Craig Prescott: Modernising the Monarchy: Moving Beyond the 1917 Letters Patent and the “George V Convention”

In March 2021, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, gave one of the most extraordinary interviews ever held with a member of the Royal Family. It may have a profound and long-lasting effect on the monarchy, an institution that remains central to the UK’s constitutional arrangements. Already, there are calls for reform. This blog focuses on the section of the interview that discussed the lack of princely status for Archie, the Sussexes’ eldest child.

The aim is not to address the Duchess’s specific points, as the media have scrutinised them in great detail. Instead, the issue of Archie’s status is the key that opens the door to a range of issues that the monarchy faces as a political institution. The fallout from the interview creates the opportunity to reflect on how the titles of prince and princess should be distributed in the future while considering the changing role of the Royal Family and Prince Charles’ preference to “slim down” the institution.

(1) What is the “George V Convention”?

The first issue is the rules themselves. The “George V Convention” as discussed by Meghan, takes the form of Letters Patent issued by the King in 1917. Letters Patent (where the plural is also the singular) is a legal document, effectively an open letter, that expresses the Royal Will. In this context, Letters Patent confer the “style, title or attribute of Royal Highness”, together with the “titular dignity” of prince or princess prefixed to their Christian names. A title or dignity is an incorporeal hereditament, a form of intangible property.

The key provision of the 1917 Letters Patent is as follows:

“that the children of any Sovereign of these Realms and the children of the sons of any such Sovereign and the eldest living son of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales shall have and at all times hold and enjoy the style title or attribute of Royal Highness with their titular dignity of Prince or Princess prefixed to their respective Christian names or with their other titles of honour”.

This can be summarised into the following three points:

(1) All children of the Sovereign can be called a prince or princess;

(2) Those children, whose father is a son of the Sovereign, can be called a prince or princess; 

(3) The eldest son, of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales, can be called a prince.

In one sense, the rules are clear: Archie is currently not entitled to be called a prince, but once Charles becomes King, he does become so entitled because his father, Prince Harry, then becomes a son of the Sovereign.

In the interview, the Duchess appeared to express two concerns. The first is that because Archie is not a prince, he is not entitled to security. Yet, security appears to be based on risk rather than on title. The Times has reported that the “protection of members of the royal family is based on a threat assessment conducted by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC)” based on intelligence, with security given to those who “face a large enough risk”. Unless there is any specific threat to an individual, those members of the Royal Family who conduct public duties are likely to be at most risk.

The second concern is that the rules could be changed in the future, meaning that Archie does not become a prince once Charles becomes King. This concern is more profound, and relates to the slow emergence of a more role-based monarchy, with titles granted in the expectation that the holder will fulfil the role of prince or princess as required by the modern monarchy. Addressing this concern requires considering what the role of the prince or princess is today and how the 1917 Letters Patent aligns with what the Royal Family requires in the future. The intention would be that there would be fewer princes or princesses with the status and title, but not the role.

(2) What is the Role of a Prince?

In essence, “prince” or “princess” implies a certain closeness to the Monarch, to the extent that they can act on behalf of the Monarch. This can include duties that flow from the Monarch’s formal position as Head of State, as provided for by the Regency Acts 1937-1953 (the problems with which I have previously discussed here). Alternatively, princes and princesses fulfil “duties” in a looser sense. Typically, this means undertaking engagements around the country and overseas, serving as patron of charities and other organisations, or leading charitable endeavours themselves.

As Frank Prochaska has shown in his book Royal Bounty, this aspect of monarchy can be traced back 250 years or so. However, its modern form is described by Buckingham Palace as the Monarch acting as “Head of Nation”, with the Queen serving as a focus for national identity, and so giving a “sense of stability and continuity” while recognising “success and excellence” and supporting “the ideal of voluntary service”. Vernon Bogdanor explains this as representing the nation “back unto itself”. To some extent, this is an inherent aspect of the role of any Head of State. The distinguishing feature is that through the support the Monarch receives from other members of the Royal family, the monarchy provides an especially well-developed sense of Head of Nation.

