Why do British royals wear military uniforms?

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April 11 2002 6:08 PM

Why Do British Royals Wear Military Uniforms?

During the queen mum's funeral Tuesday, many of the British royals donned full military uniforms. Prince Charles wore the dress uniform of a rear admiral, Prince Andrew the uniform of a royal naval commander, and even Princess Anne the trousers of a rear admiral. Why do British royals wear military uniforms?

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Frequently, the royals earn their uniforms the hard way. Both Prince Charles and Prince Andrew, for example, had long careers in the military. Prince Andrew retired from active service in 2001 after serving as an officer in the royal navy for over 20 years, earning the title of commander in the process. Prince Charles served as an air vice marshal in the royal air force and rear admiral in the navy, retiring in 1976 after seven years of active service.

Other times, royals collect military ranks and uniforms as honorifics. Princess Anne didn't serve in the military, but she can wear military trousers because she is an honorary rear admiral. In addition to his earned military ranks, Prince Charles is the honorary colonel in chief of 17 regiments of the armed services.

Custom holds that those royals who don't hold a military rank wear standard mourning garb at state funerals. Prince Edward, who served only briefly in the military and holds no important earned or honorary rank, wore a long black morning coat to his grandmother's funeral.

Royals have donned military dress at state occasions since the 19th century. Princess Anne's military trousers were a departure from the norm, however. Though the queen mum's funeral marked the second time Princess Anne has made the feminist gesture, she reportedly is the first royal woman to wear military attire in public since Queen Elizabeth I—in 1588. For that occasion, in which the queen rallied British troops at Tilbury to battle the Spanish, she wore a suit of armor.

Bonus Explainer: The queen mother married into the monarchy and took on the title of queen. Her daughter Queen Elizabeth's husband married into the monarchy, yet holds the title of prince. So why isn't Prince Philip King Philip?

The husband of a female monarch is not recognized with special status, rank, or privileges, though they customarily act as major players in the royal family. Historians aren't sure why the practice started, but they trace it back to Queen Anne, who reigned from 1702 to 1714. The wife of a reigning king, like the queen mother, is given the title of "queen consort." The queen mum's daughter Elizabeth II, a queen by birthright, holds the title of "queen regnant."

Explainer thanks Steve Pincus, an associate professor of early modern British history at the University of Chicago; Robert Brentano, a professor of Medieval English history at UC-Berkeley; and the Queen Elizabeth II Library in St. John's, Newfoundland. Thanks to Steven Bieber and Josh LaGrange for asking the questions.

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