Currently, there are more than 40 different countries around the world that are classed as monarchies—and as leader of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state of 16 of them. The British monarchy itself is one of the longest established monarchies in the world, and the Queen is believed to be related by blood or by marriage to every English king or queen since at least the 13th century.
Given that lengthy history and global influence, it’s only natural that the world of royalty—and that of Britain’s monarchy in particular—has amassed quite a comprehensive vocabulary over the years, including all kinds of words and phrases that aren’t quite as straightforward or as familiar as they might seem. Here are the correct meanings and uses behind 20 of them.
1. The Crown
This is a lot more than just the Queen’s headgear and a Netflix series. In official contexts, the term The Crown is typically used to represent everything the current crown-holder herself represents—namely, the UK (and sometimes the Commonwealth) plus collectively all of its governments.
It’s easy to presume that when someone talks about “the royal household,” they must just mean the Queen’s immediate family or staff. But in fact this term represents not just all the individuals who support the monarch on a day-to-day basis—like her ladies-in-waiting and other personal attendants—but all of the institutions, organizations, and departments that support her and her work as sovereign, too. As a result, it includes the likes of the Queen’s Lord Steward, the Lord Chamberlain, private secretaries, and financiers; representatives from the church and the military; the current Poet Laureate, Astronomer Royal, and Master of the Queen’s Music; and countless other honorary positions handed out to favored musicians, writers, scientists, and artists.
The wife of a king is properly called the queen consort. The husband of a queen is also consort, but beyond that it’s more complicated. In the UK at least, it’s agreed that the husband of the Queen has no right to a title. It’s why, despite the fact that they married in 1947 and Elizabeth II became queen in 1952, that Elizabeth didn’t confer the title "His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh" on her husband until 1957 (thanks to her role as Fount of Honour—more on that in a bit).
4. Heir Apparent
Whoever stands first in line of succession to the throne is usually classed not just as an heir, but as an heir apparent. That specific designation implies that not only are they first in line to succeed the current monarch on their death, but that no one else can—or ever could—challenge their position at the top of the list. Prince Charles, for instance, is an heir apparent because he will succeed Queen Elizabeth II.
5. Heir Presumptive
The opposite of an heir apparent is an heir presumptive, which is namely someone whose position at the top of the order of succession has the potential to be lost or challenged by the birth of a more eligible heir. Admittedly, this is a state of affairs increasingly unlikely to come to pass in the UK since an Act of Parliament was introduced in 2013 removing gender from the order of succession. Before then, it used to be the case that sons automatically outranked daughters, regardless of who was born first. So had Prince Charles’s sister Princess Anne been born before him, for instance, she would merely have been heir presumptive, not heir apparent; his birth would have removed her position as first in line to the throne.
Succession itself is the automatic replacement of one monarch by their heir when they die or step aside. Hence the formal list of all those in line to throne—ranked in order of their eligibility, taking into account the fact that first-born children always outrank their siblings—is the order of succession.
Succession is different from accession, which is the legal process or mechanism by which a king or queen rises from the order of succession to take to the throne. Put another way, one monarch is said to succeed another, while whoever that successor happens to be is said to accede to the throne.
Abdication is the process by which a monarch relinquishes their royal authority. Probably the most famous was that of Edward VIII in 1936, but there have been a handful of other abdications in Britain’s long history. In 1689, James II was said to have abdicated during the so-called Glorious Revolution (although in truth he was effectively ousted from power), while Richard II was forced to abdicate in 1399 when the throne was seized from him by his cousin, Henry IV.
9. and 10. Regnant and Regent
These two similar terms are related, but in practice have very different roles. The current reigning monarch is said to be the king or queen regnant. If that regnant monarch is unable to rule in a personal capacity for any particular reason, then it’s often the case that someone related to them steps up to take over the duties of the head of state without becoming head of state themselves. In that case, they are styled as the regent.
It’s a scenario that has only cropped up a handful of times in British history, and is usually caused by the reigning king or queen being sick, at war, uncontactable, or underage. The future king George IV, for instance, became prince regent when his father, George III, fell ill, while Mary II acted as queen regent while her husband, William III, was at war in Europe in the 17th century.
