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Close up photo of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall wearing pearls and a blue floral top

Queen Camilla: why the royal title change matters

In a message to mark her Platinum Jubilee, the Queen expressed her “sincere wish” that Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, will be queen consort when her husband Prince Charles ascends the throne. This is instead of the title “princess consort”, as announced when Camilla married Charles in 2005. Technically, the new king would resolve matters such as this, acting on the advice of the prime minister, but in practice, the matter is now closed.

This is the conclusion of a gradual process to bring Camilla closer to the centre of the monarchy and turn around her public reputation. It started in 1999 when Charles and Camilla were seen leaving a party at the Ritz Hotel in London.

Photographers camped for days outside the hotel to capture the 20 seconds it took for Charles and Camilla to enter a waiting car. The camera flashes were so intense, there were fears that television footage of the event could cause epileptic seizures. Just five years before, such was the public anger over the breakdown in Charles and Diana’s marriage, Camilla was pelted with bread rolls in a supermarket car park.

Now, she will be Queen Camilla, crowned alongside King Charles III (or whatever regnal title he chooses) at the coronation. The decision is in line of precedent. Simply put, the wife of a king has the title queen consort. For evidence, you need to look no further than the previous three kings. It was George VI and Queen Elizabeth, George V and Queen Mary and Edward VII and Queen Alexandra (we’ll ignore the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson for these purposes).

There was no precedent for the initial proposal of princess consort. However, had Camilla become princess consort, this could have been a new development that future generations followed. But Queen Camilla also removes any doubt that when Prince William becomes king, the Duchess of Cambridge will become Queen Catherine.

Royal double standard?

One principled argument for the princess consort title is that it would have furthered equality between kings and queens. As we’ve seen with Prince Philip, the wife of a king becomes queen consort, but the husband of a queen does not become “king consort”. There is no specific title for the husband of a Queen.

Indeed, Philip was only made a prince in 1957, five years after his wife became queen. Seemingly, Philip was uninterested in following the precedent of Prince Albert, who became prince consort, but in any event, Albert was only granted that title in 1857, 17 years after his marriage to Queen Victoria.

There is one question that is perhaps best left unresolved for now. Once Camilla becomes queen, she will keep the style “her majesty” for the rest of her life. When previous queen consorts outlived their husbands, they became known as the Queen Mother – the mother of the monarch.

Queen Elizabeth, consort to George VI, the Queen’s father, became synonymous with the title Queen Mother during the 50 years she held the title before her death in 2002. Clearly, this option is not open to Queen Camilla, as she is not William’s mother, but it is a question that can be answered if and when it arises.

Constitutionally, little hinges on the title of queen consort instead of princess consort. Constitutional power is vested in the monarch, not their spouse. The one exception, as enshrined in Regency Acts 1937-1953, allows for counsellors of state to exercise powers on behalf of the monarch, should they be unavailable due to illness or are overseas. But even when Charles becomes king, the regency acts will make Camilla a counsellor of state because she is the spouse of the sovereign, not because she is queen consort.

Prince Charles signs a guest book at a desk while Camilla stands to his left looking on
As queen consort and spouse of the sovereign, Camilla will also be a counsellor of state. David Rowland / EPA-EFE

Currently, the four counsellors of state are Prince Charles, Prince William, Prince Harry and Prince Andrew. Two are needed to act together. The problem is that, for very different reasons, Prince Harry and Prince Andrew, no longer undertake royal duties. So should the need arise, the only option is for Prince Charles and Prince William to act together, potentially requiring them to return from an overseas tour.

Given that Camilla will eventually be queen, perhaps there is an argument to make her a counsellor of state now. If required over the next few years, this would allow the future king and queen to deputise together. Indeed, the regency acts could be revisited, with Charles and Camilla perhaps undertaking some of the formal roles and freeing up the Queen to undertake more public-facing duties.

The reign of Charles and Camilla

The timing of the Queen’s announcement is part of a process to smooth the transition to the next reign. This raises the question, what sort of Queen will Camilla be? In recent years, she has been one of the most outspoken members of the royal family.

During the pandemic, Camilla has become an increasingly assured media performer, guest editing radio programmes, using her platform to speak movingly about the horrors of domestic violence, and speaking about the importance of live theatre at the Olivier Awards in 2020. Last year, she appeared on the One Show to discuss her Instagram based book club, The Reading Room.

While respecting the need for the monarchy to remain separate from party politics, this shows that we’re likely to have a queen consort who will do more than cut the odd ribbon or two. By expressing her “sincere wish” for Queen Camilla, and praising her “loyal service”, the Queen is giving her seal of approval to the more accessible, modern, post-Elizabethan monarchy that is now emerging.

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