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For other meanings, see Prince (disambiguation).
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The term prince (the female form is princess), from the Latin root princeps, when used for a member of the highest aristocracy, has several fundamentally different meanings - one generic, and several types of titles.


Historical background and the two main species of princes

The Latin word Princeps, kin to "primus" and "first among equals", was established as the title of the more or less informal leader of the senate some centuries BCE. Emperor Augustus established the formal position of monarch on basis of principate, not dominion. He also tasked his grandsons as summer rulers of the city when most of the government were on holiday in country or making religious rituals, and for that task, granted the title Princeps.

In Latin-based languages, Prince has two basic meanings: it could be a substantive title and a courtesy title. Substantive princes are in some cases reigning monarchs, and in some cases heads of their noble house. Courtesy princes may be members of a royal or a highly noble family, sharing their title with several relatives in similar position. Many other languages have (at least) two separate words for these two distinct meanings.

Abstract notion

The original but least common use is as a generic (descriptive, not formal) term, one originating in the application of terminology from Roman (actually Byzantine) law and classical "ideology" to the European feudal society. In this sense, it can in principle be used for any ruling (hereditary or elective) monarch, regardless of his title and protocolary rank.

Example: The early Renaissance title of Niccolò Machiavelli's book Il Principe (The Prince) refers to this meaning of prince.

The following parts of this article are only concerned with the use usages as a formal nobiliary (or analogous) title.

Genealogical Princes, by birth or equivalent

A Prince of the blood (in some monarchies, however, this is an actual title in its own right, of more restricted use; thus in the French kingdom, restructed to the royal descendents in the male line) is a male member of royalty, i.e. of a princely house, such as an imperial - or royal family. Depending on individual national tradition, this may either be restricted (often to one or two generations after the monarch, and/or the line of succession), or it may be allowed to run into very high numbers (as often applies in oriental dynasties).

Generally, when such a prince takes a (royal, imperial, etc.) throne he stops being styled a mere "Prince" when he becomes the ruling (or at least titular) monarch, King, Emperor, Grand Duke or one of many other styles, usually of higher rank, except in the case of a ruler styled "Prince" (see below) of a princedom (idem: "Princess" becoming a Queen).

  • For the specific terminology concerning a probable future successor, see Crown Prince and links there. Some monarchies also commonly awarded somo of their princes of the blood various lofty titles, some of which were reserved for royalty, other also open to the most trusted commoners and/or the highest nobility, as in the Byzantine empire (e.g. Protosebastos reserved).

The female form is "princess", but this is also generally used for the spouse of any Prince (of the blood, or of a principality), and also the daughter of any monarch, though in some monarchies (by law and/or tradition) the award is explicit, not automatic. Inversely, the husband of a born princess is (or was) in many monarchies not as readily styled prince (although it certainly occasionally happened). To complicate matters, the style Royal Highness, normally accompanying the title "Prince" in a dynasty (if of royal or imperial rank, that is), can be awarded separately (as a compromise or consolation prize, in some sense).

In these systems, a prince can be:

Although the definition above is the one that is most commonly understood, there are also different systems: depending on country, epoch and translation other meanings of "Prince" are possible. Over the centuries foreign-language titles such as Italian principe, French prince, German Fürst, Russian kniaz, etc., are often rendered as "prince" in English.

In some monarchies dynasties a specific title is used, some official, such as Infante in Iberia, Archduke in the Habsburg empire, Grand Prince (often rendered, less correctly, as Grand Duke) in tsarist Russia; see also Porphyrogenetos.

Princes of principalities

Other princes (or the same, see below) derive their title not from their dynastic position as such (which must often be shared with brothers, etc), but from their claim to a unique title of formal princely rank, one named after a specific principality, not after the suzerain/sovereign state, even if they belong to one.

Princes as ruling monarchs

A prince or princess who is the head of state in a monarchy is a reigning prince, which had no other specific, formal (rank) title, and their domain, typically smaller than a kingdom, is called a "principality".

This can be a regular nation, even sovereign, rather than as a grand duchy.

Example: Prince Albert II of the principality of Monaco.

In the same tradition/vein many micronation 'monarchs' establish themselves as (usually merely nominal) 'princes'.

Example: Prince Roy of Sealand

The term "prince" has also been used to describe, in languages like English that lack a specific word for this concept, the head of a feudal (vassal) state of lower rank; for example, it has been used as a synonym for duke at times.

In German, such a prince is also called "Fürst" (capital obligatory in German grammar), and there are equivalents in most languages in the tradition of the Holy Roman Empire, where these abounded.

Countries of Western Europe

In several countries of the European continent, notably in Germany and in France, a prince can be the title of someone having a high rank of nobility, but not necessarily royal, which makes comparing it with e.g. the British system of "royal" princes difficult.

