Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor, the youngest granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, is celebrating her twentieth birthday. And she’ll do it as a student as she continues her course at the University of St. Andrews. With several years to go until she graduates, any possibility that she might become a working royal remains on ice. But one debate that continues is around her title. For the Letters Patent of 1917, made so famous in recent times, raise the prospect that she might one day go by Princess instead of Lady.
Ah yes, the Letters Patent of 1917. For over a century, they were somewhat obscure. Issued by King George V, they set out who can take royal titles. His decisions, made in the depths of World War One when royals were losing their thrones at an alarming rate and with sometimes tragic personal consequences, had been largely ignored by the wider public for decades. Now, they are one of the most talked about sets of royal rules. And they lead to the question of whether Louise might be an HRH.
If you haven’t been paying attention for the last couple of years, here’s what George V decided. The children of a Monarch are always HRH and take the title of Prince or Princess. That same rule applies to the grandchildren of a Monarch in the male line. Yes, in 2023, we’re still sticking to rules that put men above women. It means that the children of the son of a Monarch can be HRH but the offspring of a daughter can’t. And that’s where Louise comes in.
Queen Elizabeth II had three sons. The children of her two eldest boys, Charles and Andrew, were HRH from birth. However, in 1999, when her youngest son married, Her Late Majesty issued a statement saying that, after consultation, it had been decided that his children would not be HRHs.
The decision was announced as Prince Edward married Sophie Rhys-Jones. Their marriage, in June 1999 at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, came less than two years after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and one of the biggest crises that Elizabeth II had faced. The outpouring of public grief for the princess had turned to anger with focus falling on the decision to remove the HRH from Diana after her divorce. In that climate, titles were a contentious issue. And so, Edward didn’t receive a dukedom on his marriage and the Royal Family stated that, despite the Letters Patent, his children would take the titles pertaining to the children of an earl.
In 2003, when the then Earl and Countess of Wessex, welcomed a daughter, she was introduced to the world as Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor. Her younger brother, James, born in 2007, took the courtesy title of Viscount Severn. When Edward was made Duke of Edinburgh in March 2023 by King Charles, James became known as Earl of Wessex. However, Louise’s title didn’t change. The daughter of a duke is also known as Lady. But the question remains – could both actually become HRH?
Their mother, Sophie, seems to think so. In an interview before Lady Louise turned 18, she said that the HRH and Princess was something that her daughter could use but didn’t owing to the decision taken by Sophie and Edward. But she added that Louise might make a different choice when she turned 18. Louise didn’t and remained ‘Lady’.
However, others have argued that the will of the Monarch, expressed in the statement issued at the time of the marriage, is a concrete decision that HRH is off the table for Louise and James.
There is, however, a growing possibility that Louise will be asked, at some point, to take up royal responsibilities. The number of working royals is falling and with the Duke of Kent and his sister, Princess Alexandra, both now in their late eighties, the number of engagements they can take on is only likely to decrease. The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester are both in their seventies while Princess Anne turned 72 in August. A decade from now, the challenge of filling the royal diary might be greater.
On the day that Lady Louise turned 20, her cousin, the Prince of Wales, said he wanted to make a real social change and that would mean focusing on fewer issues but putting more time into them. Whether Prince William’s vision will be extended across the Royal Family or whether that decision will mean more engagements for others to do isn’t clear yet.
Lady Louise is, hopefully, celebrating her birthday as all twenty year olds should and having a whole lot of fun behind closed doors and without any fear of it being made available to people who have no business to know it. Not having the HRH has helped protect her from prying eyes. Privacy versus princess, an eternal dilemma.