In the broadest sense of the word, this Head of Nation role remains a political function of the monarchy. Only its political nature is largely obscured by the wide (but not total) acceptance of the monarchy’s actions in this area, which means that there is little room for traditional party politics in this space. Examples of this include the Queen (now Prince Charles on her behalf) laying a wreath on Remembrance Sunday or the Queen’s recent comments regarding vaccinations. This is also seen on a day-to-day basis through the visits that members of the Royal Family undertake around the country.

In essence, there is a distinction between the “government” and the “nation”. Between them and through their activities, the Royal Family occupy this space of nation to reflect its different aspects. Because there are different characters involved with their own interests, the Royal Family can do this to a greater extent than any one individual. This is particularly important as identity politics becomes more prominent. The real missed opportunity is that Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex, both individually and together, could have added several dimensions to how the Royal Family fulfils this role.

(3) How Large Should the Royal Family Be?

At the heart of the issue is the slightly prosaic question of how many princes and princesses must support the Monarch in this Head of Nation role? This question is not unique to the British Monarchy. In particular, the longevity of different monarchs means that the role of grandchildren and great-grandchildren is now a more significant consideration than before. The King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, has recently removed five grandchildren from the Royal House, meaning that they will no longer be called HRH and will not fulfil public duties.

Prince Charles has indicated that he desires a smaller, “slimmed down” Royal Family. In 2012, during the Diamond Jubilee, a balcony appearance of the Queen, Prince Charles, Duchess of Cornwall, Prince William, Duchess of Cambridge, and (then) just plain Prince Harry, was a strong indication that the future would see a smaller Royal Family more concentrated on the direct line of succession. This means that Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie do not fulfil public duties. Beyond this, the way ahead is unknown. Presumably, the intention is that the Cambridge children will perform public duties while the Sussex children will not. This is now more likely given that Archie (and his soon to be born younger sister) will be raised in America, not the UK. Yet, under the 1917 Letters Patent, they will become prince and princess respectively when Prince Charles becomes King, as their father is then a ‘son of the Sovereign’.

As Hazell and Morris have highlighted, the British monarchy has different considerations from their continental counterparts. The UK is also the most populous constitutional monarchy in Europe. This means that the scale of demand for royal attendance at engagements is greater than Norway (for example), whose population of 5.5 million is less than London or the North West of England. Also, the British Monarch is head of state of fifteen other countries, and the Queen (as Prince Charles will be one day) is Head of the Commonwealth, which further increases the demands on the Royal Family.

This means that slimming down is not without risk. It will require the monarchy to stop doing some of the things that it is already doing. It carries the specific risk of becoming more of a London-based institution, at precisely the moment when, in the post-Brexit political climate, many London-based institutions are spreading their footprint across more of the country. In this way, the monarchy has long been ahead of the curve. The Queen’s mantra has been that the monarchy “must be seen to be believed”, and as described above, in its “Head of Nation” role, has consistently visited places across the country, including areas that, post-Brexit, are now attracting more attention from party politics. These visits contribute to the broad and stable support that the monarchy as an institution enjoys across the country. The challenge for the monarchy is to “slim down” while maintaining that support within an increasingly diverse society.

(4) Moving Beyond the 1917 Letters Patent

This desire for a smaller Royal Family reflects how the fundamental approach of the 1917 Letters Patent has broken down, and as with other aspects of the monarchy, reform is needed. Reform must consider that, as a political institution integral to the constitution, the monarchy should conform to prevailing constitutional norms.

(i) Equality

This includes equality, and in this respect, the 1917 Letters Patent falls short. It still reflects the rule of primogeniture, as only those whose father is a son of the Sovereign can become a prince or princess, not mothers who are a daughter of Sovereign. This means that Princess Anne’s children are not prince or princess, but Peter Philips and Zara Tindall. The Queen did offer Princess Anne titles for her children, but she refused, explaining last year that this was “probably easier for them, and I think most people would argue that there are downsides to having titles”. Yet, in years to come, we may well find ourselves once again discussing the 1917 Letters Patent when Prince George and Prince Louis’s children are princes or princesses, while Princess Charlotte’s are not because she is not a “son of the Sovereign”. This is despite the fact Princess Charlotte is ahead of Prince Louis in the line of succession because the Succession to the Crown Act 2013 abolished primogeniture for those born after 28th October 2011.