Examples: Princess de Polignac (France); Prince Bismarck (Germany, translation of Fürst Bismarck)


In the Russian system, knyaz (translated as "prince"), is the highest degree of nobility, and sometimes, represents a mediatization of an older native dynasty which became subject to the Russian imperial dynasty. Rurikid branches used the knyaz title also after they were succeeded by the Romanovs as the Russian imperial dynasty.

Examples: Prince Potemkin

Titular royal princedoms

One type of prince belongs in both the genealogical royalty and the territorial princely styles. A number of nobiliary territories, carrying with them the formal style of prince, are not (or no longer) actual (political, administrative, etc. principalities, but are maintained as essentially hononary titles (though some land, income etc. may be attached to them), and are awarded traditionally (or occasionally) to princes of the blood, as an appanage.

This is done in particular for the heir to the throne (creating a de facto primogeniture), who is often awarded a particular principality in each generation, so that it becomes synonymous with the first in line for the throne, even if there is no automatic legal mechanism to do so.

  • UK (originally England) : Prince of Wales
  • Netherlands : Prins van Oranje (Prince of Orange, once a real principality around the homonymous city in southern France)
  • Spain : Principe de Asturias (Prince of the Asturias, once a separate kingdom)

Some states have an analogous tradition, where they confer another princely title, such as the British 'royal duchies' (for various royal princes), and formerly the French Dauphin (again, through de facto primogeniture).

Both systems may occur, as in Belgium, where "Prince of Liège=Luik" is one of the traditional titles for royal sons (alongside Duke of Brabant, the highest title, being handed down through primogeniture if it is not yet taken; Count of Flanders is similarly used for the second in rank).

Prince in both meanings in various (western tradition) languages

In each case, the title is followed (when available) by the female form and then (not always available, and obviously rarely applicable to a prince of the blood without a principality) the name of the territorial associated with it, each separated by a slash. If a second title (or set) is also given, then that one is for a Prince of the blood, the first for a principality. Be aware that the absence of a separate title for a prince of the blood may not always mean no such title exists; alternatively, the existence of a word does not imply there is also a reality in the linguistic teritory concerned; it may very well be used exclusively to render titles in other languages, regardless wether there is a historical link with any (which often means that linguistic tradition is adopted)

Etymologically, we can discern the following traditions (some languages followed a historical link, e.g. within the Holy Roman Empire, not their linguistic family; some even fail to follow the same logic for certain other aristocratic titles):

  • Languages (mostly Romance) only using the Latin root princeps:
    • English Prince /Princess Prince /Princess
    • French Prince /Princesse Prince /Princesse
    • Albanian Princ /Princeshë Princ /Princeshë
    • Catalan Príncep /Princesa Príncep /Princesa
    • Irish Prionsa /Banphrionsa Prionsa /Banphrionsa
    • Italian Principe /Principessa Principe /Principessa
    • Maltese Princep /Principessa Princep /Principessa
    • Monegasque Principu /Principessa Principu /Principessa
    • Portuguese Príncipe /Princesa Príncipe /Princesa
    • Rhaeto-Romanic Prinzi /Prinzessa Prinzi /Prinzessa
    • Romanian Principe /Principesă Principe /Principesă
    • Spanish Príncipe /Princesa Príncipe /Princesa
  • Languages (mainly Germanic) that use (generally alongside a princeps-derivate for princes of the blood) an equivalent of the German Fürst:
    • Danish Fyrste /Fyrstinde Prins /Prinsesse
    • Dutch Vorst /Vorstin Prins /Prinses
    • Estonian [Finnish-Ugrian family] Vürst /Vürstinna Prints /Printsess
    • German Fürst /Fürstin Prinz /Prinzessin
    • Icelandic Fursti /Furstynja Prins /Prinsessa
    • Luxemburgish [German dialect] Fürst /Fürstin Prënz /Prinzessin
    • Norwegian Fyrste /Fyrstinne Prins /Prinsesse
    • Swedish Furste /Furstinna Prins /Prinsessa
  • Slavonic and (related) Baltic languages
    • Belorussian Tsarevich, Karalevich, Prynts /Tsarewna, Karalewna, Pryntsesa
    • Bulgarian Knyaz /Knaginya Tsarevich, Kralevich, Prints /Printsesa
    • Croatian, Serbian Knez /Kneginja Kraljević, Princ /Kraljevna, Princeza
    • Czech Kníže /Kněžna Králevic, Princ /Králevična, Princezna
    • Latin (post-Roman) Princeps/* Princeps/*
    • Latvian Firsts /Firstiene Princis /Princese
    • Lithuanian Kunigaikštis /Kunigaikštiene Princas /Princese
    • Macedonian Knez /Knezhina Tsarevich, Kralevich, Prints /Tsarevna, Kralevna, Printsesa
    • Polish Książę /Księżna Książę, Królewicz /Księżna, Królewna
    • Russian Knyaz /Knyagina, Knyazhnya Tsarevich, Korolyevich, Prints /Tsarevna, Korolyevna, Printsessa
    • Slovak Knieža /Kňažná Kráľovič, Princ /Princezná
    • Slovene Knez /Kneginja Kraljevič, Princ /Kraljična, Princesa
    • Ukrainian Knyaz /Knyazhnya Tsarenko, Korolenko, Prints /Tsarivna, Korolivna, Printsizna
  • other (incl. Finnish-Ugrian .. ) languages :
    • Finnish Ruhtinas /Ruhtinatar Prinssi /Prinsessa
    • Greek (New) Igemonas /Igemonida Pringipas /Pringipesa
    • Hungarian (Magyar) Herceg /Hercegnő Herceg /Hercegnő

