How Royal Titles Actually Work

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Vote up the facts about royal titles that make you feel majestic.

When it comes to the British peerage system, things can get confusing fast. Who can be a duke or duchess? What's a Princess Royal? Where do earls fit into it all? How are titles passed down? And how do they change when there's a new monarch? 

When diving into facts about historical royals and the royal family, you can uncover just how complex royal titles are. From the one dukedom only the monarch holds to the strict rules that dictate which members of the royal family can be a prince or princess and more, the facts below break down exactly how royal titles work.

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  • Earldoms Are The Oldest Title Of The British Peerage System
    Photo: Northern Ireland Office / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.0
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    Earldoms Are The Oldest Title Of The British Peerage System

    Introduced In: 1016-1035

    What The Title Means: the British peerage rank between marquess and viscount, derives from the Old English words for “warrior” and “nobleman”

    How The Title Is Passed Down: Given to the next direct male heir, although some Scottish earldoms can pass to a woman.

    How Title Holders Are Addressed: “My Lord” or “My Lady” 

    Famous Title Holders: Prince Edward, Earl of Essex

    Equivalent Titles: Count (in France or Germany)

    Before there were dukes or marquesses or barons, there were earls. As the oldest title in the British peerage system, it was also the highest ranking until King Edward III made his son, the Black Prince, the Duke of Cornwall, establishing the first duchy in England. When marquesses were introduced to England, Earls were further demoted as the marquess rank also superseded the Earl rank. 

    While the title of Earl has fallen in stature considerably since they were the highest ranking peers centuries ago, Queen Elizabeth II's son, Prince Edward, was named the Earl of Wessex upon his marriage, rather than being named a Duke as is tradition

    At the time, the Queen and Prince Philip announced their wish to have Prince Edward inherit the Duke of Edinburgh title upon their deaths. However, in July 2021 sources suggested the future King Charles III would not give the Duke of Edinburgh title to his brother upon his ascension. Instead, the title would revert back to the crown and can either be bestowed or not at a later date.

  • There Are Specific Rules As To Who Can Be A Prince Or Princess
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    There Are Specific Rules As To Who Can Be A Prince Or Princess

    What The Title Means: Children and grandchildren of the reigning monarch.

    How The Title Is Passed Down: The children of a reigning monarch and the children of a reigning monarch's sons are eligible to be titled prince or princess upon their birth.

    How Title Holders Are Addressed: “Your Royal Highness”

    Famous Title Holders: Princess Beatrice, Princess Eugenie, Prince George

    The rules that dictate who can and can’t be a Prince or Princess are quite complicated, though the reigning monarch has the ability to alter them as they see fit. While all children of a monarch are (or can be) given the title Prince or Princess, only male heirs in line to inherit the throne (so sons of the monarch) pass the title of Prince or Princess to their children (the monarch’s grandchildren). 

    This is why Prince Andrew’s daughters, Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice, have the title and their cousins, Zara Tindall and Peter Philips, as the children of Princess Anne, do not. The rules get even more complicated for great-grandchidlren.

    In 1917, King George V announced only one great-grandchild of a monarch can use the title of Prince or Princess: the eldest living son of the eldest living son of the Prince of Wales. However, when Prince George was born, Queen Elizabeth II announced that all of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s children will be styled Prince or Princess. 

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    The Reigning Monarch Is Also The Duke Of Normandy

    Introduced In: 1066

    What The Title Means: The reigning monarch is the highest-ranking member of the royal family.

    How The Title Is Passed Down: The dukedom passes to the new monarch when they inherit the throne.

    How Title Holders Are Addressed: “Your Majesty”

    Famous Title Holders: William the Conqueror, Queen Elizabeth II

    When William, the Duke of Normandy, conquered England in 1066, he retained his Duke of Normandy title and passed it on to his son and heir, Robert Curthose. However, the succession following William's death was not a peaceful one, and his youngest son, Henry, eventually became King Henry I of England. 

    After Robert relinquished his claim to Henry, he retained the Duchy of Normandy. Within a few years, though, Robert's rule over the region devolved into chaos, leading Henry I to reclaim Normandy for England and the title of Duke of Normandy, and imprison his brother. Since then, the reigning British monarch has also held the title of the Duke of Normandy, even though England lost most of the region to France in the 13th century. 

    The Channel Islands, once a part of the Duchy of Normandy, remain a possession of the British government to this day. Citizens of the region refer to the reigning monarch as their Duke, regardless of gender. Famously, Queen Elizabeth II, on a visit to the Channel Islands, quipped, “Well, I am the Duke of Normandy,” in response to the crowd greeting her as such. 

  • Viscounts Were So Rare Queen Victoria Noted Their Absence At Her Coronation
    Photo: Alexander Bassano / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    Viscounts Were So Rare Queen Victoria Noted Their Absence At Her Coronation

    Introduced In: 1440

    What The Title Means: During the Carolingian period, viscounts were deputies of the higher-ranked counts, and ruled or governed in their stead.

    How The Title Is Passed Down: Viscountcies are passed down the male line. If there are no male heirs, the title reverts to the monarchy.

    How Title Holders Are Addressed: “Lord” or “Lady”

    Famous Title Holders: James, Viscount Severn, son of Prince Edward

    When Queen Victoria was coronated in 1838, the number of viscounts present was notable in that there were very few. Like marquesses, viscounts were introduced to the British peerage system later than other titles, and were viewed as “not English.” 

    Among the royal family specifically, viscountcies were even rarer. In 1999, for example, Prince Edward was named Viscount Severn, the first prince to be given the title since 1726. It is now the title used by his youngest son, James.