The rise and fall of ‘Royal Highness’: a brief history of royal titles
Following the announcement that Prince Harry and Meghan will no longer use their HRH titles, we revisit this article by Dr Jonathan Spangler charting the rise and fall of ‘His or Her Royal Highness’ – from Queen Anne and Queen Victoria to the Romanovs – and ask whether any other royals in history have left behind their royal rank...
HRH, an abbreviation of ‘His or Her Royal Highness’, is used as part of the title of some members of the royal family. In today’s Britain the HRH marks the dividing line between those members of the royal family engaged in active service to the monarchy and the nation, and those who lead more private lives unfettered by public duties.
The rise of HRH began in the 17th and 18th centuries as a means of highlighting the superiority of some ruling families over others. It was encouraged in an era when dynastic reproduction was often precarious (because many royal babies died in infancy) and when succession wars could be devastating.
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Today’s titles: what powers does the Queen have?
There is no formal requirement for Queen Elizabeth II to approve the naming of a royal child. She does, however, have more firm control over titles, as these are part of her prerogative to regulate within her dynasty.
The Queen traditionally grants dukedoms to her sons and grandsons on the day of their wedding. These come from a customary pool of names again stretching back centuries and reflect the names of prominent English (and in the past Scottish) counties, York and Gloucester being among the most commonly used, though these names do not have any formal ties to these places. The monarchy continues to use the granting of titles in a small way to attempt to be representative of the entire United Kingdom – Prince Harry’s titles given on his wedding day included Sussex for England, Dumbarton for Scotland, and Kilkeel for Northern Ireland.
The Queen can also deny the use of such titles. Ever since the Titles Deprivation Act of 1917 took away the dukedoms of Cumberland and Albany from George V’s cousins who fought on the German side in the First World War, the princes of Hanover and Saxe-Coburg and Gotha have had the right to appeal to the sovereign for a restoration of their titles (and also the right to use ‘Prince of Great Britain and Ireland’), though neither family has. In a rapidly changing modern society, such naming protocols and claims to titles are seen as increasingly irrelevant, though they draw on a rich and colourful history.
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On 6 May 2019, Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, welcomed the birth of their first child, a boy named Archie. Archie has no title, he is not an HRH (His Royal Highness) or a prince. According to the current regulations of the House of Windsor, Archie, as the son of the second-ranked grandson of the sovereign of the United Kingdom (in terms of hierarchy), did not have the title HRH by right – though the Queen had the option of extending this courtesy as she did for the younger children of the Duke of Cambridge, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis. But when the Queen dies and the next reign begins under Prince Charles, Prince Harry’s children will move up one rank, from great-grandchildren to grandchildren of a sovereign, and will thus be entitled to the ‘Royal Highness’ styling by right, according to the ‘house rules’ of the Windsor dynasty.
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Leaving behind royal rank
Succession is less of a concern in modern monarchies: numbers of royal children born in the later 20th century remain healthy, and legislation all across Europe has rectified historic gender imbalances (there are now female heiresses to the thrones of Sweden, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands).
As such, there has been rising interest in allowing junior members of the ruling houses of Europe to leave behind their royal rank and attempt to lead ‘normal’ lives. While there have been difficulties and scandals in Spain or in the Netherlands regarding the blending of royal and non-royal duties, the Windsors have learned somewhat how to retreat more fully from the public gaze (and thus responsibility). For example, the Earl and Countess of Wessex chose not to apply the HRH title to their two children (born in 2003 and 2007), even though by law they are entitled to it.
The Windsors have learned a great deal about public relations since the scandals of the 1990s, and of the relationship between the monarchy and the average taxpayer. Although the monarchy continues to derive income from private estates (such as Balmoral) and the duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall, the Civil List has effectively been abolished (since 2011). The number of royals who are paid from the Sovereign Grant Act which replaced the Civil List is limited to those with the HRH title, or less (for example, princesses Beatrice and Eugenie are both HRH, but do not receive funding from the Sovereign Grant).
The origins of HRH
In short, the rise of HRH began in the 17th and 18th centuries as a means of highlighting the superiority of some ruling families over others. It was encouraged in an era when dynastic reproduction was often precarious (because many royal babies died in infancy) and when succession wars could be devastating. But as health and medicine improved in later centuries the use of HRH then had to be restricted, because dynastic numbers became too large and too much of a burden for any monarchy to support financially. What rose in the 17th and 18th centuries had to decline and fall in the 19th and 20th.
