Following the 2005 marriage of HRH The Prince of Wales, HM The Queen adjusted the precedence list for female members of the Royal Family. Female precedence is now set as follows:
HM The Queen
HRH The Princess Royal
HRH Princess Alexandra, the Hon Lady Ogilvy
HRH The Duchess of Cornwall
HRH The Countess of Wessex
HRH The Duchess of Gloucester
HRH The Duchess of Kent
HRH Princess Michael of Kent
The change prompted the following exchange in Royal Insight (the "official" Royal magazine):
Q: Marc - South Africa. I read that HM The Queen has just reviewed the precedence list to include The Duchess of Cornwall. Apparently, HRH The Duchess of Cornwall is only fourth on the list, after The Princess Royal and Princess Alexandra. I was under the assumption that due to her being the wife of The Prince of Wales, the Duchess is the second highest ranking woman in the Royal Family after the Queen. Why then is the Duchess only fourth on the precedence list?
A: Royal Insight: In order to reflect the Duchess's wish to be called The Duchess of Cornwall rather than The Princess of Wales, The Queen took the opportunity to clarify the precedence list for members of the Royal Family. The Duchess's place in this list reflects the fact that she is a Duchess and not a Princess; thus she comes after The Princess Royal and Princess Alexandra.
The explanation put forth in Royal Insight is slightly misleading as it suggests that The Duchess of Cornwall is not a Princess. This is completely incorrect. A wife takes her status, rank and title from her husband; HRH may not wish to be styled "Princess of Wales", and we must certainly respect this wish, but as the wife of the Prince of Wales she remains Princess of Wales in law. Likewise, upon the Prince of Wales' accession to the throne the Duchess of Cornwall shall legally become Queen. The team at Royal Insight also appear to be unaware that as the wife of a Prince of the United Kingdom, the Duchess of Cornwall is also a Princess of the United Kingdom.
Royal Insight's explanation would suggest that the Countess of Wessex is not a Princess, yet surely no one suggests that the Earl of Wessex is not also HRH The Prince Edward. If Prince Michael of Kent were given a dukedom, his wife, Princess Michael of Kent, would be a duchess but would remain a princess.
In the short time since the new precedence came into effect, it has proved difficult to ascertain the reasoning behind the changes and opinion is divided. It has been claimed by some that this is a Court Precedence list and/or is for private use only, which would mean that the revision has had no impact upon the general Table of Precedence. Evidence in support of this view was supplied at the state dinner held for HM The King of Norway, at which HRH The Duchess of Cornwall was accorded precedence over TRH The Princess Royal and Princess Alexandra. Others have argued that this is a list of "personal" precedence, for events at which the Duchess of Cornwall and Countess of Wessex are present without their husbands.
Although some have claimed that the seniority accorded TRH The Princess Royal and Princess Alexandra might be due to their status as Ladies of the Garter, I suspect that their ranking is more likely based upon their status as Princesses of the Blood. It is true that this would also apply to the daughters of the Duke of York, however their low ranking must surely be due to their age. As this is a private list one should not necessarily expect clear cut rules as applied to the Table of Precedence. It is The Queen's prerogative to amend the list at will and whilst we may debate the reasoning behind certain decisions, it is certainly not our place to question or challenge the final ranking.
* It must also be noted that Lady Louise, the daughter of HRH The Earl of Wessex is also a Princess.