When Princes William and Harry were made royal dukes, their titles were chosen with care, says Sarah Pratley. Some carry rather too much history…
While many royal dukedoms were available for Princes William and Harry, few were deemed appropiate. Sarah Pratley investigates the disgraced royal dukes that continue to be a historical hazard.
For more royal history, discover what you might spy when your mind wanders wickedly from the sermon. Read royal coat of arms: spotted nave gazing to learn about the development of the Royal Arms.
Royal dukedoms have been bestowed on princes for centuries. Typically given by the monarch to offspring coming of age or on their marriage, Edward III created the custom when he made his eldest son Duke of Cornwall in 1337. Sovereigns have exercised the privilege ever since, most recently when Her Majesty The Queen gave Prince Harry the dukedom of Sussex on his wedding day in May 2018.
In the British roll of peerage, royal dukes outrank all. “A dukedom is considered royal because the holder is a member of the royal family,” according to editors of Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage. “They are typically given to spouses of a female monarch, and male sons and grandsons of the monarch.” A few come with the territory. “The eldest son of the sovereign is automatically Duke of Cornwall and Duke of Rothesay,” explains Marlene Koenig, royal historian and author of Queen Victoria’s Descendants. Similarly, the monarch is the Duke of Lancaster but here the rules end. “The Queen and her advisors decide which dukedom to allocate depending on which are available as well as a range of other factors,” says Debrett’s. “This may include the history of previous holders.” Herein lies the hazard – history is littered with bad ducal eggs. It was long predicted that Prince Harry would be made Duke of Sussex because while many are available, few are now deemed appropriate.
The most famous vacant royal dukedom is undoubtedly Windsor, the title bestowed on the former Edward VIII. “My first act on succeeding My Brother will be to confer on Him a Dukedom and He will henceforth be known as His Royal Highness The Duke of Windsor,” George VI announced at the opening of the 1936 Accession Council. “Windsor is one that is widely considered ‘off limits’,” explains Debrett’s. While the abdication is hardly a cheery chapter in royal history, it was the Duke’s relationship with Adolf Hitler, rather than Wallis Simpson, that remains problematic. Whether the dukedom was intended for re-creation is also questioned. “Edward lost succession rights when he abdicated – and his descendants had no right of succession. It was a personal title,” reasons Koenig.
PERSONAL AND HEREDITARY TITLES
A personal title is unusual. Royal dukedoms are hereditary; however, they cease to be royal once beyond the grandson of a monarch. “If a title becomes extinct, it will revert to the Crown and be eligible for re-creation,” says Koenig. Clarence is the oldest such title, created by Edward III as one of England’s first dukedoms in 1362. “It is the third creation that gets the bad press,” explains Koenig. George Plantagenet was the infamously unreliable brother of Edward IV and Richard III, whose support swung from York to Lancaster and back again. He came to a sticky end with a treason charge and private execution but is famed for his theatrical afterlife. “A legend was fostered that he was drowned in a butt of Malmsey, made popular by William Shakespeare,” says Koenig. George forfeited his titles as well as his life, and the dukedom of Clarence sat vacant for more than 300 years.
“Clarence as a royal dukedom has not been used since 1478 and has been combined twice since then,” explains Debrett’s. The joint iterations were not wild successes, either. As Duke of Clarence and St Andrews, the future William IV fathered 10 illegitimate children by Irish actress Dorothea Jordan, owner, supposedly, of the most beautiful legs ever seen on stage, and dabbled in drunken disorder. It was with Prince Albert Victor the dukedom’s reputation took a real battering. He was Duke of Clarence and Avondale, second in line to Queen Victoria’s throne and, according to his tutor, owner of an “abnormally dormant” mind. During the 1889 Cleveland Street scandal, rumours flew of royal involvement, fuelling suspicion of the Prince’s homosexuality. The accusations, though unproven, did nothing for his reputation and even an untimely death, aged 28, in 1892 could not retrieve it. Posthumously, it was claimed the Prince was Jack the Ripper. “He was not very bright but he was certainly not Jack the Ripper,” insists Koenig.
“It is possible that this dukedom might be ‘reactivated’ in the future,” suggests Debrett’s. Nevertheless, Clarence remains with the Crown, not trusted to venture any further.
