ICYMI: Title trouble

[Author’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 10 May 2019.]

Sunday night’s interview with Oprah Winfrey included statements by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on their son Archie’s title usage. As I note in the post, Archie Mountbatten-Windsor should be entitled to the rank of the eldest son of a non-royal duke. It was understood in 2019 that the decision to dispense with the title was made by his parents, not that the title itself could be bestowed or withheld following the baby’s birth.

Punch cartoon from 1917. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The birth of Queen Elizabeth II’s eighth great-grandchild – the first child of HRH Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex,[1] and the former Meghan Markle – offers a 2019 gloss on names and titles in the British royal family.

During the First World War, the rulers of Germany and Great Britain were first cousins – and King George V of Great Britain had no agreed-upon surname. Whatever the family name was, it was German. This situation led to a wholesale renaming of the royal family (as the House of Windsor) and the ceding of assorted German titles for equivalents in the British peerage system.

The 2nd Duke of Connaught and Strathearn. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Another feature of this period, one relatively remote in time from King George V and the new House of Windsor, was handling the status of junior members of the family. In 1917, Queen Victoria – dead since 1901 – had exactly one great-grandchild who was the son of a son of one of her younger sons. (All the others had succeeded to other situations at home or abroad.) HH Prince Alastair of Connaught[2] – the son and heir of HRH Prince Arthur of Connaught, the son and heir of Queen Victoria’s third son HRH The Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught[3] – would now represent the new paradigm: he would lose his status as a Prince of the United Kingdom and be treated as the child of a (non-royal) Duke. Prince Alastair’s children, in the future, would be Mr. or Miss Windsor.

As it happens, Prince Alastair’s mother was HH Princess Alexandra, Duchess of Fife in her own right (and a granddaughter maternally of King Edward VII),[4] so Alastair took her second title as Earl of Macduff. In 1942 he succeeded his grandfather as Duke of Connaught, but died before his mother – so Connaught became extinct and Fife passed to his first cousin.


Until the early 1960s, royal options for renouncing hereditary status were limited. King Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 – a scandal whose ramifications are still felt – while HRH Princess Patricia of Connaught, young Macduff’s aunt, gave up her royal rank on her marriage to the Hon. Alexander Ramsay in 1919. In the latter instance, the title and rank change – from Princess Patricia to Lady Patricia Ramsay, ranking before all Marchionesses – made the couple more equivalent socially, and as Lady Patricia was far down the line of succession, and her husband had his own status as an officer and the younger son of the Earl of Dalhousie, this was a common-sense approach to their situation.

By the late 1950s, hereditary titles in the British peerage – if by no means within the royal family – were sometimes felt to be onerous for their bearers; for ambitious politicians like the Earl of Home and Viscount Hailsham, who could not serve as Prime Minister from the House of Lords, the opportunity to renounce a title and reenter elective politics was a pressing concern. With the passage of the Peerage Act in 1963, Sir Alec Douglas-Home – who, like Hailsham, would later accept a life peerage and return to the Lords – was free to pursue political power.

Antony Armstrong-Jones, 1st Earl of Snowdon. Author’s collection

When Princess Margaret married Antony Armstrong-Jones in 1960, he perforce accepted an earldom to give his wife and their children titles commensurate with their senior place in the royal family. Just over a decade later, Princess Anne (now the Princess Royal) made a different choice with her husband; he did not receive a title, and their children (and grandchildren) have no titles today – despite their proximity to the Queen.

If female members of the royal family have sometimes had an easier time tailoring their rank, the men – who receive titles on their marriages – are bound, however loosely, by the rules of the peerage system.

All of this is to say that the decision to style the newborn member of the House of Windsor – who before 1917 would have been regarded as a junior Prince of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and [Northern] Ireland, by courtesy called (after his father’s title) Prince of Sussex – as simply Archie Mountbatten-Windsor marks a new approach to hereditary status.


Even in 2019, without any intervention by Archie’s parents, he would be the Earl of Dumbarton – because, while the present Duke of Sussex will presumably ascend in the royal succession, making Archie the grandson rather than the great-grandson of the monarch, for now he falls under a different system: as we have seen, as the great-grandson in the male line of the Queen, following the 1917 rule change he enjoys the status of a non-royal Duke’s child. (As Archie has, from birth, his father’s second title as his own, he would normally use that status.)

