Admittedly, it’s not very likely that you’ll encounter someone with the title Duke in your day-to-day affairs. (That is, not unless you’re a member of the British Royal Family or acquainted with people who know that anyone can obtain a royal title; more on that later.) But perhaps one day it happens, and you bump into a man who is distinctly, unquestionably in possession of a Duke title in the fine wines aisle of your local organic shop. Perhaps, even, you bump into two dukes and watch in astonishment as they proceed to have an argument about which of them should salute first, and which is the less important.
Alright, well, the organic shop aisle scenario isn’t exactly likely, but it is the case that the UK aristocracy features two kinds of dukes who enjoy different social standings. But what exactly is the difference, and how does it work?
What Does a Duke Do?
There is, as it were, your ‘average’ duke. There are currently twenty-four of these, including, for example, the Duke of Manchester, the Duke of Argyll, the Duke of Somerset, and the Duke of Marlborough. Of course, there is, in fact, nothing average at all about such titles. In the ranking system of the British aristocracy, a duke is always the most senior noble after members of the Royal family and takes precedence over ranks such as Earl, Viscount, and Baron. In other words, they are at the very top of the social hierarchy. The titles are hereditary and often have centuries of history behind them, such as the five-hundred-years-plus of the Duchy of Norfolk – though some are more recent creations, such as the Duchy of Argyll, created 1892.
Nevertheless, these twenty-four dukes must suffer the indignity of being the less important kind: for there are six dukedoms that outrank them all. Those are the six ‘Royal Dukes’, and they are, as the name would make clear, special positions afforded to members of the Royal family.
Who are the Royal Dukes?
With the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II and the coronation of King Charles III to become the reigning monarch, there have been some changes to the list of Royal Dukes, but the number is still 6. Prince William (the Duke of Cambridge) and Prince Harry (the Duke of Sussex) are probably the two most well-known, with their uncles Prince Andrew (Duke of York) and Prince Edward (who became the Duke of Edinburgh after the death of Prince Philip) also Royal Dukes. The final two are Prince Richard (Duke of Gloucester) and Prince Edward (the second cousin to King Charles III and the Duke of Kent).
All are distinguished by their close bloodline relation to the Royal line; in fact, all are direct descendants of King George V (1865-1936) and Queen Mary (1867-1953). All take social and formal precedence over any of the other twenty-four dukes, who, whilst sometimes more distantly related to the royals, aren’t within immediate family circles.
So it is that two dukes might actually have reason to stop and ask themselves who is the most important. Believe it or not, these considerations are still taken very seriously when it comes to the great state occasions of the day. In any fancy procession full of ermine-coated peers, there will be a strict ordering with the highest-ranking coming first, followed by the second-highest-ranking, and so forth.
For those lacking a firm understanding of these rules, however, there is a potential cause for further confusion. This confusion arises because there is a parallel though inferior system for ranking all dukedoms, which simply works on the basis of which is the oldest and, thus, most venerable. So it is that the Duke of Cornwall will always be preeminent among the dukes because that duchy was established in 1337. (It was created for the legendary ‘Black Prince’ after his father, Edward III, lost the Duchy of Normandy that the monarch had held ever since William the Conqueror’s invasion in 1066.) After him will come the Duke of Norfolk, whose position was established in 1483; and so on.
What causes confusion is the fact that this system implies that Prince William’s position as Duke of Cambridge, established in 2011, is the very lowest in rank – at the opposite end, in fact, from when his father was the Duke of Cornwall. However, as we’ve seen, this ‘low’ status is actually overruled by the ‘high’ status that William enjoys as a Royal Duke, and second-in-line to the throne. So, whilst William would, by one calculation, have to walk at the back of the parade, he would, in reality, be found walking at the front just behind the King. No-one ever said aristocracy was a simple matter!
For those of us not born into such high social ranks, we have the luck of a quicker and easier route to a noble title. Websites such as royaltitles.com offer the chance to purchase a noble title of your choice: not only that of duke, but also baron, earl, prince, margrave, count, and more besides. For every male title there is a female equivalent, i.e., duchess; anyone can become a noble! The titles are legally valid and bestow the purchaser the legal right to change their name accordingly on all legal documents, including passport and bank card. Wait till you see the check-in clerk’s face when they read your name as ‘Duke Suchandsuch’! Free champagne all the way…. The modest price also gives you a certificate of proof and a historical guide, as well as a smart medal. You’re legally entitled to pass the title on in your will, too! Go on – become a lord or lady now!