What’s in a (royal) name?

Earlier this week, on April 5, 2023 (updated on April 6, 2023), NPR and BBC ran stories that honestly… are not stories at all.

The Hubbub? Calling Queen Camilla, well… “Queen Camilla” instead of the mouthful “Consort Queen Camilla” or “Queen Consort Camilla.”

Basically all these articles show is a lack in understanding the nuances of monarchical history. It is a whole field of study for a reason. Just like Shakespeare’s works. Just like 19th century American West. Just like military history of the Pacific Theater in World War II.

I know that not many people decide to devote their teen and adult years to the study of British monarchy. I’m the odd duck here. I get it. But even a quick look at the very documents that these outlets post in other places would tell them that they’re choosing to make a big deal over literally nothing.

Before we begin, a quick discussion on terminology.

Throughout most of English and British history… the monarchs have been men (also, NPR, here’s the definition of a monarch – a consort is decidedly not a monarch).

A monarch is the sovereign, or someone who holds sovereign power. The head honcho. The one in charge (nominally – there are always people behind the throne who also hold power and influence, but they may or may not have royal titles). For the vast majority of English & British history – a king.* So this whole thing of having to have different titles for women hasn’t really much been a thing for much of the last thousand years. It didn’t need to be. In English/British history, since the days after the fall of the Western Roman Empire (476) and the Heptarchy (476-829), there have been…. 7 undisupted and un-overthrown ruling queens? If you add in disputed, you get 10? In over 1500 years?** Having a title for a ruling woman was largely an afterthought for most of English history.

A consort is, well, not the monarch. They are the spouse of the monarch. They don’t technically have powers of their own. They have roles and duties to fulfill that are derived from ceremonial and tradition, but they don’t have constitutionally defined powers (as I argue in my forthcoming monograph). That doesn’t mean that they can’t affect the events around them, or enact change. They certainly can, but it can’t be done through means of proclamations like a king/monarch can do. As Elizabeth I once wrote to her sister, “A king’s word is [worth] more than another man’s oath.” In this case, she was writing to her sister, a female king (or regnant queen). When we get women in the mix, things like titles become a bit tricky. Because kings… were kings. Queens were the wives of kings. It’s more an anomaly than the norm for a woman to be in the position to rule.

When women did take the throne, they were called quite a few different terms. Dread Sovereign Lady is one of my favorites. Prince (a gender neutral term for ruler, generally). Princess. Lady. Queen.

Wives of kings were simply called “queen” as they had been for the vast majority of history. Yes, they were consorts, but that was implied by the word ‘queen.’ Usually, these women were called ‘queen’ when being addressed by their subjects, sometimes described to others as “the king’s consort, Queen Whatsherface.” Since England became a thing, a female consort’s title there has always been “queen.”

So why is it such a big deal now? Why are people up in arms about Camilla being called “queen” and not “queen consort”? Because for the vast majority of people, around the world, the ruler of the Commonwealth, the sovereign head of the United Kingdom, was Queen Elizabeth. The title ‘queen’ took on a more powerful meaning than it had before, except perhaps in the reign of Victoria. Elizabeth was the only ruler that many have ever known, until her recent death in 2022. However, just because it became synonymous with Elizabeth and her powers/prerogatives during her lifetime doesn’t mean that the historic usage of the title changed. Instead, during her use of the term, it took on the meaning of ‘female king’, instead of ‘female consort,’ which is a definition it has had since the undisputed reign of Mary I in 1553.

Calling a consort queen “queen” is not unheard of, indeed, it’s quite common place. Here’s an example from 1727 of a title page of a book published about coronations.

What’s super fun about this is you can see exactly who are recent queens in good esteem and who were not. As this was published to celebrate the joint coronation of George II and Caroline, Queen Caroline is held in high esteem (which she was for pretty much all of her time in England) by the general populace. Queens Anne and Mary were regnant queens. George I was married, but he… was honestly a terrible human being to his wife, she wanted to separate from him and he wouldn’t let her because he needed her dowry. When Sophia Dorothea fell in love with someone who wasn’t horrid to her, George had him murdered. When George left for England, he divorced her and had her imprisoned for the rest of her life in Germany. What a great guy. So that’s why her name doesn’t appear on the title page. The other mysterious queen is the nameless consort of James II – Mary of Modena. James and Mary had a joint coronation in 1685, and were ousted in favor of his daughter Mary and her husband/cousin William. Mary of Modena was an Italian Catholic, and largely unpopular because of that.

Calling a queen consort “queen” is also quite a normal occurrence in modern times. Take a look at this invitations to a more recent coronation:

Coronation of Their Majesties King George VI & Queen Elizabeth — Elizabeth (in this case, later known as the Queen Mum) was the consort, George was the one who had the birthright to rule.

This type of announcement is quite common – ‘consort queen’ when there is a sovereign king about is honestly rather redundant. People were fine with calling Elizabeth the queen because… she was the queen. In exactly the same way that Camilla is — because she is married to the king.

