A Primer on the British Royal Family

coatbritI’ve said it before, but it bares repeating–I am not a ‘royalist’.  My interest in British culture does not really extend to the comings and goings of the Royal family.

But it seems remiss to run a blog about English culture and not mention the birth of a new future-king.  I have no reaction to babies (except slight fear) so I won’t be filling this blog post with cooing over little George’s adorable hands or feet.  I thought I would, in the wake of a lot of misinformation, answer some questions about how the whole monarchy thing works.

Starting with the most basic of information:

What does The Queen do? Is she actually in charge?

Over a long period of time, starting probably with the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, the monarch of England has lost more and more of his/her power.  Anyone who has taken a high school history course knows that the middle classes and the gentry take more and more power away as time goes on.  Today, The Queen’s position is almost entirely ceremonial. Britain is a constitutional monarchy, which means the real power lies in Parliament.  Even in Westminster, there has been a gradual shift of power from the House of Lords to the House of Commons.  Today, most of the work is done and decisions made by the HoC.  Peers with ambition have been known to give up their hereditary seats in the HoL in order to run for a seat in the HoC–anyone who has seen What a Girl Wants with Colin Firth will remember this plot line.

The Queen conducts ceremonies related to Parliament and to the PM, but she rarely has any influence on the laws passed. On the other hand, the PM has regular meetings with The Queen, so she gets to make her opinion known when she wants. Primarily, The Queen acts as Head of State, representing Britain in official capacities.  If you need more info on what she does and why, here is an article on her role.

What is primogeniture?

Male primogeniture is an obnoxious policy that was incredibly popular in Europe for the majority of the last millennium. Basically, it means that the oldest son of a couple will inherit the vast majority of the property or wealth, and in the case of title he will be the only one to inherit a title.  The law was originally used to stabilize the transfer of power from one generation to another.  With monarchy, this is incredibly important.  There have been countless wars (or threatened coups) when the line of succession was not always clear.  A famous example is Henry VIII. His only (legitimate)  son died at 6 years old. Henry was already dead, so suddenly the question of the next monarch was entirely open for dispute.  I repeat, this is a dangerous thing.  Henry had changed England from a Catholic country to a Protestant one, establishing the Church of England. After Henry’s son, Edward, died, his daughter Mary I took over for 5 years, and tried to wipe out all of the Protestants during that time.  After that, Elizabeth I became queen and changed the country back to a Protestant nation, which it has remained since.  Lots of turmoil, just for lack of a son.

So a son is important.  Basically, the most important thing you can do as a monarch is have a son ready.  Not just monarchs; anyone with land to leave behind worried about having a son.  Take another look at the first episode of Downton Abbey for more on this theme.  Ideally, couples should have two sons; one would inherit, the other would be ‘the spare heir’.

Two years ago, the UK decided to abandon male primogeniture and go with ‘absolute primogeniture’. That means that if Kate had given birth to a baby girl, that girl would be Queen one day–regardless of any future brothers that might come along.  Given that three of the UK/England’s longest reigning, most stable, and best monarchs have all been women, I can only say that it’s about fucking time.  Of course, maybe I should shut up. England has had female monarchs and female PMs.  Where’s our female president?

What is the line of succession?

Remember what I said about stability earlier?  The most important thing is having a line of succession, so now we have elaborate lists of who would take over in case of disaster.  (See the much-forgotten 1990s John Goodman film King Ralph for more on this. Bonus appearance by a very young Camille Coduri, aka Jackie Tyler from Doctor Who).

Because the change in primogeniture rules only affect those born after the law was changed, it’s still a big list of dudes for the most part.  Here’s the top 10

1- Prince Charles (oldest son of the current monarch)

2-Prince William (oldest son of Charles)

3-Prince George (only son of William)

After that, you go back a step.  So if The Queen, William, and the baby died, it would be

4-Prince Harry

If all of them died (which would be totally ridiculous nowadays, but not unheard of back in the time of bubonic plagues) then we go back to find more children of The Queen. These people really aren’t well known in America at all.

5-Prince Andrew/Duke of York (the spare heir; second son of The Queen)

6 & 7 – Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie (Andrew’s daughters)

8-Prince Edward/Earl of Essex (The Queen’s third son)

9&10 – Edward’s children James and Louise.

But the list goes on and on and on. Wikipedia has 49 people.  Again, stability is the key here. Better to have the longest list possible.

Could Kate be Queen one day?

