It is notable, although not perhaps wholly unexpected, that the British newspapers still refer to Lady Diana, Princess of Wales, as a "princess" although she lost that rank, which came to her with her marriage, on the day of the divorce which ended it. Similarly, an English duchess, after divorce, even though styled, for example, Sarah, Duchess of York, is no longer a duchess. Yet Sarah is reputed to be benefitting financially, and very substantially, from the mistaken belief popularly held (and reinforced by comment and reports in much of the news media) that she is in fact a duchess. Is it really that rank of duchess, once so widely respected, that persuades companies to pay for her endorsement of their products? Does she, one wonders, guarantee this pretended ducal status in her contracts with these companies? "Of course not !" is the obvious answer to these questions. So why is she paid so highly?
One very famous British broadsheet newspaper, after two letters to its editor explained the error, and even after one of these had been acknowledged, still published an editorial lamenting that "Sarah Ferguson" was a duchess and proposing she be "stripped of her title of Duchess of York" ~ and the BBC Radio Four service featured a "'phone-in programme" in which the chairman allowed much of the discussion about Diana and Sarah ("Di" and "Fergie") to be about their future use of their non-existent titles.
The nonsense continues. Does it matter? Does precision matter? Does invalid pretence matter? Historians may nod gravely, mutter "poor Surrey"*, and turn to other topics, while editors of our most famous news media shrug their shoulders and, remembering the film of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", whisper the mantra ~ "When the legend conflicts with the facts, print the legend."
Is there any excuse? "Well," wrote one correspondent after we first asked this question, "no one really knows. It's not written down anywhere, is it?"
But it is. It is written down in many places. And it is perhaps most clearly written down in a Government book** published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office (which the Prime Minister, John Major, who before her divorce habitually referred to the Princess of Wales as "Princess Diana"*** and may still do so, should read), a book which the editors of our more serious news media ought to use and ought to insist their court correspondents carry with them. (If they already did so, then "HRH" would not have been described as a "title" in the emotional argument about whether Diana should have been able to retain that style. "HRH", as are "Her Majesty" and "Her Grace", is a prefix, not a title.)
For those who do not wish to rush out to buy the book, a brief explanation of the position of divorced princesses and duchesses is set out below.
On the day her divorce from the Prince of Wales became absolute, the Princess of Wales lost the prefix of "Her Royal Highness" and became "Lady Diana, Princess of Wales". (The style of "Lady", which she appears to use little, is owed to her birth as the daughter of an earl.) The accompanying loss of precedence received much publicity, both in the United Kingdom and abroad, but for the greater part the customs governing the reasons for the changes were rarely explained.
Lady Diana, Princess of Wales, to the surprise of many, was no longer The Princess of Wales, for that is the title of the wife of the man who holds the Principality of Wales, as Prince Charles does of his feudal superior, the Queen. Lady Diana, Princess of Wales, although correctly addressed as such, does not enjoy the title of Princess of Wales.
(It seems, from current BBC usage, still necessary to explain that the Princess of Wales, during her marriage, was HRH The Princess of Wales. She was never "Princess Diana" ~ for the style of "Princess Own-christian-name" in the United Kingdom comes only with birth, never with marriage, as is evident from the style of others who became princesses by marriage and are known accordingly as "Princess Husband's-christian-name". How the BBC, once admired worldwide as a reliable authority on such matters, and once respected throughout the British Isles for its contribution to the nation's education, can still refer to Diana as "Princess Diana" ranks as a major mystery.)
History gave us no precedent for the divorce of a Princess of Wales, but there are many relevant parallels established for divorced duchesses which, for her own ducal titles, Diana was obliged to follow, and these parallels were adopted as a guide for the decisions on Diana's future style.
A divorced duchess continues to use her previous title, preceded by her christian name, but does so as if the title were a "surname"****. Lady Diana, Princess of Wales, is thus also Lady Diana, Duchess of Cornwall, and because the title is regarded merely as a name, the status held by the wife of a duke is lost, as is the prefix of a duchess ("Her Grace"). Accordingly, although it appears not yet to have been clearly explained by the Government to the general public, following the analogy of a divorced duchess, Lady Diana, Princess of Wales is no longer a princess, just as Lady Diana, Duchess of Cornwall is no longer an English duchess. The rank of princess came with marriage and it went when the marriage ended.
The consequence of any remarriage for the Prince of Wales and for Lady Diana will emphasise these changes. The new wife of the Prince of Wales will become the Princess of Wales on her wedding day. She will become also Duchess of Cornwall and Duchess of Rothesay, Countess of Chester and Countess of Carrick. Lady Diana will continue to be Lady Diana, Princess of Wales and, for example, Lady Diana, Duchess of Cornwall.
A remarriage for Diana will have a more noticeable effect, for in England she would normally take the style of her new husband. If she marries Mr John Smith she could become Lady Diana Smith and lose the Cornwall "name". However, as Diana will be Lady Diana, Duchess of Rothesay under Scots law, which treats divorced wives in the same way it treats widows, she would be able to retain the Rothesay "name" no matter what the style and rank of her new husband.
The relaxed view taken by the Palace on these matters suggests that this brave new world's thrust towards a classless society has at last begun to create the confusion social engineers have long sought to harness. One newspaper suggested that the Palace hoped everyone after her divorce would just address Lady Diana by whatever style each individual wished, and recommended "Princess" or "Ma'am" in conversation. But, surely, it is inappropriate to use "Princess" as an address to someone who is not a princess.
The armorial consequences of the divorce are much easier to understand. During her marriage Diana displayed an achievement with her father's arms featured alongside those of the Prince of Wales (technically impaled by the Prince's arms). She was authorised also to use the Prince of Wales feathers and the famous motto Ich Dien as a badge on, for example, writing paper. These heraldic commemorations of their alliance have ceased, and Diana's written correspondence will in future feature either her father's arms displayed on an heraldic lozenge, as illustrated with the feathers badge at the head of this note, or perhaps the arms traditionally embossed on the writing paper supplied to Kensington Palace.
*Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, son of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, went to the block for treason after he had foolishly marshalled in his third quarter the arms alleged to have been those of Edward the Confessor, and removed the silver label from the three lions of England he bore in his second quarter. This quaint conceit was interpreted by Henry VIII (described as "Good King Hal" by some writers) as evidence of a claim to his throne.
***From page 9 of Honours and Titles published in 1992 ~ "The wife of the Prince of Wales is The Princess of Wales. The wife of Prince Charles, the former Lady Diana Spencer, should always be referred to as such, never as 'Princess Diana'."
**** A "surname" is the Norman-French "surnom" - a generic term for an appendage to a christian name that assists a more precise identification of its bearer. Surnames can appear in many forms - as patronymics, as by-names, as job descriptions, as geographical locators, and as descriptive titles - although conventionally today they tend to be only the inherited surname of a father or a husband or, very occasionally in Scotland, the surname of a mother or wife.