Monarchs can bestow any one of five ancient titles or ranks—duke, marquess, earl, viscount, or baron—on any of their subjects. The holders of these titles are known as peers of the realm, and collectively form the peerage—a vast network of noblemen and noblewomen, many of whose titles and ennoblements stretch back several centuries. (Historically, monarchs were able to convene all of their peers together for counsel, and it’s from these ancient assemblies that the UK’s upper parliamentary chamber, the House of Lords, eventually evolved.)
12. Hereditary Peer
Most members of the peerage are hereditary peers, meaning that their title has been inherited from and passed on by their predecessors, and that they too are now permitted to pass their title on to their children. A title effectively dies out if there is no legitimate heir to inherit it.
13. Life Peer
A life peer is the opposite of a hereditary peer—namely, an individual who has their title bestowed on them by the monarch (usually in recognition of some great service or achievement), but who cannot pass it on to their children. Like that of an heirless hereditary peer, a life peer’s title simply ceases to exist when they pass away.
14. Courtesy Title
The immediate family and children of peers of the realm—although not ennobled themselves—can still use so-called courtesy titles to demonstrate their connection to the peerage. Usually, this courtesy title is nothing more than a straightforward “Lord” or “Lady,” but according to the official rules of the Crown, the sons and daughters of viscounts, barons, life peers, and the younger sons of earls are all permitted to use the courtesy title “The Honorable.”
15. Subsidiary Title
Many members of the peerage—and for that matter, of the Royal Family—hold several titles simultaneously. (As well as being the Prince of Wales, for instance, Prince Charles is also the Earl of Chester, the Duke of Cornwall, and the Baron of Renfrew.) A complex set of rules dictates the correct order of importance of these different titles, but it’s usually only the highest-ranking of simultaneous titles that is given precedence. So because “prince” outranks “earl,” “duke” and “baron,” that’s the title Charles is usually given.
The already complex rules dictating the succession and organization of titles in the peerage gets even more complicated when dealing with widows and widowers.
Major royal titles—like king and queen—do not automatically pass along a family tree from a deceased monarch to their spouse. Prince Philip, for example, is not listed on the British order of succession, despite being the Queen’s husband. Ultimately, when a king or queen dies, their title passes down to the first in line to the throne, while their widow or widower takes the title of dowager king (a title that shows up in some monarchies, though not necessarily the UK) or dowager queen. (Nowadays, however, these titles are considered old-fashioned, and it’s more likely—as happened on the death of George V in 1952—to refer to the widow of a deceased monarch with a title like queen mother—a type of dowager queen.)
Titles in the peerage, however, behave differently. If someone like an earl were to pass away, his title would automatically pass on to his first-born son, while his widow would still be permitted to use her title—i.e. countess—so long as her son, the new earl, was unmarried. If her son were married, then his wife would become countess, while his widowed mother would now be a dowager countess. Like the Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey.
In the context of the nobility and the royal family, a commoner is simply someone who does not have a title. It might sound a bit dismissive (or even a bit insulting), but if you’re a commoner, then you’re actually in good company: Kate Middleton (now the Duchess of Cambridge, the wife of Prince William) and Camilla Parker-Bowles (now the Duchess of Cornwall, the wife of Prince Charles) were both commoners when they married into the royal family, and are both likely future British queens (though it remains unclear whether Camilla will take the title Queen or Princess Consort). Though Princess Diana was born into a noble family, she too was technically considered a commoner when she married Prince Charles in 1981.
18. Fount of Honour
The term fount or fountain of honour is used to designate an individual who has the right to bestow peerages, titles of nobility, orders of chivalry, or similar honors, or else nominate someone else to do precisely that on their behalf. In the UK, the Queen alone is the sole fount of honour.
19. Privy Purse
The private income of the monarch is known as the privy purse. Today, most of the Queen’s personal income is derived from her ownership of the Duchy of Lancashire, a vast portfolio of land and property established in the late 1300s. As part of the Duchy, the Queen owns castles, estates, and farmsteads across the UK, as well as more than 18,000 hectares of land, and, minus some bits they’ve sold off, all the foreshore from Liverpool to Barrow in Furness (a little south of the Lake District).
20. Sovereign Grant
Since 2012, in addition to her private income, the Queen has also received an annual payment from the British government known as the sovereign grant. The payment—which is intended to cover the costs of the monarch’s official duties—is based around a proportion of the profits from the British Crown Estate and its holdings, and typically comes in at around £80 million per year (or approximately $110 million). That might seem like a lot, but given that the Royal Family are estimated to contribute approximately $2 billion to the UK economy each year, it’s actually a great investment.