What Does It Mean To Be Queen Consort?

Recently, the Queen stated her wish that the Duchess of Cornwall should become ‘Queen Consort’ when the Prince of Wales ascends the throne. But what, exactly, does that mean?

A Queen Consort is distinct from a Queen Regnant. The former is the wife of a King,[1] while the latter is sovereign in her own right.[2] Although she generally doesn’t have any constitutional functions,[3] a Queen Consort is entitled to certain privileges.[4] Most notably, she is often crowned alongside her husband, though this is not a matter of right (George IV infamously barred Caroline of Brunswick from his coronation in 1821).

A Queen Consort has her own Household headed by a Lord Chamberlain, as well as her own Attorney General and Solicitor General. She is also exempt from paying any toll, fine, or amercement, and she is entitled to the tails of whales captured near the coast (the head goes to the King!).[5]

She is treated as if she were a feme sole (i.e., an unmarried woman).[6] This is because, in the words of Joseph Chitty:

As the various duties, responsibilities, and cares of government, are fully sufficient to occupy the time and attention of the King, the law, as a further comment on the principle, that the royal functions should be unembarrassed by minute considerations, has wisely freed his Majesty from the necessity of interfering with the management of the domestic affairs of his consort.[7]

This distinction was once quite significant since it meant a Queen Consort could hold and dispose of her own property independently of the King. But nowadays, it’s largely an antiquarian matter since married women have the same legal capacity as single women.

Killing a Queen Consort is considered treason under the Treason Act 1351, and it’s also treason for someone to ‘violate’ her. However, there is some uncertainty as to the meaning of this term. While it definitely includes sexual assault,[8] some authorities have argued that it also encompasses consensual adultery on the part of the Queen Consort.[9] It’s also been questioned whether violation of a Queen Consort would still be treason if she were too old to bear children.[10]

Formerly, a Queen Consort was also entitled to ‘queen gold.’ This was a sort of surcharge on certain payments to the king,[11] but the custom died off in the 17th century. A Queen Consort also had the right to sue by information without an indictment, though this privilege is essentially meaningless nowadays.[12]

The prospect of Queen Camilla may rankle some, but it’s hardly a surprising development. Relegating her to a lesser role would make little sense now. Diana has been dead for almost 25 years, and Camilla has shown herself to be a hardworking member of the Royal Family. It’s time to move on.

I am grateful to Rowan Hall and Jacob Gifford Head for their assistance with this post.

[1] The legalization of same-sex marriage doesn’t affect the common law regarding the right to the title of Queen Consort. See Schedule 2(1)(a) of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 (Consequential and Contrary Provisions and Scotland) Order 2014.

[2] William III and Mary II (commonly known as ‘William and Mary’) were joint sovereigns, but this was a special case. Mary was the one with a hereditary claim to the throne, but she insisted that her husband rule alongside her. Earlier, Philip II of Spain bore a kingly title alongside Mary I under the terms of 1 Mar. Sess. 3 c. 2, but there were a number of limitations on his power that meant he wasn’t quite co-sovereign.

[3] The Regency Act 1937 allows a Queen Consort to have guardianship of an incapacitated sovereign. She is also entitled to be one of the Counsellors of State who can exercise the royal functions during the Monarch’s illness or absence from the realm.

[4] What follows comes from Halsbury’s Laws of England (2019), vol. 29, para. 31.

[5] According to William Prynne, this was done in order to provide the queen consort with whalebone for her corsets. See Prynne, Aurum Reginae (London: Thomas Ratcliffe, 1668), 127.

[6] The common law doctrine of coverture meant that a married woman (feme covert) had her legal personality subsumed to that of her husband.   

[7] Joseph Chitty, A Treatise on the Law of the Prerogatives of the Crown (London: Joseph Butterworth and Son, 1820), 401.

[8] Graham S. McBain argues that only sexual assault that includes vaginal penetration qualifies a ‘violation’ under the 1351 Act based on the medieval law of rape. See McBain, “High treason—violating the Sovereign’s wife,” in Legal Studies, vol. 29, no. 2 (June 2009), 278, n. 101.

