Prince Harry’s new title, Duke of Sussex, prompted predictable reactions. Whimsical pieces appeared about his new duchy, the home of Brighton Pier, and about the previous holder’s marriage difficulties.

Not much attention was otherwise paid to the title, apart from a slightly more thoughtful article in The Guardian. But royal dukedoms are chosen carefully – and the choice is worth a closer look for what it reveals about both history and tradition.

There are a limited number of royal titles available and many of them are already held by various members of the royal family, including Harry’s grandfather, father, brother and a variety of more distant relatives. So Sussex was one of the last available titles that could have been awarded without controversy.

The first task of a royal dukedom is to be appropriate for a monarch’s son or grandson. It needs to be exclusive, unlike “ordinary” dukedoms, which could be created for anyone – and it ranks far above mere marquesses, earls, viscounts and barons, in that order. Sussex is suitably prestigious: the only holder of the title was an exalted one – Prince Augustus Frederick (1773-1843), a son of George III.

A dukedom also needs to be insulated from unfortunate historical or political associations. Augustus was perhaps the least offensive of George III’s sons: whatever his marital difficulties, savoured by today’s media, he was sensitive and liberal, contrasting sharply with his unpopular brothers, an unimpressive brood who included George IV and Prince Ernest. Sussex was an ideal title: available, appropriate and safe.

What is more, the choice was very limited, because royal dukedoms are running out fast (though not because of longevity, as The Guardian suggested). A small group of titles has traditionally been used by monarchs. George V’s surviving sons provide a good set of examples: after the Prince of Wales, in turn they got York, Gloucester and Kent. York usually goes to the monarch’s second son, and under normal circumstances Harry might have received it, but of course Prince Andrew has York already.

The Duke of Duchess of Windsor, pictured with Adolf Hitler in 1937, were the last people to hold that title

The sons of those earlier princes have inherited Gloucester and Kent; the dukedoms are thus unavailable and, with plentiful heirs, will remain so. Prince William has Cambridge, another safe choice, associated only with dull 19th-century soldiers, an uncle and a cousin of Queen Victoria. The Duchy of Cornwall is tied to the title of Prince of Wales, and Lancaster to the Crown. Another royal dukedom, Edinburgh, is promised to Prince Edward. In the interim Edward took the more junior earldom of Wessex – and he has a son who will inherit.

Disreputable dukes

The remaining options are all compromised. History casts a long shadow over the dukedoms of Connaught, Cumberland, Windsor, Albany and Clarence, previously held by monarchs’ sons and brothers. Connaught would be impossible now, given its location in the Irish Republic. Cumberland is forever associated with George II’s second son, Prince William Augustus (1721-1765), the “Butcher” of Culloden, who oversaw the deaths of thousands of Scottish rebels in 1745. Windsor’s sole duke was the former King Edward VIII (1894-1972) – whose abdication and suspected fascist sympathies make that title toxic.

Battle of Culloden Moor: one of the reasons there is no Duke of Cumberland these days. Photo Credit: David Morier (c.1705?-1770)

On the subject of fascism, Albany is problematic too: the last holder of that title, Prince Charles Edward (1884-1954) was a Nazi. A grandson of Queen Victoria, who had also made him Duke of Saxe-Coburg, he found himself on the German side in World War I, lost his title in 1919 and moved into the welcoming arms of Hitler.

Clarence is less controversial, but even that has the association with Richard III’s brother, George (1449-1478), best known for his depiction by Shakespeare, drowning in a butt of Malmsey wine; and with Edward VII’s son, Prince Albert Victor (1864-1892), whose name has been linked with various controversies, and – however implausibly – proposed as a suspect in the search for Jack the Ripper.

Modernising the monarchy

Royal dukedoms will therefore present some challenges. Only Cambridge will be available again in the foreseeable future, when William becomes Prince of Wales. Eventually York will be too – dukedoms pass via the male line and Prince Andrew has no sons – but Prince Louis might be waiting a long time for it. A future King Charles III or King William V – as they presumably will be one day – could of course invent new titles, but the whole royal superstructure relies on tradition and precedent. Windsor aside, it has been generations since an entirely new royal dukedom was created.

And there is another looming problem which may prove more difficult to resolve. In the 21st century, why should daughters not inherit their fathers’ titles, or receive their own? Princess Charlotte will one day be second in line to the throne, but the alternative of “Princess Royal” might well be seen as rather patronising 30 years from now.

Royalty has also relied for its survival on modernising tweaks – and its dukedoms might require exactly that treatment. Very little about the royal family is accidental, and when you see the title Duke of Sussex, it is no casual nod to seaside fun, but a carefully crafted symbol, rooted in history.

Geoffrey Hicks, Senior Lecturer, School of History, University of East Anglia.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.