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Common(wealth) Knowledge #15: Camilla's Attorney-General

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

A lesser-covered topic following the death of the Queen.

Common(wealth) Knowledge articles normally use an event from the past fortnight as a springboard to look at Australian legal issues, usually constitutional ones. However, with the death of Queen Elizabeth II dominating the news cycle, media outlets have covered almost all legal topics arising out of that. However, there is one topic that hasn’t been addressed yet, and that is the fact that Queen Consort Camilla will have her own Attorney-General.

King Charles III and Queen Consort Camilla will both be entitled to an Attorney-General, who will represent them in court. These Attorneys-General are practicing barristers. In contrast, the Attorney-General of England and Wales is responsible for giving legal advice to the government. That Attorney-General is an elected Member of the House of Commons, rather than a lawyer.

As King, Charles is also the Duke of Lancaster. The Duchy of Lancaster consists of all the monarchy’s property, and has a royal ‘household.’ This includes an Attorney-General and Chancellor. The latter is a government minister. Under the Westminster principle of responsible government, the Chancellor is responsible to Parliament for running the Duchy. There is also a Duchy Council, which deals with its daily affairs. The Attorney-General is a member of the Council.

The Queen Consort has their own royal household as a result of practices that have developed over time to give the wife of the monarch equal rights with the King. This is because, prior to the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 (UK) and Married Women’s Property Act 1870 (UK), married women were treated as inferior to their husband, ranging between their husband’s property and their husband’s subject. The classic characterisation of this comes to us from William Blackstone:

“By marriage the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated into that of her husband; under whose wing, protection and cover she performs everything, and is therefore called in our law-french a feme covert.”

Feme covert means ‘married woman.’ A married woman couldn’t enter into a contract, sue someone, earn income, and any real estate she had (which wasn’t common) was left to her husband when she died. This was so pervasive that early English translations of the Tenth Commandment in the Bible, which told men not to ‘covet thy neighbour’s wife” or other forms of property, including servants, real estate, and livestock, were interpreted as treating the wife as another form of property.

But the Queen Consort also couldn’t be treated as still belonging to her father, as if she hadn’t been given away in marriage, because she would also have limited legal rights. Therefore, a loophole was found. Therefore, despite the marriage, the law treated to Queen Consort as a feme sole, meaning “woman alone.” This allowed her to own property, sue in court, and legally sign documents. This also gave the Queen Consort her own royal household, which she could manage, rather than her husband managing it. Like her husband, her household had a Chancellor, an Attorney-General and a Solicitor-General. The latter was a lawyer who was involved in contracts, wills, and property law. Many legal privileges that the King had were also bestowed upon the Queen Consort, including not having to pay fines.

This was also made possible by the fact that the King and Queen Consort are both crowned. Both Camilla and Catherine, Princess of Wales, will be crowned Queen Consorts. However, although both will have a royal household as Queen Consort, neither had a royal household as Princess of Wales. In contrast, the Prince of Wales has a royal household, including an Attorney-General, because the Prince of Wales is also the Duke of Cornwall, who has a royal household. So, although there is only one monarch, there are three separate royal households.

Although the UK has had many Queen Consorts, there has never been a King Consort in Britain, or the earlier separate English and Scottish kingdoms. Part of this is because the title of ‘King’ was thought to outrank the ‘Queen,’ just as it does in card games or chess. But also, there just aren’t many examples to look at.

Queen Elizabeth I never married. Her sister, Queen Mary I, was married to King Philip II of Spain and I of Portugal, so was given the title of King of England, not King Consort. Mary and Elizabeth’s first cousin once removed was Mary, Queen of Scots, but the legal status of her three husbands was never resolved. Queen Mary II and King William III were co-rulers. Mary II’s sister, Queen Anne was a Prince, but only because he was a Prince George of Denmark. Finally, Prince Philip served as consort to Queen Elizabeth II, but only as a Prince of the United Kingdom, not as Prince Consort.

The only remaining Queen is Victoria. She pushed for Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to be crowned King Consort, but Parliament refused to recognise him as King Consort, as he was born in the German Confederation, and so was a foreigner. They settled on Prince Consort, and he is the only person to have legally held the title of Prince Consort.

Although the justifications for giving the Queen Consort her own royal household and Attorney-General are no longer applicable, as the legal inequality between husband and wife no longer exists, the Queen Consort nonetheless continues to have her own household. The British pride themselves on their traditions, and this one has stood the test of time.

Stuart Jeffery is a freelance researcher & digital editor for 6 News. His views on personal social media pages are his & his only, and do not reflect the views of 6 News or our journalists. He abides by 6 News' editorial standards relating to fairness & accuracy.

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