Of Princes and Dukes

It was announced today that the newest addition to the British royal family is named George Alexander Louis.

Because this is a history-related site, I thought I’d give a little historical background for the birth and naming of the little bundle of joy. Because, as we all know, this isn’t just any baby, and his birth and his name are both important and steeped in a long, long history.

George will be “Prince George of Cambridge”. I think this is a little odd to some people. It seems to be the “of”–specifically the placement of the “of”–that throws people off. Here’s the trouble: “Charles, Prince of Wales” is not the same thing as “Prince Charles of Wales.” The first indicates that Charles is the Prince of Wales (and is the correct form of address for the current Prince Charles). The second indicates that the Charles in question comes from the house of Wales, i.e. is a child of the Prince of Wales. There is currently no one who would be called “Prince Charles of Wales”. Prince Harry, however, is Prince Henry of Wales, meaning he’s of the house of Wales.

So why isn’t the new prince “of Wales” like Prince Harry? That’s easy: it’s because Prince William is now Duke of Cambridge. And when a royal duke has children, they are Prince/Princess Whoever of Duchy. For instance, Beatrice is the daughter of the Duke of York (Prince Charles’s brother), and is therefore Princess Beatrice of York. [On a side note, for those who don’t know, “Duke of York” is traditionally the title given to the second son of the reigning monarch, just as Prince of Wales is given to the eldest son.]

The questions arises, what kind of a surname is “of Cambridge”? It isn’t. The current Queen is a Windsor. The House of Windsor traces itself directly back all the way to George I, who was invited over from Hanover in 1714 because he had a (very) distant claim to the throne and was (crucially) Protestant. The line went through four Georges, a William, and then to William’s niece Victoria. This was all very well and good, and the English were willing to overlook the fact that the royal family was about 80% German (the first two Georges were pretty unapologetically German; the third married a German wife; and his son, Victoria’s father did, too). It was even accepted when Victoria married yet another German, Prince Albert, and took his surname (the royal house was the House of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha). The trouble came along when Germany, across the water, started a world war. All that German blood became an embarrassment. In 1917, George V changed the name of the royal house to the more patriotic House of Windsor. Any descendants not styled “His/Her Royal Highness” would take the surname Windsor. Queen Elizabeth II added that her descendents would be Mountbatten-Windsors (Mountbatten being the family name of her husband, Prince Phillip).

Which is kind of a long-winded way of saying that royals ain’t like the rest of us. Unless I miss the mark, Princes William and Harry, for instance, have no actual surname, though their royal cousins do. They are known only by their titles (it’s enough, isn’t it?). At school and during their military service, however, they have used the surname Wales instead of Windsor.

I admit to being less than surprised by the choice of names. I predicated George as soon as I heard the royal baby was a boy. The choice of a good, solid, unremarkable, predicable name is, well, pretty predictable. William always has been the steady, sensible one. The bookies gave the name good odds, too, and for good reason:

1. George was the name of the Queen’s father, King George VI.

2. George VI was a well-beloved monarch (see The King’s Speech with Colin Firth) and reigned in living memory.

3. The other Georges have a pretty good track record, too. The first two were essentially foreigners, but they seem to have done well enough. The third reigned for a long time, and despite many Americans’ perceptions of him, and despite some bouts of mental illness, and in spite of losing the American colonies, was and still is pretty well-regarded across the pond. He isn’t at least, seen as a miserable failure. The fourth George (who was Prince Regent for many years while his father was incapacitated) was profligate, but that endeared him to some and made him basically harmless to everyone else. The fifth George pulled Great Britain through the first World War, and the sixth through the Second World War.

4. Other possible names have a stink attached to them, or at least some heavy baggage. See: John, Richard, and to some extent Henry and Edward.

5. A lot of the good names are currently taken. See: Charles, William, Henry, Andrew, Edward.

6. There is only a small pool of traditionally royal names to choose from. Hunter, Gunner, Forest, and many other trendy names simply won’t cut it for a future king.

7. England’s patron saint is George.

Taken all together, this meant one of three things: the young prince was going to have to share a name with an uncle, great uncle, or grandfather; the young prince was going to get an unusual name, at least by royal standards; or the young prince was going to be named George.

When he ascends the throne, presumably many years from now, the prince will be George VII, assuming neither Charles nor William takes the name as his regnal name. Yup, royals can choose to be King Whoever-They Like. Like I said, they ain’t like the rest of us. Their regnal names often aren’t the names their friends and family know them by, either: Edward VII was known as Bertie. Edward VIII, who abdicated in favor of his brother George VI, was known as David. But after sixty years of being Charles, I suspect the current Prince of Wales will stick with the name. William doesn’t seem like the type to change his name willy-nilly, either. The open question is when Charles, then William, then young George will become king. This family has some good genes, so there’s no telling. The current queen’s mother lived past 100. Charles might have twenty more years before he becomes king. William may have a similarly long wait, and his son, too. Time will tell . . .

Oh, and a final note. Somewhere, Prince Harry is giving a sigh of relief and popping a bottle of really expensive liquor. Not that there was ever a great chance of his ascending the throne, but now the chances are about zero, barring some horrifying tragedy. And I can only imagine that that is a huge relief to Harry.


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