What's the difference between queen and 'Queen Consort'? Camilla's future title, explained

Maria Puente
USA TODAY
  • Queen Elizabeth II revealed her "sincere wish" for Duchess Camilla to be known as "Queen Consort."
  • "Queen Consort" is a fancy name for a reigning king's wife. But the husband of a queen isn't a king.
  • Prince Charles and Camilla have steered clear of the title "Princess of Wales," because of Diana.
  • Queen Camilla will be crowned with a lavish platinum-and-diamond tiara at Charles' coronation.

Americans left all that royal folderol about titles behind them in 1776.

Yet here we are, nearly 250 years later, agog about princes and dukes, queens and consorts, and the rest of the mystifying rules about royal style – and we're not talking about fashion. 

We have just gone through a period of debating what we're supposed to call Prince Harry and Prince Andrew now that they're no longer allowed to use "His Royal Highness" in front of their names after stepping down from senior royal roles.

Now we're plunged into a discussion about what to call Prince Charles' second wife, Camilla, after he succeeds his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, as King Charles III sometime in the hopefully distant future.

Queen Elizabeth II:Camilla should be called 'Queen Consort' when Charles becomes king

And so it will be: Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall will be known as "Queen Camilla," in keeping with Queen Elizabeth II's expressed wishes.

His mother, 95, settled the matter rather firmly on Saturday when she issued a message to her people to mark the 70th anniversary of her accession to the throne, saying that it is her "sincere wish" that Camilla, now the Duchess of Cornwall, should be called "Queen Consort."

Huh? No doubt many Americans wondered what that means. (Brits understood immediately and recognized the significance.) And how come Camilla gets to be called queen but the late Prince Philip, the queen's husband of 73 years who died last April, was just HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh?

We shall endeavor to explain.

What is a 'queen consort'?

It's the fancy name for the wife of a reigning king, which the United Kingdom has not had since 1952 when King George VI died and his widow, Queen Elizabeth, became the Queen Mother. 

(Handy hint: Here's how you can tell the difference between the two Elizabeths: The reigning queen, Elizabeth II, has a Roman numeral after her name, signifying she is the second sovereign of that name, not a consort. Also, there have been only six British or English reigning queens among the 41 monarchs since 1066 – Mary I, Elizabeth I, Mary II, Anne, Victoria, Elizabeth II – so it's easier to tell them apart.) 

All previous wives of British or English kings were queen consorts (that includes all six of Henry VIII's wives, at least while they were married to him). In the 20th century, there were two: Queen Mary, wife of King George V, and the present queen's grandmother, and Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII, and the present queen's great-grandmother.

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King George VI and his consort, Queen Elizabeth, in a carriage in London on June 26, 1938.

What does a queen consort do?

As with the first lady of the United States, there's no job description, no official duties and no salary. But there's high visibility, high pressure and high expectations from the public whose taxes pay for the monarchy.

In general, a queen consort's job is to support the king in any way she can. Job No. 1 is to birth heirs, but this isn't an issue for Charles, 73, and Camilla, 74, who each have children from their previous marriages. The royal succession is set for three more generations: After Charles comes his elder son, Prince William, 39, and after that William's elder son, Prince George, 8.

As the wife of the Prince of Wales for the last 17 years, Camilla has already been doing what a queen consort would do: She is a royal patron to scores of charities and good causes, accompanies her husband on royal tours, meets thousands of people every year and is gracious and charming with everyone. 

She opens hospitals, cuts ribbons, plants trees and unveils official plaques. She goes to museums, movie premieres, concerts, flower shows and the State Opening of Parliament, dressed in a gown and crown.

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Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall listen as Queen Elizabeth II delivers the Queen's Speech in the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament in 2014.

As queen consort, she will never get involved in politics, or sneak a peek into one of the red government despatch boxes full of official eyes-only documents that follow the sovereign around wherever he or she goes.   

Who could be a model for Queen Camilla?

Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who became queen consort after her brother-in-law King Edward VIII abdicated in 1936, helped save the British monarchy by steeling her nervous, stuttering husband who was nearly undone by the pressures of being an unexpected king, especially during World War II.

She went with him everywhere, visiting bombed-out Londoners in the East End and spreading her twinkly brand of royal magic that people remembered fondly many decades later. When Buckingham Palace was bombed in 1940, narrowly missing the king and queen, she said she was glad because it "makes me feel I can look the East End in the face." 

