All William and Kate’s children to be Princes and Princesses
On 9 January, the 31st birthday of the pregnant Duchess of Cambridge, it was announced from Buckingham Palace that the Queen had issued Letters Patent on 31 December 2012, extending the number of members of the royal family entitled to the style of Royal Highness and the prefix Prince or Princess. This change is very specific, affecting only the children of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and is consistent with the new legislation introducing equal primogeniture.
The Letters Patent read as follows: “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.” This decree updates the Letters Patent issued by George V in 1917, which limited the use of Royal Highness to the eldest living son of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales, as well as to children of any sovereign and children of sons of any sovereign. Under the terms of the 1917 Letters Patent, only William and Kate’s eldest son born during the present reign would be entitled to be a Prince while younger sons and all daughters would be styled as children of a Duke, with the prefix Lord or Lady and no HRH. They would become Princes and Princesses once Charles (or William) succeeded the Queen. Thanks to the Letters Patent issued last December, all William and Kate’s children will be Princes and Princesses from birth.
This development has been expected ever since the move toward equal primogeniture (see this blog for details) started to become a reality, with legislation in the works in all the countries where the Queen is Head of State. Since William and Kate’s firstborn child will become Head of State one day regardless of gender, it follows that the firstborn child should be a Prince or Princess in keeping with his or her future role. It wouldn’t make sense, if the eldest child was a daughter and heir to the throne, for her to be known as Lady while her brother was HRH and a Prince. This is just one of many details that will have to be addressed, along with the inheritance of the Cornwall dukedom (currently only able to be inherited by a male but intended for the heir to the throne, who now has an evens chance of being female) and the usage of the Wales title by a female heir. At some point in the future, new Letters Patent will need to be issued to extend the wording from “all the children of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales” to “all the children of the eldest child of the Prince of Wales” when the eldest child of the Prince of Wales is a daughter who will follow her father on the throne. It’ll be interesting to see if a female heir will be styled as Princess of Wales in her own right (which may be confusing since that title is used by the wife of the Prince of Wales) and, if so, how Letters Patent in the (fairly far distant) future will address the titles of children of children of a Princess of Wales. When ministers and civil servants warned that introducing equal primogeniture would have all sorts of complicated effects, they weren’t kidding! It’s being reported in the press that Prince Charles is unhappy about possible unintended consequences of the new succession law, and there will no doubt be many more details to be worked out so that the law can go into effect without causing problems.
The Letters Patent don’t apply to Prince Harry’s children born during the present reign, who would be Lord or Lady (assuming Harry was given a dukedom on his marriage) until Prince Charles succeeded to the throne. A potentially interesting situation would occur if Charles predeceased the Queen and William succeeded her, because Harry’s children would not be covered by the 1917 Letters Patent since they wouldn’t be children or grandchildren of any sovereign. William would then have to decide whether to issue Letters Patent to confer HRHs on Harry’s children or let them remain styled as children of a duke. This decision might depend to an extent on public opinion about the optimal size of the royal family; the decision to style the children of the Earl of Wessex as children of an earl (Viscount Severn and Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor) rather than grandchildren of a sovereign (HRH Prince James and Princess Louise of Wessex) came at a time when the size and expense of the royal family were being openly questioned in the press.
The terms of the 1917 Letters Patent reflected the situation at the time and did not seek to cover all possible future eventualities such as the introduction of equal primogeniture or even the accession of a Queen Regnant. In 1948, with Princess Elizabeth expecting her first child, George VI issued Letters Patent to ensure that his new grandchild (and younger siblings) would be entitled to royal status and would be known as Prince or Princess. The 1917 Letters Patent granted royal status to children of sons of sovereigns but not children of daughters of sovereigns. Hence Princess Margaret’s and Princess Anne’s children are not Royal Highnesses. However, Princess Elizabeth’s eldest son would be second in line to the throne and would, in time, be expected to succeed his mother. Without the 1948 Letters Patent, he would have been styled as the son of the Duke of Edinburgh and would have taken the Duke’s subsidiary title, Earl of Merioneth, as a courtesy title; he would not have become HRH Prince Charles until his mother’s accession. The Letters Patent issued by George VI allowed Charles and Anne to become HRH from birth.
The 1917 Letters Patent were also intended to streamline the royal family, which had become unprecedentedly large as Queen Victoria’s grandchildren started having children of their own. The size of the family fluctuated from generation to generation, but there were always complaints about expense and value for money at times when the royal family was large and the monarch was asking for more financial support from the government. This had been an ongoing problem as the many children of George III grew to adulthood and became extravagant spenders; it was also a problem when the widowed and reclusive Queen Victoria wanted the government to provide incomes for her children as they grew up and got married, while declining to come out of seclusion herself and be seen to be earning her keep. And it was an obvious problem by 1917 with the combination of another generation of royal births at a time of war-driven austerity. The same problem also reared its head in the late 20th century as the royal family went through an unpopular phase due to the perceived ill-treatment of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the antics of the Duchess of York and some of the other younger royals. All of a sudden the extended family (Princess Margaret, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, Prince and Princess Michael, and Princess Alexandra) were being dismissed as freeloaders and hangers-on who weren’t worth the money the taxpayers were shelling out for them, and there were calls for a drastically slimmed-down monarchy.
This situation is correcting itself to an extent as the Gloucesters and Kents reach their seventies and start to wind down their royal activities and profiles. Princess Margaret’s children and Princess Anne’s children are private citizens who perform no royal duties. Prince Edward’s children, as mentioned above, are styled as children of an earl rather than grandchildren of a sovereign, which may indicate that they will also grow up to be private citizens. It’s not yet clear whether Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie of York will become working royals after completing their education. So the royal family is shrinking again and becoming concentrated around Prince Charles and his children and grandchildren, who will carry most of the weight of royal duties and responsibilities in the future. By issuing the recent Letters Patent conferring royal status on all Prince William’s children from birth, the Queen is confirming the importance of Prince William and his family for the future of the monarchy.
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