After 70 years on the throne, Queen Elizabeth II died last week and has been succeeded by her eldest son, King Charles III. The queen’s death was met unsurprisingly with an outpouring of grief. The monarch was beloved by millions in Britain and beyond.
But whatever your feelings toward Elizabeth, it’s clear that the institution of the British monarchy is far from benevolent. There have been many important pieces on the monarchy’s global legacy of colonialism. The ascension of Britain’s new king has also presented a very good opportunity to talk about the monarchy’s socioeconomic influence and impact.
The ascension of Britain’s new king is a very good opportunity to talk about the monarchy’s socioeconomic impact.
Today, socioeconomic instability in Britain is inescapable. The new prime minister, Liz Truss, was in her post for just three days before the queen’s death. But she is facing down a growing crisis as energy bills soar, food bank use has doubled over the past decade, and the economic effects of Brexit are still being felt.
Meanwhile, the exact worth of the British monarchy is very difficult to calculate. The Sunday Times' Rich List calculated the queen’s personal net worth as 370 million pounds (more than $420 million), while the author and royal expert David McClure estimated it at 400 million pounds (around $460 million). Other estimates are closer to a billion. Brand Finance, a leading consultancy firm in brand valuation, estimates the capital value of the monarchy is 67.5 billion pounds (over $77 billion).
Calculating an accurate net worth is so difficult because the royal finances are a closely kept secret. Any inheritance passed “sovereign to sovereign” — from Elizabeth to Charles, for example — is exempt from inheritance tax, due to a unique arrangement passed by the United Kingdom's government in 1993 to preserve royal wealth. This includes the Crown Estate, a vast portfolio of land and property with a reported 15.2 billion pounds in assets, which is held by the monarch “in right of the Crown.” That means it is not personally owned by Elizabeth or Charles, but rather owned by the crown as an institution. The estate is made up of prime central London real estate, shopping malls, forests, foreshore and wind farms.
The wills of senior royals are sealed, and the contents kept secret to protect “the dignity and standing" of the queen. This includes the will of the queen’s husband, Prince Philip, who died late last year.
The numbers we do know are massive. The monarchy is officially funded by a taxpayer-funded payment, the Sovereign Grant, an amount which is calculated from 15%-25% of the Crown Estate’s profit. In 2021-2022, the royal household’s financial report calculated this as 86.3 million pounds ($98.5 million). But importantly, the Sovereign Grant isn’t all of the money that the monarchy receives. Security is usually paid for by the Metropolitan Police, and the Duke of Cornwall (formerly Charles, now Prince William) receives funds from the Duchy of Cornwall, another massive portfolio of land and property estimated to be worth more than 1 billion pounds. (According to the BBC, this portfolio generates around 20 million pounds a year in profits.)
The monarch also controls the Duchy of Lancaster, 71 square miles of land and property with assets of around 652 million pounds. (This portfolio also generates around 20 million pounds a year.) Taking all this into account, the anti-monarchy campaign group Republic has suggested the “true cost” of the monarchy annually is 345 million pounds. While the official royal website suggests that the monarchy costs "£1.29 per person in the U.K.," if we take into account the broader picture, the British taxpayer is actually enabling and supporting the monarchy in many more ways.
Charles was reportedly heavily involved in ensuring that the Duchy of Cornwall transformed into a billion-pound property empire.
Recently, we have had glimpses into how the monarchy manages its money — and those glimpses have led to renewed calls for reforms from critics. In 2017, “the Paradise Papers” — a leaked set of documents pertaining to how wealthy people and companies used offshore investments as tax havens — revealed that the Duchy of Lancaster (owned by the monarch, then Elizabeth) had invested millions of pounds in a fund in the Cayman Islands.
Journalists also found that the Duchy of Cornwall (owned by Charles, then the heir to the throne) invested in an offshore company which lobbied against climate change agreements.
These revelations raise serious questions about a lack of transparency and the ethics of some financial decisions in the monarchy.
As prince, Charles was reportedly heavily involved in ensuring that the Duchy of Cornwall transformed into a billion-pound property empire. Under his ownership, the duchy hired teams of professional managers who increased the portfolio’s value and profits by a reported 50%. It generates millions of pounds a year in rental income.
Charles has also been involved in the construction of Poundbury, a 400-acre “urban extension” to the town of Dorchester, built on Duchy of Cornwall land, and designed according to his vision of attractive architecture. The community houses about 4,000 people. Despite operating like a corporation, the Duchy of Cornwall does not pay corporate taxes.
In addition, Charles has been embroiled in various controversies in recent years over donations to the charitable foundation that operates in his name. In June, the Sunday Times reported that Charles had accepted 3 million euros in cash stuffed in shopping bags and suitcases from former Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, due to be given to his foundation. (A spokesperson said at the time that all proper philanthropic procedures were followed.)
There is also an ongoing story about an alleged “cash for honors” scandal, in which a Saudi businessman allegedly made donations to Charles’ charities in exchange for a knighthood and citizenship. Charles has denied that he was aware of this. (“The Prince of Wales had no knowledge of the alleged offer of honours or British citizenship on the basis of donation to his charities,” a spokesperson said earlier this year.) Knighthoods are honors given in the U.K. and British overseas territories for merit or achievement.
Ultimately, it is not surprising that the royal family has maintained a vast fortune. Britain’s museums, cities and ceremonies are testament to the royal family's sparkling wealth. But as it has in other nations around Europe, that sparkle may be fading. Charles doesn’t hold the same public affection as his mother did. Will his reign finally open the door to a long overdue conversation about the financial inequalities inherent to monarchy?