THE IRISH DUKEDOM
Certain dukedoms will never be recreated. “There will never be another Duke of Connaught because it is in Ireland,” asserts Koenig. “Victoria’s third son, Prince Arthur, was created Duke of Connaught and Strathearn.” Prince Arthur was Victoria’s last surviving son, reportedly her favourite and an exemplary duke. His son was a similarly safe pair of hands but the second duke, Alastair Windsor, failed to maintain standards and shuffled off due to ‘natural causes’. In truth, he was rejected by his Canadian regiment as incompetent and then proved the point with an inebriated fall from a window, dying from hypothermia. It was death by a modern butt of Malmsey.
While the Irish dukedom remains vacant, the owners of two other titles were parted from them by Act of Parliament. The Duke of Albany and the Duke of Cumberland and Teviotdale found their loyalties split by World War I, both being British princes and German army officers. “The 1917 Titles Deprivation Act stripped the then title holders of their rights to the peerage as they were enemies during the First World War,” explains Koenig. However, an heir of either could petition the Crown to have the title restored, so with possibly eligible and very much alive heirs, recreation of these titles will be problematic for now.
Albany is an old, Scottish title, first granted to Robert Stewart in 1398. He served as regent to three Scottish monarchs but proved more interested in ruling himself. His son, Murdoch Stewart, succeeded the dukedom and served as Governor until 1424, when James I of Scotland returned in a bad mood having endured an 18-year-long exile. Stewart was found guilty of treason, executed and his titles forfeit. The following Duke of Albany, Alexander Stewart, lost the title in 1483 before being killed in a duelling accident. In the third creation came Henry Stuart, also known as Lord Darnley and husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. Vain, violent and unpopular, he was found outside in his nightshirt having been smothered.
After spells with several more Stuarts, the sixth creation for Prince Leopold was finally a quieter chapter. The youngest son of Queen Victoria, he suffered from haemophilia. The Prince became a prominent patron of chess. His son, Prince Charles Edward, was to be the last Duke of Albany. He succeeded the dukedom at birth and became Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha aged 16. Having fought in World War I as a German, he was stripped of his peerages in 1919. ”Because he was a committed Nazi, I sincerely doubt this peerage will be recreated as a new royal dukedom,” says Koenig. Imprisoned at the end of World War II, Charles Edward was judged an “important Nazi” and fined almost to bankruptcy.
A LIVELY HISTORY
The dukedom of Cumberland has a lively history, too. The third creation was ‘Butcher’ Cumberland, Handel’s ‘Conquering Hero’ in Judas Maccabeus. The title then became Cumberland and Strathearn, its sole holder, Prince Henry, proving better at making love than war. Brother of George III, he married a commoner and was sued by Lord Grosvenor for ‘criminal conversation’ with Lady Grosvenor (an act involving little conversation, criminal or otherwise). On his brother’s second marriage to a commoner, George III lost patience and passed the Royal Marriages Act 1772.
But it was the King’s son, Prince Ernest Augustus, who proved the most controversial Cumberland. Trouble began for the Duke of Cumberland and Teviotdale when his valet was found with a slit throat. Despite a unanimous verdict of suicide, rumours flew around the Duke. There was gossip, too, that he had fathered his sister’s illegitimate son and was blackmailing the King. His wife’s first husband died remarkably conveniently, prompting theories of poison. There were reports he had assaulted Lady Lyndhurst and had an affair with Lady Graves. When Lord Graves, lord of the Duke’s bedchamber and comptroller of the household, was found dead with a slit throat, the Duke was accused of striking again. Apparently, he was set to murder Victoria, too, and take the British throne. While he never got the British throne, he did land another without committing murder. “Victoria could not inherit Hanover because of Salic Law, so the next male in line was Uncle Ernest,” explains Koenig. His grandson, the third Duke of Cumberland and Teviotdale and Crown Prince of Hanover, eventually lost the title in 1919 for bearing arms against Britain.
With historical hazard safely navigated by allotting the dukedoms of Cambridge and Sussex to William and Harry, there are no more royal dukes in waiting. “If Prince George marries in his grandfather’s lifetime, he will surely get a dukedom, Prince Louis as well. But they will be the only ones,” says Koenig. For now, the disgraced dukedoms can stay on the shelf. Whether any will be added to their number remains to be seen.