Royal wealth: Coronation spotlight on King Charles III's riches

Ceremony takes place against a backdrop of castles and palaces funded by sprawling property empire

King Charles III and Camilla, Queen Consort, with members of the royal family attend an Easter service at Windsor Castle on April 9, 2023. Getty Images
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From glamourous Regent Street to The Oval cricket stadium and the remote Isles of Scilly, the British royal family's sprawling fortune and who controls it is only one facet of the coming coronation of King Charles III.

The senior royals derive their income from vast areas of the United Kingdom, from rural lands to urban properties and even the offshore seabed. The senior royals own a lot, but have far from a free rein over all their assets.

As well as king and heir Charles and his son Prince William, as Prince of Wales, have a second function – trustees of the huge properties and tracts of rural lands that come under their ownership.

Three bodies that hold the royal family’s assets and from which they drive a good portion of their income are the Crown Estate, the Duchy of Lancaster and the Duchy of Cornwall.

The value of these estates run into tens of billions of pounds. That's even before the personal properties such as the Balmoral and Sandringham estates or Highgrove House, where King Charles has devoted decades to building farms and gardens to reflect his personal values of stewardship.

The Crown Estate

The King owns the Crown Estate, which includes 241 properties in London worth more than £15 billion ($18.69 billion), farmland and, crucially, the seabed and about half the foreshore around the United Kingdom.

Owning the seabed has brought much in to the Crown Estate coffers in recent years, because of the explosion in the development of offshore wind farms. The current value of the seabed rights is estimated at £5 billion, and the six newly awarded licences could generate up to £9 billion over the next 10 years.

The Crown Estate owns much property in the St James area and Regent Street in London's West End. It also manages the Windsor estate, including Windsor castle, and Ascot racecourse.

The total revenue from the Crown Estate is worth more than £312 million a year.

British royal family’s line of succession

British royal family’s line of succession

However, while King Charles III owns the assets of the Crown Estate, he has no control over them – he does not manage them and he cannot sell them. When he dies, the Crown Estate will pass to his son, Prince William.

But this sense that the monarch owns the land goes back nearly 1,000 years. After the Norman Conquest of 1066, all the land belonged to William the Conqueror "in right of The Crown", simply because he was king.

For centuries, English kings and queens then looked after their own financial affairs and managed their lands and estates.

But in 1760, George III surrendered the income generated from the Crown Estate to the Treasury in exchange for a fixed amount he and his family would receive each year, known as the Civil List.

That changed in 2012 when the Sovereign Grant replaced the Civil List and tied the financial fortunes of the monarch directly to the Crown Estate, in that the monarch received 15 per cent of the surplus of the Crown Estate.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, only the monarch, her husband, Prince Philip and the Queen Mother received money directly from the Civil List, and the Civil List Act of 1972 allowed the government to review the amounts every 10 years – but law allowed only for increases, not reductions.

By 2001, there was a considerable surplus of £35.3 million in the Civil List’s coffers, and subsequently, the Civil List was set at £7.9 million a year until it was abolished in 2012.

According to the UK Treasury, the Sovereign Grant “meets the central staff costs and running expenses of his majesty’s official household – including official receptions, investitures and garden parties”.

“It also covers maintenance of the royal palaces in England and the cost of travel to carry out royal engagements such as opening buildings and other royal visits.”

The Sovereign Grant was initially based on 15 per cent of the profits of the Crown Estate, but since 2017 (and until 2027) that has risen to 25 per cent to cover the refurbishment of Buckingham Palace.

In the event that the profits from the Crown Estate fall, the level of the Sovereign Grant will still be paid at the level of the previous year. This is why the grant for the 2022/2023 financial year is £86.3 million, the same as it was in 2021/2022.

Wealthy playgrounds

However, the Crown Estate is not the only source of income for the royal family. The monarch, currently King Charles III, inherits the Duchy of Lancaster when his or her predecessor dies.

Essentially, the Duchy of Lancaster is the monarch’s private wealth. According to the Duchy’s website it consists of 18,481 hectares of land in England and Wales and “comprises commercial, agricultural and residential properties, the majority of which are in Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cheshire, Staffordshire and Lincolnshire”.

