Among the many upsides to being British royalty, there is this: You never have to use a last name. For one thing, everyone already knows who you are. There’s only one King, for instance, so it’s not like Charles has to specify which one he is.
Before 1917, royals were usually known by the territory they ruled or the Royal House of which they were a member, as the Royal Family’s website explains. For example: The full name of Queen Victoria’s eldest son, King Edward VII, was Albert Edward Saxe-Coburg-Gotha—a mouthful he inherited from his father, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
In 1917, though, Edward’s son, George V, was presented with a conundrum: His surname sounded somewhat German, which was an unwelcome association during World War I, so he named his family after Windsor Castle. Since then, any descendants of Queen Victoria (aside from married women) bear the last name Windsor.
In 1960, to make things more confusing, Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, decided to add their own spin to the Windsor name, distinguishing their descendants from the rest of the royal family. So her children and their children can use Mountbatten-Windsor as their surname on official documents such as marriage and birth certificates. (Fans of Netflix’s The Crown caught a glimpse of the discussions that went into the surname decision, though the series didn’t tell the full story.)
Kings and queens are welcome to change the last names of their family at will, since it’s a matter of precedent rather than an official decree. And royals sometimes adopt other names when it’s convenient. Princes Harry and William used Wales as their last name while serving in the military, adopting their father’s designation as the then-Prince of Wales.
With such a complicated naming protocol, it’s no wonder most royal family members go by their titles instead.
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A version of this story originally ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2023.