Was the Queen overruling the Prime Minister as recently as 1992?

Image: By dbking from Washington, DC

Elizabeth II has become legendary across the globe as a dignified but silent figure who sees all but comments little.  However, according to comments in a recent minister’s memoirs she may be more involved in the running of Government than many people realise.

The Queen is a figure head.  She leads the nation through her example, her conviction and her remoteness from politics.  She is a towering ambassador for the UK – and her other realms and territories – and brings substantial revenue into businesses, households and the treasury coffers.  But when it comes to the political operating of the country, technically running in her name, she is entirely uninvolved.

Or is she?

Recently I have been pouring through the incredibly compelling memoirs of Ken Clarke, the veteran Conservative minister who served the Heath, Thatcher, Major and Cameron administrations.  It’s full of twists and turns and no pages are more exciting than those focused on the political upheaval that plagued the Major government over the European Union and the Maastricht treaty (USA and younger readers – don’t worry – you won’t need to know anything about these issues to follow the rest of the post).

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According to Clarke, when Prime Minister John Major was aware that his personally negotiated treaty might not obtain a parliamentary majority he pondered resigning (this is well attested to elsewhere). However,  according to a conversation that Ken had with John Patten (a fellow government minister), the Prime Minister had been spoken to Robert Fellowes, the then private secretary to the Queen who had ‘hinted’ that if Her Majesty were asked for a dissolution of Parliament – and therefore a general election – she would refuse.  Apparently she had not admired the way that former PM Ted Heath had ‘taken it to the Country’ when he failed to settle an industrial dispute.  She did not want a repeat performance.

For obvious reasons, this account can’t just be taken as read.  It relies on John Patten having heard if accurately from either Major or someone close to him, Major having correctly understanding what Fellowes was ‘hinting’ at and Fellowes himself having rightly understood the Queen’s actual sentiments.  But with those caveats in mind, the story does have a ring of credibility to it.  The casual way that Clarke mentions it – almost in passing and to illustrate a bigger point – suggests that people close to power found it credible and perhaps, that such interventions from the Palace were not wholly exceptional.

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Image By PFC TRACEY L. HALL-LEAHY, USA

Today, because of the ‘fixed-terms Parliament Act’, the Queen has a much reduced role in the dissolution of Parliament and the calling of General Elections.  But prior to 2010 a Prime Minister would effectively determine the timetable by asking the Queen to grant a dissolution, which would in turn lead to a General Election.  No Parliament was allowed to sit for more than 5 years, but if a Prime Minister thought things were going well, they generally liked to ‘go to the country’ after 4.

No doubt some will harp on about the Queen’s active involvement in so recent a political event, claiming it is undemocratic and an example of why the monarchy must go.  But I see it very differently.  In the situation in question, the country had only just had an election.  Was anyone really in the mood for another one?  More importantly, ensuring that the elected Government don’t try and use the polls as a political tactic to solve disputes that they themselves are supposed to handle is, in and of itself, a safeguarding of democracy.

Every head of state – elected or otherwise – is meant to enforce the constitution and hold the Government to account for it. Clearly in the UK’s uncodified system that can be tricky at times.  I wonder if those of us fortunate enough to dwell on these isles realise how lucky we are that these judgements fall into the hands of a canny, wise and experienced stateswoman who has no agenda save her devotion to duty.

If people read exciting Royal history, we would leave Harry and his girlfriends alone

Image: Surtsicna – This file was derived fromPrince Harry Trooping the Colour.JPG:, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A few friends have asked what I make of the statement from Kensington Palace a week or so ago – the one asking for a bit of privacy for Prince Harry and his new girlfriend.  I’m a fanatical Royal watcher and (by day) a PR guy, so I guess it makes sense that people would inquire.

Some think it’s a bit rich; the Royals are public property.  They get the money, the status and the security.  As a result they have to put up with living in the media gaze.

Others think it was poorly executed from a PR perspective.  Why release a story this strong the morning after Trump has so controversially cleaned up in the USA and make it inevitable it would receive less attention?  Shouldn’t their press people know better?

Both the views above, are just plain wrong.

