conventions surrounding titles there is not one rule that applies all the time and titles can (and often are) decided on a case by case basis.

Third, Royals can have multiple titles and they don’t always use their most senior title. They may opt to use one title over another or style their children in a different manner. Titles can also change based on what country a royal is in so the title they use in England may be different than what they use in Scotland or in a commonwealth country.

These three things are some (but not all) of the reasons titles can seem so complicated and confusing. The title I see people most often confused by is the “Princess” & “Duchess” titles so here is a little bit about that:

There are three ways for someone to be a “Princess of the United Kingdom”

  • the legitimate daughters of a British sovereign (ex: Anne)

  • the legitimate male line granddaughters of a British sovereign (ex: Beatrice, Eugenie, Louise)

  • the wife of a British Prince (Catherine, Meghan)

Each of these are styled differently and even though someone is technically entitled to use “Princess” doesn’t mean they are going to (as in the case with Catherine, Meghan & Louise). Even the way it is styled can change (as in the case with Anne, Beatrice & Eugenie) so please remember these general rules don’t apply in all cases

The legitimate daughters of a British sovereign is styled as “Her Royal Highness Princess {Name} of {Fathers Principal Territorial Designation} ". In Princess Anne’s case it would have been “HRH Princess Anne of Edinburgh” as her father was Duke of Edinburgh. Of course, Anne is no longer styled that way as she was given the title of “Princess Royal” (reserved for the sovereigns eldest daughter) in 1987. But as mentioned previously, marriage can change a title as well which is what happened to Anne in 1973 and what happened more recently to Beatrice & Eugenie which leads us to the styling of the legitimate male line granddaughters of a British sovereign.

This title would be styled the same as a daughter of a sovereign ("HRH Princess {Name} of {Fathers territorial designation}") which is why Beatrice & Eugenie were styled as HRH Princess Beatrice/Eugenie of York until their marriages. This style now also applies to the great-grandchildren of the sovereign who are born to the Prince of Wales eldest son (which is just a complicated way of saying that the kids of the 2nd in line i.e. William). This is why Charlotte's title is “HRH Princess Charlotte of Cambridge”. Since William’s principal title is “Duke of Cambridge” all three of William & Catherine's kids use “Cambridge” in their titles.

This territorial designation rule applies to grandsons of the sovereign as well which is why William & Harry were styled “of Wales” (their fathers Principal Territorial designation) until their marriages.

Once a Blood Princess of the United Kingdom marries the title changes to reflect the change in marital status to become “HRH Princess {Name}, Mrs. {Husbands Name}” this is why the court circular now refers to Beatrice as “HRH Princess Beatrice, Mrs. Edoardo Mapelli-Mozzi” and Eugenie as “HRH Princess Eugenie, Mrs. Jack Brooksbank.

Now Louise would technically be allowed to have the styling of her cousins, Beatrice & Eugenie but this is where that third point from the very beginning comes in: royals do have a choice in the titles given to their children. Edward & Sophie opted to style their children as the children of an Earl instead of the children of a Prince which is why Louise is styled as Lady and her brother uses Edwards subsidiary title of “Viscount Severn".

To finish up this section the children of a daughter or granddaughter of the sovereign do not pass titles onto their children. This is why Mike, Zara, Sienna and August don’t have British titles. The Queen is rumored to have made the offer to Anne for her children to be given titles, but Anne turned it down

The last way (and arguably most complicated) to be a Princess of the United Kingdom is to marry a British Prince. The most important thing to know about this is that the wife title always reflects the title that their husband uses.

So, the wife of a British Prince is styled as: "HRH Princess {husbands name} of {husbands territorial designation}" but as you probably know by now, this doesn’t apply in every situation.

If their husband goes by a title different than their original Princely title (& most of them do i.e. Duke of Cambridge, Sussex & York and the Earl of Wessex), then their wife will use that. This is why Catherine, Meghan, & Sarah are titled as Duchesses but Sophie is titles as a Countess. It’s also possible for a woman to be married to a Prince but opt to use a lesser subsidiary title of her husband, like Camilla does. While a wife can use a title of an equal or lower rank than her husband, they cannot use a title with a higher rank.

