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Why Did Harry Rank Above Kate at Westminster? The Order of Precedence

Thursday, April 25, 2019


As I have highlighted ad nauseam on this blog in the past few months, the British Royal Family is one of hierarchy. The hierarchy (rank) is obvious, but the "order of precedence" is a tougher set of rules to learn. This can be a puzzling area, because the rules of precedence aren't set in stone--the monarch can switch them up--and they are not published for public examination, so we rely on "insiders" and observation to figure out how everything is working.

The question of precedence popped up today, because the Duchess of Cambridge attended the Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving (that post here) without William, who is in New Zealand. Generally, when Kate attends a family gathering, she is with her spouse, and the hierarchy is clear, but when Kate isn't with William things get a bit shuffled. At the service, because William wasn't with Kate, she dropped a bit in the order of precedence. Prince Harry, the most senior blood royal at the event, sat in the first chair by the altar, followed by the Duke of Gloucester. The Duke of Gloucester is the Queen's cousin. He is a prince, a grandchild of George V, and he is 26th in line to the throne). Kate, who is not a blood royal, took the third chair from the altar. 

The general key with the royals is that spouses of the male HRHs get commensurate status. That's why when people claim Kate isn't a princess, I have to do a bit of an eye roll. William is a prince, so Kate is a princess. It is true she is not technically "Princess Kate," as Princess Eugenie is very properly Princess Eugenie. Kate's marriage made her a princess (Princess William) while Eugenie was born royal, and the royals maintain that distinction between blood royals and those who have married into the family. But Kate is still a princess just as she is a duchess--all through her marriage to William. Another example is the Duchess of Cornwall, who styles herself by a secondary title out of respect for Diana, but who is, in fact, the Princess of Wales. But, I digress. The point here is that a royal wife gets her status from her husband. When Camilla married Charles, though, the order of precedence got a bit of a shake up. 

According to multiple sources at the time of Charles and Camilla's wedding, certain senior royal women were unhappy that they might have to curtsy to Camilla. Emotions over Diana and Charles were still raw, and obviously there were some strong feelings behind the palace walls. Apparently, that is when the Queen switched the order of precedence to a "bloodline" hierarchy. This shift meant that Anne, Alexandra (the Queen's cousin and another grandchild of George V), Beatrice, and Eugenie all outrank Camilla if Charles is not with her. They were all born princesses. Sophie and Kate, neither of whom were born royal, would still be below Camilla.

We saw this in action today when Kate attended the Westminster service without William. Because she is not a blood royal, Harry and the Duke of Gloucester took precedence. Had Meghan been with Harry, she would have been seated with him. 

If the royals stick to this arrangement, even when Kate is the Princess of Wales, she would cede her place if she attended an event without William at which one of the blood princesses was present. I think you will agree that is kind of hard to imagine. I just am struggling to see Kate, fifteen years down the road and as the Princess of Wales, at an event where she must take a lower place to Beatrice. Similarly, frankly, although it was reported in 2006 that the change in precedence left Camilla waiting about in the rain for Anne to arrive at memorial service they were both attending (I am uncertain if that was the reason she waited, but perhaps it was), it is hard for me to imagine Camilla, the wife of the Prince of Wales, seated below Beatrice or Eugenie, or honestly even Harry, at a formal event like this morning's. She is the wife of the Prince of Wales, for heaven's sake. A future queen! I think this change was unique to the Charles, Diana, Camilla triangle, and probably should be amended. I would be willing to bet it will be amended when Charles ascends the throne. 

But, for the sake of discussion, if nothing changes, when William is crowned king, Kate will be crowned his queen, and her independent status as an anointed queen consort will cement her superior place in the order of precedence. Then it wouldn't matter that she was not born royal, because she will then be Queen Catherine. That is a pretty special status. :)

But, as mentioned, this order of precedence was reportedly changed in 2005 to accommodate the unusual circumstances within the family, and I suspect it will be changed again when Charles becomes king and everyone's position shifts as a result.