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When the Duchess of Cambridge married Prince William of Wales the media spoke about her being a commoner. They were correct. Until her marriage she was indeed a commoner. However, did you know that until Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, created her grandson Duke of Cambridge, Earl of Strathearn, and Baron Carrickfergus, that he too was a commoner? What may be even lesser known is that the queen herself, as young Princess Elizabeth, heir presumptive to the throne, was a commoner when she married Lt. Philip Mountbatten, former Prince of Greece and Denmark; and that he was not a commoner? You may think I have gone mad! Let me explain.
In the British system, a society historically divided by class, there are three legal standings, or classes, people can hold and belong to. These positions/Classes are: The Sovereign, Titled Peers/Nobility and Commoners. Therefore technically and legally speaking if you are a Prince or Princess of the United Kingdom and you do not hold a peerage title, and you are not the sovereign, you are in fact… a commoner. The style His or Her Royal Highness and the title Prince/Princess of the United Kingdom is a courtesy title held at the behest of the sovereign but does not bestow a legal position. Do not confuse this legal and class status with rank or precedence which are different subjects all together. A person may hold a princely title and have more precedence and out rank a peer. That will be the subject of my next blog entry.
Therefore only members of the royal family that also hold peerage titles are not, technically speaking, commoners. The sons of Queen Elizabeth II are all Peers: The Prince of Wales, The Duke of York and the Earl of Wessex. Princess Anne, The Princess Royal, is a commoner because the title Princess Royal is a courtesy title and not a peerage title. In the next generation, only Prince William, as Duke of Cambridge, is a peer and all of his cousins (his children and brother) are commoners. The queens cousins, The Duke of Gloucester, Duke of Kent are also peers of the realm but their children are not. Prince Michael of Kent and Princess Alexandra of Kent are royal, but commoners.
Interesting fact is that when the current Dukes of Gloucester and Kent pass on their titles to their children these titles will cease to be royal as the title of Prince or Princess of the United Kingdom is limited via the 1917 Letters Patent to the male-line grandchildren of the sovereign. Although the next Duke of Gloucester and Kent will not be royal they will be peers and not commoners.
There are actually five types of peerages. The Peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom. These represent those titles that were created at the various times in the history of the country. The hierarchy, or rank, of these peerage titles is as follows: (highest to lowest) Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount and Baron. There is also the hereditary title of Baronet but Baronets are not peers but fit into the social class of the Landed Gentry. It gets confusing doesn’t it?
I will end my post by keeping it simple. Unless you are the sovereign or a titled peer, even if you hold the style and title of HRH Prince/Princess of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, you are technically a commoner. On 20 November 1947 HM King George VI created his future son-in-law HRH Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich. This made the former Prince Philip of Greece a Peer of the Realm. When he married the king’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth, the very next day, she was a commoner while her husband was not.