A Question Of Titles

Buckingham Palace announced yesterday that the Duke of York will no longer use the style of ‘His Royal Highness’ and will give up his honorary military appointments and patronages. This comes after a US judge declined to dismiss Virginia Giuffre’s civil suit alleging that the Duke sexually assaulted her when she was a minor. While his departure from public life is warranted given the grave accusations against him, many may find it unsatisfactory that he continues to have the style of HRH (even if he no longer uses it) and remains a Royal Duke. Unfortunately, stripping him of these royal accoutrements is a tall order.

As a matter of law, the Queen can’t unilaterally take away the Duke’s peerages.[1] As with other peerages, they can only be removed by an Act of Parliament. This hasn’t happened since 1919 when four individuals lost their titles after they fought against the UK in World War I (however, the relevant legislation may provide a template for the future; more on that later). It’s also worth noting that, since hereditary peers aren’t entitled to automatic seats in the House of Lords, the Duke’s peerages no longer have any constitutional significance.[2]

The situation surrounding the titular dignity of prince/princess and the style of HRH is more complicated. All of the Sovereign’s children are entitled to them under George V’s Letters Patent of 1917. They’re not granted on an individual basis, at least not to the Sovereign’s children.[3] No child of the Sovereign has lost these dignities in modern times,[4] but the wives of princes have lost them in certain circumstances. Most notably, Diana, Princess of Wales, and Sarah, Duchess of York, lost the style of HRH upon their divorces, though that was done as an amendment to the general rules rather than as the revocation of individual titles. And when George VI confirmed that the Duke of Windsor was an HRH following the latter’s abdication, he declared that the Duke’s wife and children would not enjoy the style. Since the Queen is the fount of honor, she could still strip the Duke of his princely style and title, but there is no template ready to be dusted off.

The fact that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex were also obliged to stop using their princely styles and surrender their patronages creates a highly unfortunate parallel. Whatever one might think of the Sussexes’ decision to step down as working members of the Royal Family, they aren’t in the same class as someone accused of sexually assaulting a minor.

I’ve said before that there should be a way for members of the Royal Family to forfeit their status in actuality as well as in practice. The controversy surrounding the Duke of York only underlines the need for such a mechanism. A situation where people hold onto their honorifics even though they have left royal life is inherently problematic regardless of the underlying reasons for their departure.

Perhaps it’s time for Parliament to give the Sovereign the power to revoke a peerage in certain circumstances. This isn’t just an issue for the Royal Family: right now, a person who is expelled from the House of Lords still gets to keep their title. The Titles Deprivation Act 1917 provides an example of how this could be done.[5] A modern Act might provide that, if a peer is expelled from the House of Lords or commits a serious crime, the Sovereign may make an Order in Council depriving them of their peerage.[6] However, the Act would need to include safeguards to ensure it couldn’t be abused.[7] Expulsion from the House of Lords is relatively straightforward, but the question of what constitutes a ‘serious crime’ (and whether the peer committed the alleged offense) would require careful consideration.

As for princely styles and titles, Craig Prescott of Bangor University has suggested that they should be granted to specific individuals instead of automatically conferring them on a general class of people. It would need to be handled carefully to avoid ensnaring the Royal Family in never-ending controversy, but at the very least, individual grants would make it easier to revoke these royal honorifics when necessary.

It may be tempting to dismiss the present difficulties as aberrations, but that would be unwise. The immutability of royal titles seems increasingly anomalous in a society that insists on transparency and accountability from its leaders. Tweaking the rules may be the best way to ensure that these titles don’t disappear entirely.

[1] When he was created Duke of York, he was also created Earl of Inverness and Baron Killyleagh.

[2] Although the Duke was formally introduced into the House of Lords on February 1, 1987, he did not take part in parliamentary business.

[3] The late Duke of Edinburgh received the style of HRH when he married the then-Princess Elizabeth (this was necessary because, while a wife takes the status of her husband, a husband does not take the status of his wife). After she became queen, she made him a Prince of the United Kingdom.

[4] George V’s Letters Patent restricted the title of ‘prince’ and the style of ‘Royal Highness’ to individuals within the Sovereign’s immediate family and discontinued the style of ‘Serene Highness’ entirely. While this meant that certain individuals lost the title of prince and the style of HRH/HSH (e.g., Prince Alexander of Teck), they were members of the extended Royal Family rather than the Sovereign’s children.   

[5] Despite what some people seem to think, the Act didn’t establish a general mechanism for revoking titles. It only applied to peers who fought against the King and his allies in World War I.

[6] It’s fair to ask whether peers should be allowed to voluntarily surrender their peerages. Under the Peerage Act 1963, a hereditary peer can disclaim a newly inherited peerage, though they must generally do so within one year of inheriting it. A disclaimed peerage effectively lies dormant during the holder’s lifetime and then reemerges upon their demise to pass to their heir as normal. However, there is no analogous provision for life peerages. Traditionally, it has been thought unnecessary to provide one since a life peer already consented to their ennoblement. But allowing someone to rid themselves of a life peerage after the fact might be prudent.

[7] For a critique of the 1917 Act, see Ann Lyon, “A Reaction to Popular Hysteria: the Titles Deprivation Act 1917,” Liverpool Law Review, vol 22 (2000), 173-203.

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2 Responses to A Question Of Titles

  1. Christine says:

    Our Queen can remove the Dukedoms from both Andrew and Harry,she gifted them and as Fount of Honours she can take them away. Parliament have been approached regarding this and have confirmed through our Home Secretary, Priti Patel, that “This is a matter for the Queen not the government”.

    • jasonloch says:

      While the Queen is fount of honor, that doesn’t mean she can revoke peerages. As Francis Palmer wrote in his Peerage Law in England: “But once having brought a peerage into existence, the Crown’s control of it is in a measure exhausted…no act of the Crown can either alter the course of its descent (save where it falls into abeyance), or merge or extinguish it by the grant of a peerage of higher degree to the same person, or change its precedence, or give effect to a surrender of it, or restore it if forfeited. For a peerage once created endures until it is destroyed or extinguished, either by attainder or by special Act of Parliament, or by failure of inheritable heirs.”

      That is why Parliament had to pass the Titles Deprivation Act 1917 to revoke the titles of peers who fought against the UK in World War I. If the Crown could simply revoke a peerage, there would have been no need to legislate.

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