on a recent morning, royal courtiers, brows furrowed, escorted a reporter to the top of Buckingham Palace to point out some troubling disrepair: cracks scarring part of the palace's yellow, chalky facade, where a shoebox-sized chunk of stone had toppled from the roof, narrowly missing Princess Anne's car, and myriad tiles needing replacement. Alas, the House of Windsor, just like any other family down the street, is also struggling with a leaky roof.
At an earlier news conference, Queen Elizabeth II's accountant, Sir Alan Reid, Keeper of the Privy Purse, pleaded with the British government for an extra ?1 million (US$2 million) a year to help fix the Windsors' roof.
"The annual cost per person in the country of funding the head of state amounts to 62 pence," he said, somewhat apologetically. "There is good evidence that we continue to pursue value for money in running the royal household."
In the modern pantheon of billion-dollar fortunes, the queen falls well behind modern Midases like Bill Gates. In Britain, members of an entrepreneurial elite like Richard Branson, J.K. Rowling and the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal have all amassed purses weightier than hers. (The Sunday Times "Rich List," for example, estimates Rowling's fortune at about US$1.1 billion, while it values the queen's at a mere US$650 million).
Even so, few fortunes generate the kind of fascination as that of the Windsors. While other royal families in northern Europe came out of two world wars as more stripped-down, commonplace figures who rode bicycles in the streets and readily mingled in daily affairs, the British monarchy retained most of its distance, pomp and pageantry.
"What is different about Britain, its particular accident, is that it was a winner in the wars and, unlike other European states, it kept its monarchy and kept its residual state of glory and stature, this carapace of splendor," said Linda Colley, a history professor at Princeton. "They have not yet become neutered."
But in the post-Diana era, the Windsors are clearly more fretful of being neutered not only politically -- through the queen, at least, they still wield a bit of constitutional influence in Britain -- but possibly financially as well. As their relationship has been tested with the British public, alternately contentious and fawning, the Windsors have felt compelled to offer historically unheard-of peeks at the financial and entrepreneurial underpinnings of their fortune.
Each year for the last seven, the family's financial advisers have held a cozy briefing with a small clutch of reporters at Buckingham Palace, all in the name of financial transparency. The briefing includes details about how they spend their annual government allowance for public duties and upkeep of the royal residences, as well as some details about their personal wealth. The goal of the affair is to make the Windsors more accessible -- and, observers say, to allow them to better protect their fortune. Longtime critics of royal privilege, however, argue that greater transparency has also led many people to wonder exactly how much of the family's fortune is truly its own.
What is actually theirs?
"There is a lot of blurring of the edges about what is actually theirs," said Ian Davidson, a Labor member of parliament. "What does the concept of holding in trust for the nation actually mean? There does not seem to be a register of the works they own. They have modernized, but they are still not as open and as transparent as we would wish. They don't pay tax in the way they should."
The Windsors' representatives dismiss such chatter as it arises, but they also now find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to field questions about one of the world's most secretive family businesses.
During the recent round of royal financial debriefings, Prince Charles' private secretary, Sir Michael Peat, a straight-backed accountant who has been one of the chief advocates for transparency in the Windsor household, tried to explain to reporters assembled in St. James's Palace just why the prince's spending on official business had risen to about US$20 million this year, from US$18 million last year. (All dollar figures are based on Friday's exchange rates.)
"He has been very busy," Peat said, before cataloging a flurry of overseas visits. "He really does care about this country and everyone in it."
Then Peat pointed out that the prince, who has emerged as among the more entrepreneurial of the Windsors, has converted his Range Rover and Jaguar to run on used cooking oil.
"He works tirelessly to make a difference for the better and do what he can to ensure that the country is a harmonious and civilized place in which to live," Peat said.
Most estimates of the private wealth of Queen Elizabeth II place her among the five richest monarchs in the world. She is poorer than the oil-rich kings of Saudi Arabia and Brunei, but is roughly as wealthy as other moneyed royals of Europe, including Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and Prince Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein, according to Philip Droege, author of a book on the Dutch royal family.
The Dutch royal family does not disclose its net worth. The family, however, has stakes in Royal Dutch/Shell and the Dutch bank ABN Amro, according to Drvge. A few years ago, the family disputed reports that it was worth US$2.5 billion, suggesting instead that the figure was probably a couple of hundred million dollars. Liechtenstein's royal family has a trust that manages its assets; it owns the LGT banking group and RiceTec, a Texas company that develops hybrid rice.