Of course the Royals are – to an extent – public property.  They are effectively all part of the UK constitution (not to mention those of the 15 other countries in the Queen’s realm) and it’s very much a family affair.  They enjoy a life of extreme privilege.  In return they carry out duties on behalf of the country, have their destinies more or less determined from birth and have to live with the fact that their lives are chronicled and captured fairly indiscriminately.  The Cambridges clearly accept this.  That’s why we get a picture of Prince George and Princess Charlotte every six months or so.

But to say that a young(ish) man of Royal blood, who is not even directly in line to the throne cannot form friendships and relationships without those people becoming victim to media harassment is clearly a nonsense – especially when the relationship is being conducted relatively discreetly.

I’m never really one to blame the media.  They only give us what we want.  It is our desire for the rumours, the gossip – the juice – that fuels it.  Appealing directly to us (which is in effect what Kensington Palace did) with the statement was entirely justified.  As to whether it was a ‘mistake’ to release it during a busy news day – hardly!  It’s exactly what I would have done.  You want it to be noticed, but you don’t want 24/7 media pouring over it all day.  It wouldn’t even surprise me if the press office brought it forward when they realised Trump was going to triumph.

You might wonder why I’m posting this on a blog about Royal history.  Well, to start with, this site is about the Royal houses that have shaped England, Britain and the UK – so that includes the present day house of Windsor.  But there’s a deeper reason I decided to put ‘pen to paper.’

It occurs to me that our human desire for gossip, speculation, slander and scandal is never going to be satisfied.  However, it concerns me that we’re happy to see living human beings torn to shreds in the process.  If only people realised that you can get all this and more by studying the annals of history.  Is not Henry VIII’s well documented courtship of Anne Boleyn far more tantalising than following the development of a relationship between two people who are both free to marry?  Couldn’t we have more fun debating the paternity of John Beaufort than worrying about what diet a current young Royal is on?  The tales of tension between Hanoverian Kings and their heirs are surely more interesting than guessing at how well the Queen gets on with Prince Charles.

We will never change human nature.  But channeling our thirst for gossip into interrogating the past at least makes us less likely to cause pain to other human being.

Why did George V shrink the Royal family in 1917?

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The reasons that the legendary King George V decided to abandon all German names, titles and distinctions in 1917 are well known.   And let’s face it, kind of obvious.  The proud but down-to-earth emperor was dismayed by comments that he presided over an ‘uninspiring and alien court’ to which he famously responded that he may be uninspiring but he’d be damned if he was alien!  Thus, against such peculiar circumstances, was the house of Windsor born.

What is less know (well, unless you’re a super call Royal-watcher like me) is that just a few months later, George took the opportunity to shrink the Royal family, restricting the title of Prince and Princess and virtually abolishing the style of Highness.

On 30 November 1917,of 1917, letters patent were issued declaring that henceforth only the children of the sovereign, sons of sons of the sovereign and the eldest son of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales would be entitles to the style of Royal Highness and the titular dignity of Prince of Princess.  Hitherto, male-line great-grandchildren of a sovereign could also call themselves Prince or Princess with the style of Highness.

Despite my obsession with Royalty in general and Royal titles in particular, I have never come by much in terms of a reason for the King’s decisions.  This is no doubt mainly down to the fact that I so far limited my search to the internet; I have never yet had the chance to trawl through many of the excellent biographies of the war-time King, something I would love to do when time allows.  But it might also be because the King’s own thoughts on the matter were fairly guarded.

Nonetheless I thought whacking out some #QuickFireThoughts on the subject would make a compelling blog post.  I have three (all entirely speculative) theories as to why he felt the title stripping necessary.  The first two I think are quite credible; the third more of a #WildCard:

