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History of Royal Titles: the historic Duchy that only a male heir can hold

Prince Charles, The Prince of Wales
Northern Ireland Office via Flickr

The Duke of Cornwall is a special title within the British monarchy, reserved for the male heir to the throne. First created in 1337 by King Edward III for his eldest son Edward, the Duchy was meant to provide an independent revenue stream for the heir to the throne that included land holdings.

Prince Charles’s website notes that, “The Duchy currently provides an annual income of £21m which The Prince uses to support himself, his children and their families as well as his philanthropic work, which raises over £100m annually for a variety of good causes. The Prince voluntarily pays income tax on all revenue from the estate.”

The Duchy of Cornwall currently holds 531.3 square kilometres of properties. To help Prince Charles manage this large portfolio, a Duchy Council exists and meets twice a year.

The official website of the Duchy of Cornwall notes that, “At its origin, the Duchy consisted of two parts: the title and honour (known as the dignity) and the territory (landed estate), which supported it financially.

“The two titles, Prince of Wales and Duke of Cornwall, are held by the same individual but are nevertheless distinct. This is reflected in the two separate organisations of The Prince of Wales’s Office and the Duchy of Cornwall, which work together to support the heir to the throne.”

The Prince of Wales title takes precedence as it is the older title and is only bestowed in a special creation—a male heir is not automatically Prince of Wales, he has to be given the title by the sovereign. The opposite is true for the title of Duke of Cornwall. It is automatically given to the eldest son of a Monarch at the moment of their accession.

Past Dukes of Cornwall include: Edward, The Black Prince; Henry V; Henry VI; Edward of Westminster (son of Henry VI, predeceased him); Edward V; Edward of Middleham (son of Richard III, predeceased him); Arthur (son of Henry VII, predeceased him); Henry VIII; Henry (son of Henry VIII, predeceased him); Edward VI; Henry Frederick (son of Charles I, predeceased him); Charles I; Charles II; Prince James Francis Edward (son of Charles II, never crowned); George II; Frederick (son of George II, predeceased him); George VI; Edward VII; George V; and Edward VIII.

Prince Charles has been the Duke of Cornwall since 1952, and has held the title the longest.

The title of Duke of Cornwall cannot be held by younger sons of a monarch nor can it currently be held by a female heir. It is unknown what would happen if the heir to the throne in the future is female now that absolute primogeniture is in effect. However, at the moment, if there is no male heir to the throne—as was the case from 1936 to 1952 when the current Queen was heiress presumptive—then the Duchy of Cornwall reverts back to the Crown and the title is extant until there is a male heir again.

With the passage of the Sovereign Grant Act in 2011, though the title may not be bestowed upon the heir to the throne depending on circumstance, that person will receive the funds from the Duchy.

When Charles becomes the sovereign, William will automatically become the Duke of Cornwall.

About author

Jess is a communications professional and freelance writer who lives in Halifax and has a passion for all things royal, particularly the British Royal Family.