The Royal Family 101

The Queen only really has control of one thing now, and that’s her family. It’s her personal benign dictatorship. The Royal Family spends a lot of time in our consciousness and in the popular media. But what exactly is ‘The Royal Family?’ Who decides who is part of it and who decides on titles and positions? And who really matters in the line of succession? We’ll start off with the three most important elements: The Monarch, The Heir and the Spare.

The Queen (aka the Monarch)

The monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, is the head of the Royal Family, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Commonwealth. The monarch’s control of the Royal family is one of the last true powers that they still have. They have an enormous influence over the family, but her role is also dictated by law, history and tradition. It’s often said that the reigning monarch sets the tone and the image of the nation during their reign. You only need to look at the Georgian Era, Regency Era or even the Victorian era to see that entire pockets of time can be associated with one person. We’re currently living in the second Elizabethan era, and it won’t last forever. This article will be a survey of the Royal Family; it’s roles in British society, current make-up, and what it looks like for the future. The line of succession is massive, though there is no ‘official’ list that is maintained. It is said that there are over 5,700 people living who are legitimately descending from Sophia and are not Catholic. That’s a lot of people!

Queen Elizabeth II

Credit: Shutterstock, Shaun Jeffers


Who can be the heir?

Based on traditional male-based primogeniture, most people assume that the only person who can be the monarch is the closest living son to the monarch, if a son is not found, then it’s the closest legitimate daughter. This is not so much the case anymore. England (and generally Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Commonwealth) has had several Queen’s throughout its history and has no problem with this.

The current line of succession dates back to Act of Settlement 1701, which can be considered the foundation of the modern United Kingdom (well, minus Ireland). It set out that only legitimate descendants of Sophia, Electress of Hanover, can be the King or Queen of the United Kingdom. It also set out that the potential hire MUST be Protestant - e.g. not Catholic. This was meant to settle lots of the bloodshed and animosity related to the English Reformation.

The line of succession has followed this since, though there have been several instances where there wasn’t a male heir. It was only recently changed in 2013, to reduce the sexism inherent in the original acts of settlement, which gave male heirs preference over a female - for example, if a girl was born first, the next born son would still be higher in the line of succession. From 2013, it now doesn’t matter who comes first.

Even with all these modern changes, a potential heir must still be Protestant, though they can be married to a Catholic. The reason for this is that the Monarch is the head of the Church of England (and protector of Britain’s other faiths as well), so must be able to take communion in the Anglican Communion. If a potential heir converts to Catholicism, for whatever reason, they lose their place in the line of succession.

Royal Marriages

The reigning monarch has absolute authority over who is allowed to marry in the immediate line of succession. Following the changes that came into force in 2013, the Monarch must give marriage consent to first six people in the line of succession. Even Prince Harry had to get permission last year to marry Meghan Markle. Before, any marriage that wasn’t approved as not valid and all heir illegitimate. Things have softened a bit, while the marriage won’t be valid for the inheritance of the throne, it will still be legal.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, now Duke and Duchess of Sussex, on their wedding day on the 19th of May 2018

Credit: Blueskynet,


Prince of Wales (Heir Presumptive)

The title ‘Prince of Wales’ is a title in possession of the Monarch, usually given to the heir apparent to the throne (though the heir apparent doesn’t need to have it). The current Prince of Wales is Charles. When he becomes king, the title merges with the crown and then he can pass it on to the next heir (but it’s not a heritable title).

Princes of Wales often use it as an opportunity to define their own role in public life until they become the Monarch themselves. Prince Charles is very active and will actually often act on the Queen’s behalf due to her age. It’s not possible for her to make long Royal Visits overseas anymore, so Charles and other members of the Royal Family will do it on her behalf now. Charles is now the longest-serving Prince of Wales in history.

The prince of Wales

Credit: Shutterstock, Frederic Legrand - COMEO


Prince William (The Future Heir)

Prince William is next in line after Prince Charles (and his children will be in line after him now). William was given the title of the Duke of Cambridge when he married in 2011. Again, he has no formal public role but has taken on a supporting role within the Royal Family to help with the Queen’s royal duties. He will bestow titles or make visits abroad on behalf of the Queen. The immediate line of succession will now follow his three children (and their children).