  • George V wanted to start a fresh with the Royal family –  It is quite believable that the earlier decision to Anglicise the house of Saxe-Coburgh-Gotha reminded everybody just how far flung the Royal family had become and just how intwined they were with continental (especially Germanic) Royalty.  Perhaps the King also didn’t fancy the thought of a host of deposed demi-Royals from the continent fleeing to Britain and claiming Royal status as descendants of Queen Victoria for the next few years.  This declaration would have limited Royalty almost (although not entirely) to those already domicile in the UK, largely eliminating that problem.
  • In the wake of monarchies falling, the time seemed right to shrink down the family-firm – Everywhere you looked European monarchies were crumbling.  The Russian Tsar had been forced to abdicate earlier that year, and it was pretty obvious that others weren’t far behind.  So, perhaps the British monarchy did what it does best; modernise to survive!  We know that George V was keen to pump a bit more British blood into the veins of the house of Windsor and would allow his children to take local spouses; this whole project would be easier if there were less potential Royals to marry off.  Also, perhaps he felt that the new house of Windsor really needed a fresh start and should be contained, primarily to his descendants.  Regardless of his motivation, the move boasted incredible foresight; had he not made this change, Britain today would be positively littered with Princes and Princesses.
  • It was a personal vendetta against the Connaughts – Before I get into this, let me reiterate that this point firmly fits into the #WildCard category.  But anyway, here we go!  Although the 1917 letters patent but the ky-bosh on a number of continental royals potentially falling back on British titles once stripped of others, there was only one person who was actually affected by it at the time: Alastair, Earl of Macduff who prior to the LPs has been known as His Highness Prince Alastair of Connaught.  I remember once reading somewhere (and I really can’t remember where) that George V had some kind of grudge against his Connaught cousins.  Could it be that he wanted to alienate them from the Royal family.  After all, young Alastair’s aunt, Princess Patricia of Connaught mysteriously ‘volunteered’ to give up her Royal style when she married in 1919.  Perhaps this was no coincidence…

Anyway, perhaps one day I will have chance to read more about this and return to the subject.  Until then, if anyone know more or has any views, I would be very grateful to hear them!

Could the Queen Mother really have been the daughter of a French cook?

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It’s amazing what you learn from popular culture.  Up until the recent series of ‘I’m a celebrity…’ I had never heard of Lady Colin Campbell, a writer who married into (and divorced out of) the British aristocracy and went on to pen ‘tell all’ books about Diana and the Queen Mother.

Until recently I had never heard her theory that Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (better known to us as Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother) was not the daughter of her legal mother, but in fact the result of a ‘surrogacy’ arrangement between her father, the future Earl of Strathmore and Kingmore, and Marguerite Rodiere, a French cook who worked at one of their residences.

It’s an absurd theory.  What makes me really angry is that Lady Colin must be aware of that.

The story goes that after eight successful pregnancies, Celia, Lady Glamis (the future Countess) was unable to bear any more children.  Therefore, in an early version of surrogacy, they approached a member of their household to help them get two further children by proxy: Elizabeth and her little brother David.  The following arguments are given in evidence:

  • The Queen Mother’s middle name was Marguerite – a sure sign (apparently) of her real parentage
  • The Duke and Duchess of Windsor (the Queen Mother’s brother and sister-in-law) used to refer to her behind her back as ‘cookie,’ an innuendo as to her origin
  • The story is apparently ‘widely known’ in aristocratic circles

None of this even begins to stack up.  Firstly, choosing a middle name is not usually seen as a practice of identifying maternity.  It might well be that the Strathmores were fond of their cook and decided to honour her in their daughter’s name, or possibly more likely, through her they became aware of the name and just decided they liked it.  It could of course, just be a coincidence.

The snub of the Windsors also adds no weight to this case.  They are widely understood to have used this nickname because the then Duchess of York, with her soft and plump appearance, reminded them of a Scottish Cook.  More than anything else, they were just looking to be derogatory.

As to whether this story was ‘doing the rounds’ in aristocratic circles, I cannot say.  I do not myself mix in them.  However, I would caution everyone to be wary of any historian who makes an argument based on sources that very few people have access to.  Just because something happens to be the subject of gossip doesn’t make it true; gossip often is, after all, exactly that!

Anyway, this theory begs some even more obvious questions.  After bearing eight healthy children, would the couple really be so desperate to have another two that they would go to such extremes?  Would the proud and high-born coupling of Bowes-Lyon and Cavendish really be so prepared to contaminate their blood line?

