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The Queen got a 55 percent rise in European Union farm subsidies at Sandringham last year as Prince Charles turned the Norfolk estate organic. Royal finance expert David McClure reveals the payments in his new book, The Queen’s True Worth, and estimates the monarch’s £400million fortune is £50million more than previously believed.
When monarchs grow old a blind eye is often turned to their finances.
Such was the case with the ageing Queen Victoria, who squirreled away £800,000 of public money under the noses of a succession of compliant Chancellors of the Exchequer.
So too, it was with Queen Elizabeth, below, whose extravagant expenditure in her nineties on racing and entertaining was indulged by palace courtiers with barely a murmur.
If today the public finds it hard to follow the finances of the monarch, it is because the royal finances are shrouded in fog.
The sovereign and her heir enjoy a multitude of privileges that prevent outsiders from penetrating their coffers.
Their wills and the value of their estates are not made public as is the case for ordinary Britons.
And their official papers at the National Archives in Kew are kept secret for 50 to 100 years in contrast to the normal release time of 20 to 30 years.
Similarly, unlike normal state institutions, their official communications with the Government of the day are immune from Freedom of Information requests.
So the royal finances are labyrinthine and difficult to penetrate for an outsider.
But much of the Queen’s private fortune – which I estimate at £400million, £50million more than a number of recent estimates because of the extra cachet attached to the royal name – comes from the properties she owns.
Some crude valuations of Her Majesty’s assets include Buckingham Palace – along with other official residences like Windsor Castle and Holyroodhouse Palace, as well as the Royal Collection – and consequently suggest astronomical figures.
In 1989, Fortune by adding the Crown Jewels to the list calculated her wealth at £7billion.
In 2001, The Sunday Times Royal Rich List Report came to a figure of £1.15billion by incorporating all the capital from the Duchy of Lancaster (a landed estate that has produced a private income for the monarch since 1399) together with a generous assessment of what constitutes her private art collection.
Yet the Queen does not own Buckingham Palace, nor those other residences.
And in recent years, valuations have become more sophisticated as the distinction between the private and public palaces has been factored into the calculus.
Unlike the Royal Collection and the public residences, the Sandringham estate is privately owned.
The Queen inherited the Norfolk property from her father King George VI in 1952 after it had been passed down through her family when Queen Victoria purchased it for the future King Edward VII with her own family funds.
Historically the 20,000-acre estate has haemorrhaged money – almost from the day it was first acquired for the Prince of Wales in October 1862.
The Queen has helped turn it around financially by taking advantage of EU subsidies on the land she farms and by improving her income from tenant farmers.
What had reduced profitability was fragmentation: there were simply too many small farms with too many workers producing too few profits.
But in the Queen’s reign under Prince Philip’s supervision, mega-farms were created by amalgamating the smaller units and, as a result, the number of tenant farms fell from 30 to around 12 and the workforce shrunk to a tenth of its pre-war size.
Today, the land is rented to just half a dozen tenant farms.
Prince Philip deserves some credit for overseeing this turnaround since the early Seventies, but the move into profitability coincided with a welcome handout from Brussels.
After the United Kingdom entered the EEC in 1973, Sandringham as one of the largest farms in Norfolk, became eligible for a large slice of the Common Agricultural Policy’s farming subsidy budget.
As one of 40 growers in the UK producing blackcurrants for Ribena, for instance, Sandringham received £553,051 in 2015, £524,466 in 2016, £695,001 in 2017, £604,844 in 2018 and a massive £935,908 (boosted by £313,510 in rural development aid) in 2019 as Prince Charles helped transform the estate’s output to organic.
The true test of how important European Union support has been to the viability of Sandringham will come when the CAP money tap is turned off and the estate will have to make do with replacement payments for “public goods”, such as access to the countryside, planting meadows and restoring woodland.
Previous estimates have put the value of Sandringham at between £30million and £45million but, significantly, do not take into full account the extra value attached to the royal name.
If that is factored in, then – as we have seen from inflated prices paid at auction for other royal property – Sandringham might easily be worth £60million to £80million on the open market.
Similarly Balmoral, the Queen’s Scottish home, purchased in 1852 by Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert for £31,500 (£2.5million at today’s prices) is classed as a private royal estate.
With its 50,000 acres of Scots pine forests and heather-strewn hills in the shadow of the 3,786-feet Lochnagar mountain, its main attraction lies in outdoor activities.