[9] The editors of Halsbury’s Laws of England take that view (“[The Queen Consort] herself will be guilty of treason if she consents to the violation of her chastity”) as does Blackstone, but McBain has argued that this is unlikely to be the case. See McBain, 269-271.

[10] McBain, 267.

[11] See William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, vol. 1 (Boston: T. B. Wait and Sons, 1818), 219. See also Prynne, Aurum Reginae.

[12] The editors of Halsbury’s Laws of England suggest that this may still be the case (see footnote 12).

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8 Responses to What Does It Mean To Be Queen Consort?

  1. Froghole says:

    Many thanks for this. It would also be interesting to know who has the prerogative of crowning a queen consort. I have often read it being the prerogative of the archbishops of York, but it is not clear whether this is a prerogative (and, if so, by what right) or a courtesy (and, if so, granted by whom).

    I have struggled to find details of what happens, although there is this, from 1902: https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/27489/supplement/6859 (the archbishop would have been William Maclagan).

    Yet this https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/28535/supplement/7077, this https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/34453/supplement/7031/ and other available records do not specify which archbishop performed the rite.

    I suspect that the next coronation, if it happens at all, will be stripped down very severely.

    • jasonloch says:

      Leopold G. Wickham Legg wrote a treatise on the subject entitled ‘On the Right of the Archbishop of York to Crown the Queen Consort’ that you might find interesting. He shows that many Queens Consort were actually crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

      And in vol. 1 of Sir Almeric FitzRoy’s Memoirs, he mentions that King Edward VII agreed to allow the Archbishop of York to crown Queen Alexandra with the concurrence of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

      • Froghole says:

        Many thanks indeed for that! I have not, as yet, been able to find Legg’s treatise, although I have read his useful article ‘The Sacring of the English Kings’ (Archaeological Journal, v. 51, 1894, at 28-42) which, unfortunately, does not touch upon this subject (as you know, he was a first rate liturgiologist, as well as a DNB editor). He did write a couple of works on coronation orders (1900, 1902, one of which was devoted to James VI & I), and on coronation records (1901) which I will try to look at, as it might be buried in them.

        What you write tallies with most of the London Gazette entries, where the coronation of the queen consort is by ‘the Archbishop’. The failure to clarify which archbishop suggests that it has to have been the archbishop of Canterbury.

        As to the coronation of Queen Alexandra, I note J. G. Lockhart’s 1959 biography of Cosmo Gordon Lang, which states (at 240), that Maclagan crowned her because Frederick Temple, whom like Edward VII in 1901 was at death’s door in 1902, was too infirm to do so. Lang did not do so in 1911 (and nor did William Temple in 1937), and accepted that ‘with good grace’, although there had been tussles over it between previous primates.

        I am interested by the reference to FitzRoy, whose portrait is in the Travellers’ Club (he wrote the club history, 1927). The pomposity of the portrait (in Windsor uniform) is belied by the fact that in 1922 he was fined for allegedly importuning a woman in Hyde Park. He was backed by George V though pushed into retirement the following year. He returned the compliment by publishing the two volumes of memoirs (he was presumably inspired by Charles Greville). Lord Stamfordham was dismayed that it included a reference to Edward VII receiving a loyal address from the House of Commons whilst having his corns cut, and about FitzRoy’s remarks concerning Queen Mary’s intelligence. Apparently, the memoirs were returned to FitzRoy when he submitted a copy to Queen Mary.

      • jasonloch says:

        Legg’s treatise was published in vol. 5 of the Transactions of the St. Paul’s Ecclesiological Society, which you can find on Google Books here: https://www.google.com/books/edition/Transactions/0NI_AQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0.

        FitzRoy’s Memoirs are a gold mine of information, though they’re filled to the brim with minutiae and pomposity. I daresay the Palace shouldn’t have worried, as I doubt many people bothered to read them! Of course, by the standards of today’s salacious tell-alls, FitzRoy’s literary indiscretions seem positively tame.