The real reason this suggestion is so ludicrous, is the striking physical resemblance between Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and her own mother.  While I appreciate that this isn’t the most scientific approach in the world, let’s just stand back a minute and take a look at some pictures.  I genuinely don’t believe anyone can look at these pictures and honestly take alternative theories about the Queen Mother’s parentage seriously.  I can only conclude that Lady Colin Campbell’s desire to sell books far out weighted her determination to tell the truth.

This makes me very angry indeed.

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Okay geeks…what do you think?  Am I being too harsh?  Should I give Lady C the benefit of the doubt?  Or are you as angry about this as I am?

What titles will Harry’s wife and children have?

Image: Surtsicna – This file was derived fromPrince Harry Trooping the Colour.JPG:, CC BY-SA 3.0,

As regular readers know, as a historian I see myself as an amateur; but when it comes to questions of Royal titles – ah now that’s quite different.  Here I consider myself an expert.

On this subject, people trust my knowledge.  On this subject, I often get asked questions – questions I am only too happy to answer.  Once question I’ve been asked a bit lately (okay only once.  And I was the one that asked it.  To myself.  Even though I already knew the answer) is “when Prince Harry gets married, what title will his wife received and how will any eventual children of the marriage be styled?”

The answer, as ever, isn’t entirely straightforward.  But as I like a challenge, I’ll wade in and answer it, making a few qualifications along the way.

If Prince Harry married NOW and there was no intervention from the Queen…

Than his lucky bride would be known as HRH Princess Henry of Wales.

“SAY WHAAAAT?!”  I hear you cry.  “That sounds weird at the best of times and who the heck is ‘Henry of Wales.’”

Okay, bear with, bear with.  First of all we need to be clear on one thing.  Despite  the fact he is almost universally known as ‘Harry’ (I believe at his late mother’s request) William’s younger brother is technically called ‘Henry’ and on official documents is styled as such.  Thanks to Letters Patent issued by his great-great-grandfather in 1917, as a son of a son of the sovereign he is entitled to the style of Royal Highness and the titular dignity of Prince before his christian name. By custom, he takes the territorial designation from his father’s title (in this case ‘Wales’) and uses it as sort of surname with an ‘of’ in front of it.

In the British system, a wife literally feminises her husband’s style.  So the wife of Mr Joe Bloggs is technically Mrs Joe Bloggs rather than Mrs Jane Bloggs, even if the latter is now more common social practice.  Hence why Harry’s wife would rather clunkily be ‘HRH Princess Henry of Wales.’

As for the children?  Well, let’s just suppose that in the lifetime of the Queen, Harry and his wife have two children and for sake of argument we’ll call them Andrew (after his uncle) and Catherine (after his sister in law).  They would be known respectively as Lord Andrew Mountbatten-Windsor and Lady Catherine Mountbatten-Windsor.

“Hold the phone!” I can sense you shout out loud as your coffee drops to the floor.  “Mountbatten?  What’s that about?  And why on God’s earth aren’t these two fictitious young Royals a Prince and Princess.”

<Sigh.>  I knew it would get to this.  Okay, I’ll tell ya.

The Royal family are known as the ‘House and family of Windsor.’  There was some question mark over this when the Queen ascended (married women tend to take their husband’s name and Philip had adopted the surname of Mountbatten in 1947) but the then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill made it crystal clear.  However a few years later, the Queen, no doubt wanting to recognise her husband, decreed that her and Philip’s male-line descendants who do NOT bear the style Royal Highness would carry the name ‘Mountbatten-Windsor.’

As far as their lack of Royal titles?  The Letters Patent of 1917 (mentioned above) restricted the use of the Royal style so that male line great-grandchildren of a sovereign were no longer entitled to it (with the exception of the eldest son of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales.  In fact the Queen had to intervene to ensure that Charlotte was born a Princess).  Instead, it made provisions for them to have the same titles as the children of Dukes – the right to prefix their Christian name with the title ‘Lord’ or ‘Lady.’

