Vogue looks into the traditions, rules and politics behind naming a new member of the royal family.
What’s in a name? Quite a lot, if you are a royal. The responsibility is significant, much more than just a moniker for the child. A royal name must nod to history and pay respects to relatives while also being contemporary enough to be relatable and relevant.
Before Prince Louis was named, Mary, Alice, and Victoria topped the likely girl picks, according to UK-based bookmaker Ladbrokes, while Albert and Arthur lead the possibilities for boys. But if history is any indication, Baby Cambridge #3 could deliver a surprise, or at the very least a slight departure from what is expected.
“The further down the line of succession, the more likely you are to have a more unique or untraditional name,” says Carolyn Harris, a professor of history at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and author of Raising Royalty: 1,000 Years of Royal Parenting.
Royals across the globe have their own naming customs but most tend to call upon a shortlist of recycled names, which serve as a familial calling cards. The Danish monarchy is the most extreme example, with just two names in heavy rotation: Christian and Frederick. From the 1400s onward, under the House of Oldenburg, kings have alternated between the two. Queen Margrethe II interrupted the streak when she took the throne in 1972, but her son, the heir apparent, is named Frederik and her grandson is named – you guessed it – Christian.
In Japan, men in the direct line of ascension are given names ending in the character “hito”– Emperor Akihito’s son is Crown Prince Naruhito and his grandson is Prince Hisahito – while royal women are given names ending in “ko.”
Occasionally a royal name is cause for a political statement. Princess Margriet of the Netherlands was born in Canada during the occupation of the Netherlands by Nazi Germany. Her name was inspired by marguerite, the french word for daisy, which was worn as a symbol of the Dutch resistance.
Royal parents are tasked with picking several names to recognise several notable people at once. Take Spain’s King Felipe VI, whose full name is Felipe Juan Pablo Alfonso de Todos los Santos. His name pays homage to the first King from the current ruling house (King Felipe V), as well as both his grandfathers (King Juan Carlos I and Paul, King of Greece) and his great-grandfather (King Alfonso XIII).
Among the British royals, King Edward VIII had a staggering seven names: Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David. The last four were given for the patron saints of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, respectively. “Even at that time, in 1894, that was considered a great many names,” says Harris. Although he was known publicly as King Edward, family and friends called him David.
Younger royal generations are paring back. While Prince William and Prince Harry each have four names, the Cambridges have opted to give their children just three. Prince George Alexander Louis is named for the Queen’s father, who reigned as King George VI. Alexander is said to be a tribute to the Queen herself, whose full name is Elizabeth Alexandra Mary. Louis comes from his father’s name, William Arthur Philip Louis, and is seen as a nod to Lord Louis Mountbatten, uncle of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.
Princess Charlotte’s full name – Charlotte Elizabeth Diana – was received as a tribute to both of William’s parents, Charles and Diana, as well as to the Queen. The name Charlotte rose in the royal ranks back in the 18th century, when King George III married Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Indeed, marriages often bring names into the fold, notes Harris. Eleanor and Isabella came much earlier with the marriage of King Henry II to Eleanor of Aquitaine and King John to Isabella of Angoulême.
A royal association can turn an obscure name into a popular one. The name Victoria was “considered unusual” around the time Queen Victoria became queen, says Harris, “now it’s seen as a quintessentially regal name.” Victoria herself had a hand in that by encouraging (some might say insisting) that her descendents use the name. One of her daughters and several of her granddaughters had the first name Victoria. To avoid confusion within the family, they often went by nicknames: one was called Moretta, another Toria.
Today, as royals are increasingly referred to publicly by their first names, there is a newfound awareness about avoiding repetition. (For example, the possibility of Prince Charles reigning as King George VII seems less likely now given the younger, and very popular, Prince George.)
Names are also an important way for the royal family to show they are relevant. “Royals have always been celebrities but they have not always been celebrities in an age of celebrity culture, with other things competing for attention and time,” says Christian Turner, global director of naming at brand strategy firm Siegel+Gale. By choosing a relatable name, it helps to show “they understand and exist in the world around them.” The list of names with historical significance and popular appeal is “running slightly thin,” adds Turner.
The lockstep following of tradition tends to loosen up with more junior members of the royal family. Queen Elizabeth II named her second child Anne, a fairly unremarkable royal name by many accounts. But Anne then named her daughter Zara Anne Elizabeth, a unique first name supposedly recommended by Prince Charles. At the time of her birth, Zara was sixth in line for the throne; after the birth of Prince Louis, she became the 17th occupying the two succession spots. Just in front of her are her nieces, Savannah and Isla; Zara’s daughter, Mia, is just below her.
With the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s third child, there was also the chance that Kate’s family, and her parents Michael and Carole, could have had more of a role. Prince Andrew, the third child and second son of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, is named for Prince Philip’s father.
Best of all, William and Kate appear to have more freedom than their ancestors. The Queen is told of the name before it is announced, to be sure, but prior approval is not required. “We see, from the diversity of names among the Queen’s descendants, that the Queen does seem willing to allow the descendants to choose their own names,” Harris says.
When we learn new royal baby names is up to the parents, although the timetable from birth to announcement has shortened considerably. It took a month for Queen Elizabeth to share Charles’s name, but only a week for Charles and Diana to share William’s name. Prince Harry’s name was shared the very same day. The Cambridges released both Prince George and Princess Charlotte’s names two days after their births and Prince Louis’s four days after his birth.