Why Is The Queen ‘Duke Of Lancaster’?

I’ve discussed the Duchy of Lancaster elsewhere on this blog, but today I’m going to delve a bit deeper into its history, with a particular focus on why the Queen is considered the Duke of Lancaster. It’s a complicated and fascinating story.

The Duchy of Lancaster can be traced back to Henry III’s decision over the course of 1265-66 to give his younger son Edmund lands confiscated from peers who took part in the Second Barons’ War. He also gave his son the title of Earl of Lancaster. In 1351, Edward III created the title of Duke of Lancaster for one of Edmund’s descendants, Henry Grosmont. At the same time, he made Lancaster into a County Palatine during Henry’s life.[1] Following Henry’s death in 1361, his son-in-law John of Gaunt became Duke of Lancaster. John was one of Edward III’s sons, and he convinced his father to make the grant of palatine status permanent. Richard II confiscated the Duchy following John’s death in 1399 and banished John’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, from England. But Henry returned with an army, dethroned Richard, and ascended the throne as Henry IV.

On October 14, 1399, the new King issued a charter asserting his claim to the Lancastrian inheritance.[2] Ordinarily, the Duchy would have merged with the Crown and lost its independent character,[3] but Henry’s charter precluded that. In the most salient portion of the document, the King decreed:

[F]or us and our heirs, that as well our duchy of Lancaster, as all and singular the other counties, honors, castles, manors, fees, advowsons, possessions, annuities, and lordships whatever, to us howsoever and wheresoever descended before our adoption of the royal dignity, by hereditary right, in demesne, in service, or in reversion, or otherwise howsoever, shall for ever remain to us and our said heirs in the charters aforesaid specified in form aforesaid; and that they so and in such wise, and by such officers and ministers, in all things be managed, governed, and treated as they would have remained, been managed, governed, and treated, if we had never assumed the ensign of royal dignity.

And, moreover, that such and the like liberties, jura regalia, customs, and franchises, in the said duchy, counties, honors, castles, manors, fees, and other possessions and lordships aforesaid, in all, and throughout all, be had, exercised, continued, done, and used for ever, and they by such officers and ministers be governed and executed, as and which were wont to be had and used in the same duchy, counties, honors, castles, manors, fees, and other possessions and lordships, and by whom they were wont to be ruled and governed, as well in the time of our said lord and father, as in the times of other our progenitors and ancestors, by virtue of the charters aforesaid.[4]

Among the other provisions confirmed by the charter was the grant of the title of Duke of Lancaster to John of Gaunt and his heirs.[5]

Although Henry’s charter explicitly confirmed the title of Duke, he didn’t add it to his formal style (indeed, the whole point of the Charter was to keep the Duchy separate from the Crown). Instead, he procured an Act of Parliament bestowing the title as well as the liberties and franchises of the Dukedom (but not the Duchy) on his eldest son, the future Henry V.[6]  This proved to be an aberration, and future Monarchs wouldn’t repeat this arrangement.[7]

As the Duchy was separate from the rest of the Crown’s holdings, it remained an inheritance of the House of Lancaster. When Edward IV supplanted Henry VI on the throne in 1461, Parliament declared the Duchy of Lancaster to be forfeit to the Crown.[8] The same statute provided that the Duchy would be inherited by the King and his successors, thus ending the link with the House of Lancaster. Later, when Henry VII displaced Richard III, Parliament once again settled the Duchy on the King and his heirs.[9]

So far, much of the wrangling we have seen has focused on the Duchy’s estates rather than the title of Duke. The emphasis on property, while understandable, led to some confusion over whether or not the ducal title still existed. In 1561, the judges held in the Case of the Duchy of Lancaster that Elizabeth I held the Duchy as queen rather than as Duke of Lancaster.[10] However, behind-the-scenes notes from the case suggest a more complicated situation. The anonymous writer argued that kings from Henry IV to Edward VI were in fact Dukes and their ducal style and dignity was wholly separate from the Crown.[11] Furthermore, he noted that the statute 7 Edw. 6 c. 3 specifically referred to the King as Duke of Lancaster.[12] Later jurists found the anonymous writer’s assessment more credible. Uncertainty over the Sovereign’s status in the Duchy led the judges to rule in favor of the plaintiff in Carpenter v. Marshall,[13] and Viner’s Abridgement noted that the King had the lands of the Duchy “as Duke and not as King.[14]

