Honour Roll: Why It Matters That King Charles Named Edward and Sophie the New Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh
Sophie, Countess of Wessex and Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex depart Soufriere by boat on day six of their Platinum Jubilee Royal Tour of the Caribbean on April 27, 2022 in Soufriere, Saint Lucia. Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/ Pool/Getty Images
King Charles III is getting all the royal houses in order before his coronation, now less than two months away. The latest news dropped Friday morning: On the occasion of the 59th birthday of his youngest brother, Prince Edward, the King named him the new Duke of Edinburgh. The title had been passed back to the Crown after the death of their father, Prince Phillip.
Phillip himself made his own wish clear that Edward should succeed him in the title, but of course the decision belonged to Charles alone. Edward has dedicated his life to growing the legacy of his father, with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award program. Edward has dedicated his life to growing the legacy of his father’s program, the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award, a pioneering global youth programme to challenge young people “to attain standards of achievement and endeavour in a wide variety of active interests.” Today it operates in more than 130 countries.
The fact that some time has passed since not just Phillip’s death in 2021, but also the six months since Charles’ accession to the throne, led to much speculation around the fact that Edward might be denied the honour in favour of one of William’s children, namely Charlotte.
The important words in the royal announcement this morning were “The title will be held by Prince Edward for His Royal Highness’s lifetime.” That means that in the future, Charles, or William in his time, can redistribute the Edinburgh Dukedom as they see fit after Edward dies. Some Dukedoms are hereditary, and others are not. It’s complicated. For instance, the Duke of York has been both hereditary and lifetime over time, but since Prince Andrew has daughters and not sons, the York title will revert back to the Crown on his death, so the current distinction is moot.
How do the new titles affect Edward’s family? Sophie is now Duchess of Edinburgh (a title previously held by the Queen). Eldest daughter Lady Louise Windsor’s courtesy title is unchanged. But Edward’s son, James, is now Earl of Wessex, his father’s previous title. Whew.
What this highlights is the very odd and uniquely unfair practice of primogeniture in the U.K. The change to the succession laws in 2011 meant that the first born child of the Prince of Wales could become monarch whether they were male or female. This progressive move, approved by the Commonwealth at the time, only applied in that one instance. Anne’s place in the line of succession was unchanged. The rights of any other royals (such as Lady Louise) to inherit Dukedoms are unchanged. In fact, the entire U.K. system of primogeniture that applies to all the titled nobles in the land remains unchanged. The rules were made to ensure that the lands and grand historical homes and castles of the ruling class were not divided up by inheritance, split equally among all offspring of a noble union. The idea was to keep parcels of land and wealth (and the attendant power) in place. But the exception for the heir’s offspring just served to shine a light on the overall unfairness.
Every move Charles makes is a decision between tradition and progress, but he apparently can’t move too fast.
Honestly, it would have been nice if he could have given Lady Louise a bigger title, but that would be him opening a Pandora’s box of other changes that he doesn’t have the power to enact. Everytime Charles touches something far-reaching like this it just raises more questions. In the end, more progress on all fronts, and a way to modernize an archaic institution and set of rules, will likely fall to the time of William’s rule.
This new title announcement adds to the momentum around a lot of the big moves the King is making — from shifting around Frogmore Cottage and (purportedly) Royal Lodge to the new Buckingham Palace digs for Harry and Meghan (vacated by Andrew, at the King’s request), to the shiny new Prince and Princess titles for Archie and Lilibet, respectively — have long been in the works. This is the official rollout, in the runup to the coronation. William and Catherine’s new designation of Prince and Princess of Wales, along with their children, was made immediately after the King’s accession as it affected the direct line of succession. But these other changes were made at a very royal pace, which is generally considered and slower.
Edward and Sophie are not in the news very often, save for their one foible, each in the now-distant past: Edward once had a film production company that invaded William’s privacy at university and Sophie had a PR firm and was caught in a tabloid sting attempting to cash in on royal connections. They both walked from their careers and have been extremely loyal and dutiful working royals ever since. They make no waves. They work very hard. And they were recognized for their loyalty during the pandemic especially, when the new “slimmed-down” senior royal team was revealed in a socially distanced photo outside Windsor Palace with the Queen, Charles and Camilla, William and Kate, Anne and Edward and Sophie. This was the team revealed after Andrew and Harry and Meghan left the senior working royal fold. And the Dukedom of Edinburgh is the reward to the former Wessexes for their quiet and diligent hard work and support.
Royal duchesses have different jobs, and exist in different generations that have different expectations. Kate is supposed to shine. Sophie, as now sister-in-law of the King, is the perfect supportive royal duchess, seemingly content to stay in the background. It’s a pecking order, of course, and a glamour parade, but it is also about fulfilling your job description. Edward and Sophie have done that very well.
The official release explains how the Duke of Edinburgh title was used in the past. “The Dukedom has been created four times in the past for Members of the Royal family,” it reads, “in 1729 for Prince Frederick, eldest son of King George II; in 1764, for Prince William, brother of King George III; in 1866 for Prince Alfred, second son of Queen Victoria; and for Phillip.”
Royal Dukedoms are usually awarded by the monarch when a prince gets married. Edward was in fact promised the Edinburgh Dukedom when he was married to Sophie Rhys-Jones. However, the actual conferring of the title would always be up to the monarch at the time when it became available (in this case, upon Phillip’s death). Again, because it didn’t happen automatically, there was speculation about whether it would happen.
In the end, things unfolded as they were meant to, with a nice bit of positive news as Edward and Sophie get their due, their moment in the spotlight and a recognition for their steady hard work and uncomplaining loyalty. Seems like Buckingham Palace still has some moves, and there may be more surprises ahead of the big day in May.