A precise valuation of Queen Elizabeth's assets is difficult because she is secretive about her personal holdings. It is also complicated by a blurring of lines between her personal wealth and assets -- including her palaces, paintings and jewels -- that are held in trust for the British public.
If only the queen's personal assets are taken into account, she is worth several hundred million dollars, according to the Sunday Times Rich List and people familiar with her finances who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. But if all royal possessions are added to the mix, her wealth runs into the billions. Yet even then, hurdles remain: What is the value of the Crown Jewels, for example? Or the many Leonardo da Vinci drawings she holds in trust in the Royal Collection? The queen's private property primarily includes two homes and estates, Balmoral in Scotland (20,200 hectares) and Sandringham in eastern England (8,500 hectares), and, on a smaller scale, such things as her prized stamp collection. She also has a private investment portfolio of undisclosed size.
At the other end of the spectrum is a collection of assets called the Crown Estate. This includes farms, a racetrack and property in London, like the Israeli embassy, and is valued at more than US$14.2 billion, according to its annual accounts. Those properties originally belonged to the monarchy, but King George III, who took the throne in 1760, handed over management to the state, with all income from the properties flowing into public coffers. In return, he and all of his successors have received an annual payment from the government; the Crown Estate is now run from offices just off Regent Street, one of central London's prime shopping boulevards (a street that the Crown Estate also owns).
The queen and Prince Charles also own lands and properties traditionally passed down to the monarch and heir to finance private expenditures: the Duchy of Lancaster belongs to the queen, and the Duchy of Cornwall to the prince.
The Duchy of Lancaster has a value of US$693 million, according to its accounts for the fiscal year ended March last year, up from US$449 million in fiscal 2002, and generated a net operating income of US$22 million. It includes land in northern England, and the Savoy Estate, a patch of offices and shops between the Strand and the Thames in London.
The Duchy of Cornwall, 54,600 hectares located mainly in southwest England, was valued in March at about US$1.2 billion, up from US$835 million in 2003. Britain's government also pays an annual allowance to the queen and her husband, Prince Philip, for their public work.
In the year ended in March, they received US$26 million, according to the queen's most recent annual review of income and expenditures. The royals also receive public subsidies for palace maintenance, public relations and travel costs, which together amounted to about US$42 million in the year ended in March. Other government agencies directly paid them about US$8 million over the same period for other costs.
All these figures began getting more public attention as pressure for a more open monarchy increased from the 1960s to the 1980s. Media scrutiny, particularly from aggressive tabloids, opened a window onto what critics described as lives of unearned wealth and privilege. The unraveling of several royal marriages in the 1990s -- particularly that of Prince Charles and Princess Diana -- further dulled the aura of respect surrounding the Windsors.
"The monarchy was part of the set of institutions of privilege at a time when there was a general appetite for opening up," said Peter Kellner, president of YouGov, a British polling organization. "They were revealed as people that seemed to deserve being less deferential to. As a result they have had to make a number of concessions."
After a fire ravaged Windsor Castle in 1992 -- and the government announced that it would pay tens of millions of pounds to repair rooms closed to the public -- there was an uproar. The queen responded by opening Buckingham Palace for the first time to the public and charging entrance fees there and at Windsor to help pay for the repairs.
In 1993, the queen and Prince Charles ended another anomaly when they said they would pay tax for the first time. In 2001, in a major step toward transparency, the queen began to publish annual accounts of her official expenditures. The prince followed in 2003.
In the report for the year through March last year, the prince disclosed for the first time the tax he paid: about US$6.7 million. In the next year, he paid US$6.9 million in taxes. The queen refuses to publish the amount she pays, citing privacy -- though providing ammunition to critics who contend that the Windsors have still not disclosed enough about their finances.
The Keeper of the Privy Purse
Speaking recently to reporters in the Breakfast Room in Buckingham Palace, Reid, the Keeper of the Privy Purse, answered questions about whether the Windsors were spending excessively on train travel. The family has a special royal train for journeys within Britain, but a January train trip between Philadelphia and New York by Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, had cost the country US$7,863.
Nonetheless, Reid said, the British people were still getting a bargain.