In the 17th century, ancient ruling families such as the Bourbons in France or the Habsburgs in Spain needed to consolidate their positions at the top of the hierarchy as smaller states began to assert their own independence and status. This was not an issue for kings, who were addressed with exalted titles like Majesty and who normally did not travel outside their kingdoms, but it mattered for younger sons, to distinguish them from ruling princes in Italy and Germany who had begun to use the title ‘Highness’. By adding ‘Royal’ these princes were therefore elevated, and treated accordingly in public ceremonies and diplomatic rituals, and it ensured that states like Lorraine, Bavaria or Tuscany were kept in the second tier.
Royal inbreeding and ‘spare heirs’
By the 17th century, serial inbreeding had weakened many of the great dynasties of Europe. The most notorious inbreeders were the Habsburgs, who for generations married exclusively within their own dynasty, in a sequence of first-cousin and uncle-niece marriages, but the British monarchy was not immune to familial charms either: William III of Orange married his first cousin, Mary II. They were childless. Infertility in the dynasties of Spain and Britain meant that the Habsburgs and the Stuarts were short on heirs in the last decades of the 17th century, leading to the extraordinary development in which the second daughter of a second son, Princess Anne of York, came to be the only remaining Stuart heir, and thus ascended the throne as Queen Anne in 1702.
Two years prior, the dearth of Habsburg heirs in Spain left the world’s largest empire without a king upon the death of Carlos II, and drew Europe into one of its bloodiest conflicts, the War of Spanish Succession. The French Bourbons, in contrast, seemed to be doing very well, and in these same years had male heirs aplenty: in the spring of 1711 this included the king (Louis XIV); his son; his three grandsons; three great-grandsons; a nephew and his son; plus more distant cousins, all in line to succeed to the French throne (which, unlike the British throne, could pass to males only). But smallpox and measles posed a deadly threat, and by the end of 1712 the king had lost his son, his grandson and his eldest great-grandson to these diseases.
To add to the problem, most royal houses were increasingly restricted in their pool of marriage partners, along religious lines: the new dynasty in Britain, the Protestant Hanoverians, only married Protestants of equal rank, while French Bourbons had to marry other Catholics of royal rank. Sometimes these rules proved too restrictive, as the four younger daughters of Louis XV discovered in the mid-18th century: unable to find marriage partners of the appropriate rank and religion, these ‘spinster aunts’ spent decades at the French court playing only minor roles, and of course they required large sums to maintain the lifestyle of a royal princess.
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Such numbers of ‘extra’ royal children were sharply on the rise in the 18th century – as medicine improved, more babies survived the first dangerous years, and royal dynasties were reinvigorated on a vast scale: the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria produced 16 children (10 of whom survived into adulthood); while George III of Great Britain was father to 15 (of whom 13 survived). All of these children were entitled to be called Royal Highness and required financial support to allow them to maintain their public appearance as princes, rather than subjects. The sons required public roles, mostly in the army or the navy, but also in the expanding colonial administration. The daughters needed dowries sufficient to obtain marriages worthy of their status. From 1760, the British government took over the financial management of the royal household (though this process had already begun back in the Glorious Revolution of 1689) and created the Civil List: the monarch gave the government the revenues from the Crown Estates and in return the government provided funds for him to carry out his duties and support his children and their households. With ever-expanding numbers of royal children, somehow this list had to be contained.
Halting HRH: Queen Victoria and the Romanovs
Louis XIV had already restricted the use of HRH (SAR in French, ‘Son Altesse Royale’) at the start of the 18th century, by ruling that only children and grandchildren of sovereigns were entitled to it. This annoyed the Duke of Orléans, the first prince of the blood [i.e. a prince by right of his royal descent], who therefore lost his HRH in 1723 when he succeeded to this title as a great-grandchild of a monarch. A rivalry was established between the senior and junior branches of the Bourbon dynasty that spanned the century and arguably led to the vote by a subsequent Duke of Orléans, Philippe Egalité, in favour of the execution of his cousin Louis XVI in 1793.
During her reign, Queen Victoria would limit the use of HRH to children of a sovereign (of either gender) and grandchildren of a sovereign (in the male line)
Similar restrictions were not put on the British royal family – George I had only one son, and George II had two, with his second son remaining unmarried. They were, however, limited by the Act of Settlement of 1701 which stated that no Catholic, or someone married to a Catholic, could inherit the throne of England.