        FitzRoy’s trial was an odd affair. The stated details of his interactions with the women seem quite innocuous. However, according to the police, he assaulted the arresting officer and then attempted to escape custody (FitzRoy, on the other hand, said he was the victim of police brutality). It’s also interesting that, when handing down his verdict, the magistrate stressed that FitzRoy’s conviction was for a very mild offense and “did not necessarily comprise any indecency or mortal turpitude.” In the end, it was overturned on appeal, though one does wonder if the court wasn’t prejudiced against the alleged victim because of her supposed bad character. I also wonder if FitzRoy’s behavior after his arrest didn’t damage his standing more than the offense itself.

    • Froghole says:

      Thank you so much for the reference! I also happened across the volume here: http://ecclsoc.org/resources/downloads/ (at pp. 77-84).

      So, the alleged ‘right’ of York was, in fact a myth, and that the only occasions for which there is any evidence that the archbishops of York crowned a queen consort were 1086 (because of the bad reputation of Stigand) and 1902.

      Unfortunately, Legg does not explore why it was that such luminaries as Arthur Stanley (whose ‘Memorials of Westminster, 1868, was the main history of the Abbey until Edward Carpenter’s 1966 volume) and William Anson should have fallen into such error.

      Thank you also for your observations about FitzRoy! I wonder whether a posting on the functioning and staffing of the privy council might be worthwhile. It was obviously thought prudent to replace FitzRoy with Hankey (whose family, partly of Hugenot descent, were long eminent in the City), who already had enough to do (the best book, as you may know, is the triple-decker of Stephen Roskill, 1973). The fall of FitzRoy is not unlike that of Basil Thomson not long after (1925) who also prowled the parks and, incidentally, was the son of William Thomson, archbishop of York…

      • jasonloch says:

        I wrote a general piece on the Privy Council back in 2015 that you might find interesting: https://venerablepuzzle.wordpress.com/2015/11/18/constitution-101-the-privy-council/

      • Froghole says:

        Many thanks for the link to your 2015 piece, which is a wonderful overview of the PC: one of the best, if not the best, I have seen.

        Re Heathrow, another odd place where PC meetings have been held is Goodwood House, West Sussex, during Raceweek. Indeed, there is a plaque in the house to a PC meeting which took place there in 1952 or 1953 (I forget exactly) attended by the queen, with the 5th marquess of Salisbury (‘Bobbety’, then lord president) and the 9th earl De La Warr (‘Buck’, then postmaster general, and a remarkable political chameleon) in attendance, who are named on the plaque. Edward VII and George V also held PC meetings there, and at other great houses.

        There are several topics which are of especial interest to me respecting the PC:

        1. How the cabinet evolved from PC as a committee.
        2. How it took over the jurisdiction of the high court of delegates (viz. the works of Howell and Swinfen).
        3. How it lost most of its Commonwealth jurisdiction after abortive attempts in the 1940s and 1950s to turn it into a genuine imperial court (it lost Ireland in the early 1930s because of fears about its staffing, with the likes of Carson and Sumner; it lost Canada largely because of the vetoing of Bennett’s ‘New Deal’; it lost Australia partly because of bad blood with the ALP over the vetoing of Chifley’s banking reforms, although the first cuts were implemented by the Coalition). It looks likely to lose most of its Caribbean residuum in the near future: https://www.gresham.ac.uk/whats-on/caribbean-appeals (in my view it should lose this jurisdiction).
        4. How it developed, and then lost, most of its supervisory functions over education (viz., the board of education having evolved from a committee of the council under a vice-president), and over ecclesiastical appeals (only those relating to the Pastoral Measures 1968-2011 survive, really).
        5. Its staffing, especially the clerk, and his/her relationship with both the Palace (i.e., the private secretary) and the Cabinet Office (vis the secretary to the cabinet), which I think especially important as a constitutional hinge, although one very few people appear to know much about.

        Many thanks again!

      • jasonloch says:

        I’d definitely be willing to do a follow-up post on the Privy Council that discusses some of the topics you mentioned. I’ll add it to the editorial calendar!

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