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge

Credit: Kozakiewicz, Shutterstock



The #1 most paramount duty of any monarch is to give birth to their heir, and also a spare - just in case. Prince Harry is the current ‘spare’, and he is 6th in the line of succession, his brother’s children are now ahead of him in line. The spares often have no formal role whatsoever; their job is to stay out of trouble and to stay alive. Either is not often followed… with many dying in wartime or getting into scandalous trouble. The last ‘spare’ to become Monarch was, in fact, Queen Elizabeth’s father, George VI. His brother, Edward VIII abdicated the throne during the abdication crisis. As he had no children, this made his brother king.

The Rest of the Royal Family

While most of the attention is on the ‘main’ member of the Royal Family, the immediate line of succession has over 50 people in it. All are close relatives to the Queen. There is, of course, her other children who are in line after Prince William and Harry. Then there are royal cousins like Prince Michael of Kent. In the past, these distant members of the Royal family would often live off the ‘civil list’, but that has since been abolished. Usually, the Monarch will provide for them if they perform any official Royal Duties. Otherwise, they are on their own for work and income.

Often seen at major royal events, these minor Royals play a key role in the Royal Family. At Royal Weddings, page boys and girls are still needed, and these are usually the younger children in the extended Royal Family. There are countless Royal Cousins. This is thanks to Queen Victoria, who has so many children, who then went on to have so many children. Though nowadays most of the extended Royal Family are direct relatives of the Queen. Many are, in fact, now her nieces, nephews, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

There are many roles that have to be filled in the Royal Household, and in the past, many of these were patronage positions that led to power and glory. Now, most are simply ceremonial. This means they’re unpaid. But they often involved a lot of work during big state occasions.

The further away you get from the Monarch in the line of succession, the more choice you get over what to do with your life. Most minor Royals don’t adopt any official roles and seek to live a private life. For example, Zara Tindall, Princess Anne’s daughter, is a noted equestrian and Olympian but pretty much keeps a private profile. While she can occasionally be seen at major royal events, she lives a quiet life.

Titles and Styles

Royal Titles are a confusing business. They’re also inconsistent, even within the Royal Family. All titles come from the Queen (or reigning Monarch). Some are Royal Titles; some are non-Royal. Some are hereditary, some are not hereditary (courtesy titles).

Here’s a breakdown of the main titles in the main section of the Royal family:

  • The Queen - Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II (she has, obviously, many more titles than this)

  • The Duke of Edinburgh - The Queen’s husband, he is not a prince or a king

  • The Prince of Wales - The Heir to the Throne (Prince Charles)

  • Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Prince William and Kate Middleton) - Their Children are Princes and Princesses

  • The Princess Royal (Anne - Queen’s Daughter)

  • The Duke of York (Prince Andrew - Queen’s son) - His daughters - Eugenie and Beatrice are Princesses

  • The Earl of Wessex (Prince Edward - Queen’s Son

  • The Duke of Gloucester (Queen’s cousin)

  • The Duke of Kent (Queen’s Cousin)

  • Princess Alexandria (Queen’s Cousin)

  • Prince Michael of Kent (Queen’s Cousin)

Queen Elizabeth, her husband the Duke of Edinburgh, and two of their children Prince Charles and Princess Anne

Credit: Library and Archives Canada, e010949328


All of the Royal listed above have Royal titles and royal styles. This means they are addressed at His or Her Royal Highness (colloquially known as an HRH). This style can only be used in the direct main Royal family, and its usage comes directly from the Queen. Once you get to the non-styled members of the Royal Family, like Zara Tindall, they are not known as HRH’s. The children of Prince Harry, for example, while Royal, are not styled HRH while the Queen is alive, they will eventually.