By the 1830s, however, Queen Victoria found she had numerous aunts and uncles who had very little public responsibilities but voracious spending habits, as well as various cousins in the lines of Cumberland and Gloucester who all desired to be recognised as royal princes. The HRH style was soon limited to grandchildren of a monarch, so the more distant cousins were titled HH (His or Her Highness). HH was also used on the continent for princes of formerly sovereign houses in the now-defunct Holy Roman Empire, as was ‘His Serene Highness’ (HSH) for minor princes, a survival of which is seen today in the titles of the princes of Liechtenstein and Monaco.
During her reign, Victoria would further limit the use of HRH to children of a sovereign (of either gender) and grandchildren of a sovereign (in the male line). George V in 1917, when modifying the house rules (famously changing the name of the family from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor), clarified this, and added the eldest son of the eldest grandson.
The Windsors were not alone in restricting the use of fully royal titles. The Romanov dynasty in Russia, which had only a single male heir in the 1760s, by the 1880s had more than 20 eligible male dynasts. Tsar Alexander III thus limited the use of the titles ‘Imperial Highness’ and ‘Grand Duke of Russia’ to the children and male-line grandchildren, as Victoria had done. The Habsburgs in Austria-Hungary had also multiplied, extraordinarily so: towards the end of the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph there were 30 male heirs, all entitled to the style ‘His Imperial and Royal Highness, Archduke of Austria, Prince of Hungary’. Both Romanovs and Habsburgs were restricted, however, in a way not limited in Britain; by house rules that demanded equal marriages. Ever since regulations passed in the 1820s and 1830s, a member of these royal houses had to marry someone from an equally royal house (and lists were carefully drawn up to say who qualified).
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The morganatic marriage
A middle path was available, however: the ‘morganatic marriage’. The heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, for example, was allowed to marry a Bohemian countess, Sophie Chotek, in 1900, and was permitted to remain heir to the throne, but his wife was not given royal titles or any precedence in public ceremonies and their children were not eligible to succeed to the throne. Similar morganatic marriages can be seen in the Russian Imperial family and in other German royal families in the 19th century.
British royals were not held to the same strict regulations, though as of the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 they did have to submit any choice of spouse to the monarch for approval. And of course, as the Act of Settlement remained in play, royal princes who married Catholics were removed from the line of succession (the clause restricting Catholics and those that married Catholics from the succession was overridden by the Succession to the Crown Act 2013). This happened as recently as Prince Michael of Kent in 1978, and George Windsor, Earl of Saint Andrews, heir to the dukedom of Kent, in 1988. Both are now restored to the line of succession, though as their positions in the hierarchy are in the 40s, this is unlikely to affect the monarchy in the United Kingdom.
The future of succession
Which brings us back to the present and whether this means much to the people of Britain today. While numbers of royal children born in the later 20th century remain healthy, and with legislation all across Europe now rectifying historic gender imbalances (there are now female heiresses to the thrones of Sweden, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands), succession is less of a concern in modern monarchies.
Across the world, however, there are monarchies in which these issues continue to be relevant: with too many potential heirs in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (numbering in the hundreds), the future may see dynastic feuds and infighting. In contrast, with too few heirs in Japan, tensions are rising between traditionalists and progressives who see the current males-only succession rules as too out of step with modern values. The accession in May 2019 of a new emperor in Japan has once again drawn attention to this debate.
Royal baby names: does the Queen have to approve?
First names are carefully considered, and while there is no formal requirement for a sovereign’s approval on the naming of a royal child, behind closed doors there are certainly processes to ensure family solidarity. Several hundred years of dynastic tradition in Britain have generated a list of preferred names: Edward, William, Charles, James, George, Henry, and so on for boys; Anne, Mary, Elizabeth, Alice or Charlotte for girls. Some nods have been made to a more Romantic ancient British past in names like Arthur, Alfred or Edgar, and for a time in the late 19th century dozens of royal children across Europe were called either Albert or Victoria.
More recently some new names have appeared in the British royal family: the traditionally French Louis (for Prince Charles’s favourite uncle and godfather, Louis Mountbatten); the historically Scottish Andrew (though in fact named for Prince Philip’s father, Prince Andrew of Greece); or even the more exotic Eugenie (famously the wife of Emperor Napoleon III).
Dr Jonathan Spangler is senior lecturer in history at Manchester Metropolitan University. He specialises in the history of monarchy across Europe, and in particular royal ‘second sons’ such as Prince Harry. His publications include The Society of Princes (Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2009) and ‘The Problem of the Spare’ in The Court Historian (2014).
This article was originally published by HistoryExtra in May 2019 and has since been updated