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The problem with Elizabeth II’s regnal number


Michael Garnett via Flickr CC

In my article on numbering the Kings and Queens of Britain, I mentioned that this practice was not always accurate and, I’d like to add, not without its controversy.

On February 6 1952, came the death of King George VI of the United Kingdom. It occurred during the night and the new sovereign didn’t know she was now Queen for she and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, were thousands of miles away on an official visit to Kenya. The royal couple had just returned that day to Sagana Lodge, after a night spent at Treetops Hotel, when word arrived that the King had died. The Duke of Edinburgh broke the sad news to his wife. She was then asked by Martin Charteris what her regnal name would be (ever since the reign of William IV (1830-1837) the name of the sovereign had become an issue). The new Queen’s response was, “my own of course”. Who would have thought such a simple response would cause such trouble?

When the Kingdoms of England and Scotland were officially united in 1707 the monarch continued to live in England. This meant that Scotland was often ignored by the monarchs living in London. With the accession of James VI of Scotland (1567-1625) on the English throne, his accession did not politically unite the two nations. Both kingdoms may have been ruled by James, but each kingdom remained an individual separate sovereign state that retained their own parliaments and laws. Although James liked to consider himself the King of Great Britain this title was not approved by Parliament and therefore had no legal barring. From 1603 until 1707 (excluding the Commonwealth period) the title of the monarch was King or Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland.

Technically, during the period from 1603 until the Act of Union in 1707, the sovereign was numbered with dual regnal numbers if there were a difference in the number of monarchs that were from England and Scotland of the same name. This affected only two names; James and William. James VI of Scotland was also James I of England. His grandson, also named James, was King James VII of Scotland and James II of England. I mentioned this was technically so, because in reality most historical books focus on the regnal numbering of the English monarchs only.

There had been two previous kings of England named William, therefore when William of Orange was offered the throne by the Convention Parliament on March 14, 1689, he took the regnal name William III of England. There had only been one other King of Scots named William; known as William the Lion who reigned from 1165 to 1214, therefore William III of England was also William II of Scotland. His wife, Mary, daughter of James II-VII was known as Mary II in both England and Scotland because each country had a Queen named Mary. England had Mary Tudor (1553-1558) and Scotland had Mary Stuart (1542-1567).

The name Charles was unaffected by this system of numbering since at the time of the accession of Charles I of England and Scotland in 1625 neither kingdom had had a king by that name. Queen Anne doesn’t have a regnal number, being that she has been the only sovereign of England, Scotland and Great Britain by that name, thus was not affected by this issue.

When the Act of Union was passed Anne was the regnant Queen of both England and Scotland and as those royal titles passed into history, Anne became the first Queen of Great Britain and her title reflected this political change. There are examples of a new pattern of regnal numbers being used once a new sovereign state emerged from an older state. However, this is often the exception rather than the rule.

With the creation of the Kingdom of Great Britain, and later the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the English system of numbering kings and queens continued and the inclusion of Scottish regnal numbers fell by the wayside. This at first was not an issue. The first four kings of Great Britain of the House of Hanover did not have a problem with regnal numbers since neither England or Scotland had kings named George before.

The first time this practice could be tested was with the reign of William IV of the United Kingdom. What is interesting to note is that in 1830 Prince William Henry, Duke of Clarence ascended the British throne,and initially wanted to call himself by his second name and reign as King Henry IX. It was quickly pointed out that as recently as 30 years ago the last pretender to the British throne from the House of Stuart, Henry Stuart, Cardinal York, was called Henry IX by his followers. Therefore the new king settled on his first name and called himself William IV. However, there seems to have been no controversy in Scotland with William having “IV” as his regnal number.

The first time we begin to see some conflict over regnal numbers in Scotland is with the reigns of both Edward VII (1901-1910) and Edward VIII (1936). In Scotland there were times their regnal numbers were omitted even in the Scottish Church. This issue did become more prominent until the reign of Elizabeth II. Since Elizabeth I of England (1558-1603) never ruled over Scotland many people in Scotland did not think the new Queen should be called Elizabeth II in Scotland. This is an example of the rise of Scottish Nationalism that has occurred over many decades.

An example of the objections made at the time of the accession of Elizabeth II over her regnal number was the use of the Royal Cypher “EIIR” anywhere in Scotland. The use of that particular cypher even instigated violence when Royal mailboxes were defaced. Today the cypher that is used in Scotland on all government and Crown property has no lettering and displays an artistic rendering of the Crown of Scotland from the Honors of Scotland.

In order to prevent any further problems with the numbering of the monarchs in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Winston Churchill suggested that in the future, the monarch should use the higher of the two numerals from the English and Scottish sequences. Therefore, if there is another King James he will not be James III but James VIII, since Scotland had seven kings by that name and only two of that name in England. Another example is if there is another King Robert he will be Robert IV of the United Kingdom even though the previous kings named Robert all reigned in Scotland and England never had a king by that name.