The titles are a tricky thing, and a little sexist. When William is King one day, Kate will officially be called ‘Queen Catherine’, but her role would be described as ‘consort’.  When William dies, she will never be the monarch.  You can’t marry into the role. On the other hand, if William died and little George was not yet 18, she could act as a sort of advisor to the young king–that’s been done in the past, but I don’t know how it would be handled in the 21st century.  It will most likely be a moot point, because Charles isn’t even king yet, so William is unlikely to be king for a few decades at least.  Still, you never know.

When a Queen gets married (like this one), then her husband is never called the King. Prince Phillip (a Prince of Greek/Danish patronage) was given the title of Duke of Edinburgh upon their marriage, and was later titled ‘Prince of the United Kingdom’.  He will have no chance to reign if she dies, because you really really can’t marry into it.  Usually the Queen gives out titles to family members.  Will used to be Prince of Wales (as Charles is, as Harry is) but upon his marriage he and Kate became Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.  Because, reasons?!  It isn’t always logical.

What’s with the names?

Baby George’s full name is His Royal Highness, Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge.  I thought my name was a handful.  So, what’s with all the names?

Royalty generally have 3 or 4 names. I suppose this evolved in a time when showing your lineage was extremely important. Names are almost always family names.

Is his last name ‘of Cambridge’?  Sort of…The royals don’t really have surnames in the way we common plebeians do. Elizabeth and her descendents are all part of the House of Windsor. Phillip (Elizabeth’s husband) took on the name Mountbatten when he was in the British armed forces, so many of the descendents use the name Mountbatten-Windsor.  Harry and Will have often used Wales as a last name (their father is the Prince of Wales, and they were also titled Princes of Wales).  Similarly, George is George of Cambridge, because his parents are the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge.  When he’s older, I’m sure he’ll get his own Duchy/Earldom and his title will change. It’s all very confusing for those of us without an inheritance, but there you are.

Will his name be King George one day?

Monarchs choose the name they want to use, like popes. It’s called a Regnal Name. Queen Victoria’s actual first name was Alexandrina Victoria. Her son Albert Edward took the regnal name of Edward VII. Elizabeth II’s father’s name was Albert, but he chose George VI as his regnal name. We just have to wait and see what Charles, William, and George pick when it comes to their turn.  I may be dead by the time George takes the throne, come to think of it.  If they chose their real names, Charles would be Charles III, William would be V, and George would be VII.

Could William be the next king?

The Queen is not permitted to just skip Charles.  The constitutional law establishing succession would have to be changed, and I really don’t think that’s likely.  William will only be the next king if Charles dies before The Queen.

The monarchy is a tricky subject.  Sometimes it seems so ludicrous, so old-fashioned and out of touch.  Tons of money goes toward these people to just sit and seem stable and have children. On the other hand, they are all very active in charity work and all of the future-monarchs enlist in the armed forces.  And the tourist draw they bring in is pretty incredible.  Is it enough to make up for the money they use to live a pampered lifestyle?  Difficult to say.  Maybe not on your normal day, but think about how many tourists came to see the Diamond Jubilee and the Royal Wedding, and the media frenzy over the new baby, and you start to see how it adds up to a significant amount of money coming in.

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4 responses to “A Primer on the British Royal Family

  1. I recently visited London, and I took a coach bus tour to the countryside led by a professional tourism guide, a native Londoner. He talked quite a bit about the royal family, and told us that there’d been a study that revealed that sustaining the monarchy costs each UK citizen 1 pound per year. He said he was glad to pay it, and pointed out that the monarchy and its trappings (castles, stately homes, etc) were a big reason many of us tourists were visiting and employing people like himself.

    • I agree that it probably works out in their favor, but it’s difficult to stomach David Cameron calling for austerity measures and decreased help for the poor when The Queen & co. are living it up.

      The public feelings toward The Queen have been sort of mixed since the mid-90s, and a lot less people have the sort of reverence you can still find in the septuagenarians. On the other hand, Diana, and then Harry and Will have ushered in this new era of royal as glamorous celebrity, rather than magnanimous ruler. I think Will and Kate have brought back a lot of tourist interest, media coverage, etc. and the UK is raking in the tourist dough right now, but there are probably lean years, when the tourists would rather go to Hawaii or something.

      I think the fact that the royals are charitable and work for what they’re given says a lot. Plus, most of their art and their homes are open to the public. That’s a long way off from the injustices of King John in 1215.

      • The Queen / British royal family is one of the richest persons / families in the world. Even if the UK ceases to keep a royal dole, the House of Windsor will be “living it up”…

  2. Very useful information. Hope to notice more articles soon!

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