In this post I will examine the title of Duke, both royal and non-royal. The non-royal first.
Duke (from the Latin dux, leader). Outside of King or Queen this is the highest and most important rank within the nobility. Since its inception in the 14th century, there have been less than 500 dukes. Currently there are just 27 dukedoms in the peerage, held by 24 different people.
The correct way to formally address a duke or duchess is ‘Your Grace’. The eldest son of a duke will use one of the duke’s subsidiary titles, as a courtesy title, whilst other children will use the honorary title ‘Lord’ or ‘Lady’ in front of their Christian names.
His Grace, David Somerset, 11th Duke of Beaufort and is a male-line descendent of the House of Plantagenet, albeit through two illegitimate lines.
He and his family were descended in the male line from Edward III of England; the first Somerset was a legitimised son of Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, whose grandfather was a legitimized son of John of Gaunt. By the time he succeeded as Duke he was therefore considered the senior representative of the House of Plantagenet, through a legitimised line. Somerset’s father was the heir presumptive to the Dukedom of Beaufort and the large estates attached to it.
In the British peerage, a Royal Duke is a member of the British royal family, entitled to the titular dignity of prince and the style of His Royal Highness, who holds a dukedom.
Dukedoms are the highest titles in the British roll of peerage, and the holders of these particular dukedoms are princes of the blood royal. The holders of the dukedoms are royal, not the titles themselves. They are titles created and bestowed on legitimate sons and male-line grandsons of the British monarch, usually upon reaching their majority or marriage.
The titles can be inherited but cease to be called “royal” once they pass beyond the grandsons of a monarch. As with any peerage, once the title becomes extinct, it may subsequently be recreated by the reigning monarch at any time.
Royal status of dukedoms
In the United Kingdom, there is nothing intrinsic to any dukedom that makes it “royal”. Rather, these peerages are called Royal Dukedoms because they are created for, and held by, members of the royal family who are entitled to the titular dignity of prince and the style Royal Highness.
Although the term “royal duke” therefore has no official meaning per se, the category “Duke of the Blood Royal” was acknowledged as a rank conferring special precedence at court in the unrevoked 20th clause of the Lord Chamberlain’s order of 1520.
This decree accorded precedence to any peer related by blood to the sovereign above all others of the same degree within the peerage. The order did not apply within Parliament, nor did it grant precedence above the archbishop of Canterbury or other Great Officers of State such as is now enjoyed by royal dukes.
But it placed junior “Dukes of the Blood Royal” above the most senior non-royal duke, junior “Earls of the Blood Royal” above the most senior non-royal earl (cf. Earldom of Wessex), etc. It did not matter how distantly related to the monarch the peers might be (presumably they ranked among each other in order of succession to the Crown).
Although the 1520 order is theoretically still in effect, in fact the “Blood Royal” clause seems to have fallen into desuetude by 1917 when King George V limited the style of Royal Highness to children and male-line grandchildren of the sovereign. Thus peers of the blood royal who are neither sons nor grandsons of a sovereign are no longer accorded precedence above other peers.
Assuming that Alexander Windsor, Earl of Ulster and George Windsor, Earl of St Andrews succeed their fathers to become third Duke of Gloucester and third Duke of Kent respectively, their peerages (as created in 1928 and 1934) will cease to be royal dukedoms; instead their holders will become “ordinary” dukes.
The third dukes of Gloucester and Kent will each be styled His Grace because, as great-grandsons of King George V, they are not princes and are not styled HRH. Similarly, upon the death of Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn (1850–1942) (the third son of Queen Victoria), his only male-line grandson, Alastair, Earl of MacDuff (1914–43), briefly succeeded to his peerages and was styled His Grace. Before the 1917 changes, his style had been His Highness Prince Alastair of Connaught.
The Prince of Wales is also a Royal Duke. Prior to becoming the Prince of Wales he had been created Duke of Cambridge by Queen Elizabeth II on his wedding day in 2011. This is a title he still possesses.
When his father became King Charles III the Duke of Cambridge automatically became the Duke of Cornwall in the Peerage of England. This title is hereditary and is inherited by the eldest son of the sovereign.
The next day after inheriting the Duchy of Cornwall the King created his son Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester.
The Duchy of Cornwall was created in 1337 by Edward III of England for his son and heir, Edward of Woodstock (also known as “The Black Prince”). A charter was also created which ruled that the eldest son of the king would be the duke of Cornwall.
Along with the Duchy of Cornwall the Duke of Cambridge also inherited other titles automatically: he became, as the eldest son of the monarch, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, Baron of Renfrew, Lord of the Isles, and Prince and Great Steward of Scotland.
In Scotland the Prince of Wales is known as the Duke of Rothesay. Duke of Rothesay which is also a Royal Dukedom, and was a title of the heir apparent to the throne of the Kingdom of Scotland before 1707, of the Kingdom of Great Britain from 1707 to 1800, and now of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
It is the title mandated for use by the heir apparent when in Scotland, in preference to the titles Duke of Cornwall (which also belongs to the eldest living son of the monarch, when and only when he is also heir apparent, by right) and Prince of Wales (traditionally granted to the heir apparent), which are used in the rest of the United Kingdom and overseas.
The title is named after Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, but is not associated with any legal entity or landed property, unlike the Duchy of Cornwall.