The members of the Royal family who don’t have the HRH style, usually have titles bestowed upon them by the Queen. These are usually titles that are within the gift of the reigning monarch (often titles that had died out with no heirs or lost through treason). These titles usually apply to the Queen’s nieces and nephews and her grandchildren who are out of the direct line of succession.

Where to see the Royal family?

The days when the Royal Family is most visible are the major royal events such as weddings, funerals, and Buckingham Palace garden parties. The most reliable event in which to see a large portion of the Royal Family is during Trooping the Colour. Held every June in honour of the Queen’s official birthday, the Trooping features the Queen’s regiments putting on a show for their Queen, the Royal Family and the greater public. It’s such a major event that it’s usually broadcast on TV to a large audience (and even broadcast worldwide).

There is always a carriage procession that features the Queen and the Royal Family. In recent years, it’s mostly been focused on the younger Royals. But there will also be members in the extended Royal Family in attendance, usually wearing some glorious hats. The carriage procession goes down The Mall, the central road in London leading up to Buckingham Palace. This gives the public a chance to see the Royal Family in person. Once they arrive at the Palace, they usually make an appearance on the balcony and wave to the crowds. There is usually a flyover of Royal Air Force planes as well. This is usually the best opportunity to see a majority of the Royal Family at once.

Royal Weddings are a bit different, and it depends on who is getting married. Invitations are hard to come by - the cathedrals where they’re held are usually limited in seating. While the Royal Couple will want to have their own private guests, there will be plenty of people who have to be invited. Visiting dignitaries, ambassadors, heads of state, members of the British government. It can quickly turn into a wedding where the couple doesn’t actually know many of the people in attendance!

Buckingham Palace, London

Credit: Shutterstock, maziarz

House Name

The current Royal Family is known as the House of Windsor, and many of the Royal Family use this as their surname. The name ‘House of Windsor’ is a relatively recent creation. This was due to the fact that the British Royal Family, in fact, has deep German roots. The family’s name before 1917 was ‘Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’ after the lands and titles held by British monarchs in Germany (the British Royal Family’s German roots go back even further). In 1917, at the height of World War I, when anti-German sentiment was very high, it was decided that the ‘British’ royal family should have a more appropriate name. A more ‘British’ name. House of Windsor was chosen since the Royal family was so closely associated with Windsor Castle.

Charity Work

In addition to all their official and unofficial duties, members of the Royal family will often pick causes that they will grant their patronage too. This lifts up charities and gives them a bigger role in British society. Landing a prominent member of the Royal Family as your patron can make or break a charitable movement, and it’s more likely to be a success with Royal backing. The Royal Family supports hundreds of charities through its patronage.

Most royal pick charities that have something to do with passion projects of their own. For example, Prince Harry is heavily involved in the Invictus Games, which are Olympic style competitions for wounded war veterans. The Prince of Wales is heavily involved in environmental issues and will also work with arts organizations. He also has his own private charity, The Prince’s Trust, that works on issues particularly close to him. Sometimes Royals will choose charities that have something to do with their own Royal Titles - the Countess of Wessex is a patron of Wessex Heartbeat, for example.

Prince Harry in the middle at the Invictus Games

Credit: ACHPF,


The Royal Family has a long history with charity patronage, and as the family grows in size, more and more charities will get the opportunity to have the Royal touch. There has been much excitement since the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle as they announce the charities they will be supporting.

Royal Visits

If you are running a major event or opening up a new location or inaugurating a new cultural institution, you’ll want to get a Royal to come to open it. In her younger days, The Queen would do many of these herself. Organizations can make applications to the Royal Household to get a Royal opening. The Royal Family performs over 2,000 official engagements a year! A large Royal Family makes all of this possible.

A Royal Visit, no matter the rank of the Royal, usually involves much planning. The local ‘Lord-Lieutenant’ (the Queen’s representative in the locality) will greet the visiting royal in full regalia. There will be a speech. In Britain, these Royal openings are often considered the ‘official’ opening of a place, even if it has already opened. Getting a Royal Visit is great PR for whatever is opening as the royal visit will make the press and be all over the newspapers.


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