Dukedoms were introduced to the British Isles by none other than William the Conqueror. Before taking over England, William was the duke of the powerhouse duchy of Normandy in northern France. Thus, the word ‘duke’ is French in origin (duc). This title was never before seen in the British peerage prior to Norman times.
Dukedoms finally came into official use in England around the 1300s. Edward III began to employ them for his sons, with the eldest created as the Duke of Cornwall. It still exists today and is held by Prince Charles.
Some dukedoms were created much later and for a specific reason, usually in recognition of national contribution. Arthur Wellesley was from a noble family of earls, but it was his military prowess and political career that earned him the title Duke of Wellington. It was granted by the Prince Regent (the future George IV) in 1814.
Prince Harry of Wales is now the Duke of Sussex, created for his wedding day on May 19th. A title is a traditional gift from the sovereign to male members of the Royal family. Harry’s Sussex dukedom is a reinstatement of the title, last used in the early 1800s.
Titles can go extinct if there are no legitimate male heirs to carry it forward. Prince Augustus Frederick, a son of King George III, was created Duke of Sussex in 1801. Neither of the prince’s two marriages were recognized, and his son was not considered legitimate to carry the Sussex title. When Augustus Frederick died, the title died with him.
The monarch can revive a title if they so choose, and Duke of Sussex is now considered to be in its second creation. Sussex is a county in England whose old Anglo-Saxon name means “South Saxon”.
Augustus’s brother, Prince Adolphus Frederick, was granted the title Duke of Cambridge. This title was much older – the dukedom was first used in the Stuart dynasty. When Prince Adolphus was the Duke of Cambridge, it was the fourth creation.
Adolphus passed the title to his son, Prince George, but it ended there. George had married a commoner (an actress), having staunchly refused an arranged royal marriage. The union was never recognized, and the Cambridge title went dormant.
Today, Prince William of Wales carries the fifth creation of the Cambridge title, named for the English city.
Take it on, or turn it down?
Princess Margaret, sister of the Queen, married Antony Armstrong-Jones in 1960. He accepted the Queen’s offer to be created Earl of Snowdon, and thus Princess Margaret was the Countess of Snowdon. Their son, David Armstrong-Jones, is today the second Earl of Snowdon.
The offer of a title isn’t always accepted, however. When the Queen’s daughter, Princess Anne, was engaged to marry Captain Mark Phillips, he was offered a title by Her Majesty. Phillips turned it down. Both Anne and Mark explained that they wanted their children to grow up without the pressure of royal titles.
The only one of the Queen’s sons to not be given a dukedom on his wedding day was Prince Edward. He was created the Earl of Wessex instead, with the plan that Edward would one day inherit the dukedom of Edinburgh after Prince Philip. Wessex is another Anglo-Saxon name which means “West Saxon”.
Prince Charles wasn’t given a ducal title on his wedding day, either, but he was already loaded for bear. His dukedoms of Cornwall and Rothesay were automatically derived from his position as heir. Charles was also Prince of Wales, his title since 1958, given by the sovereign to the heir to the throne.