HOWEVER, when Charles ascends the throne, everything changes.  Now, these two offspring would be male-line grandchildren of a sovereign and would be bumped up to HRH with the titular dignity of Prince or Princess.  And Harry’s title would change too – he would lose ‘Wales’ and gain the definite article, becoming HRH The Prince Henry, with his wife upgrading to HRH The Princess Henry.

But in reality, there would probably be some intervention from the Queen

When Harry marries he will probably be given a peerage most likely a Dukedom, but potentially an Earldom like Prince Edward.  Even if this doesn’t happen on marriage, it is highly likely to take place once Charles ascends.  If then he is created (let’s say) ‘Duke of Sussex’ (the title he is rumoured to desire) than it’s good news for his wife.  She would then be styled Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Sussex.

It is also possible that a change will be made with the children.  Given that they will one day be grandchildren of a sovereign and entitled to the Princely style, the Queen might decide to bring that day forward and give it to them straight away.  She has that power.

But more worryingly, there is a third alternative.  We hear much talk of Charles wanting to ‘shrink’ the Royal family.  While this would be disastrous for Royal watchers like me, there is a chance that he may further restrict HRH to those in direct line of succession – freeing his other descendants from the burden or privilege (depending how you see it) of Royal titles.  As such Harry’s children may never be technically considered Royal – although this is entirely speculation.

Well there you go.  That was an adventure, wasn’t it?  Stay tuned for more super-coolness just around the corner.

Is Kate a Princess?

Image: Surtsicna – This file was derived from Duchess of Cambridge, 16 June 2012.JPG:, CC BY-SA 3.0, 

Shockingly, my friends and family are not always keen for me to recite my fascinating knowledge of Royal history in their presence.  Even more puzzling to me – and something that will no doubt surprise loyal readers – my loved ones have often found my attempts to educate them on the intricacies of Royal and aristocratic titles objectionable.  Puzzling!

However, ever since the great Royal wedding of 2011, there’s one question which a number of those close to me have been keen to ask.  Namely, why was Diana ‘made a Princess’ when Kate wasn’t?

I can certainly understand why people ask.  After all, from 1981 until 1997, William’s mother was constantly referred to in the media as ‘Princess Diana.’  Yet when Kate got hitched the palace seemed to go out of their way to make it clear that it was not entirely appropriate to call her ‘Princess Catherine.’

A number of my friends have drawn their own conclusions as to why.  “It’s because Diana was married to the immediate heir to the throne,” said one, or “Diana was Princess of Wales and Kate is just a Duchess” speculated another.

Both quite logical, but both incorrect.  To get to the bottom of this, we need to understand two things.

  1. The later Princess of Wales was NEVER ‘Princess Diana.’

This might come as a surprise to some; the media heavily referred to her as such, both during and after her marriage.  But it is only Princesses by birth who use their Christian names in their title.  Diana was indeed the Princess of Wales and even The Princess Charles but technically never Princess Diana.

Sounds quirky doesn’t it?  But actually this isn’t unusual.  I remember when my mother was invited to the Buckingham Palace garden party, her invite was addressed to “Mrs Gary Streeter.”  But her name is not Gary.  It is Janet.  Similarly the wife of a younger son of a Duke or Marquess does not use her Christian name in her title (remember good old Lady Colin Campbell…?).

  1. But Kate is a Princess and during her marriage, so was Diana

Just because you can’t use your Christian name in your style (or more accurately, doing so wouldn’t be the most appropriate action in the eyes of the court) does not mean that you are not a Princess.  Anyone married to a Prince is a Princess.  This is as true for Camilla and Sophie as it is for Kate and was true for Diana and Sarah Ferguson during their marriages.  It is equally the case for the Duchesses of Kent and Gloucester and for Princess Michael of Kent.

So how can the great public tell which noble women are or are not Princesses?  Easy.  Three little letters: HRH (standing for Her Royal Highness).  Since 1917 the style of Royal Highness has been synonymous with the rank of Prince or Princess in the UK (yes, yes, yes I know there may have been an exception with the Duke of Edinburgh but exceptions prove the rule and I will write about this on another occasion).  Therefore The Duchess of Norfolk is not a Princess or member of the Royal family but HRH The Duchess of Gloucester is.