Oriental and other native counterparts

One must bear in mind that all of the above is essentialy the story of European, christian dynasties and other nobility, also 'exported' to their colonial and other overseas territories and otherwise adopted by rather westernized societies elsewhere (e.g. Haiti).

However, the practise of applying these essentially western concepts and even terminology to other cultures, even when they don't, is common but in many respects rather dubious. The reality is that their different (historical, religious ...) backgrounds have also begot significantly different dynastic and nobiliary systems, which are poorly represented by the 'closest' western analogy.

It therefore makes sense to treat these per civilization.

Islamic traditions

  • Arabian tradition since the caliphate
  • Malay countries
  • In the Ottoman empire, the sovereign of imperial rank (incorrectly known in the west as (Great) sultan) was styled padishah with a host of additional titles, reflecting his claim as political successor to the various conquered states. Princes of the blood, male and female, were given the style sultan (normally reserved for muslim rulers)
  • & other Near East
  • etc

Far East (Hindu, Buddhist, etc.)

  • China

In ancient China, the title of prince developed from being the highest title of nobility (synonymous with duke) in the Zhou Dynasty, to five grades of princes (not counting the sons and grandsons of the emperor) by the time of the fall of the Qing Dynasty.

  • Japan

In Japan, the title of prince (kôshaku 公爵) was used as the highest title of kazoku(華族Japanese modern nobility) before the present constitution. The title kôshaku, however, is more commonly translated as duke to avoid confusion with the royal ranks in the imperial household, shinnô (親王(literally king of the blood) female;naishinnô(内親王(literally queen(by herself) of the blood) and shinnôhi親王妃(literally consort of king of the blood)) or ô (王(literaly king) female;nyoô(女王(literaly queen (by herself)) and ôhi(王妃(literally consort of king)). The former is the higher title of a male member of the Imperial family and the latter is the lower.

  • Korea
  • Indochina : Vietnam, Laos
  • and many other


Except for the Arabized, muslim North and some other monarchies that simply adopted islamic practices, usually the systems are completely independent or almost.

Princes of the Church

There is a certain amount of ambiguity when speaking of a "prince of the church", which is an expression used nearly exclusively for Roman Catholic clergymen :

So-called Princes of/within the Church

By analogy with secular princes (in the broad 'generic' sense, regardless of the style), it made perfect sence in the feudal class society to regard the highest members (Prelates) of the clergy, as the privileged estate besides the nobility (in some cases even given protocolary precedence over it!), as social equivalent, especially as it became common for sons (mainly younger ones, notably when excluded from succession) of the aristocracy to occupy many of the highest prelatures. (Their other common alternative was a military career, which might even bring a new domain of their own, especially in crusades and reconquista).

  • The precise and absolute use of Prince of the Church is for a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, because their college (but since XXth century reforms, in fact only a regulated, 'young' part of the cardinals are still allowed in the conclave) had aquired the pivotal status of Electors of the Pope, in any senses equivalent to (at least the three prince-archbishops amongst) the Prince-electors of the Holy Roman Empire (seen as the highest echelon of 'German' nobility, regardless of the styles of each 'electorate', i.e. their secular princedoms)
  • Informally, members of the higher hierarchic echelons of the Catholic church are in recent times also occasionally called "princes of the church", in which case this "title" can sometimes be intended more or less ironically by the speaker.

Cleric offices holding princely temporal power/titles

First clergymen could own land and rule over it, as "monarch" type of princes. In modern times only the Roman pope is still (literally) such a "prince of the church", be it in a limited manner (Vatican City as the territory of the Holy See) - for all other clergymen "prince"-like worldly power is considered as conflicting with the prescriptions of the church, but that has not been always so:

Example: for a period of time the bishop of Liège was a prince (the "prince-bishop" of Liège) ruling a vast part of what later would become Belgium.

See also

Sources and References

  • Almanach de Bruxelles
  • RoyalArk
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