Prince Charles and his longtime mistress Camilla Parker Bowles have finally announced their intention to marry. When Charles becomes the king of England, Camilla won’t be queen—she’ll be the princess consort instead. What’s a princess consort?
It’s a new title created just for Camilla, because crowning her as queen would create PR problems for the royals. A marriage between divorcees like Charles and Camilla remains taboo for some members of the Church of England, and Camilla is already unpopular for breaking up the prince’s marriage to Diana.
This all seems a bit peculiar, given that the Church of England broke with the Vatican precisely so that King Henry VIII could obtain a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. But Anglican attitudes toward divorce have varied over the centuries; today, divorcees often receive a church blessing after being married by civil ceremony—which is exactly what Charles and Camilla plan to do.
The last time this issue arose was in the 1930s when King Edward VIII wanted to marry the divorcee Wallis Simpson, but was told by the prime minister that he couldn’t. Edward abdicated in 1936.
Seven decades later, Prince Charles can marry a divorcee, but she can’t become the queen. This is new: In the past, the wife of a reigning king has always been the queen. And for a time, the husbands of queens were called kings, too. In 1554, when Mary Tudor married King Philip II of Spain, he became king of England as well. (His kingship was up when she died; later he tried to invade England with the Spanish Armada.) Mary Stuart and William of Orange married in 1677, and eventually ruled together as queen and king. *
But since then, the husbands of reigning queens haven’t been called kings. Because kings are seen as more powerful than queens, the idea of a king-by-marriage began to seem somewhat distressing: What if he tried to take over? When Queen Anne married Prince George of Denmark in 1683, he remained Prince George, and the present queen’s husband, Philip, was named the Duke of Edinburgh.
So where does the title “princess consort” come from? In the 19th century, Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, a dour and unpopular German. Though she would have liked to make him king, he was made “prince consort” instead. He was the first, and so far, the only one.
Explainer thanks Nicholas Orme of Exeter University and Harriet Ritvo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.Correction, Feb. 23: Due to an editorial error, the original correction to this piece substituted Mary Tudor’s name for Mary Stuart’s. Slate regrets the mistake. (Return to the corrected sentence.)