Even though most of the people have never known any other British monarch than Queen Elizabeth II, she was never given the title of the heir to the throne – Prince(ss) of Wales. Why was that?
The title was granted to Welsh princes before the 12th century, and it was first used as the title for the heir to the throne by King Edward I of England, who invested his son, the future Edward II, as the first English Prince of Wales in 1301. The future Queen Mary I was sent to the Welsh Marches but was also never created Princess of Wales. The title is not automatic and merges with the crown upon accession to the throne.
In addition, the title Prince of Wales can only be given to the heir apparent. At the time of her father’s accession, she was “only” the heiress presumptive. If at any time her parents had had a son, he would have displaced her in the line of succession as the succession still followed male-preference primogeniture. This is different, for example, in Spain, who still abide by this system, but the heir (whether heir apparent or heiress presumptive) is automatically granted the title of Prince(ss) of Asturias. The current Princess of Asturias, Leonor, could still be displaced by the birth of a younger brother, and he would automatically become Prince of Asturias.
Just before the future Queen Elizabeth’s 18th birthday, a Welsh Town Council petitioned Winston Churchill asking to invest Elizabeth as Princess of Wales to improve Ango-Welsh relations. Her father, King George VI, consulted Churchill on the matter. They, too, considered that the title had never been held by an heiress presumptive. King George considered it to be a family matter, but he did say that the Dominion MPs could suggest a Dominion title if they wanted. The cabinet eventually agreed with the King and on 12 February 1944, it was officially announced that her title would not be changed. King George later said to his mother, Queen Mary, “How could I create Lillibet the Princess of Wales when it is the recognised title of the wife of the Prince of Wales? Her own name is so nice and what name would she be called by when she marries, I want to know.”1 So in the end, she was never created Princess of Wales.
The situation has changed slightly with the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, which introduced absolute primogeniture. This means that we may one day have a female heiress apparent and perhaps by then, she might become Princess of Wales in her own right. Surely, if it is too confusing to have a male Prince of Wales who is not the future King Regnant, some other title can be made for him. We’ll just have to wait and see.
The current Prince of Wales is Prince Charles, and the Princess of Wales is his wife, Camilla, though she uses the lesser title of Duchess of Cornwall.
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