Or the keyboards.
The big, breaking British Kate Middleton and Prince William news right now is that Her Majesty The Queen Elizabeth II has confirmed that if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's baby is a girl, she will be a princess and called “Her Royal Highness.”
The Queen, reports the BBC and all British news agencies, has issued “Letters Patent.”
It’s a kind of announcement. But it’s more special than that.
The Queen is actually making a law, and she is not asking Parliament to assist her.
This is a limited power of monarchical law-making.
“Letters Patent” are an open, public proclamation by the monarch, an official communication that is older than Parliament, and over which Parliament exercises no authority. By the way, there is no singular “letter patent”–it is always a plural, akin to the royal “We.” And also, they are not really “letters” as in, “Dear Great Aunt Gertrude, How are things on the farm?”
The “Letters” part comes from their original Latin name, “litterae patentes.” “Litterae” here means, in its ancient sense, a collection of letters of the alphabet arranged to be read. Think back to the days when few could actually read, and when writing was often used as a form of code, rather than in the modern sense of the word as a “Dear So-and-so” letter, an “epistle” (like St. Paul to the Corinthians where he says, “Dearly Beloved”), or some other type of correspondence (medieval scribes did not text or even email, as incredible as that may sound). It is necessarily plural because you wouldn’t bother with writing or looking at just one letter, would you? I mean, “W” got popular a while back (but then it got unpopular when the wars became too expensive), and “V” was a popular TV show, but then it got cancelled.
Don’t click off, now, there’s more!
“Patent” comes from the Latin verb “pateo,” meaning to lie open, exposed, accessible. It’s not like patent leather shoes or Great Uncle Ernie’s shoe polishing invention. In early English history, the monarch had two ways of communicating–either openly and publicly (“pateo,” as in “Here ye, here ye,” as you sometimes hear in Game of Thrones or Robin Hood movies), or closed and sealed (usually with a big piece of red wax stamped with the monarch’s own seal (“clausae”) so that only the intended person can see the contents.
Nowadays, “Letters Patent” generally indicates a type of legal instrument in the form of a published written order issued by a monarch or president, and usually bestows an office, right, monopoly, title, or status to a person or corporation.
I looked all this up so that you wouldn't have to.
The previous royal decree by Queen Elizabeth’s ancestor, George V, stipulated that a son of the son of the Prince of Wales would become a prince, but a daughter would not become a princess. George V’s 1917 Letters Patent decreed that daughters were to be known as “The Lady” so-and-so. George V wasn't trying to be mean, but he was worried about the growing number of people claiming to be princes and princesses, and he especially wanted to discourage his many German relatives who’d become unpopular in England because of World War I from overusing titles.
The Queen’s new Letters Patent was issued so that the Royal Family’s titles could conform to Parliament’s stated desires to do away with male primogeniture, and allow the first-born child to become the heir presumptive to the throne, regardless of sex. But it is broader than that–it permits all Prince William’s children, male or female, to be styled “prince” or “princess.”
Its wording states: “All the children of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales should enjoy the style, title and attribute of Royal Highness with the titular dignity of Prince or Princess prefixed to their Christian names.”
This means that, so far at least, any children of William’s younger brother, Prince Harry, are excluded from this particular Letters Patent. And nothing at all is being said directly about Kate Middleton. Marriage to William, and the “Duchess” title she obtained from him as Duke of Cambridge, permits her to be addressed as a “Royal Highness.” But Kate is not officially a princess, and she will never be a princess of royal blood because neither of her parents were princess or princes. The most she can hope for, absent a change from the monarch herself, is “Catherine, The Princess William,” since William is the true royal.
But whoever the monarch is can change this. Perhaps Prince William may decide to change Kate’s title himself, if he becomes king.
Even Queen Elizabeth’s only daughter, Princess Anne, needed a Letters Patent in order to be properly called “princess.” Shortly before the birth of her elder brother, Charles, Prince of Wales, in 1948, their grandfather King George VI issued Letters Patent granting the titular dignity of “Prince or Princess of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” and the style “Royal Highness” to any children born to the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh (now Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip). Thus, from birth, Princess Anne was styled “Her Royal Highness Princess Anne of Edinburgh.” Had it not been for these letters patent she would have been known as “Lady Anne Mountbatten” until her mother became Queen in 1952.
So now, we can all breath easier.