UK Royal Titles

Discussion about royal and noble titles in the UK

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The Wessex question: Are Prince Edward’s children secret HRHs?

Lady Louise Windsor and The Earl of Wessex - The Royal Family Disembark The Hebridean Princess

There is general agreement amongst royal title fans that the children of Prince Edward are legally a Prince and Princess, whatever they are styled currently.  However, when you start to delve into the constitutional complexities of titles, do these arguments really stack up?

It was a bright August day, the sun was shining and the birds were singing.  All over the country, people were heading out to enjoy a rare taste of good British weather.  I however – perhaps unusually for a 17 year old – was plonked firmly in front of the TV in eager anticipation.  For that day, 19th of June 1999, was not just one of the first really nice days of the year – it was the wedding of Prince Edward, the Queen’s youngest son to the beautiful and charming Sophie Rhys-Jones.

Budding royal watcher I may have been, but even I had had second thoughts about exchanging this viewing appointment for a trip to the beach or a walk on the moor.  However, within minutes of the television coverage starting, I knew that it was worth the sacrifice.  For not only was the wedding itself a beautiful occasion, with Edward’s subtle wink at Sophie as she walked up the aisle and the heart touching kiss on the cheek after the ceremony - this wedding was the wedding for royal title shockers.

First was the announcement that Edward had been created Earl of Wessex – a romantic title for sure, but not the Dukedom that was expected.  Then came the news that he would one day succeed to his father’s title of Duke of Edinburgh, something that has caused mental somersaults for title fans ever since.  But without a doubt, the most interesting news of the day was the announcement that with the couple’s consent, the Queen had decided that any children of the marriage would be styled as the children of an Earl rather than with the royal titles that they would be eligible for under the 1917 letters patent (hereafter, LP17).

And sure enough, within a few years theory became reality as the Countess of Wessex gave birth first to Lady Louise Windsor in 2003 and James, Viscount Severn in 2007.

Even at the tender age of 17, I was not one to question the Queen’s decisions on such matters but I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed.  The reason given for the change was that it would mean the Wessex children would be more able to live normal lives away from the public glare.  In all fairness, this seems to have happened – Lady Louise and Lord Severn certainly seem to receive less attention than their York cousins did at the same age – but at the time I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all part of an attempt to scale down the royal family, something that I desperately didn’t want to happen.

However, a few years later, I discovered the internet, and a host of like-minded folk who were plagued by this very same concern.  Here I learnt, by leaning on their collective wisdom, that all might not be lost.  The press release issued at the time of the Wessex wedding, these super-cool royal watchers supposed, was not sufficient an instrument to deprive the children of their rights under LP17.  Therefore they might be styled as the children of an Earl, but they are legally HRH Princess Louise of Wessex and HRH Prince James of Wessex.

This argument was not of course without flaw – I’ve never particularly believed that they could be legally ‘of Wessex’ any more than Beatrice is legally ‘of York’; surely this is just custom – but in general, it was good enough for me.  As far as I was concerned, the more Princes and Princesses there were kicking around the better and any argument that suggested this was the case was always likely to get my vote.

However, more recently a few things have given me pause for thought on the strength of this position and this blog post is an attempt to explore them and invite conversation.

Without a doubt, the best source of royal title information on the internet is www.heraldica.org run by François Velde.  Velde opposes the view that a press release was not sufficient to amend LP17 by focusing on the fact that it is the will of the sovereign that matters, not what instrument is used to communicate it:

“At the time [of the wedding / Lady Louise’s birth], many people have expressed the notion that a press release was not sufficient to modify the Letters Patent of 1917, and that Louise could not be deprived of her “rights” without letters patent.  The fact is that royal styles and titles are a matter of royal prerogative that does not require the advice of the government (the Letters Patent of 1917 were issued without any such advice).  The sovereign’s will and pleasure is all that matters, and she can change styles and titles as she pleases.  How that pleasure is publicized, by letters patent, warrant, press release or verbal declaration, is immaterial”

This is certainly a compelling argument.  By profession I am a PR guy (I’ve got quite a cool job you see, that’s why I’m allowed a geeky hobby like this) so I understand exactly what a press release is intended to do.  They are an organisation’s or individual’s way of letting the outside world know about a decision that has been made or an event that is happening.  They are not a means of decision making or an instrument of authority – simply a way of communicating that a decision has been made and that authority has been taken.

