Even for those who aren't royal subjects, the British royal family is a source of fascination, admiration and speculation. Yet it can be difficult to understand who's who in the royal family — and who's likely to wear the crown. Read on to learn about the most important royals and their relationship to the line of succession.
Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Elizabeth II lived the first several years of her life with little expectation of ascending to the throne, as her father was King George V's second son. Though her uncle Edward, the king's heir, was unmarried, it was assumed he'd eventually have children, who would step into the line of succession ahead of her. But less than a year after her uncle became King Edward VIII in January 1936, he ended up relinquishing the crown in order to wed divorcée Wallis Simpson.
The result of this turmoil was that Elizabeth's father ended up as King George VI, with her as his heir apparent (though if her parents had surprised her with a younger brother, the boy would have claimed the throne ahead of her). After her father's death in 1952, Elizabeth became queen. In 2015 the length of her reign surpassed that of Queen Victoria's, her great-great-grandmother, and Elizabeth became the longest-serving monarch in British history.
Born a prince in Greece, political upheaval resulted in exile for Philip and his family when he was a baby, leaving him to grow up without much familial support. He made a life for himself in Britain and served in the Navy during World War II. In 1947, he married Princess Elizabeth. Given the title of Duke of Edinburgh upon his marriage, in 1957 his wife made him a Prince of the United Kingdom — meaning he could officially be called Prince Philip.
As consort, Philip had to leave his naval career, and he undertook a busy schedule of appearances (along the way earning a reputation for making blunt, sometimes offensive, remarks). In 2017, at the age of 96, he stepped down from royal duties. He's the longest-serving British royal consort — but though he's the spouse of one monarch and the father of a presumed future king, Philip has no place in the line of succession himself.
Prince Charles Philip Arthur George is the eldest of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip's four children — all of whom were given Elizabeth's family name of Windsor. Charles was three when his mother became queen, and during her reign he's become the record-holder for the longest period spent as the monarch's heir-in-waiting. If nothing goes awry and he succeeds his mother, Charles will be the oldest person to take the British throne (William IV was 64 when he became king in 1830). At an age when most have retired, Charles will just be starting the job he's spent a lifetime preparing to hold — but at least his second wife and longtime love, Camilla Parker Bowles, will be at his side.
Though Elizabeth has cut back on her schedule, she remains committed to her role as queen; as long as she isn't incapacitated, it's expected she'll remain on the throne for the rest of her life. And unlike monarchies in Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands, where rulers have handed the reins (and reigns) to their children, in England there's no procedure for Elizabeth to step aside so Charles can take the throne — plus heading off into the sunset isn't really his mother's style.
The elder of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's two sons, Prince William Arthur Philip Louis (who was given the title Duke of Cambridge by Queen Elizabeth upon his 2011 marriage to Kate Middleton) became second in line to the throne when he was born; like his father, he grew up with the knowledge he would someday be king. Until that day comes, he handles other royal duties, including charitable work — plus he's able to spend more time with his wife and children.
William is a more popular royal than Charles, so there's occasionally been talk that the son should become the next king instead of his father. However, no legal process exists for skipping over Charles, and any attempt to install William on the throne in lieu of Charles could create a constitutional crisis. In addition, there's no indication Charles wants to give up the crown — and William reportedly does not want to keep his father from being king.
Catherine 'Kate' Middleton
With Kate Middleton's 2011 marriage to Prince William, she became the Duchess of Cambridge. Kate is not of royal blood, so she cannot become Princess Kate unless the queen (or king) decides to grant her the title — but she can be called Princess William of Wales.
Assuming succession proceeds as planned and her husband is crowned as king, Kate would become queen consort; she'll likely be known as Queen Catherine. However, if anything keeps William from ascending to the throne, she will not become queen — but she would be the mother of the next monarch.
Prince George, whose full name is George Alexander Louis, is the first of Prince William and Kate Middleton's children and third in line to the British throne, after his father and grandfather.
In 2011, an updated Succession to the Crown Act was proposed; it became law on April 25, 2013. One resulting change was that male offspring no longer jump ahead of their older sisters in the line of succession. Of course, Prince George is a boy — but this means that if his first child is a girl, she'll be his successor, even if he has a son later on.
Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana is the second of Prince William's children with Kate Middleton. She's fourth in the order of succession, behind her father, grandfather and older brother George.
Thanks to the updated rules of succession, her younger brother won't supplant Charlotte's place. However, this change only applies to royalty born after October 28, 2011 — so Charlotte's great-aunt, Princess Anne, remains behind her two younger brothers, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, in line for the throne.
Prince Louis Arthur Charles
William and Kate's third child is son Louis Arthur Charles is fifth in the line of succession.
When Prince Harry was born to Princess Diana and Prince Charles — as Prince Henry Charles Albert David — he was third in line for the throne. However, every time his older brother Prince William has another child, it pushes Harry down in the order of succession, making it extremely unlikely that he'll ever become king. Yet this doesn't seem to disappoint Harry — in 2017, Newsweek published an interview in which he said, "Is there any one of the royal family who wants to be king or queen? I don’t think so, but we will carry out our duties at the right time."
Being the "spare" part of the "heir and a spare" meant Harry could explore other opportunities, such as serving in Afghanistan (he also came through some public embarrassments and mistakes relatively unscathed, in part because it wasn't expected he would take the throne). Now he's focused on causes such as the Invictus Games for wounded servicemen and women, while still trying to live a somewhat normal life.