Once a peerage conferred upon a member of the Royal Family has become extinct, it is then reserved for a later prince and is not available to a subject.
The Dukedom of Edinburgh, conferred in 1947 upon Prince Philip, was first bestowed (spelt ‘Edenburgh’ in the patent) on Frederick Lewis, grandson of George I, but a year later, after his father succeeded as George II, he was created Prince of Wales. On his death, this peerage passed to his son, the future King George III, before being merged into the Crown.
George III conferred the Edinburgh title, together with the Dukedom of Gloucester, upon his brother Prince William Henry, but as Gloucester was the senior title, this was normally used. Both became extinct in 1834 on the death of his son, nicknamed ‘Silly Billy’.
Queen Victoria made her son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, who like Prince Philip, was a ‘Sailor Prince’. His Dukedom became extinct in 1900 and was not conferred again until it was given to Prince Phillip.
The latest holder of the title is the former Earl of Wessex. On 10 March 2023, Charles III announced that he was elevating his brother to the Dukedom for life. This means that the Duke’s son, now James, Earl of Wessex, will not inherit the dukedom on his father’s death, it will once again revert to the Crown.
The Dukedom of York has usually been conferred upon the second son of our sovereigns since Edward IV in 1474 bestowed the title on his younger son, Richard. This was the younger of the Princes in the Tower, whose fate has exercised the credulity of historians ever since. Before this, in 1385, Edmund of Langley, a son of Edward III, became Duke of York and was ancestor of the House of York, who warred with Lancaster in the Wars of the Roses. The victor, Edward, Duke of York, who had only succeeded for two months, seized the Crown at the age of eighteen, becoming Edward IV.
Three second sons who became Duke of York, and ultimately kings, were Henry VIII (son of Henry VII), Charles I (son of James I), and James II (son of Charles I). A slight difference in this pattern occurred when George I gave the title in 1716 to his youngest brother, Ernest Augustus, in conjunction with the Dukedom of Albany; and the next two Hanoverian dukes likewise received both creations. The first was Prince Edward Augustus, brother of George III, who received the title in 1760, but died unmarried two years later. George III later returned to the traditional style by giving it to his second son, Prince Frederick, later Commander-in-Chief. He was involved in the scandal over the selling of commissions, a racket organised by his mistress, Mary Anne Clarke, but in 1811, two years after his resignation, he was restored to the office which he held for the rest of his life. He is best known from the nursery rhyme ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s younger brother, Henry, held the Jacobite Dukedom of York, and was generally known as Cardinal York.
Queen Victoria did not approve of her Hanoverian uncles’ reputation and departed from tradition by creating her second son Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. As she reached such a great age, she had two grandsons in the direct line who were adults. She reluctantly agreed to bestow the title of Duke of York on the younger of these, the future King George V, mainly under pressure from his father The Prince of Wales. In 1920, Prince Albert, second son of George V, became Duke of York, and the tradition was perpetuated when Queen Elizabeth bestowed the title upon her second son, Prince Andrew, in 1986.
Like York, Gloucester has always been a Royal Dukedom. In 1385, the same day that the Dukedom of York was first created, Thomas of Woodstock, the youngest son of Edward III, was created Duke of Gloucester by his nephew Richard II. Subsequent Dukes were Humphrey, ‘The Good Duke’, brother of Henry V, and Richard, later Richard III.
Charles I made his youngest son, Henry, Duke of Gloucester, but he died unmarried of smallpox very shortly after the Restoration. The last Stuart creation was the son and only child of Princess Anne of Denmark (later Queen Anne) to survive infancy. Although declared Duke of Gloucester, he was never formally so created, and died at the age of eleven before his mother became Queen.
After George III’s brother, Prince William, became Duke of Gloucester and Albany, which died out with his son, the title was not re-created until 1928, when George V bestowed it upon his third son, Prince Henry – for more information about the Gloucesters, see here
Unlike these other Dukedoms, Kent was originally non-Royal, borne by the Grey family until this creation became extinct in 1740. Two years later, George III gave it to his fourth son, Prince Edward, father of Queen Victoria, but it became extinct in 1820 on his death. The Dukedom was next conferred by George V in 1934 upon Prince George, his fourth son - for more information about the Kents, see here
other royal titles
Other titles reserved for members of the Royal Family include the Dukedom of Clarence, derived from the Honour of Clare in Suffolk. The first was Lionel of Antwerp, third son of Edward III, from whom the Yorkists eventually derived their claim to the throne. Some of the Dukes of Clarence have been unfortunate. George, brother of Edward IV and Richard III, was murdered after being found guilty of high treason. The method used, according to popular tradition, was drowning after being pushed headfirst into a butt of malmsey. The last Duke of Clarence, elder son of the future Edward VII, died unmarried of pneumonia at the age of twenty-eight, a few weeks after his engagement to Princess Mary of Teck, who later married his brother.
Both the Dukedoms of Cumberland and Albany were attainted as a result of their holders, being Germans, taking up arms against Britain in the First World War. Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, the most unpopular of Queen Victoria’s uncles, succeeded William IV as King of Hanover, where Salic law operated. The Dukedom of Albany, bestowed on Queen Victoria’s youngest son, passed to his son, who, as a boy, succeeded as Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Since both peerages were merely suspended, they cannot be re-conferred, because theoretically they could be restored by an Act of Parliament. The most notorious Duke of Cumberland was William Augustus, second son of George II, who was in command of the Royal troops at the Battle of Culloden and earned the name of ‘Butcher Cumberland’ as a result of his severe repression in the Highlands.
The Dukedom of Kendal was twice conferred upon sons of James II who both died in infancy, and the Dukedoms of Sussex and Connaught were each conferred once: Sussex on Queen Victoria’s uncle, and Connaught upon her third son. The former died out on the Duke’s death, and Connaught on the death of the second Duke in 1943 in Canada. Sussex was revived when Queen Elizabeth bestowed it upon her grandson, Prince Harry, when he married Rachel Meghan Markle in 2018.
The Dukedom of Cambridge was occasionally brought into use at various times; the last creation in 1801 was to a son of George III. This died out with his son, formerly the Commander-in-Chief, at his death in 1904, but was re-conferred as a Marquessate, to his maternal nephew the Duke of Teck upon relinquishing his German title; it became extinct on the death of the 2nd Marquess in 1981. Queen Elizabeth revived this title in 2011 when she bestowed it upon her grandson Prince William when he married Catherine Middleton.
Another Royal Dukedom was that of Lancaster. The best known was the second Duke, John of Gaunt, who was made more famous by Shakespeare as “Time-honoured Lancaster” than as the hated uncle of the King against whom the fury of the Peasants’ Revolt was directed. When Henry, Duke of Lancaster dethroned, and later murdered, Richard II, thereby becoming the first Lancastrian king, the Dukedom merged with the Crown and has never been re-created, although the sovereign always succeeds to the Duchy of Lancaster. The loyal toast in the North today is ‘The King, Duke of Lancaster’.
It has long been the custom for Royal scions to receive more than one peerage. The ‘Butcher’ Duke of Cumberland, for example, was also Marquess of Berkhamsted, Earl of Kensington, Viscount Trematon and Baron of the Isle of Alderney.
Of the other Royal Dukedoms, Connaught is a province of the Republic of Ireland and therefore unlikely to be revived. Kendal has somewhat unfortunate connotations, as the last time the Dukedom was conferred it was upon an unpopular mistress of George I, nicknamed ‘The Maypole’ from her extremely emaciated figure; and Clarence has an unfortunate history.
Image, top: Prince Edward, Duke of York and Albany, 1760s, Henry Robert Morland, Wikimedia Commons