When she died in 2002 at age 101, an estimated 200,000 people filed past her coffin at the Palace of Westminster over three days, with the line stretching more than a mile along the River Thames. 

Do we have to call her 'Queen Consort Camilla'?

No, Queen Camilla will do. It's nicely alliterative and the "consort" part is understood. Besides, it makes for shorter, snappier headlines. 

The official palace press operation will always refer to her as "Her Majesty" in any news release but American media rarely use HM or HRH, for "Her Royal Highness," in referring to Camilla now.

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Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, visited the Sphinx at the Giza Pyramids plateau on the western outskirts of Cairo last fall.

Why isn't Camilla the Princess of Wales?

Because of Diana, the late Princess of Wales, who long blamed Camilla for the breakup of her marriage to Charles (even though that wasn't all down to Camilla) and because public fury at Camilla remained when she and Charles married in 2005, eight years after Diana's death in a Paris car crash.

At the time, it was decided that Camilla would take one of Charles' lesser titles, Duchess of Cornwall, to help soothe public feelings. Since then, Charles and his PR team, plus Camilla herself, have gone far to turn around public antipathy to her.   

How come men married to sovereign queens aren't called 'King'?

Because by sexist definition, a king outranks a queen, and if she is the heir – the elder daughter of a king – and she has no brother, as in the case of Elizabeth II, then she is the sovereign and not her husband. He has to walk a few paces behind her for the rest of their married life. 

This is especially true if he's foreign-born, as was the case for Prince Philip, even though he was a distant cousin of his wife, mostly raised by British relatives and educated in British schools, as well as being a member of the British Navy. 

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Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall attended the ceremonial opening of the Welsh Parliament in Cardiff, Wales, on Oct. 14, 2021.

What role does Parliament play in this?

Over the centuries, Parliament has tended to be touchy about such matters: No foreigners to rule us! And never mind that King George I (from whom Elizabeth II descends) was born in Hanover, Germany, and couldn't speak English when he became king. But he was a descendant of the Stuart kings (thrown out of the country in the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688) and he was a Protestant, not a Catholic, and that's what mattered at the time.

When Queen Mary I (Henry VIII's elder daughter, whose mother was a Spanish princess) took the throne in 1552 after her brother King Edward VI died as a teen, she married a distant cousin, King Philip II of Spain, who as her co-ruler thought he could make England a satellite of Catholic Spain. Parliament put a stop to that in the governing marriage act, which limited Philip's power in England. Among other restrictions, it said he could not claim the crown for himself should he outlive his wife, which he did. Hasta la vista, King Philip. 

On the other hand, there's William and Mary (the royal couple, not the college), the only joint monarchs. Parliament was all too happy to allow Queen Mary II's husband, her Dutch first cousin, William, Prince of Orange, to co-reign (starting in 1689) as King William III and equal to his wife. Both were Protestants, so anything to prevent the return of Mary's exiled Catholic Stuart relatives.) When Mary died of smallpox in 1694, "King Billy" ruled for eight more years alone and was succeeded by Mary's younger sister, Anne.

And don't forget Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, a minor German prince and her first cousin, who was regarded with suspicion by an anti-German Parliament after they married in 1840. Victoria was advised by her ministers and Parliament against making him "King Consort," which fit with her disinclination to share her royal power. Albert wasn't created Prince Consort until 1857 and died at Windsor Castle in 1861, after which Victoria shut herself away and mourned him until her own death in 1901.

Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall will have the future title of Queen Camilla.

Will Queen Camilla be crowned? 

Yes. The most important head at any coronation is that of the sovereign but the queen consort is crowned too. 

And according to The Mail on Sunday, Camilla will be crowned with the Queen Mother’s platinum-and-diamond tiara, created for George VI’s coronation in 1937. The crown features thousands of diamonds, including the infamous 105-carat Koh-i-Noor diamond from India, which came into British hands and the Crown Jewels by murky means in the colonial era. It was last seen in public resting on the Queen Mother's coffin at her funeral. 

By contrast, when Elizabeth II was crowned in Westminster Abbey in June 1953, she was alone on the throne above the Stone of Scone, and she alone received St. Edward's Crown from the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

When the crown touched her head, the gathered princes and peers in their ermine coronation robes shouted "God save the queen!" three times, then reached to don their own coronets as a 21-gun salute was fired from the Tower of London.

Prince Philip watched along with everyone else, then was the first to kneel before his queen and pledge his allegiance.  

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