Despite Henry IV’s reluctance to add the ducal title to his royal style, there is textual evidence of Lancastrian kings styling themselves ‘Duke of Lancaster.’ Instruments passed under the Duchy occasionally used the ducal title, as did certain Letters Patent under the Great Seal of the Realm.[15]

The Sovereign’s ducal title continues to be recognized today. It appears on the statute book—for example, in the Court of Chancery of the County Palatine of Lancaster Act 1850 and the Commons (Schemes) Regulations 1982. Moreover, Victoria, George V, George VI, and the current Queen all formally approved loyal toasts for use in Lancashire that included their ducal title.[16] While these obviously has no legal force, it does show that the Palace (and by extension the Government) believes the Sovereign to be Duke of Lancaster. Further corroborating evidence can be found on the Duchy’s own website, which notes that “Duchy officers were, and still are, accountable directly to the Duchy Chancellor and the Sovereign as Duke of Lancaster.”

The Sovereign’s status as Duke of Lancaster is certainly unusual. According to the usual common law provisions, both the Duchy and the ducal title should have been subsumed into the Crown. But as we have seen, upon ascending the throne, Henry IV deliberately preserved the status quo ante with regard to the Duchy to ensure that it remained separate from the Crown’s other holdings. While the Duchy’s separation from the Crown meant that he and his successors didn’t add the ducal title to their royal style,[17] it nevertheless continued to be used in various contexts throughout the centuries. Much has changed since Henry IV issued the Charter of 1399, but the Duchy of Lancaster’s distinctive identity still endures after 621 years.

[1] This allowed the new Duke of Lancaster to exercise certain royal powers within his domain (e.g., the right to appoint sheriffs, justices, and other officials). The royal charter conferring these privileges can be found in Sir William Hardy (ed.), The Charters of the Duchy of Lancaster (London: S & J Bentley Wilson, and Fley, 1845), 9-11. Graham McBain disputes the idea that the Duchy became a County Palatine in 1351. He claims it only received jura regalia that year, and it had actually received County Palatine status back in 1267—see “Time to Abolish the Duchy of Lancaster,” in Review of European Studies, vol. 5, no. 4 (2013): 176 n. 44. However, the basis of this assertion is unclear, and it’s not supported by the accompanying reference to Sir Edward Coke. 

[2] Hardy, 102-140.

[3] As Lord Cairns observed in Buckhurst’s Peerage Case (1876) 2 App Cas 1, “the fountain and source of all dignities [i.e., the Sovereign] cannot hold a dignity from himself.”

[4] Hardy, 138.

[5] Hardy, 109-110.

[6] Hardy, 141-142.

[7] A few Monarchs have considered giving the title of Duke of Lancaster (but not the Duchy) to others. Elizabeth I considered giving it to James VI, and Victoria mooted the idea of conferring it on Prince Albert. Prince Albert Victor almost received it as well. See Somerville, 144 and n. 5.

[8] Hardy, 282.

[9] Hardy, 341-348.

[10] 1 Plowden 212-222.

[11] Sommerville, 147.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Somerville, 147.

[14] Charles Viner, A General Abridgement of Law and Equity, vol. 17 (Aldershot: Printed for the Author, 1743), 94.

[15] Sommerville, 149-150.

[16] Somerville, 149 n. 3. The toast is currently “The Queen, Duke of Lancaster!”

[17] The royal style has never been an exhaustive list of all the titles enjoyed by the Sovereign. For example, although the Queen is Supreme Governor of the Church of England, references to the royal supremacy have not been part of the monarch’s official style since the reign of Mary I (‘Defender of the Faith’ predates the break with Rome and has nothing to do with the royal supremacy). Despite being a devout Catholic, Mary I’s style initially included “in the Earth Supreme Head of the Church of England and Ireland” (see, for example, her accession proclamation). Because this was included by the authority of an Act of Parliament, Mary couldn’t formally dispense with it until Parliament passed the necessary legislation. Until then, she tried to hide it behind an ‘etc.’

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