Almost as long as there have been royals and nobles, there has been a system of hierarchy that dictates how royal titles work and how aristocratic ranks are ordered. 

The royal titles and noble ranks that we know today are the result of millennia of evolution. The aristocracy really came into its own during the Middle Ages, yet even before those early centuries, there were social systems in place, many of which used titles to differentiate rank and status. 

As the societies of the world become more civilised, with their members able to focus on more than mere survival, the intricacies and nuances of these social systems evolved gradually, over many generations. 

So for many social groups, the use of titles became a popular, useful and effective way to identify certain individuals and instantly denote their place in the social pecking order. 

In modern times, we have inherited a great many of these ancient systems, along with some of their curious details and quirky traditions. Of course, some ancient social practices have been lost in the mists of time, and others have been replaced by more modern sensibilities and altruistic tendencies. 

Yet there remains in place a strong and enduring tradition of royal titles and ranks of nobility, and since this tradition still plays a key role in many aspects of modern society, it can be helpful to understand how these systems and hierarchies work. 

How Do Royal Titles Work? 

There’s a simple hierarchy within the tradition of royal titles, one that will be familiar to anyone who enjoyed fairy stories as a child. 

At the top of the hierarchy – the most important royal title – is the king or the queen

A king or queen is the ruler of a kingdom or realm. Sometimes they inherit their kingdoms from their parents or other relatives – this is the most common way to acquire a kingdom. Another way to become a king or queen is to use force – many wars have been waged in order to claim the crown of another kingdom. 

However they find themselves in the position of ruler, the king or queen is the absolute head of the entire hierarchy. They are regarded as the supreme sovereign of the kingdom and they are known as the reigning monarch. 

Over the centuries, the role of a king or queen in the governance of a nation has varied. Sometimes the sovereign is regarded as an absolute ruler – appointed by God and superior to all others. This has been a common scenario in the monarchies of the past, yet today’s societies tend more towards a constitutional monarchy. 

In many modern monarchies, the king or queen is more of a figurehead or representative of the people, rather than an autocrat or dictator. Regardless of the precise nature of their rule, in the majority of royal systems, the title of the top rank is that of king or queen. 

What Title Is Below King Or Queen? 

In the traditional systems of royal titles, the ranks just below the king or queen are historically that of a prince or princess. 

In many popular fables and fairy stories, the king or queen is the ruler of a kingdom and their children are the princes and princesses. This has been a common hierarchy of titles within many royal families around the world for generations, and it’s one that still holds strong even in modern times. 

For example, the current sovereign of Great Britain is Charles III, and his title is King Charles. His two sons are royal princes – Prince William and Prince Harry. 

Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry – Carfax2, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Yet the royal titles of Prince and Princess can also be used by children of other royals – not just the king and queen. For example, the children of Prince William, heir to the British throne, are called Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis – even though they are not the children of the reigning monarch. 

Similarly, the wife of Prince William holds the title of Princess – Catherine, Princess of Wales, even though she is not the daughter of the monarch, and wasn’t even born into a royal or noble family. 

So even though fairy stories would have us believe that the titles of princes and princesses are held by the sons and daughters of kings and queens, in reality, royal titles are often more complex than that simple hierarchy. 

Generally, however, the royal titles of prince and princess do denote the children of kings and queens, along with the children of royal siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews, grandparents and grandchildren – depending on the particular rules and traditions of each royal family. 

Some royal titles can also be granted or acquired when non-royals marry a prince or a princess, which is the case for the Princess of Wales of Great Britain. 

What Other Royal Titles Are There? 

Without a doubt, the titles of king, queen, prince and princess are the most popular royal titles, and the ones that most clearly reflect the royal hierarchy of a sovereign and their family. 

However, the systems of royal titles are ancient and have developed many variations and specific traditions over time, some of which give rise to other types of royal titles. 

For example, in the French system of royalty, the son and heir of the king was not simply called a prince, but rather he was given a more prestigious royal title – that of Dauphin. Many other royal systems use a similar distinction for the eldest prince with the royal title of Crown Prince, to indicate that he is not just one of the many princes (if there are several) but that he is the one who will inherit the crown. 

Another variation of the classic royal titles is that of Queen Mother. In this example, this title indicates the relationship of the monarch’s mother and their respective rank and status within the royal hierarchy. 

The history of royal titles is often as fascinating as the history of royal individuals themselves. It is rich with tradition, nuance and curious idiosyncrasies, making it a sometimes confusing and complex system to understand. 

Yet after centuries of evolution, it’s interesting that the most common royal titles work as even the youngest lover of fairy stories would expect, leaving the more complicated alternatives and variations for the older scholars and history lovers to explore.