Royalty watchers are having a field day in the wake of the recent wedding of Britain's Prince Edward to Sophie Rhys-Jones.
The reason: Queen Elizabeth II's decision to confer the title "Earl and Countess of Wessex" upon her youngest son and his bride. The move is being seen, variously, as imaginative, odd, a bit of a slight to Edward, and a sign that the monarchy may be under the influence of the movie industry.
One problem with the title is that Wessex doesn't exist except in medieval history books and the novels of Thomas Hardy. It refers to a broad tract of west-central England, including the modern counties of Wiltshire, Somerset, Berkshire, Devon, and Cornwall. Wessex means "West Saxon."
The area has a noble history: In AD 878 King Alfred of Wessex defeated the marauding Danes to become King of England. In AD 1066, King Harold, the son of the first Earl of Wessex, was defeated by William the Conqueror. The name lapsed until "The Return of the Native" and other Hardy novels were published in the late 19th century. And the actual title Earl of Wessex didn't reappear until last year, in the form of a fictional character in the film "Shakespeare in Love."
Columnist Hannah Betts, writing in the London Times last week, speculated that the movie gave the queen the idea of using the title.
Royal historian David Starkey says: "The title itself is a total fiction. There is nowhere called Wessex. This is a strange way to usher in the new millennium."
Others take a less critical view. David Williamson, editor of Debrett's Peerage and Baronetage, a standard reference on aristocratic matters, calls it "an imaginative choice.
"Perhaps the queen is signaling a different approach to royal titles," he says.
British royalty has a history of plucking titles from the air and, as historian David Cannadine once remarked, "inventing tradition."
The House of Windsor was previously known as the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a German dynasty. In 1917, King George V changed the family name because of anti-German feeling in Britain during World War I.
Royalty pundit David Williamson says the name Queen Elizabeth has chosen for Edward and his wife (now Countess of Wessex) suggests Britain may be heading toward a lower-key monarchy and a smaller royal family.
Edward, Mr. Williamson points out, is the first son of a British monarch since King George I not to have been made a duke upon his marriage.
Harold Brooks-Baker, publishing director of Burke's Peerage, says the decision to make Prince Edward an earl rather than a duke indicates that he will play a minor role in British public life. A duke is two ranks higher than an earl, and the couple's children, if they have any, will not be allowed to call themselves His or Her Royal Highness.
But Mr. Brooks-Baker notes the queen has decided that when she and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, have gone, Edward will have the right to assume that title. "The difficulty with that is that we can't be certain there'll be a monarchy by then," Brooks-Baker says.
In a further indication of an effort afoot to pare down the royal family, London's Sunday Times reported June 27 that Prince Andrew's two young daughters, Beatrice and Eugenie, would be asked to renounce their titles of princess when they turn 18. They would instead use the more modest "lady" before their names.