The Palace has spoken: Baby Sussex is now Archie Harrison Montbatten-Windsor. But Americans may have been surprised to see that he was not Prince Archie.
In fact, Harry and Meghan don’t plan for little Archie to use any sort of title. Technically, he could be “styled” Archie, Earl of Dumbarton, which sounds like someone who would absolutely crush on the squash courts. But he won’t even go by Lord Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, according to the Times, the garden-variety title that children of big-ticket aristocrats get. His parents have declined any sort of title; “They have chosen not to use a courtesy title,” a source told the Telegraph.
It’s just the latest confusing twist in the maze that is the British royal family and their bewildering assortment titles, which operate according to their own internal logic, but also are much, much more malleable than Americans might expect. How any given royal is “styled” says a lot about their position in the pecking order—and how their parents want them to fit into it, as well. Thanks to decisions made a century ago, titles aren’t a locked descriptor, like an FDA label. They shift depending on the times and the circumstances, and tiny adjustments—imperceptible to the American eye—can say a lot about how individual royals interpret their position.
Americans are incredibly enamored with the idea of titles and very, very fuzzy about how they work. It’s fun to slap “Princess” on Kate and Meghan, as though they stepped out of a Disney movie. But Kate is not, in fact, “Princess Kate.” She is Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. Eventually, she will become Her Royal Highness Catherine, Princess of Wales. Because she wasn’t born a princess, she is just a princess via her husband—his perpetual plus one, basically—and so technically, she isn’t entitled to put the princess in front of her first name. That’s because all these titles are passed down through the male line, because this whole circus is about patrilineal descent.
Let’s kick it off by outlining the hierarchy of titles that compose the British peerage, from most impressive to least, using the versions for men: King, Prince, Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, Baron, and “Life Peer,” i.e. somebody who did something so noteworthy they were given a title (which expires upon their death and does not pass to their children, the titled-equivalent of a pat on the back).
There is no such thing as a “Duke of Earl.”
Once upon a time, the royal family made freer with the term “prince.” But in 1917, King George V clamped down on royal titles—specifically, who qualified as His or Her Royal Highness or, as us mere filthy commoners call them, princes and princesses. Via the Independent:
“...the grandchildren of the sons of any such Sovereign in the direct male line (save only the eldest living son of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales) shall have and enjoy in all occasions the style and title enjoyed by the children of Dukes of these Our Realms.”
That timing was not an accident. As this explainer at the National Post lays out, it was a revolutionary era, and it was increasingly dangerous to have too many titled royal cousins knocking around, leeching off the common man and woman.
So George shortened the gravy train by a couple of cars, issuing his decree. Henceforth, grandchildren of the sovereign (via male children) automatically qualified upon exiting the womb as an HRH. But once you get to the great-grandchild level—i.e., the tier where we find Baby Sussex—only one kid is by right born an HRH. That’s the eldest son of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales (i.e., Charles), who still automatically qualifies for HRH status—imagine the world’s best hotel rewards program, except it mostly gets you access to drafty castles and deference from a rapidly dwindling number of people—but nobody else.
That said, the queen can still decide to upgrade individuals to HRH status, with their parents’ agreement, of course. So basically, being granted an HRH depends on how grandma is feeling, and her reading of the room at any given moment. Before George was even born, Queen Elizabeth went ahead and issued a decree that Will and Kate’s kids would all get the HRH, just like all her own children have it.
But at the grandchild level, it’s a mixed bag. For instance, Prince Andrew is the third of Elizabeth kids—but the second boy, meaning that he was the spare (in case something happened to the heir, Princes Charles) when they were young, under the rules at the time. His two daughters are Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie; they are HRHs, and Prince Andrew would absolutely prefer that they had a bigger role in the family as official, “working” royals who do engagements on behalf of Queen Elizabeth. But that’s not going to happen, because, if anything, the family will get even more streamlined under Charles. And the buck stops with them, title-wise: Eugenie’s husband, Jack Brooksbank, didn’t get a title, so he’s just Mr. Jack Brooksbank.
The children of Harry’s aunt, Princess Anne, aren’t HRHs. In fact, they have no titles at all. Their father, Mark Phillips, Anne’s first husband, declined a title upon marrying their mother, and titles generally pass through the male-line via primogeniture, which means that their mother’s title (Princess Royal) stops with her. Her children could have been upgraded to HRH, but were not. This seems to fit with the vibe of the family, which is sort of straightforward and sporty. (Her daughter Zara is an Olympic equestrian competitor married to a former rugby player.) They don’t seem particularly interested in bothering with the whole royal business.
Meanwhile, Louise and James, the children of Elizabeth’s youngest, Prince Edward, technically qualify as prince and princess under the rules laid down by George V. But Edward apparently opted for the Earl of Wessex title upon his marriage, meaning his kids fall under the entirely separate class of rules governing earl’s children’s titles—are you feeling slightly sunstrokey yet?—and therefore they do have titles, but they are not HRHs, but rather Lady Louise Windsor and James, Viscount Severn. Apparently the theory is that Edward wants his father’s title, Duke of Edinburgh, once Philip shuffles off this mortal coil; if that happens, I guess they’ll maybe reshuffle James’s title again. He’ll have to get a new debit card and everything.
Of course, if any of these people had been born “out of wedlock,” they would have gotten fuck-all unless Elizabeth personally upgraded them.
The really fun part is, as royal reporter Victoria Murphy pointed out on Twitter, this could all change when Elizabeth dies and Charles becomes king because—hey!—suddenly Archie will be one generational tier closer to the reigning sovereign and therefore eligible to run around calling himself a prince. Guess that’ll be up to Archie, eventually.