aka How The British Monarchy Works (for Americans)
(and others who don’t have an unelected head of state)
In the wake of Coronationgate 2023, Twitter and other social media outlets were abuzz with vitriol towards the newly crowned king and queen (whether or not that is rightfully earned, I’ll leave that up to you and your sensibilities, dear reader). Much of said consternation is directed towards Camilla, the newly crowned queen of England. Here is a very small sample:
This is still pretty mild compared to some of the more unsavoury parts of Twitter. And while it’s for sure anti-Camilla, it’s also showing a misunderstanding of how British Monarchical Titles actually work – which is understandable for people who 1) don’t live in the UK or Commonwealth or 2) don’t really care about titles/monarchy in general. I get that Twitter is mostly just people complaining and bots who add in the harassment but this is something that I’ve seen more and more of in other outlets as well. A brief explanation of two titles (king and queen) + two descriptors (consort and regnant).
Who is Who in the British Monarchy?
Specifically today we’ll be talking about kings and queens and some of the descriptors attached to each.
Charles III is King.
He is a man with the fancy hat and chair. He is the one at the top of the hierarchy. He is king.
If we want to be specific and accurate, he is a regnant king. What this means is that he is king by virtue of his inheritance. Just as William will likely be after him and George after him. They are or will be kings because they were born to the right family with the right genitalia at the right time. Generally, a king is assumed to be regnant, but that is not always the case.
Camilla is Queen.
Camilla is a woman with a fancy hat and chair.
If we want to be specific and accurate, she is a consort queen. What this means is that she is queen by virtue of her marriage to the king. She has no claim to authority or power or legitimacy except through him.
No amount of potential declarations, proclamations, or Letters Patent could change that immutable fact.
Can kings also be consorts? Yes! Absolutely! We can look at the case of Philip of Spain who was only king of England by virtue of his marriage to Mary I in 1554. When Mary died in 1558, Philip ceased to be king of England anymore. Technically he was a dowager king (a dowager being a consort who survived their sovereign spouse but who does not have any particular codified set of powers).
In general conversation, Philip was called “King” even though he was technically the consort of Mary. Even though he was called king doesn’t mean that he was able to assume regnant powers (though he certainly would have liked it to be so!).
Can queens also be regnants? Yes! Absolutely! We can look at the cases of Mary I (reigned 1553-1558) or her sister Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603). Mary and Elizabeth were rulers based on their heredity – they both were daughters of Henry VIII.
In general conversation, Mary and Elizabeth were “Queen” even though they were “Queens regnant.”
Their mothers, Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn were both also crowned consort queens. Katherine was crowned in a ceremony very similar to Camilla’s – both at the same time as their husbands. Anne’s coronation was a somewhat different affair as Henry had already had his coronation and didn’t need to do it again.
Both Katherine and Anne were crowned queens – just like Camilla. Both were queens through the same mechanism as Camilla – by virtue of their marriage to the king. Both were simply called “queen” in conversation and in contemporary documentation.
The only way that either of them or Camilla would ever become a regnant queen of England would be for them to have overthrown their husbands and stage a full-on coup. To be honest, the only one of the three would probably could have done it was Katherine of Aragon. Regardless of the what-ifs, none of them have done or likely will pull a Wu Zetian and have their husband’s other heirs murdered and/or exiled and take over the throne themselves.
Whether Twitter likes it or not (which, this is Twitter, it doesn’t like anything), Camilla is queen. Yes, she is also a consort queen, but her rank is queen.