Why King Charles should shrink his real estate empire

Reducing the number of palaces would be a show of solidarity for a country struggling with a cost-of-living crisis

People walk down the Long Walk ahead of the Coronation of Britain's King Charles, in Windsor on Saturday. Reuters
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One of the functions carried out by King Charles III in the lead up to his coronation next weekend was the dedication of the “anointing screen”. It will cover the UK’s new monarch from the cameras at the vital moment when he is anointed with oil in the ceremony.

The screen is a work of magnificence in itself. The hand and digital embroidery, managed by the Royal School of Needlework, has created a tree that includes 56 leaves representing the 56 member countries of the Commonwealth. The screen is borne on oak poles made from a tree planted in 1765.

On the day of the coronation, these poles, topped by two eagles, cast in bronze and gilded in gold leaf, are to be held at a total height of 2.6 metres and width of 2.2 metres. Buckingham Palace has said that the three sides of the screen will be borne by a Trooper and Guardsman from each of The Life Guards, Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards, Scots Guards, Irish Guards and Welsh Guards.

The Palace note explained that the screen is a collaboration of specialists in traditional crafts, including members of the Worshipful Company of Broderers, Drapers and Weavers and the Worshipful Company of Carpenters.

I mention all this because nothing is left to chance in matters surrounding the UK monarchy. The emphasis is on the cumulative and a careful build-up to grand events. There is no space for quick thinking or chopping and changing to suit the occasion. After all, a mere cloth screen that will be used for minutes has a backstory that goes back centuries, plus a recent history involving dozens of specialists.

The portfolio is simply too big for the smaller circle of royals

Yet, there are a number of those who argue that King Charles at 74 must be ruthless and rapid in his decisions during his time on the throne. The coronation may not be the time to demonstrate this agenda, but the work must start exactly after it.

What caught my eye about the announcement on the dedication of the anointing screen was that it was held in the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace in central London.

There has been much talk in recent years about the slimmed-down monarchy and King Charles having an agenda of running a core team of himself, heir Prince William and a few other hardworking and trusted relatives.

Some of the balcony pictures from the era of the Silver Jubilee in 1977 and onwards would show dozens of royals, most of whom were described as working royals. This means that at the time, they gained some support from the state funds entrusted to the monarch. And crucially they would have a royal residence plus, most likely, a grace-and-favour apartment in one of the central royal palaces.

It is quite a step change to now go down to just a handful of senior royals working at the coalface of investitures, walkabouts and ceremonial patronages. One problem, however, is that the number of palaces hasn’t been reduced. This is one area where a ruthless king could act to show a country struggling with a cost-of-living crisis that he was interested in a lighter burden.

In London alone, there is considerable slack. St James’s Palace is practically the only domain of his sister Princess Anne. King Charles lives just next door in Clarence House as he appears to resist a formal move into Buckingham Palace (which is undergoing renovation). Kensington Palace has a smattering of elderly grandchildren of King George V. Prince William and family have more or less abandoned it.

The UK royal family has often moved on from palaces and properties that monarchs spurn.

The surviving parts of Richmond Palace, the home of King Henry VII, in what is now a south-west London suburb, are now rented out on lease by the Crown Estate, providing an income for the royal fortune and a salubrious home for modern families. The Wardrobe, Trumpeters' House and Gate House still bear royal markings even if they are now occupied by commoners.

Nearby Hampton Court is a working tourist attraction – and another place of residence for a lucky few – not a King’s bastion. Osborne House on the Isle of Wight may have been one of Queen Victoria’s sanctuaries, but it has long served as a tourist attraction.

The conversion of Buckingham Palace and its 40 acres of gardens into an open-door central London public spectacle has been occasionally discussed. The ornate interiors of Kensington Palace, such as the ceilings of the Cupola Room and the Presence Chamber, would attract as many visitors as a Paris museum but are not marketed as accessible to the public.

Turning over the properties of the Crown in central London is more than just an economic decision. It may be tied up in considerations around the national heritage. For the royals as a family, there may be sadness at forfeiting city apartments that are very convenient. For staff, there would surely be rationalisation involved.

The King should weigh this against the cost of not acting. The portfolio is simply too big for the smaller circle of royals. The next generation amounts to Prince William’s three young children. The generational overhang of King Charles’s cousins has withered quickly.

Showing that he is prepared to take bold action would endear the monarch and make the royals less vulnerable to a hostile turn in the public mood. A reforming monarch who put his own family on a sounder footing would be a fitting legacy for the man who is anointed King under that special cloth on Saturday.

Published: May 01, 2023, 5:00 AM