What's in a (royal) name? The significance of George Alexander Louis

Royal tradition and family ties echo in Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge's name. But it is also possible Alexander was chosen because it is a favourite of his mother Kate.

Royal tradition and family ties echo in Prince of Cambridge's name

When Prince William and Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, opted for George Alexander Louis as the name for their first child, they chose names with strong echoes of royal tradition and a nod to family ties.

In advance of Monday's birth, the British bookies had made George the odds-on favourite if the baby was a boy, and it is a name with deep royal resonance.

The most recent high-profile royal George is King George VI, Queen Elizabeth's late father.

He had the given names Albert Frederick Arthur George, but took his fourth moniker — George — as his regal name, in a respectful nod to his father, King George V.

George VI was the second son of George V and had grown up not expecting to be king. But the shy man who went informally by the name of Bertie found himself on the throne after the abdication crisis sparked by his elder brother, Edward VIII, in 1936.

George VI was a very popular monarch and reigned until his death in 1952. But he had been ill for several years and Elizabeth had increasingly taken on royal duties before he died.

Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge, attempting a wave. (Reuters)

"She was extremely close to her father," says the CBC's royal commentator, Bonnie Brownlee.

"It's nice for the Queen now for the rest of her life to be able to refer to the heir to the throne by her father's name, to be able to call him George."

George VI's reign  — and his struggle with the stutter he overcame — also lives on in popular culture because of the movie The King's Speech, a 2010 film that went on to win Oscars for best picture and best actor for Colin Firth.

George VI and his wife became wartime icons in Britain, particularly with their decision to stay in London during the Second World War, in the face of German bombing raids.

Alexander Louis

The BBC is reporting that Alexander "was said to be a favourite" name of Kate's; and there is the possibility it — or some form of it, such as Alex — is the moniker the Prince of Cambridge becomes known by in family circles.

"They may even call him Bertie. They may call him Alex," says Brownlee. "It’s hard to say what his nickname will be. It'll be something though, because they love to do that."

Alexander is also a name that has echoes in British history.

"There were three kings of Scotland in the Middle Ages named Alexander," Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal historian and blogger, said in an interview earlier this year when much royal baby name speculation had focused on Alexandra for a girl.

At the time, Harris was making the point that "naming a royal baby Alexandra would reinforce the Crown's connections to Scotland" at a key moment in British history when Scotland is debating devolution.

Other echoes of Alexander go back to the time of Queen Victoria, whose first name was actually Alexandrina, in a nod to her godfather, Alexander I of Russia.

King Edward VII, who reigned from 1901 to 1910 and whose popularity wavered over time given that he dabbled with both gambling and mistresses, had a very well-regarded wife named Alexandra.

Louis Mountbatten, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip on the balcony of Buckingham Palace during celebrations of the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977. (Reuters)

As well, Queen Elizabeth's second name is Alexandra and Brownlee says that people she has been talking with suggest the Alexander in the new baby's name is a nod to the Queen's name.

While no British monarch has reigned under the name of Louis, that moniker has a special family significance within the House of Windsor.

Little Prince George's great-grandfather, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, was particularly close to his uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, a prominent British statesman and naval officer who was the last viceroy of India leading up to its independence.

Mountbatten, who died when the IRA blew up his yacht off the coast of Ireland in 1979, was also a close confidante and important figure in the life of the new prince's grandfather, Prince Charles.

Louis also has echoes within Prince William's full name: William Arthur Philip Louis.

Just three monikers

Prince George's name does veer from recent royal tradition in some respects: it has only three components, unlike the four of his father and grandfather (Charles Philip Arthur George).

There is also no direct nod to the baby's father or grandfather, a common practice in royal names.

As well, Prince George's name became public in relatively quick order, compared with that of his father or grandfather. William's name was announced six days after his birth in 1982. Prince Charles's name was made public a month after his birth in November 1948.

As history would have it, the most recent Prince of Cambridge, who lived from 1819 to 1904, was also George.

But his life was rather complicated — at least personally — with illegitimate children and mistresses, and the new Prince George may not wish to emulate his predecessor too much if he becomes concerned about his reputation.

Queen Elizabeth at a reception at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday, the day after her great-grandson was born, looking very pleased. (Reuters)

The last Prince George of Cambridge "was a complicated character who ended up living his life on his own terms rather than following the expectations of a royal prince at that time in terms of his personal life," Harris notes.

George ran into royal trouble with his marriage to Sarah Fairbrother, a woman who had several strikes against her as a possible royal wife at that time.

"He had a very complicated legacy as he was one of the numerous members of the royal family who was affected by the Royal Marriages Act," says Harris.

Fairbrother was the daughter of a servant at Westminster, and had been an actress for 10 years: a background that would have been common for royal mistresses of that era but not considered suitable for a royal wife.

She and George had two children together prior to their marriage, and another son after. But that son could not inherit his father's title because George's marriage wasn't considered legal and the then dukedom of Cambridge died with him.

George's life was more than his complicated domestic situation, however. And beyond that messy personal life, he did follow some royal traditions, becoming a senior military man for 39 years. Harris says he acquired a mixed reputation in that role.

"At times he was seen as being resistant to change and making promotions based on the social standings of his officers, but in other ways he was interested in army reform."

Those reforms included the introduction of breech-loading carbines for the cavalry as well as reductions in the use of corporal punishment.

While the first Prince George of Cambridge had a somewhat colourful — and checkered — past, any shadow his life might have cast over the name George was obviously not enough to sway William and Kate away from it.

And that may not be surprising.

"It’s difficult because with every royal name it's possible to find someone in the past 1,000 years of the British monarchy who brought that name into disrepute," says Harris. "If every historical example was considered, it would eliminate a lot of possible names."

Royal shadows

Even Prince William's name has a few royal shadows hanging over it.

"The last King William wasn't a particularly respected figure," says Harris.

William IV, who was born in 1765 and reigned from 1830 to 1837, was a third son of King George III and hadn't expected to ascend the throne.

"When he was king he was known for being very informal and having the kinds of manners that were not considered particularly regal because of his youth as a naval officer," says Harris.

He was also infamous for launching into a public tirade against his sister-in-law — the future Queen Victoria's mother.

The current Prince William, on the other hand, seems only to have the greatest respect for his inlaws — sister-in-law Pippa Middleton visited William, Kate and their new baby Tuesday night. And baby Prince George of Cambridge went with his parents to Kate's parents' home a few hours before his name was announced.


  • An earlier version of this story said William IV reigned from 1765 to 1837. In fact, he was born in 1765 and reigned from 1830 to 1837.
    Jul 24, 2103 9:45 PM ET


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.