So here we have a situation where Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Sussex pass along none of their rank to their infant. While in the short run the question is largely moot – Archie and his age cohort are some years from status concerns – in the longer run we can expect further jarring transitions: from Master Archie Mountbatten-Windsor to the Earl of Dumbarton to HRH Prince Archie of Sussex (as the Prince of Wales succeeds his mother). Ultimately, Archie will be either His Grace the Duke of Sussex (as the great-grandson of Queen Elizabeth II) or His Royal Highness the Duke of Sussex (as the grandson of the present Prince of Wales or the nephew of the present Duke of Cambridge).

It seems unlikely that Archie Mountbatten-Windsor’s proximity to the British royal family will ever be a secret from his peers, so why set up a situation where Archie is so very publicly unconnected to his parents, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex?


[1] His (or Her) Royal Highness, the style for a grandchild in the male line of a British sovereign.

[2] His (or Her) Highness, the style for a great-grandchild in the male line of a British sovereign.

[3] His Royal Highness, with the additional status marker of The Prince, the style for a male child of a British sovereign. The Prince Arthur was also the Duke of Strathearn.

[4] Born Lady Alexandra Duff, daughter of the 1st Duke of Fife and HRH The Princess Royal, she was created HH Princess Alexandra of Fife by her grandfather, King Edward VII, and succeeded her father as Duchess of Fife.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

5 thoughts on “ICYMI: Title trouble

  1. Fun to read such a clear explanation of title-bearing in this royal family, which is by nature a continuous conundrum! I’m wondering what the recent addition of female succession will bring to titles of various offspring in the future–especially if a duchess near to the line of succession produces girl/ boy fraternal twins…

  2. So “why set up a situation where Archie is so very publicly unconnected to his parents, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex?”

    Because the bureaucrats in the Palace administration are 1) racist, or 2) more snooty, or 3) just taking orders from Who? The Queen did not over rule the decision, nor did Charles, the defacto regent. (And how irregular is all of that? Mom & son come to an understanding, which is then communicated to the government and so becomes constitutional.)

    Heaven forbid there there are five deaths much sooner than expected. Can you say Long Live King Henry IX? Can you say Long Live Archie, HRH the Prince of Wales? And, oh the vapors, Queen Megan!

    As much fun as we all have with this, seems getting more likely that Oliver Cromwell really should have listened to Edward Winslow and, following Massachusetts’ model, gone with a Lord Protector elected on a 6, 7, 8, or 9 year basis.

  3. Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex’s children James & Louise use noble and not the Royal titles they’re entitled to, as James, Viscount Severn and Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor. Reportedly, Prince Philip’s Dukedom of Edinburgh will be revived for Prince Edward (although, if the Queen still reigns, would not Prince Charles be 2nd Duke of Edinburgh?)

    While the Sovereign’s younger sons are traditionally given peerages, is it not time for the Princesses of the Royal Family to receive peerages as well? Princess Anne is called the Princess Royal, and the Prince of Wales has no daughter, but in time perhaps Princess Charlotte of Cambridge will be given an hereditary title.

  4. That would be one way of consistency. But The Princess Royal has already struck out on her own with suggesting her children do NOT use titles they are entitled to, nor their children using the cadet forms. I’m thinking of the equestrian Olympian daughter (who lost her license over speeding, I think) and her former rugby-playing husband Mike (which is the only name I can think of at the moment.)

    That was Anne encouraging her children to avoid the titles so as to avoid The Firm. Harry & Megan, on the other hand, being told they can NOT use titles for their son when they want to (and so keep UK paid protection) is substantively different. The only basis for that is that’s what the Buckingham Bureaucrats wanted and their rational for that decision? Can only be papered-over racism.

    This biting The Firm now, and, while i doubt I’ll live to see it, will come back to bite the Buck Bureaucrats. Talk about Whitehall Mandarins!

  5. If Archie is raised as an American, and becomes a naturalized citizen,by Congressional Amendment he cannot have or hold a title : they are expressly forbidden. So the question of what title he might get is then moot ! Watch for the HRH to be taken from the Sussex’s in due course. Also of note. In W.W. ll. Two of the Duke of Edinburgh’s sisters married German nobility and remained in Nazi Germany for the duration. A third sister married into the Swedish Royal Family and became Queen during the war. The Nazi’s allowed the sisters
    in Germany to visit the Queen of Sweden on many occasions. I’m old enough to know about Edward Vlll’s abdication and marriage to twice divorced Wallis Simpson of Baltimore. Also
    an American, she too was shabbily treated by the courtiers who surround the monarchy
    as Harry and Meghan are now being treated. John Grigg , formerly Lord Altrincham was never critical of the Queen, but of the men who advise her. That is where the trouble lies.

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