Make sense?  Don’t worry if it’s a little confusing.  No one ever sat down and made a list of rules that governed how Royal titles and styles fit together and operate.  Customs have emerged over centuries and in reality the current system is a hybrid of ancient English and Scottish practice that merged with the Germanic approach in 1714 and has been evolving in response to circumstance ever since.  But hey, let’s face it…that’s all part of the fun!

Okay geeks…over to you?  Is this system all a little archaic?  Should we just suck it up and call her ‘Princess Catherine’?  Do you think William will modernise Royal styles when he eventually gets to the throne?

Will Charlotte ever be Princess Royal?

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The birth of Princess Charlotte of Cambridge brought joy to the nation last year.  But the changes to the laws of succession raise fascinating questions as to the Royal titles that she might bear during her life.

Before I started Royal History Geeks I used to pen a blog called ‘UK Royal Titles.’  Given the relative obscurity of the subject matter, it was fairly well read.  (It also proved, in case there was any doubt, that as a human being, I occupy the pinnacle of coolness).

Perhaps because of my expertise in such matters (LOL), a few people have asked me about what title our precious little Princess Charlotte of Cambridge will be entitled to as she progresses throughout her life.  The answer to this is slightly trickier than it might seem.

Certain title evolutions are easy to predict.  Short of some major change in approach she will always retain the style of Royal Highness and the titular dignity of Princess.  Upon her grandfather’s accession she will officially by styled HRH Princess Charlotte of Cambridge and Cornwall and, in the likely event of William’s creation as Prince of Wales, HRH Princess Charlotte of Wales.  When William finally reaches the throne she would lose the territorial designation and gain the definite article, becoming HRH The Princess Charlotte.  Should she ever marry, some documents will style her with her husband’s status following on from her title e.g. The Princess Charlotte, Mrs John Smith or The Princess Charlotte, Duchess of Norfolk.

But the real question I get asked is ‘will Charlotte ever be made Princess Royal?’  Because this is a title that can only be bestowed (by convention) on the oldest daughter of a sovereign, commentators have correctly noted that Charlotte is the most likely candidate to receive it; but we need to be clear – that doesn’t make it a done deal.  There are in fact, three factors that could come between Charlotte and the title:

  • The longevity of Princess Anne – As the eldest daughter of Queen Elizabeth II, Anne was granted the title in 1987.  However, despite the fact that (if all goes as it should) she will one day be the sister and then Aunt of the King, she keeps the title with her for life.  When the Queen ascended in 1952 her Aunt Mary was still Princess Royal.  She died in 1965 but the Queen left it over 20 years before dusting off the honour in favour of her daughter.  Anne could live well into William’s reign.  Should he decide that a respectful gap should be left between the death of one Princess Royal and the creation of a new one (which is perhaps what influenced the Queen’s decision) than the title could end up skipping Charlotte altogether.
  • William just might not decide to give it to her – It isn’t obvious what the reason for this would be, but – like most Royal honours – it is given only at the discretion of the sovereign.  Her father may simply choose never to give Charlotte the title.
  • Charlotte could, instead, be made a Duchess – This is something I’ve been thinking about ever since the succession laws were changed to give men and women an equal shot at ascension.  There is still a great deal of male-bias in the dishing out of Royal titles and perhaps William – or Charles before him – will seek to modernise.  Upon marriage, it is conventional for the sons of monarchs to be given Dukedoms – a title that will shape the eventual style of their descendants.  If William decides that his daughter, who will rank above any future sons of his in the succession, also deserves a Dukedom (and become, for example, ‘Duchess of Sussex’), than it is quite possible that the title of ‘Princess Royal’ could fall from favour all together.  Certainly it is safe to assume that eldest daughters of Kings and Queens who are also the eldest child will be Princess of Wales.  Perhaps ‘Princess Royal’ and even ‘Prince Royal’ could become the standard honour, when available, for the sovereign’s second child.

Anyhow, this is all speculation.  At the moment we cannot know.  But the great things is – unlike in so many of the cases this blog explores – one day, we should actually find out!

Okay geeks…over to you.  How would YOU like to see these Royal titles evolve in the future?