It’s fair to say that Britain’s royals aren’t short of money. Forbes magazine estimated their net worth to be about $88 billion in 2017, with Queen Elizabeth II personally worth around $530 million, according to the 2020 “Rich List” published in U.K. newspaper The Sunday Times. The Queen’s eldest son and heir apparent, Prince Charles, isn’t far behind his mother either: his personal wealth is estimated at roughly $420 million. So how is it that the heir to the throne, with millions to his name, benefits financially from the assets of non-wealthy Britons? Let’s find out…
Charles Philip Arthur George was born to Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace in London, on December 14, 1948. He became heir apparent in 1952 and at the age of three, when his grandfather, King George VI died and Charles’s mother ascended the throne to become Queen Elizabeth II.
The young prince must have been wide-eyed with awe at the pomp and circumstance – not to mention the press frenzy – surrounding the Queen’s official coronation at London’s Westminster Abbey the following year. At the tender age of four, he had the media spotlight and world’s attention upon him as he sat between his now-widowed grandmother, the Queen Mother, and his aunt, Princess Margaret, for the ceremony.
Due to a tradition established by King Edward III in 1337, Prince Charles had already been bestowed the title of Duke of Cornwall – Edward’s charter ruling that any future eldest son of the monarch and heir to the throne would inherit the title. Then in 1958 when the Duke of Cornwall was still just nine years old, the Queen bestowed upon him the new titles of Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester.
After attending a number of prestigious U.K. schools during his formative years, Prince Charles went on to study archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge University in 1967. Two years later, he was officially invested as the Prince of Wales by the Queen, in a grand ceremony that took place at Caernarfon Castle. The Prince had previously spent a term at the University College of Wales, learning the lingo in readiness for the occasion.
Not long afterwards Charles began his military career, with jet pilot training at the Royal Air Force (RAF) base in the English county of Lincolnshire. Then just a few months later, in September 1971 he picked up the family baton of serving in the Royal Navy, just like his male predecessors. He officially qualified as a helicopter pilot three years later, and joined the 845 Naval Air Squadron. The last nine months of his naval career were spent in command of the minehunting vessel HMS Bronington.
It was at the age of 28 that Charles first encountered his future bride and Princess of Wales, Lady Diana Spencer – her title back then. The prince was actually dating her older sister, Sarah, when he met 16 year-old Diana, during a grouse hunt at the Spencer family home in 1977. He told U.K. newspaper The Daily Telegraph in a 1981 interview: “I remember thinking what a very jolly and amusing and attractive 16-year-old she was. I mean, great fun, and bouncy and full of life and everything.”
Rumor has it that Charles was still harboring feelings for Camilla Parker Bowles – who he had dated a few years earlier – at the time, and sure enough his relationship with Sarah Spencer was not destined to last. So the prince did not see Diana again until three years after their first encounter. Their paths eventually crossed again at the Sussex home of a mutual friend, Philip de Pass, in 1980. A relationship blossomed quickly, and the pair got engaged the following year.
Six months after announcing their engagement, the couple were married in sumptuous style in a ceremony attended by the great and the good at the iconic St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Broadcast to a global audience of an estimated 750 million, it was, and remains, one of the most memorable royal weddings. But the newlyweds’ bliss was to be short-lived; allegedly only a few years later, Charles began his affair with Camilla.
The royal couple soon produced heirs of their own; Prince William arrived in June 1982 and Prince Harry in September 1984. But Charles and Camilla’s affair was soon exposed in the press, creating an international public scandal. In December 1992 it was announced that the Prince and Princess of Wales had separated. They were officially divorced three years later, only a year before the Princess’s untimely death at the age of 36, the result of a car crash in Paris, France.
Charles publicly mourned his former wife’s death – walking behind her coffin with his two sons, who were aged 12 and 15 at the time, on the day of Diana’s internationally televised funeral. It was a number of years before the heir to the throne and Camilla Parker Bowles – now Duchess of Cornwall – officially became a couple. They eventually married in a civil ceremony, which was followed by a blessing at Windsor Castle, in 2005.
As mentioned earlier, owing to King Edward III’s 1337 charter, future heirs to the throne inherit both the title of Duke of Cornwall and a private estate known as the Duchy of Cornwall. A substantial body of land it is too, spanning nearly 130,000 acres of land and stretching across 21 counties in southwest England. As well as coastal areas, woodland and rivers, the estate comprises farmland and smallholdings, plus residential and commercial properties too. Factor in the Duchy Nursery and Duchy Holiday Cottages – both owned and managed by the estate – and you have quite the lucrative business.
So lucrative, in fact, that it funds the private, public and charitable expenses of not only the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall, but also of sons Prince William and Prince Harry, along with their families too. While the Duke of Cornwall doesn’t directly profit from the sale of any significant pieces of property within the Duchy, any income that these assets generate – such as property rent – is absorbed into the estate coffers. In the 2019/20 financial year, it made almost $30 million and its net worth was assessed as about $1.2 billion. Jeepers!
