In addition to being Queen of the United Kingdom and of the Commonwealth Realms, Her Majesty also has the privilege of unofficially being addressed as Duke of Lancaster – despite the fact that Her Majesty is female.
The Duchy of Lancaster is a private estate, consisting of 18,433 hectares of private land across England and Wales, which is owned by The Queen. It comprises commercial, agricultural and residential properties, in addition to a significant portfolio of financial investments and urban residences.
The Duchy, as we know it today, came into existence in 1265 when Henry III gifted the lands of Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, to his son, Edmund, with the estate of Robert Ferrers, Earl of Derby, being added the following year.
Edmund was given the title ‘Earl of Lancaster’, which was followed by the addition of the ‘honour, county, town and castle of Lancaster.’ His inheritance passed to his son Thomas, who was beheaded in 1322. The inheritance was then conferred to his second son Henry, who became the 3rd Earl.
In 1351, Edward III bestowed the title of Duke of Lancaster on the soldier and diplomat Henry Grosmont, the son of the 3rd Earl, in recognition of his services. In addition to this, Edward raised Lancaster to a County Palatine for the Duke’s lifetime, giving him sovereign rights within the county over justice and administration, with law courts being under his administration and the sheriff, judges, justices of the peace and other senior officials being appointed by him.
When the Duke died in 1361, the inheritance became part of the dowry of his daughter, who had married one of Edward III’s sons, John of Gaunt, in 1359. As the inheritance to the Dukedom was limited to males, John became the next Duke and persuaded his father to grant the powers given to his predecessor to him and his heirs permanently.
When John died in 1399, Richard II, his nephew, confiscated the inheritance and banished John’s son from England for life, but who returned from exile within the year, raised an army, forced Richard to abdicate and then ascended to the throne as Henry IV in 1399, with his titles being merged with the Crown.
One of his first acts following becoming King was to specify the conditions in which the Lancaster inheritance could be held, declaring that it should descend as a private estate through the monarchy, and it should be held separately from all other Crown possessions.
300 years later it was decreed, through the Crown Lands Act 1702, that the monarch should only receive income and not capital from the Duchy, which continues to be followed today.
So why is Queen Elizabeth not Duchess of Lancaster? Historically, Queen Victoria considered the title ‘Duke’ be the proper title of the holder of the Duchy, regardless of their gender, with Duchess being a courtesy title as the spouse of a Duke. As a result, The Queen is referred to, in this context, as the Duke of Lancaster.
Today, the toast to The Queen is “The Queen, Duke of Lancaster!”