Eventually in their article, NPR gets to the point with a royal historian who knows what she’s talking about. Marlene Koenig is quoted as saying:

Koenig is absolutely right here – and for the coronations of Alexandra of Denmark, Mary of Teck, and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, with their reigning husbands, were all called “queen” to their husband’s “king” in the invitations and announcements.

So the final word? This is a non-story of a story. It’s there to not really educate the audience (seriously, they use cosmo as a source? There are plenty of other accessible and academic sources they could have used), it honestly feels like the person saddled with writing this just googled ‘british historian’ and emailed the first people who popped up, hoping for a response.

Camilla is both a queen and a consort. She will never be a queen in the sense that Elizabeth II was, nor will she ever be a queen mother like Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. But she is a Queen, by right of her marriage to Charles.

*Why do I say English and British history? Well, England is a country on the island of Britannia – and “British” history encompasses Scotland as well as England. England and Scotland have always technically been their own countries, but have, through various contrivances, been ruled by a singular head of state. Since 1603, the head of state/monarch of England is also the head of state/monarch of Scotland, through a web of intermarrying. “Great Britain” has technically been a thing since the Act of Union in 1702 under Queen Anne and the “United Kingdom” has been a thing since 1801 under George III (which is when the king dropped FRANCE from his list of royal titles, as monarchs of England had been claiming to be, somewhat rightfully??, rulers of France since Edward III. To keep the English off the throne of France, the French made up an ‘ancient’ tradition called the Salic Law which basically means that the throne of France can’t be claimed through any matrilineal descent), when they technically brought Ireland into the mix, even though Ireland had been an unhappy colonized neighbor for centuries.

  • ** Those queens are:
  • Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians (c. 870-918) – she was daughter of Alfred the Great and had been married off to Æthelred, king of Mercia, and ruled undisputed after his death in 911 until her death in 918. Their daughter, Ælfwynn, became Lady of the Mercians in 918 but was overthrown later that year and probably retired to a nunnery.
  • Matilda, Lady of the English (c. 1102-1167) – she was daughter of Henry I and was his rightful heir after her younger brother died. Henry even had all his nobles swear to uphold Matilda’s claim. Spoiler: they didn’t and her cousin Stephen stole the throne and ruled instead. Matilda’s eldest son ruled after him to become Henry II.
  • Lady Jane Grey (c. 1537-1554) – another disputed queen. After Edward VI, son of Henry VIII, died leaving no heirs, he potentially supported his cousin Jane’s accession to the throne, instead of his half-sister Mary’s. Jane was super protestant and Mary was, well, super Catholic. Edward was also protestant and couldn’t find a way to exclude Mary without excluding his Protestant half-sister Elizabeth as well, so both of his half-sisters saw themselves barred from the throne through his “little devise”. Jane was queen for about 13 days before she was captured and spent the rest of her life in the Tower of London before her execution in 1554.
  • Mary I (1516-1558) – Mary was the oldest daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. Mary mustered forces to take her throne after her younger brother’s death in 1553 (I’ve got a chapter about public perception of her martial capabilities, “More to be Feared than Fearful Herself” in Mary I in Writing edited by Valerie Schutte and Jess Hower). She ruled as undisupted queen regnant until her death in 1558. Her throne passed peacefully to her half-sister, Elizabeth.
  • Elizabeth I (1533-1603) – Elizabeth is probably one of England’s best known rulers – Elizabethan Golden Age, Shakespeare, etc etc.
  • Mary II (1662-1694) – To be honest, I hesitated to put Mary II on here, since even though she (well, Parliament) overthrew her father, James II to put her on the throne… they only really did it to get her husband/cousin, William III. He refused to take care of the Catholic threat that was James unless he got to be king of England out of it, since being Prince of Orange wasn’t enough. He outlived her, and got to continue being king, unlike when Mary I was queen on her own before her marriage to Philip. Mary II never really got to be queen and rule in her own right, even though it was through her hereditary right that William got to be king.
  • Anne (1665-1714) – Mary’s younger sister. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Anne was going to get to be queen – William had it built into his contract that he could remarry after Mary’s death and if he managed to have kids that they’d get to supersede Anne’s place in the succession. He didn’t, so Anne got to become England’s fourth regnant queen. Unfortunately for her, all of Anne’s 17 potential children died (one survived childhood but died as an adolescent). The English throne, or at that point in time, British throne, went to some German cousins who were descended from Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen of Bohemia.
  • Victoria (1819-1901) – As all the Georges petered out (there were four of them), there was a mad race within the royal family to have a legitimate heir (poor beloved Princess Charlotte, who was George IV’s daughter and heir, died in childbirth, and took the hopes of a generation with her). The brother who ‘won’ that race was Edward, the fourth son of George III, though he died long before he ever became king or saw her become queen. Like Elizabeth, she ruled for an age and became one of England’s most powerful, beloved, and well-known monarchs.
  • Elizabeth II (1926-2022) – Much like in the leadup to Victoria’s accession to the throne, Elizabeth was the eldest daughter of a younger brother. Unlike Victoria’s father Edward, Elizabeth’s father became king himself after the abdication of his elder brother. Like Elizabeth I and Victoria before her, Elizabeth II ruled over a long period of great change for Britain, and has become one of the most respected and well-beloved figures in recent history.

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