Upon doing a little bit or research, it would seem that historically, letters patent performed much the same function.  In the earliest days of their usage, letters patent severed not as an instrument of decision making but as a way of recording a decision and making it known to relevant audiences.  Good old Wikipedia even defines them as a ‘form of open or public proclamation’ which sounds very press release-esq indeed.  The oldest peerages in the country were not – as far as we know – created with letters patent.  We simply know about them from records that show them being summoned to parliament.  In these cases it doesn’t seem to matter how the peerage was bestowed – it only matters that we can prove that bestowing it was the will of the sovereign.

When viewed in this light, it is very difficult to see how the argument that the Wessex children are ‘legally HRH’ really stacks up.  However, as often with these cases I am still in two minds (I’m quite a strong ‘P’ on the Myers-Briggs scale if anyone’s interested).   Although letters patent may at one time have been the medieval equivalent of a press release, rightly or wrongly, they do seem to have acquired more significance.

The first thing to flag of course is that when Princess Patricia of Connaught chose to relinquish her style upon marriage in 1919 and become Lady Patricia Ramsay with precedence above Marchionesses of England, her cousin, George V made this official by letters patent.  Times have of course changed since 1919 and one could argue that press releases are now so much more a standard way of doing business that they could be seen to carry greater significance.  However, just three year before Prince Edward’s wedding, when wanting to make it crystal clear that the former Princess of Wales and Duchess of York would lose the style of ‘Royal Highness’ upon divorce, the Queen issued letters patent.  This was the establishment of a general rule and is of course different to the situation with Lady Louise and Lord Severn.  But, nonetheless it is clear that the Queen still uses letters patent to make changes to royal titles.  The fact that she didn’t in the case of the Wessexs could be significant.

So, in summary, where are we?

Well, to start with, various online sources including Wikipedia must be wrong in stating to clearly that the Wessex children are legally a Prince and Princess.  It is very difficult to even know what this means.  Being a Prince or Princess is not – to the best of my knowledge – a position that conveys any legal right or privilege.  This is different to the Camilla situation, whereby she will be legally Queen even if not addressed as such.  Being Queen (even Queen Consort) is a position that is enshrined in law.  I’m not entirely confident that this is true for Princes and Princesses - even the obscure systems of precedence do not explicitly reference the princely style – just relatives of a sovereign.

The only privilege of being a Prince and Princess is therefore to be styled as such.  The Wessex children clearly aren’t.  However, there is an argument to say that upon coming of age they could choose to be so.  If this happens there are two scenarios that I can conceive:

·         The first is that the then sovereign (be it Elizabeth, Charles or William) would approve this change and this would be an implicit endorsement that this title is their birth right.

·         The second is that the King or Queen does not approve the title.  Then, they would have the option of contesting their case in the courts (I should flag, I think this is highly unlikely to happen).  Should the courts rule in their favour – which I would argue, they probably would - then the monarch would be forced to issue new letters patent explicitly depriving them of the HRH and Princely style (think Duchess of Windsor).

So, to conclude: my view is that, given the fact that letters patent still seem to be used as the legal instrument for changing titles, the Wessex children could choose to style themselves Prince and Princess if they wanted to.  However until they choose to do this and it is sanctioned either by King or courts – and let’s face it, it’s very unlikely to ever happen– we won’t actually be able to say this for sure.  It is also, in my view, a nonsense to say that they are ‘legally’ a Prince or Princess rather than just saying that they could legally assume the style.  A rose by any other name may still be a rose.  I’m not convinced that the same rule applies to Princes.

Filed under Prince Princess HRH Earl of Wessex Countess of Wessex

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