The 1917 Letters Patent are at odds with 2013 Act in another way. It provides that only the eldest son of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales is entitled to be called a Prince. In 1917, this could be justified on the basis that they would one day become King. Now, that is not necessarily the case, as an older sister would be ahead in the line of succession. Despite this, the Letters Patent mean that the older sister would not be a princess, whereas a younger brother would be a prince. To prevent this problem from arising, in 2012, the Queen issued new Letters Patent establishing that all children of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge would become a prince or princess. This shows how the Palace can act when it foresees a problem or the potential of a problem arising. It could be implied that the lack of any such action before Archie’s birth indicates that the Palace did not foresee any difficulty with his lack of a title.

With hindsight, using an ad-hoc solution to mitigate the effects of the 1917 Letters Patent, with the Cambridges but not the Sussexes, is one aspect of the allegation of racism that the Duchess has raised against the monarchy. This could have been avoided had the 1917 Letters Patent been updated when the Succession to the Crown Act 2013 was enacted. Indeed, at the time, it was reasonably foreseeable that, one day, Prince Harry would marry and start a family.

(ii) Transparency

At the core of this issue lies another constitutional norm: transparency. Unlike Acts of Parliament or other legal documents, the texts of letters patent are not easily accessible from any official source. One obvious place for such material is the Buckingham Palace website. This intends to “provide an authoritative resource of information about the Monarchy and Royal Family”, but it currently falls someway short. Some may think that laying out the various “rules” underpinning the Royal Family and monarchy more generally (perhaps with an accessible explanation) may remove some of the “mystique” that surrounds it. Yet, the failure to provide any official source risks creating misunderstandings, which can skew public debate. By contrast, an annual report explains the monarchy’s expenditure in great detail, which facilities a more grounded discussion of this point.

Concluding Thoughts

In essence, the Monarch decides who becomes a prince or princess, and the rules are manipulated to achieve the desired outcome. That basic fact should be embraced, as any “mystique” the 1917 Letters Patent creates is outweighed by the disadvantages that flow from its unequal and untransparent nature. This then creates the opportunity to think more deeply about the nature of “service” and on what terms a member of the Royal Family undertakes such service.

Instead of the 1917 Letters Patent entitling members of the Royal Family to be a prince or princess, in the future, the Monarch could “appoint” (perhaps by Letters Patent) those who are to undertake public duties to the dignity of prince or princess. This more flexible approach would allow members of the Royal Family to gain a title after enjoying their childhood and early adult lives as more regular private citizens. This would give them a better opportunity to acquire experience outside of monarchy before taking up royal duties at an appropriate point in their lives. This approach would be more transparent, and the equality issues that flow from the 1917 Letters Patent would not arise. It would not follow that the “appointment” of prince or princess would be revoked on retirement, or perhaps even in Prince Harry’s situation. In the future, he may wish to take up public duties once again. An alternative is not to use the title in such circumstances, similar to how the Sussexes are not using the title His/Her Royal Highness (HRH).

More fundamentally, this points to the need for a rational debate on what we expect from the modern monarchy and then consider what the institution requires to meet that demand. History has shown us that the Accession of a new Monarch to the Throne can lead to a re-positioning of the monarchy, with specific reforms undertaken to meet specific issues. With the Queen’s record-breaking reign of nearly seventy years, this not been possible. Instead, the monarchy has evolved to the changing times, with a quickening of the pace after 1997. Much of the commentary in recent weeks have suggested that change will come once Charles becomes King, but perhaps the need is now more urgent than that?

Dr Craig Prescott, Bangor Law School, Bangor University (@craigprescott)

(Suggested citation: C. Prescott, ‘Modernising the Monarchy: Moving Beyond the 1917 Letters Patent and the “George V Convention”’, U.K. Const. L. Blog (23rd March 2021) (available at