The Prince of Wales isn’t the only member of the royal family to have their own duchy, mind you. Her Majesty the Queen uses the income from the Duchy of Lancaster – another collection of land, property and assets – to fund some of her public and private expenses. Otherwise known as the ‘Privy Purse’, this duchy is used “primarily to meet expenses incurred by other members of the royal family,” according to its official website. The Queen also has her own private investment portfolio, which she uses to fund her personal expenses.
Contrary to popular belief, the Queen does not have private ownership of many of the treasures and pieces of property associated with and used by the royal family. Two exceptions are the royal Balmoral and Sandringham estates, which were inherited from her father, King George VI. This means that Queen Elizabeth’s successors to the throne will automatically inherit them. But many other properties, including Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and the famed Crown Jewels and other priceless treasures contained within the Royal Collection are all held by the sovereignty and are not privately owned by the Queen.
Then there is the Sovereign Grant. This is an annual payout to the royal family, which comes from the British government and is funded by British taxpayers. Doubtless galling to those of a republican persuasion, this sum is reserved for the funding of official royal travel, palace maintenance and staff wages. So it doesn’t go directly into the pockets of the royals for their personal spending pleasure, although of course it could be argued it liberates them from having to spend their own cash on these expenses. The grant amounts to roughly 25 percent of the Crown Estate’s annual profits – which do go back into the public purse – and was a whopping $107 million in 2019/20.
All this basically means that the Queen and Prince Charles are the key holders of the royal purse strings, and dish out payments to the rest of the family as they see fit. Since stepping back as senior members of the royal family, though, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will no longer share this entitlement. So no more cash handouts for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, although they retain their formal titles.
Instead, they will likely maintain their luxurious lifestyles with high-profile book deals and public speaking invitations, according to royal commentator and author, Kristen Meinzer. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have “great earning potential”, Meinzer told website Business Insider, saying, “We could easily compare them to any former presidents. My mind keeps going to Barack and Michelle Obama and how [they] make money. The reason I compare the two is that they’re already friends with each other and I would put them on the same level in terms of fame.”
So we know that the Prince of Wales has a firm grasp on the royal purse strings, as a result of the Duchy of Cornwall’s significant financial weight. Oh and by the way – Prince Charles does pay income tax – voluntarily, his people are keen to assure us – on the revenue generated by the Duchy. Yet despite being an undeniably formidable business, the Duke’s estate is classed as being exempt from corporation tax. Interesting…
But wait, there’s more… In case you’re not familiar, there is a legal scenario known as bona vacantia – literally meaning “vacant goods” – which refers to ownerless property. In England and Wales, when somebody dies without leaving a will, their “estate” – basically their property, possessions and cash – becomes the legal responsibility of the British government’s Treasury Solicitor. If there are no living blood relatives, it is passed on to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who then contributes the value to paying off the national debt. In other words, the country as a whole gets the cash.
But it’s a different story in the county of Cornwall, where bona vacantia properties or businesses instead go to the Duchy of Cornwall. Put simply, Prince Charles can, if he so chooses, simply pocket the spare cash. And, it’s worth mentioning, a similar situation occurs in Lancashire, where bona vacantia assets become the property of the Duchy of Lancaster. Owned by whom? Yep, that’s right – Her Majesty The Queen.
According to the Duchy of Cornwall website, “Discretionary payments may be available to those who might reasonably have expected to benefit from the estate of the deceased.” In other words, the Duke of Cornwall has the ultimate say in whether payments can be permitted to any relatives laying claim to a bona vacantia estate within the Duchy. And for that matter, the size of any such sums. Oh, that’s okay then…
Estates deemed bona vacantia are currently handled on behalf of the Duchy of Cornwall by London-based law firm Farrer & Co. Website VICE.com questioned associate Lucinda van Kuffeler about what efforts the firm makes to trace any family. “We make appropriate enquiries as to the existence of kin according to internal guidelines,” Kuffeler explained. “These vary according to the particular circumstances of the estate, and include making enquiries with those who have referred the estate to us, instructing firms of genealogists to search for kin on our behalf, and advertising the estate in newspapers – national and local to the deceased’s last address.”
At first glance this all seems perfectly reasonable. But VICE.com heard a different view when speaking to Danny Curren, managing director of heir-tracing experts Finders International. “In our experience the Duchy of Cornwall advertises bona vacantia estates only very periodically,” said Curren. “It seems that Farrer & Co… advertise[s] these in local printed papers and very occasionally in national papers, but not really online.” Hmm, the plot thickens…
We should clarify here that bona vacantia funds obtained by the Duchy of Cornwall don’t go straight into the pocket of Prince Charles. Instead, there’s something called The Duke of Cornwall’s Benevolent Fund into which, the official Duchy website tells us, “His Royal Highness chooses to donate all monies from bona vacantia.” Beneficiaries of the fund include local communities and charities across southwest England, selected by the heir to the throne.
