The British monarchy and nobility are littered with various titles, often leading to confusing situations if you’re not familiar with them. Here I’ll be explaining the difference between a royal duke and a regular duke and how a dukedom held by a royal can stop being royal.
The basis of both titles is the same, and they are part of the peerage. Other titles in the peerage include the lower-ranking Marquess, Earl, Viscount or Baron and often Dukes have one or several of these titles as so-called subsidiary titles. The eldest son of a Duke can use his father’s subsidiary title as a courtesy – this means that they do not hold the title themselves. For example, the Duke of Norfolk’s eldest son is known as the Earl of Arundel. Younger sons of Dukes are styled as Lord “name” and daughters are styled as Lady “Name.”
A royal duke is a member of the British royal family who is entitled to the title of Prince and the style of Royal Highness and who also holds a dukedom. There are currently five royal dukes:
- The Duke of Cambridge
- The Duke of Sussex
- The Duke of York
- The Duke of Gloucester
- The Duke of Kent
In addition, there is also one royal Earl – The Earl of Wessex. I have not included the dukedoms of Cornwall and Rothesay (held by the Prince of Wales) as they will never stop being royal.
These five dukedoms have the standard inheritance of “heirs male of the body lawfully begotten”, which means the eldest son will inherit the title.
So when do we no longer consider a dukedom royal? When the person who holds the title no longer falls under the 1917 Letters Patent and is no longer entitled the title of Prince and the style of Royal Highness. These Letters Patent restrict the title of Prince to the children of the sovereign, the children of the sovereign’s sons, and the eldest living son of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales. This was amended in 2013 to include all the children of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales (i.e. the children of Prince William who was then known as the Duke of Cambridge)1
Both the Duke of Kent and the Duke of Gloucester are male-line grandsons of King George V. Their sons (the Earl of St Andrews and the Earl of Ulster) fall outside the 1917 Letters Patent. So while they will eventually succeed to the title of Duke, they will be addressed as “His Grace”, like a “regular” Duke, as they are not considered to be royal.
Women who marry royal dukes automatically take on their husband’s rank and status. This was confirmed by Buckingham Palace when Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married the Duke of York (the future King George VI). They released this statement: “In accordance with the settled general rule that a wife takes the status of her husband Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon on her marriage has become Her Royal Highness the Duchess of York with the status of a Princess.”2
The assumption that these women (i.e. The Duchesses of Cambridge (now also Princess of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall) and the Duchess of Sussex are only Duchesses and not Princesses is thus wrong. This also includes the Countess of Wessex. They will not be styled as Princess “name”, but they have the status of a Princess nonetheless. Only the late Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester (born Lady Alice Montagu Douglas Scott) was styled as Princess “name” after she became a widow because she requested it, and the Queen allowed her to adopt this title to avoid confusion with her daughter-in-law.3