An estimated half of the £3million running costs is clawed back through the estate’s many commercial ventures, many of them outdoor pursuits.
Probably the most profitable venture is salmon fishing.
Balmoral is blessed with some of the best fishing in Scotland and the paying public are now being reeled in too.
In November 2106, its salmon fishing rights began to be registered with the Scottish land registry office under the company name of Canup Ltd, a commercial trust whose company secretary is listed at Companies House as Richard Gledson, the factor of Balmoral estate.
Other directors include the Earl of Airlie, former Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Dalhousie, Lord Steward of the Queen’s Household, Sir Michael Stevens, Keeper of the Privy Purse, and his predecessor Sir Alan Reid.
The registry confirmed that the previous title holders were the Trustees of HM Queen Eliabeth II.
Traditionally trusts have been used by the Royal Family as a conduit to transfer their property from one generation to the next.
Sometimes it may be for reasons of taxation and sometimes for considerations of privacy.
With sporting rights and the royal name, Balmoral could easily be worth £40million to £50million.
Government ministers down the decades have left the Queen’s private residences alone but her official residences, funded by the taxpayer, have often been at the centre of tensions.
It has been estimated that in normal times the Queen spends one third of her working year at Buckingham Palace and it is common knowledge that Windsor, not “BP” as it is known, is her favourite home.
When she acceded to the throne in 1952 there was some reluctance to relocate to Buckingham Palace.
Prince Philip wanted his growing family to stay at Clarence House.
In fact, the palace has never been popular with monarchs.
As one former royal observed: “It is like living over a traffic island.”
In 1971, the Queen issued a thinly veiled threat to move out of the palace in response to a plan by Labour, then in opposition, to turn the Royal Household into a government department run by civil servants.
She herself faced the possibility of being forced out of her official residences by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in March 1952.
In what must rank as one of the most indiscreet memos ever issued by a Cabinet minister about the royal finances, Chancellor Rab Butler expressed his frustration about the “old-fashioned” arrangements regarding the palace.
“It seems incredible that a young Queen should need to be saddled with all these massive buildings, their idle staffs and their upkeep,” he wrote, arguing that Buckingham Palace could be used for great gala state functions rather than perpetually maintained as a home.
But his plan for Windsor Castle was even more radical as the Government sought economies before agreeing a new Civil List for the young Queen.
“Might it not be suggested that Windsor Castle should be put on a national basis with all its treasures leaving a suitable sector for private upkeep and inhabitation?”
Civil servants at the Treasury and the Ministry of Works looked into the possibility of the Queen leaving Windsor Castle for nearby Royal Lodge and turning the castle into a museum.
In a March 6, 1952 letter to the Treasury, the then Keeper of the Privy Purse, Ulrick Alexander, mentioned his concern about “some major retrenchment such as the closing down of Windsor Castle”.
The Ministry of Works drafted a lengthy brief for the minister David Eccles on May 26 outlining possible economies in running the royal palaces.
It read: “It has been suggested that Windsor Castle might cease to be a royal residence. To say exactly what the financial consequences of this would be would need careful study…”
The Royal Household was informed of the plan – one can only speculate at its astonishment – and must have been concerned but it is not clear if it expressed any misgivings privately about it.
In the end, however, the radical suggestion was not acted upon.
After civil servants did the sums, the actual savings to the public purse did not merit such a dramatic solution as moving the monarch out.
Mr Butler must have accepted his mandarins’ advice as he later announced to the House of Commons that no royal relocation was needed after all.
Today, with the rise in property prices, the private estates of Balmoral and Sandringham must now be worth over £100million.
The Queen’s collection of British and Commonwealth stamps – the best of its kind in the world – would boost the inventory by another £100million and using the same ballpark figure the combined value of her jewellery and art collections could well be pushing £100million.
The precise value of her private investments remains a mystery (and may have been hit by the post-Covid market crash) but is still likely to be worth tens of millions of pounds.
The same could be said of all the private gifts she has received over the last 70 years and there is also her collection of antique cars thought to be worth £10million or more.
If you include the trust funds and make allowances for the effect of the royal name, her total wealth could well be in the region of £400million.
This may not put her in the super rich category but it certainly makes her wealthier than the Palace would like us to believe.
• Abridged by Richard Palmer from The Queen’s True Worth: Unravelling the Public & Private Finances of Queen Elizabeth II by David McClure, published on Thursday by Lume Books, priced £9.99.
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