In King Charles III’s first speech to the nation, he made an announcement that was fully expected, but still significant. The new king confirmed that he’d named his oldest son William as the new Prince of Wales, meaning William will be occupying the same position that Charles had held for the previous 64 years. The king also named William’s wife Catherine the Princess of Wales, and William and Catherine were additionally assigned the titles of Duke and Duchess of Cornwall, assuming other positions that had been occupied by the former Prince Charles and his spouse (the new Queen Consort) Camilla.
But it is William’s appointment as Prince of Wales that is especially noteworthy, because of the historical connection between that post and the position of king. As part of a tradition that now goes back more than seven centuries, the post of Prince of Wales is reserved for the child of the king or queen who is next in line to assume the throne when the current monarch dies.
The new Prince of Wales, William, now 40 years of age, was the old Duke of Cambridge. (Royal Navy / OGL 3 )
The Long Hit-and-Miss History of the Prince of Wales
Since 1301 AD, there have been 23 men awarded the title of Prince of Wales. Excluding William, 15 of the 22 others who’ve held that position eventually ascended to the throne and became king of England. The seven who didn’t make the leap only failed to do so because they died before the reigning sovereign (this happened five times), or because their father was deposed, and the line of succession was therefore interrupted.
A title like the Prince of Wales may seem strictly honorary in today’s world, as just another name for the “king in waiting.” But in his speech, as reported by the BBC, King Charles III made it clear that he has high expectations for what William will be able to do with that office.
“With Catherine beside him, our new Prince and Princess of Wales will, I know, continue to inspire and lead our national conversations,” the new king said. He added that he expects the future royal couple to “bring the marginal to the center ground where vital help can be given.”
As for his own experience with the title, the king declared himself “greatly privileged” to have had the opportunity to hold the position of Prince of Wales for so long. Charles was just nine years old in 1958 when his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, announced he would be given that title. It took him 64 years to move from Prince of Wales to the kingship, making him the longest-serving Prince of Wales in history.
Rebellious Welsh forces made one last attempt to regain their independence and restore the Prince of Wales title to native hands when Owain Glyndwr led Welsh armies against the English in a fierce campaign to regain his country’s freedom. He claimed and held the title of Prince of Wales from 1400 to 1415. ( eyeimagery / Adobe Stock)
A Brief History of the Prince of Wales Title
The first Prince of Wales was an individual known as Gruffudd ap Cynan. He was a native of Wales and essentially served as the country’s version of a king.
The men who held this title throughout the 12th and 13th centuries were all Welsh rulers. But everything changed in 1283 when the British conquered Wales and ended its independence.
In 1301, with Wales now having been incorporated into greater Britain, King Edward I chose his 17-year-old son Prince Edward (the king’s successor) to be the first English Prince of Wales. This set a precedent that was to continue for the next several centuries, as monarchs continued to use the position of Prince of Wales as a “training ground” of sorts for future kings.
Rebellious forces in Wales did make one last attempt to regain their independence and restore the Prince of Wales title to native hands. This happened when Owain Glyndwr, a distant relative of the legendary Llywelyn the Great , the most acclaimed of all Welsh leaders, led Welsh armies against the English in a fierce campaign to regain his country’s freedom. Owain Glyndwr claimed the title of Prince of Wales from 1400 to 1415, and even though his forces were eventually subdued, the political chaos that resulted kept the Prince of Wales position vacant until 1454.
In 1454, another English Prince of Wales was finally chosen, the first in 55 years. This was Edward of Westminster, who actually did not make the transition to king because his father, Henry IV, was deposed from the throne before that could happen. In 1471 King Edward IV awarded the title of Prince of Wales to his son Edward of York, who did successfully make the transition to king (as Edward V) following his father’s death in 1483.
The general rule since then is that the heir apparent to the throne has been appointed by the king or queen as Prince of Wales, and they have moved on to become the king once the ruling monarch (their parent) passes away. This has not always happened, however, as some of the men slated to be future kings died while still serving as the Prince of Wales.
In one instance, a Prince of Wales could not ascend to the throne because his father had been deposed. This man was James Francis Edward Stuart, who would have become James III in the 18th century if his father, James II , had not lost his kingship in the late 17th century.
And then there was the fascinating case of Charles Stuart, who was chosen by his father Charles I as Prince of Wales in 1638. He seemingly lost his chance to ascend to the kingship after his father’s forces were defeated in the English Civil War of 1645-1648, which led to the abolishment of the monarchy. But in 1661 the monarchy was restored, and 12 years after his father had been executed, Charles Stuart returned triumphantly to England to take the throne as Charles II .
The Three Feathers, commonly known as the Prince of Wales’s feathers, is the heraldic badge of the Prince of Wales. It consists of three white ostrich feathers encircled by a gold coronet with a ribbon below bearing the German phrase “Ich dien” or “I serve.” (Sodacan / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
From Prince to King, a Centuries-old Tradition Continues
Since George William Frederick, Prince of Wales from 1751 to 1760, ascended to the throne as George III, the transition from prince to king has gone smoothly. Six consecutive Princes of Wales have survived and ascended to the throne without any dispute or political conflict interfering, and there is every expectation that William will continue that streak when his father passes.
While the position of king does not hold the prestige and power that it once did, the affairs of the British monarchy continue to hold a special fascination for the public of the world. The close connection between the title Prince of Wales and King of the United Kingdom has stood the test of time, and the position of Prince will likely remain a “training ground” for future kings for as long as the monarchy endures.
Top image: William , the new Prince of Wales and Catherine, Princess of Wales visiting Sweden in 2018. Source: Frankie Fouganthin / CC BY-SA 4.0
By Nathan Falde