How Rich Are Britain’s Royals?

The House of Windsor owns huge tracks of land and all the swans in the country. What does that even mean?

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
ASCOT, ENGLAND - JUNE 18:  Prince Charles, Prince Of Wales  attends day one of Royal Ascot at Ascot Racecourse in Ascot, England, on June 18, 2013.
ASCOT, ENGLAND - JUNE 18: Prince Charles, Prince Of Wales attends day one of Royal Ascot at Ascot Racecourse in Ascot, England, on June 18, 2013.
ASCOT, ENGLAND - JUNE 18: Prince Charles, Prince Of Wales attends day one of Royal Ascot at Ascot Racecourse in Ascot, England, on June 18, 2013. Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images for Ascot Racecourse

The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II has put a spotlight on the emotional impact that the British royal family has on the United Kingdom. The monarchy’s economic impact, however, is much harder to gauge—partly because it’s a vestige of an earlier understanding of economics.

Is the monarchy a net economic loss or a net gain for Britain? Do we have any sense of what the royals’ personal views on economic policy are? And what does it even mean to “own” all of the country’s swans?

Those are some of the questions that came up in my conversation this week with FP columnist Adam Tooze on the podcast we co-host, Ones and Tooze. What follows is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and length. For the entire conversation, subscribe to Ones and Tooze on your preferred podcast app.

The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II has put a spotlight on the emotional impact that the British royal family has on the United Kingdom. The monarchy’s economic impact, however, is much harder to gauge—partly because it’s a vestige of an earlier understanding of economics.

Is the monarchy a net economic loss or a net gain for Britain? Do we have any sense of what the royals’ personal views on economic policy are? And what does it even mean to “own” all of the country’s swans?

Those are some of the questions that came up in my conversation this week with FP columnist Adam Tooze on the podcast we co-host, Ones and Tooze. What follows is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and length. For the entire conversation, subscribe to Ones and Tooze on your preferred podcast app.

Cameron Abadi: Just to start out, I’m curious whether the British royal family’s wealth is personal, or is it institutional? Are they wealthy by virtue of being monarchs and thus having control of state assets, or are they just an independently wealthy family that happens to be the heads of state under Britain’s constitutional system?

Adam Tooze: Yeah, it’s a really tricky question. According to one estimate I’ve seen, the total value of what’s called “the firm,” their assets are about $28 billion. And so we’re talking about serious amounts of money. The queen herself was an incredibly wealthy woman. By some estimates, $500 million would be not far off. That includes two palaces, Sandringham and Balmoral, and a stamp collection valued at $100 million, which makes me think the $500 million estimate may be on the low side.

The English monarchs, like most monarchs in most places, basically owned land. They owned the country, and they owned it by the right of seizure. The 1760s is really the moment where the British Constitution in its modern form emerges, because at that point the royal house hands off all its possessions, the Crown lands, to the U.K. Treasury. And the royal house, from that moment onward, receives the so-called civil list, which is a grant by Parliament to fund the monarchy. And that system continued for 250 years, all the way down to 2011, when a Conservative Party government, in an age of austerity, decided that having Parliament voting on the civil list was something of an embarrassment. And so instead, they did a kind of public-private partnership in which the Treasury, as the public branch, agrees to share the revenue from the royal lands. These are these giant landholdings of about $20 billion worth of land across Britain, property that is leased out, rented out, in various ways and developed. And that revenue is split 15 percent to 85 percent, in favor of the Treasury.

CA: Got it. I mean, it does seem to me that there are still vestiges of these kinds of older monarchical rights that are still around in Britain that are in strange tension with the kind of modern sense of property rights. So specifically, when it comes to King Charles III, he now, by virtue of being the monarch, owns the Duchy of Lancaster. And this includes pieces of land and other assets. And I’m just curious, does that mean he owns it in a modern legal sense? Could he sell the Duchy of Lancaster if he wanted to? And this extends to other strange aspects of royal ownership I’ve come across. Britain’s swans, for example, apparently are owned by the monarch, and there is a classification of royal fish, whales, dolphins, sturgeon that are all owned by the monarch. How does this stand in relationship to our modern sense of ownership and what that means?

AT: By virtue of being the person who inhabits that role [of monarch], you could say he owns this land, but really what he’s entitled to is the flow of revenue from it. So he can’t sell it. It stays intact. All he can do is lease it out or rent it or develop it in other ways. As for the swans and all that, I mean, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. The swans once upon a time were the pièce de résistance in any really serious banquet. So if you were going to have a really big banquet, you served a swan. And they were rare. And so the kings being kings, said, “All swans in the country belong to us.” The monarchs own them in the sense that no one else owns them.

CA: I think it’s interesting because, yeah, this is ownership, but it’s not in the sense of it being a commodity. I mean, no one’s under the impression that King Charles now can sell off all of the swans.

AT: No, no. He can’t collateralize the swans.

CA: Well, don’t give him any ideas. But there is a republican movement in Britain that would like to abolish the monarchy. And this got me wondering about how one would even go about doing that, given the system we’ve just described. What would happen if Britain really tried to pursue a republican option?

AT: I think it would be quite simple to do on the basis of the structure of the division between the personal private property of the royals on the one hand, which is really outside the limelight and is modest. You know, they’re not even billionaires. They’re not really proper oligarchs. They’re just kind of rich people. They don’t have as much wealth as your average hedge fund billionaire in the United States, let alone a Bezos or somebody like that. Where their wealth is really located is these Crown land portfolios, Duchy of Lancaster and Cornwall, and those are already under professional management and subject to public audit. So literally all you’d need to do would be retitle them and transfer the revenue flow away from the royal house, and that would be it. And then you would just require the royal household to pay taxes like everyone else.

CA: Hmm. That got me wondering what exactly is the relationship of a sovereign like King Charles to taxes? Is he required to pay taxes on his income the way that normal British citizens do? How about just the taxes on whatever he inherited from Queen Elizabeth?

AT: They’re not required to pay income tax, but under a political arrangement reached by the queen with the governments of the 1990s, they volunteered to pay tax, or at least on a substantial fraction of their income. So the income from the Duchy of Lancaster, the core income of the household, is taxed. What they don’t do, and under quite explicit and sort of legal entitlement, is they do not pay inheritance tax. For some reason, this was a bugbear of the John Major government in the 1990s—the Conservative government that came after Margaret Thatcher, the one that no one ever remembers. It was quite consequential in various ways. And one of the things it did was to amend the royal inheritance law. They apparently got worried about a short sequence in which the queen would die, then Charles would inherit, then he would die. And if you applied inheritance taxation in short succession, you could end up essentially stripping almost all of the assets, because in Britain, you pay inheritance tax over $400,000, give or take. So, you know, really on the death of the monarch, no inheritance tax is due.

But more seriously, you just have to ask yourself the more basic question: If we’re talking about a pot of assets worth $20 billion-plus, is maintaining this ongoing festival of pomp and ceremony and the soap opera of their private lives really the most sensible use for that money? Or could it be spent on something else? Could it be kept as a perpetual pot by all means? Could it be used for educational purposes? Or could it in fact be sold and used to fund, for instance, heat pumps for a large part of the British population to deal with the energy transition and the climate crisis? It’s not a vast amount of money. You couldn’t transform Britain with it, but you could certainly do something more useful than generating this show. But that’s a very utilitarian, kind of crass way of looking at this.

CA: I mean, I admit I find it also bizarre. I really try to understand what the death of the queen means, and I find it hard to understand.

AT: Yes, this is a blank. I’m an expat for a reason. I do not find the spectacle—I don’t buy it.

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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