The duchy also stresses on its website that no bona vacantia funds are paid into the Sovereign Grant – which as we previously mentioned, benefits the royal family’s estates and activities. In the 2019/20 financial year, donations to the value of about $207,000 were made to a number of charities, mostly in Cornwall. These included good causes concerned with schooling, farming and environmental protection.
Again, all of the above sounds perfectly acceptable, right? Well, not according to the anti-monarchy campaign group Republic. The Duke of Cornwall’s Benevolent Fund is questionable because “the activities of this charity are entirely at the discretion of the Duke,” argues Republic. “It could be used for anything… He is under no obligation to give this money to charity at all – he legally could refuse to do so tomorrow and spend it all on a holiday, if he so wished.”
And it’s not just about bona vacantia. Republic has argued that the Duchy of Cornwall is in possession of a number of rights and privileges that, put simply, are not fair. One example is the duchy’s ownership of all mines in Cornwall. This includes mines underneath privately owned homes, upon which the BBC reported back in 2012. Residents of the Cornish town of Talskiddy were shocked to learn of the duchy’s rights, having been informed of them by the Land Registry, after the purchase of their homes.
It seems that it’s not just ownerless properties or businesses to which the Duchy of Cornwall lays claim, either. If a ship is wrecked on Cornish shores and no one asserts ownership within a year, then it becomes duchy property. The British government’s guidance on ‘Wreck and salvage law’ clearly states, “If wreck [sic] from UK waters remains unclaimed at the end of one year, it becomes the property of the Crown or grantee of the Crown such as the Duchy of Cornwall.”
Republic also pointed out that the Duchy of Cornwall is legally entitled to any “treasure troves” (buried metal items of value) found on Cornish land. And indeed, the British Government’s 1996 Treasure Act states, “It is as franchisees in right of treasure trove that Her Majesty and the Duke of Cornwall are to be treated as having enjoyed the rights to treasure trove which belonged respectively to the Duchy of Lancaster and the Duchy of Cornwall.”
The duchy could abuse and exploit a number of powers if it chose to do so, insisted Republic. According to the group, The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 protects ancient monuments of historical importance in England and Wales. Any attempts to buy or desecrate such monuments would be punishable by law. “If, however, the duke was to buy and demolish Lanyon Quoit [a Neolithic tombstone in Cornwall], this would not only be legal, but there would be no legal way to prevent him from doing so,” stated Republic.
In its anti-Monarchy video entitled “The Man Who Shouldn’t be King”, Republic examines the “feudal” influence of the duchy over land within its portfolio. Alan Davis, a resident of the Isles of Scilly (part of the duchy estate), discusses in the video his 20-year battle to enfranchise his own property.
Mr Davis says: “We’ve had various acts over the years – the last one in 2002 – which gave the right to ordinary people to buy their landlord out, so that they owned the land which their property stood on. […] The law applies equally, except in the case of the duchy. And the duchy exempts us from that.”
Adam Smith, a former Scilly Isles business owner, has a similar story. Speaking in the Republic video, Smith recounts taking over management of the Tolman Café in St Mary’s, where he attempted to convert the business into a café-cum-wildlife attraction after rescuing a number of birds and small mammals.
“[I] had really good support from the local people. They loved it,” said Smith. “But then literally as we finished the bird park and animal sanctuary, we had a letter off the duchy, saying that we must remove all of our animals immediately. When we asked for a reason, they said, “We don’t want to discuss it further.”’
“With the Crown, there’s no negotiation. If they make a decision, that’s it. You can’t negotiate it. Because they don’t have to… I know for a fact that Scilly people won’t fight the duchy. They won’t. Because they’re worried that their rents will go up faster. It just makes you not want to live there.” Smith has since relocated to Worcestershire, where he’s renovating a pub in Pershore.
The overriding power of the duchy’s land ownership even extends to electricity supply, said Republic. While a utility firm ordinarily has the right to enter private land for necessary repairs or maintenance, this permission does not extend to duchy land. And the campaign group is correct. It’s all there in the 1989 Electricity Act.
It states, “No power (whether a power of compulsory acquisition or other compulsory power, a power to carry out works or a power of entry) which is conferred by or under this Part shall, except with the consent of the appropriate authority, be exercisable in relation to any land in which there is a crown or duchy interest.”
And there’s one more example of the extent of the duchy’s power over its lands. Back in 2011 British newspaper The Guardian reported that Prince Charles’s legal team had attempted to prevent access to files containing information about a controversial oyster farm in Helston, Cornwall. The heir to the throne’s lawyers argued the defense that as a private estate, the duchy was under no obligation to provide the information.
But a tribunal judge ruled that the estate should be considered a public authority – given its reliance on public funding – and forced the Prince of Wales to reveal the environmental activities of the duchy. Kate Harrison, who acted for environmental campaigner Michael Bruton in the tribunal, said: “This case is a victory for the environment. The duchy and the prince have held out in their claim to be exempt from the law on environmental protection for too long. […] This judgment will quite rightly open up the duchy to public and democratic scrutiny.”