"The total cost of the monarchy is now 7 percent lower in real terms than it was in 2001," he said. "The reduction in the amount of head-of-state expenditure reflects the continuous attention the royal household pays to obtaining the best value for money in all areas of expenditure."
The queen has agreed in recent years to downsize the network of royals that receive annual state handouts -- now, only she and Prince Philip are subsidized. To bridge the funding gap, the queen makes contributions from her own funds to support other royals, including her daughter, Princess Anne, and two of her three sons, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward.
There is, of course, another way for the royals to get income: work. But, beyond charity work, the Windsors have found the job market tough going. Prince Andrew has a government role as a special trade ambassador, while Prince Edward's wife, Sophie, ran a public relations company until accusations that she was exploiting royal contacts for private gain forced her to retire.
Of all the royals, Prince Charles has probably fared worst in terms of public opinion since Princess Diana's death in 1997. But he has fought back, partly by trying to focus public attention on his philanthropic work. He has 18 well-regarded charities and he calls himself a "charitable entrepreneur."
He has modernized the Duchy of Cornwall estate, a once sleepy organization that relied on rental income from farms, by turning to property development. He built a new town, Poundbury, on duchy land, where he has tested his ideas about architecture, the environment and town planning. The prince earned about US$31 million in the last financial year, before taxes, from the duchy, up from about US$20 million four years earlier.
In 1992, Prince Charles started an organic food business called Duchy Originals that uses some ingredients grown on his land. Duchy Originals earned a profit of more than US$2 million on revenue of US$108 million in the year ended in March this year, according to the prince's annual report. The funds support such charitable works as the Prince's Trust, an organization that helps underprivileged teenagers and young adults.
The prince says a large part of his profits finances his charities and his official work, but he also uses the profits to support Prince William and Prince Harry, who also earn salaries as officers in the British army. (The two young princes are due to inherit money from their mother's estate; before her death, Princess Diana won a divorce settlement that would be worth about US$35 million at the current exchange rate.)
Even the entrepreneurial activities of Prince Charles have managed to inflame his critics, largely because of burgeoning profits from the ventures. Two years ago, a Parliament committee investigated for the first time the running of the duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster. A subsequent report said the prince and the queen should submit to more precise outside auditing and raised questions about why they did not pay corporate or capital gains taxes. The Windsors have declined to comply with those recommendations; their representatives say that the duchies are private trusts and that the Windsors already pay income tax on them.
Supporters of Prince Charles dispute the notion that the Windsors are still under siege. Julia Hobsbawm, a public relations expert and trustee of one of Prince Charles' charities, says that anti-monarchy opinion may be strong among some commentators in the British media but that it is not widely shared. She says that Prince William and Prince Harry have grown up to become strong assets for the royals, role models with whom younger Britons identify.
"They liked the fact that Harry wanted to serve his country in Iraq," she said. (Because of heightened security threats to Prince Harry and members of his unit, the British military decided not to send the prince to Iraq.)
Still, taxes remain a sore point between the monarchy and its critics. When the queen dies, for example, the next monarch will pay no inheritance tax on her private wealth, as long as she leaves it to that heir. And some critics wonder what Prince Charles plans to do with the royal assets if he becomes king.
Although the Crown Estate, which surpasses US$14 billion, has virtually passed into government hands, it retains links to the monarchy, and every new monarch must agree again to George III's deal with the state.
"Charles has made remarks about wanting to take it back," said Kevin Cahill, the author of Who Owns Britain, a survey of land ownership.
But he and others close to the palace say that any attempt by the prince to reclaim the Crown Estate would probably prompt overwhelming public opposition.
And until the British decide that they want someone other than a monarch as head of state, the Windsors will retain access to the public purse -- even to fix their leaky roofs.
A television poll taken in Britain this past spring suggested that Queen Elizabeth remains as popular as ever in her home country. But while anti-monarchy sentiment appears to have waned, it still exists in some quarters -- particularly when it comes to financial matters.
Outside the gates of Buckingham Palace on the day of the publication of the queen's accounts, 20 people waved placards declaring "A Right Royal Rip Off."
"They cost much more than they say, and they don't actually do anything," said Graham Smith, one of the activists, as he stared up at the palace walls. "People keep pushing for more from the royals, but they give it only grudgingly. We ought to be a republic."
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