A Few Words On The Duchess Of Cambridge’s Future Title(s)

Popular coverage of the monarchy often leaves a lot to be desired, but the recent spate of articles about the Duchess of Cambridge’s future titles have been examples of online journalism at its worst. Take this headline from The Daily Express: “Kate Middleton SHOCK news: Duchess Kate to get incredible title when Charles becomes King.” The ‘incredible title’ in question is ‘Princess of Wales,’ but the notion that she will one day hold that title is about as shocking as the notion that the sun will rise.

The heir apparent to the British (and before that, the English) throne has been given the title of ‘Prince of Wales’ since the fourteenth century.[1] It’s not, strictly speaking, automatic since the title must be specially conferred by the Sovereign. For example, the Queen conferred it on Prince Charles on July 26, 1958 when he was nine years old,[2] though his formal investiture as Prince was delayed until 1969 to ensure that he could fully appreciate its significance.

Given this history, it’s virtually certain that the Duke of Cambridge will be created Prince of Wales after his father’s accession, at which point the Duchess will be styled ‘Her Royal Highness The Princess of Wales.’ Now this is equally true for the present Duchess of Cornwall, though she has chosen to use her subsidiary title out of respect for the late Diana, Princess of Wales.[3] However, this was a personal decision–it has no legal effect, and it doesn’t set any kind of binding precedent. The Duchess of Cambridge could theoretically choose to follow the Duchess of Cornwall’s lead, but it is difficult to see why she should do so. The concerns that led the Duchess of Cornwall to use a different title simply don’t apply to her stepdaughter-in-law.

It gets even worse. The Express claims that, when Prince William becomes king, his wife will be known as ‘Catherine, Queen Consort.’ But here they’ve misapplied the rules: a queen consort is referred to in the same manner as a queen regnant, so the Duchess of Cambridge will be known as ‘Her Majesty The Queen.’ If she survives her husband, she will be known as ‘Her Majesty Queen Catherine,’ and she would also be entitled to the courtesy title of ‘Queen Mother.’ Although the title became well established during the fifty-year tenure of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, it was not used by either Queen Alexandra or Queen Mary, so its use by the Duchess of Cambridge is not guaranteed.[4]

The Express’s coverage has been picked up by other media outlets, who have often added inaccuracies of their own. For example, Harper’s Bazaar claims that the Duchess of Cambridge will be known as ‘HRH Catherine, Princess of Wales,’ but that would only be true if Prince William were to die after becoming Prince of Wales but before he ascended the throne (in the event of a divorce, she would be known as ‘Catherine, Princess of Wales’ without the HRH[5]). But the worst offender is a publication called HelloGiggles, which claims that the Duchess of Cambridge will become Princess of Wales after her Prince William ascends the throne!

While the rules governing royal titles are complex and esoteric, the fact that so many publications have purportedly provided authoritative commentary on the subject without doing basic fact-checking arguably says a lot about the nature of online journalism today…

NOTES

[1] Historically, only male heirs were made Prince of Wales, and the female equivalent only existed as a courtesy title used by their wives. King George VI considered making the then-Princess Elizabeth Princess of Wales in her own right, but this was deemed too risky since her claim to the throne would be displaced by the arrival of a younger brother. Now that succession to the Crown is governed by absolute primogeniture, there’s no reason why the eldest daughter of a future king could not be created Princess of Wales.

[2] Recorded in The Gazette (London Gazette), issue 41460, 29 July 1958.

[3] Diana went from being ‘HRH The Princess of Wales’ to ‘Diana, Princess of Wales’ as a result of her divorce from Prince Charles.

[4] She is more likely to use it if Prince George’s wife is named Catherine, as Queen Elizabeth adopted the title to distinguish herself from her daughter.

[5] See the Queen’s Letters Patent of August 21, 1996.

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