Will it be Princess Meghan or Princess Henry of Wales? The befuddling intricacies of the British aristocracy
Once knighted a man becomes Sir Christian-name but his wife is always Lady Surname. So it’s always Sir George and never Sir Brown. But to make it confusing a woman can be either Lady Brown or, sometimes, Lady Sarah.columns Updated: Dec 23, 2017 17:21 IST
It’s Christmas and I’m in England revelling in British tradition. This is a nation that delights in preserving its unique way of doing things. Whether its conversation or cutlery, queueing or questioning, pubs or puns there are well established British conventions. Stretching back into a hoary past they can be mystifying and complicated yet they’re always meticulously observed. British nomenclature provides a wonderful illustration of my point.
Let me start with a simple example. Once knighted a man becomes Sir Christian-name but his wife is always Lady Surname. So it’s always Sir George and never Sir Brown. But to make it confusing a woman can be either Lady Brown or, sometimes, Lady Sarah. Which is correct depends on her specific circumstances and thus reveals a further interesting detail.
Lady Brown is clearly the wife of a knight. Lady Sarah would be the daughter of a Duke, Marquess or an Earl. The title comes from her father not husband.
Here’s a more complicated example. When you become a peer you transform into Lord Surname. Yet there are also aristocrats who are called Lord Christian-name Surname. That’s not a mistake but the correct way of calling the younger son of a Duke or Marquess. The eldest would inherit the father’s secondary title and become a courtesy Marquess (if daddy’s a Duke) or courtesy Earl (if daddy’s a Marquess).
In fact, these distinctions are critical in determining whether a person’s title is his or her own or a consequence of marriage or inheritance. It makes for great accuracy. So there’s a certain logic to this complicated and arcane nomenclature.
Which brings me to how we should address Meghan Markle after her marriage. She will never be Princess Meghan because Princess Christian-name is by definition the daughter of a King i.e. she was born a princess. Meghan will become a princess by marriage so her correct title will be Princess Henry of Wales. This also means that Princess Diana was never her real title because she was not of royal birth. She became the Princess of Wales because her husband was the Prince of Wales. That’s also true of William’s wife Kate. She’s not Princess Kate. Her correct designation is Princess William of Wales.
Now because these correct titles are awkward, if not somewhat ridiculous, on his marriage the Queen conferred on William the Dukedom of Cambridge and, thereafter, the couple are known as HRH Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge. No doubt a similar dukedom will be bestowed on Henry so that Meghan doesn’t have to be called Princess Henry but can become the Duchess of wherever.
If all this has bemused and befuddled you you’re in good company. With the exception of how knights and their ladies are referred to, the Brits would be equally at sea. But there are institutions that strictly observe these hallowed traditions such as the Court, Parliament and the older newspapers. They wouldn’t alter them for anything.
One last tit-bit. In Parliament MPs always refer to each other as honourable, most particularly when that isn’t the case and they, actually, mean the opposite. It’s the tone of voice and manner of delivery that reveals the real intention not the politeness of language. Which is why angry porters at Oxbridge colleges can be heard shouting at undergraduates who walk across the lawn: “Get off the f…ing grass, Sir!” By tradition college staff always call an undergraduate ‘Sir’ though they never mean it!
The views expressed are personal