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What's a duchy anyway? King Charles' private estates, explained


King Charles III will be formally crowned on Saturday, but he's already inherited the throne and the vast private estate that belongs to the monarchy. It's called the Duchy of Lancaster. And during the years Charles was prince, he built up an even bigger royal real estate portfolio called the Duchy of Cornwall.

JANE BRADLEY: The Duchy of Cornwall owns, you know, this landmark cricket ground, seaside vacation rentals, office space, supermarkets. It's a hugely diverse portfolio all across the U.K., and it's incredibly profitable.

PFEIFFER: Jane Bradley is an investigative reporter covering the U.K. for The New York Times. Her reporting notes that Britain currently faces a cost-of-living crisis and high inflation. That has increased scrutiny on the royal family's private holdings, which enjoy tax breaks and generate lots of income. When I spoke with Bradley earlier today, I asked her how much income we're talking about.

BRADLEY: Yeah. So the Duchy of Cornwall, which is the biggest duchy and the one that King Charles, when he was prince, built up into this billion-dollar portfolio - its holdings are valued around $1.5 billion, and that's even bigger than the late queen's duchy, which was worth around $950 million. So these - you know, these two estates represent a very profitable but still, you know, relatively small fraction of the royal family's overall wealth, which is estimated at around $28 billion.

PFEIFFER: And if these very large portfolios are just a small fraction of the overall wealth, where does the rest of the wealth come from?

BRADLEY: The true extent of the royal family's wealth isn't fully known. It's thought to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. But there are big question marks over the private wealth of the late queen and now the king. And there are also details that we don't know about the duchy, such as, you know, how much money it's making from its private investments and things like that. So there's long been, for years here, this fog that has shrouded the royal finances. So we just get this little window that they allow us to get, which gives us the top-line figures without knowing the details.

PFEIFFER: Jane, put into context for us this enormous wealth of the royal family compared to the financial condition of the rest of the country.

BRADLEY: Well, that's what's causing the tension, really, today and historically. So all this time during Charles' time as prince and now his time as our new king, he and the royal family have been accumulating wealth. There is a deal struck with the government that means that the taxpayer-funded grant they get from the U.K. Treasury can never go down in value. So even if all their investments - their real estate has a bad year, the assets aren't worth as much, they will always get at least the same amount from the taxpayer as they got the previous year. So it's a win-win for them, basically.

So they've been growing their wealth hugely by millions and millions of pounds over the years, all the time against a backdrop of austerity in the U.K. And that's causing tension in some parts of the country. The U.K. today is facing a huge cost-of-living crisis. Food banks' use is on the rise. People can't afford to pay their electricity bills. And then here you have the royal family and its new king making more money via the public purse, at least in part.

PFEIFFER: Does this royal wealth benefit the British public in any way?

BRADLEY: Yes. The royal wealth does benefit the British public in some way. How much versus how much it costs the British public - there is a strong argument from the palace, which they often put out when talking about the finances, about the value the royal family brings to the U.K., specifically in terms of tourism. But at the end of the day, without greater transparency around exactly how much the royal family costs and where its money is going to and from, it's very difficult to get an accurate full picture on, you know, whether they're bringing in more than they're taking out.

PFEIFFER: That's Jane Bradley of The New York Times. Jane, thank you.

BRADLEY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.