“Additionally the Duchy has a significant commercial property portfolio largely in the Savoy precinct on the Strand in London, a portfolio of financial investments and a small urban residential portfolio.”

The history of the Duchy of Lancaster goes back to 1265, when Henry III gifted the baronial lands of Simon de Montfort to his son, Edmund. De Montfort was a serious rival to Henry III and was killed at the Battle of Evesham.

A year later, Henry added the estate of Robert Ferrers, the 6th Earl of Derby and then the "honour, county, town and castle of Lancaster", giving Edmund a new title, Earl of Lancaster.

Over the next 150 years, the Duchy was added to and changed hands between various royals and nobles competing for the medieval English crown.

Then in 1399, in one of his first acts as the new king, Henry IV decreed that the Duchy of Lancaster was to be treated separately from the other Crown possessions, and should be passed through the generations as the monarch’s private estate.

About 300 years later, under the Crown Lands Act 1702, it was established that the sovereign would be able to receive only an income from the Duchy, in order that it could be passed on to the successor in its entirety, thus preserving the wealth for future generations.

So, while the ruling monarch inherits the Duchy of Lancaster on accession to the throne, the next in line acquires the Duchy of Cornwall.

This means that upon the death of Queen Elizabeth II, King Charles inherited the Duchy of Lancaster. As Prince of Wales, he owned the Duchy of Cornwall, but on becoming king that Duchy passed to his heir, Prince William, the new Prince of Wales.

The Duchy of Cornwall was established by Edward III in 1337 to provide independence to his son and heir, Prince Edward.

The Duchy is principally a land management company, comprised of 54,632 hectares, about half of which are in Dartmoor and various properties in Somerset, Herefordshire and the Isles of Scilly. About 13 per cent of the Duchy’s land holdings are actually in Cornwall.

The Manor of Kennington in London was one of the original properties in the Duchy estate. In this area of south London, the Duchy of Cornwall owns 16 apartments and 23 houses.

It also owns the Oval cricket ground and has leased the property to Surrey County Cricket Club since 1874.

As is the case with the Duchy of Lancaster for the monarch, the Prince of Wales is unable to benefit from any capital gains acquired from the sale of assets by the Duchy – he receives an income from the profits made by the Duchy.

Under an act of parliament in 1913, the Duchy of Cornwall was exempt from tax. However, between 1993 and 2022 when he ascended to the throne, King Charles III voluntarily agreed to pay tax on his Duchy earnings and there are indications that his son, Prince William will continue that arrangement.

Taxing times

The issue of tax has always been a tricky one for the royal family. Until the early 1990s Queen Elizabeth II was exempt from tax, before she and Prince Charles (as he was then) voluntarily agreed to pay income tax.

The issue of tax exemption for the royals goes back to Queen Elizabeth's father, George VI. He was granted full income tax exemption status as compensation for having to provide an annual annuity to the abdicated Duke of Windsor.

But when Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne, the then government of Winston Churchill thought it prudent to keep this tax-exempt status with the new queen, because it meant the Civil List payments were kept lower.

In the austere post-war years of the 1940s and 1950s this was seen as keeping the public perception of the cost of the royal family to the taxpayer lower than it actually was.

In a way, the tax breaks enjoyed by Queen Elizabeth II amounted to another source of income during those years.

However, while the royal income tax exemption and the fact that the Duchy of Lancaster pays no corporation tax, one of the crucial boosts to the royal finances is the fact that the sovereign pays no inheritance tax.

This was illustrated when the Queen Mother died in 2002. She left her entire estate, estimated to be worth about £75 million, to the one person in the realm who didn't have to pay inheritance tax – her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II.

The inheritance tax exemption means that the private estates of Balmoral and Sandringham should have passed tax-free to the new King Charles, after the death of his mother, in the same way they passed from George VI to his daughter.

However, much of the Windsors' finances are shrouded in a fog, because very few public accounts exist of exactly who pays for what. While accounts are published by the Crown Estate and the duchies, what happens to the money the monarch and heir to the throne get from the sources is less clear.

There has always been an air of mystery surrounding Britain's royal family and none more so when it comes to their finances.

Whether or not King Charles's plans for a slimmed-down monarchy include a more visible and transparent set of accounts is itself not particularly clear at the moment.

Updated: April 27, 2023, 3:48 AM