The ranks are as follows: King, Prince, Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount and Baron. This means that Catherine & Meghan can use Duchess (since their husbands use their Ducal titles) or they could opt to use Countess (Both William & Harry hold Earldoms in Scotland) or they could use Lady (as both William & Harry are Barons).

So, this next hypothetical wouldn’t ever really happen, but I’m just giving an example. If William opted to use his Earl title, Catherine couldn’t still be known as a Duchess since that would outrank her husband. Hopefully this is making sense because it honestly just gets more confusing from here. The wife of a British Prince uses whatever title their husband uses in whatever country they are in. As William uses the Earl of Strathearn title in Scotland, Catherine is therefore styled as a Countess there.

All of this is to say that since William & Harry use their ducal titles, Catherine and Meghan are styled as Duchesses & they will remain Duchesses so long as that is the title their husband uses. If William or Harry decided to no longer use the titles they were gifted upon their marriage then Catherine & Meghans titles would change. However they still wouldn’t be “Princess Catherine” or “Princess Meghan”.

In this hypothetical, William & Harry's titles would revert back to that of the son of the Prince of Wales. Since the titles would then be courtesy of their father (instead of having titles in their own right as they do with their ducal titles) then Catherine and Meghan would be “HRH Princess William of Wales” of “HRH Princess Henry of Wales” respectively. William & Harry are British Princes because of their father and not because of their own titles. And this is the technicality of why “Princess Catherine” & “Princess Meghan” aren’t correct titles.

For another example and some more context around this technicality: Prince Michael of Kent.

Michael is a Prince because he is a grandson of a Sovereign (the same as William & Harry) and his father was Prince George, Duke of Kent (being the fourth son of King George). Prince Michael did not receive his own title (unlike William & Harry) upon marriage meaning his wife is known as Princess Michael of Kent. He was/is the same situation as William & Harry (i.e. grandson of the sovereign) so he was a Prince using his father's principal territorial designation (similar to how William & Harry used to use Wales). Because of this his wife is only known as "Princess Michael of Kent".

So, what happens when William eventually becomes Prince of Wales? Well then things change. William & Harry are British Princes because of their father (like Prince Michael of Kent) and not because of their own titles. Since William would be Prince of Wales in his own right (and not just because of his father) then Catherine would no longer be referred to as “Princess William” (which is the only correct way to refer to her in the Princess title right now) but as Princess Catherine of Wales to match her husband's title.

This is also why (despite the fact she doesn't use it) it isn't technically wrong to refer to Camilla as "Princess". Her husband has the title of Prince in his own right making her the Princess of Wales. Of course, the title was so heavily associated with Diana that she opted to use her husband's subsidiary title as "Duke of Cornwall" making her the "Duchess of Cornwall".

Titles also change with divorce, which honestly just makes everything even messier. If a blood royal divorces they retain their titles and not much changes. But if someone who marries into the family divorces then the titles change (usually) in two major ways. First, if they were designated as an HRH, that is stripped.

This is different than the current situations we see surround HRH's because those who can't use the prefix (Harry, Meghan & A*drew) haven't been stripped of it (A*drew definitely should be stripped of it but thats a debate for a different day, ). Being stripped of the prefix is different than just being told you can't use it publicly.

The second way divorce changes titles is the naming conventions. As previously covered a title is typically made of four things, the prefix (HM, HRH etc.) the Rank (Queen, Princess, Lady etc.), then the territorial designation (Wales, Cambridge, Wessex etc.). When someone divorces this flips. The prefix is removed and the persons name goes first, followed by the title to become {Name}, {Title}. For example Diana went from HRH The Princess of Wales to Diana, Princess of Wales and Sarah went from HRH The Duchess of York to Sarah, Duchess of York.

This is by no means a comprehensive guide to titles & there is so much more to explore if you are interested but hopefully this has answered more questions than its created. If you have any additional questions about titles, leave a comment below. xx

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