There is a lot that seems mysterious about Britain’s monarchy, like what their actual jobs are and where all the long, royal titles come from. But probably one of the least understood elements of their life is why the royal family doesn’t use a last name. The simple answer? They don’t really need one.
Here's the deal: the royal family is famous enough on their own terms, as Business Insider explained, that nobody is going to confuse them with anyone else. It’s not like they’re going to stand in line at the DMV and need to be explicitly identified. And anytime a royal appears and has their name spoken publicly, their title is used. So even though first names traditionally repeat across generations, the titles help avoid confusion.
But there are moments when it’s appropriate to have a last name, like for military service or school, so the family is technically known as the Windsors. That was the name chosen by King George V in 1917, according to the royal family’s website. Before that, royals were identified by their dynasty, like the House of Tudor or House of York, the royal family’s website explained, but their designation could change if a rival family took ruling control. Due to the growing animosity toward Germany during World War I, he decided to change the dynasty name from the very German sounding House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. He decreed that all the male children of the line of Queen Victoria would bear the last name of Windsor, which he took from the castle where he lived, according to the family’s website.
Queen Elizabeth II married Prince Philip in 1947. But it was several years later, in 1960, that they decided they wanted to set apart their descendants by designating their own family name, so they hyphenated their name into Mountbatten-Windsor, the royal family's website explained. The first part of that reflected the last name that Philip had adopted when he entered military service.
That last name is almost never heard, however, as royals are usually referred to by an official title like prince or duke. To make matters more confusing, there is a difference between a royal’s title and what’s called their style. Heraldica.org, which contains an in-depth explanation of royal titles, explains that the style is how a person is meant to be addressed and can include phrases like majesty, royal highness, and grace, among others. That style precedes their titles.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip ordained that people given the royal style of royal highness, prince or princess, or any female who married didn’t have to bear their last name, which releases most of the royals we’re familiar with from the obligation of carrying a surname. That means if they want to have a last name, they’re pretty much free to choose it for themselves. When Princes William and Prince Harry joined the military, they adopted the surname Wales, partly as an homage to their father, the Prince of Wales, according to Business Insider. And the queen’s granddaughters, Eugenie and Beatrice, often use the surname York, in honor of their father, Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, as Business Insider noted. One interesting note: Beatrice and Eugenie are titled princess because they’re the children of the son of the monarch. If they were children of the daughter of the monarch they would have no titles, according to RoyalCentral.
The family website cautions that customs set by a queen or king are just that though. Without an act of Parliament they don’t pass into the law of the land, so a new ruler can change everything. When Prince Charles or Prince Williams ascend the throne someday, they could decide to institute and entirely new system of naming for their descendants. So for the sake of simplicity, using prince and princess and duke and duchess is much easier to follow.