Should The Dignity Of Prince Be Granted Rather Than Inherited?

Craig Prescott published an interesting piece over at the UK Constitutional Law Blog on the rules governing the titular dignity of Prince or Princess of the United Kingdom. He suggests that paradigm established by George V in 1917 is no longer fit for purpose and should be replaced by a system where the dignity is granted by the Sovereign rather than inherited.

Prescott argues that the current rules are flawed because they still reflect the principles of male-preference primogeniture.[1] For example, while the Duke of York’s daughters fall within the ambit of the 1917 Letters Patent, the Princess Royal’s children do not. Looking at the next generation, the children of Prince George and Prince Louis will be princes/princesses from birth, but Princess Charlotte’s children won’t enjoy that status even though their mother is ahead of Prince Louis in the line of succession.

To avoid situations like these, Prescott suggests that the dignity of prince/princess should be specifically conferred by the Sovereign:

This more flexible approach would allow members of the Royal Family to gain a title after enjoying their childhood and early adult lives as more regular private citizens. This would give them a better opportunity to acquire experience outside of monarchy before taking up royal duties at an appropriate point in their lives.

The problem with this approach is that, if the Monarch has to pick and choose who gets to be a prince or princess, there will inevitably be controversy when A, C, and E get the dignity but B and D don’t. The current rules aren’t exactly controversy-free, but at least the guideposts are clear. A system where princely status depends entirely on the whims of the Sovereign (and, by extension, the Government) seems like a recipe for never-ending drama. There might also be a temptation to award the dignity to members of the Royal Family who happen to have captured the public’s fancy at the moment while glossing over their less-popular relatives.

It’s also debatable whether this change would actually allow members of the Royal Family to live as “regular private citizens.” When the Earl of Wessex attempted to have a career in the media in the 90s and early 00s, he was accused of cashing in on his royal status. Similarly, the Countess of Wessex’s attempt to maintain her career following their marriage had to be abandoned after a series of scandals, including one where she was the victim of a sting carried out by a News of the World reporter posing as an Arab sheikh. Even if people are no longer HRHs from birth, they will still be part of the Royal Family, and the need to avoid controversy and conflicts of interest is going to make it difficult for them to live truly private lives. While one could argue that the conventions governing the lives of the Royal Family need to be reevaluated, that’s a complex issue that goes far beyond the question of styles and titles.

A simpler solution might be for all of the Sovereign’s children to have the dignity of prince or princess from birth, but beyond that it would be restricted to the descendants of the heir apparent, regardless of their gender.[2] Limiting the dignity to those most likely to inherit the throne would keep the overall number of princes and princesses down while avoiding the sort of gender-based inequalities that we see now. It would also comport with the precedent set by the Succession to the Crown Act 2013 whereby only the first six people in line for the throne need to obtain the Monarch’s consent before marrying.

At the same time, there should be a formal exit mechanism for those people who, for whatever reason, feel that a life of royal service isn’t for them. Upon triggering that mechanism, the person would be removed from the line of succession[3] and forfeit their royal titles[4] without the need for bespoke legislation.[5] Right now, the Duke of Sussex is in an awkward position: despite stepping away from the life of a working member of the Royal Family, he is still a prince and an HRH[6] and he is still eligible to succeed to the throne. While that’s unlikely to happen in his case, it would be a more pressing issue if someone more senior ever decided to step away from royal life.

However the dignity of prince is handled in the future, Prescott is right that the rules should be readily accessible. At the moment, it’s difficult for the general public to discover how the system works. The Gazettes do contain notices setting out the terms of the relevant Letters Patent (see here and here), but a layperson isn’t necessarily going to know to look for them. There’s no reason why this information couldn’t be consolidated and published on the Monarchy’s website.  

Unless the conventions surrounding the Royal Family change, it seems prudent for the dignity of prince/princess to remain one that is held from birth. Both the individual members of ‘The Firm’ and the institution of the Monarchy need an element of certainty, but royal life shouldn’t be a prison for those who truly wish to leave it behind.


[1] Under the current rules, the dignity of prince is held by: the Sovereign’s children, the children of the Sovereign’s sons, and the children of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales.

[2] While the Sovereign’s eldest son has customarily been created Prince of Wales for centuries, the Sovereign’s eldest daughter doesn’t receive any special title. This is because, until the passage of the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, a woman was considered an heiress presumptive rather than an heiress apparent since the birth of a younger brother would bump her down the line of succession. Although male-preference primogeniture is gone, it’s not yet clear whether an heiress apparent would become Princess of Wales.  

[3] The issue of an ex-royal’s children would be tricky. While not a perfect solution, perhaps children born prior to the renunciation could keep their place in the line of succession while children born afterward would have no claim to the throne.

[4] While it’s hard to see why an ex-royal should keep the style of HRH or the dignity of prince, I’m agnostic on the question of royal dukedoms. After all, there are dukes outside the Royal Family.  

[5] Legislation would, of course, be necessary to create this mechanism, and it would only be possible with the unanimous agreement of the other Commonwealth realms.

[6] He and his wife have, however, voluntarily stopped using their royal titles.

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