Much has been made of the similarities between Kate Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge, and Diana, Princess of Wales. Both were rich but fundamentally normal women who fell in love with princes and were whisked off to lives of unimaginable power and privilege. But while one of the two never got her happy ending, the other seemingly has done. And a curious question has been asked over the years concerning the pair: why was Diana referred to as a “Princess,” but Kate is known as a “Duchess?”
Diana had actually spent most of her life before marriage with a title – albeit a fairly minor one. She was given the honor of being named Lady Diana Spencer in 1975 after her father became an Earl. Kate, on the other hand, had no title whatsoever prior to marrying Prince William. And although her family were millionaires thanks to their party decorations business, they weren’t actually members of the British aristocracy.
That being said, the Middletons were linked to the aristocracy through the family of Kate’s father Michael. In fact, a couple of Kate’s ancestors were baronesses. Even so, Kate herself could perhaps never have expected to become such a high-ranking member of royalty. All that changed, however, when she went to study at the University of St. Andrews alongside William. And in 2003, as privately as they could manage, the couple began dating.
William and Kate’s relationship then continued for several years. And although the pair split up in April 2007, they simply couldn’t stay apart; so, amid considerable media interest, they got back together and continued to date. Then came the big announcement. In October 2010 the Palace declared that William intended to marry Kate; and he had even proposed to her with his mother’s ring.
The wedding subsequently took place on April 29, 2011, at Westminster Abbey in London. Tens of millions around the world tuned in to watch it too – just as all eyes had been on the wedding of Charles and Diana a few decades before that. And perhaps after the pair were wed, Kate, the normal girl made good, would then become Princess Kate. But it soon turned out that, actually, that wouldn’t be the case.
Indeed, Kate didn’t take the princess title. But why? Was she not willing to perform the same sorts of royal duties that her late mother-in-law Diana had done? No, that wasn’t it at all, since Kate threw herself into royal life and public appearances with apparent aplomb. As with most business concerning the British royal family, then, the real answer lies behind years and years of complex protocol and upper-class history.
Just before the wedding – the very morning of it, in fact – Prince William received some extra titles of his own. The Queen granted him the ability to call himself “Duke of Cambridge, Earl of Strathearn and Baron Carrickfergus.” Duke is the highest rank there is in the British peerage. And Kate would take on the female versions of those titles the second she said “I do.”
So, as soon as the couple’s union was blessed, the girl who was once simply Kate Middleton now had the full, official name of “Her Royal Highness Princess William, Duchess of Cambridge, Countess of Strathearn, Baroness Carrickfergus.” Yes, she had to officially take William’s whole name. But that full title is, needless to say, something of a mouthful. And even royals know that no-one will bother referring to them in such a manner.
As it stands, then, most members of the British royal family – Kate included – tend to use just their most prominent title. And for Kate, that’s the Duchess of Cambridge. Furthermore, royal commentators have pointed out that even if Kate had chosen to be called a princess, she still would never have been a real princess, as she wasn’t born into royalty. It would simply have been her occupation rather than her title. Royal naming is incredibly complicated, it seems.
It’s also been theorized that Kate actually benefits quite a bit from not being called “Princess.” After all, that title is frequently associated with rich, unattainable, almost cartoonish women – just think of the Disney Princess line of movies and toys, for example. On the other hand, Kate being called “Duchess” – or even just “Kate Middleton” – has given her a more down-to-earth, relatable image, it’s been said.
“I don’t think Kate and William are going to protest too loudly [about their titles],” Boston University history professor Arianne Chernock told Vanity Fair in 2016. “They’re really banking on forging this more popular relationship — kind of in line with William’s mother, with Diana.” That, of course, brings up another interesting question. Why, then, didn’t Diana choose to call herself something other than “Princess?”
Well, in truth, Diana had very little choice about what she was to be called. Indeed, she didn’t actually pick the title of princess for herself. What’s more, Diana herself explained that she was not born a princess, and so the honor wasn’t strictly accurate. Nevertheless, at the time she married Charles, “Prince” was Charles’ highest-ranking title. Not only had he been born a prince, but he was also granted the title of Prince of Wales aged just nine.
So, Diana took on the feminine form of her husband’s given title and became the Princess of Wales. This isn’t something she had an awful lot of choice in, either; the idea of a royal bride refusing the titles that had so kindly been granted to her would be completely unthinkable. And the title of “Princess of Wales” dates all the way back to the 14th century: the first woman to hold it was Joan of Kent, wife of Edward, the Black Prince.
Of course, the media were another reason why Diana was called a princess throughout her marriage. Only women born into the royal family – like little Princess Charlotte – can rightfully have the title “Princess” before their name. By contrast, Diana, a princess by marriage, should always have had the title after her name. But even though the press ought to really have called her “Diana, Princess of Wales,” most news outlets shortened it to simply “Princess Diana” or even “Princess Di.” A tiny distinction, yes, but when it comes to the royal family, no rule is too small.
So essentially, Diana was named by the people around her, and she had little control over what she was called. Kate, on the other hand, is venturing out into a world where the monarchy is working to be less stuffy and traditional. In fact, when Kate married William, a centuries-old rule was changed. Her first child, it was decreed, could take the throne whether they were male or female.
At the moment, thoughts are also turning to what Meghan Markle, Prince Harry’s girlfriend, will end up being called should she marry him. Royal experts believe that if the proposal happens, Harry will be granted the title Duke of Sussex, making Meghan “Her Royal Highness Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.” But it wasn’t so long ago that Harry wouldn’t have been allowed to marry Meghan at all, let alone bestow on her a title.
That’s because Markle is divorced, and somewhat ironically the royal family famously dislike divorce. As representatives of the Church of England, which frowns on divorce, they have very strict rules governing their marriage choices. In fact, the Edward VIII abdication crisis, which changed the face of the monarchy completely, was triggered by Edward VIII’s desire to marry a twice-divorced woman.
Of course, now times have changed a great deal. It’s somewhat of a shame, then, that Diana didn’t live to see the royal family become more progressive. Some even believe that it was she who laid the groundwork for someone like Kate to be able to marry into the family in the first place.
And Kate honors the mother-in-law she never met in many small ways. She wears Diana’s engagement ring, of course, but she also often sports other pieces of jewelry that were said to have been Diana’s favorites. And perhaps the biggest tribute of all to the late princess came in the form of the name of her and William’s first daughter, who was called Charlotte Elizabeth Diana.
Along with William and Harry, Kate also does a lot of charity work – something for which Diana was famous. And that’s another change that Diana may have paved the way for – a princess or a duchess becoming truly involved with the people they serve. As a result, then, while Diana may have passed away over two decades ago now, Kate may know that she still owes her some gratitude.