There’s no question that the British royal family is wealthy. Look at their homes, their transportation, their weddings. Their jets and the whole nine-yard. They live the lifestyles of the richest people on earth. So, when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced they wanted a new financial relationship with the monarchy it opened up questions about how the British family really makes their money, and what exactly are Harry and Meghan leaving behind?
The Royal Real Estate
It turns out, the search for those answers starts with some of the most iconic royal real estate. This map shows some of the real estate in the UK that is associated with the royal family.
There is a Balmoral Castle in Scotland—where the Queen spends her summers. There is the Savoy Chapel, nestled between buildings in central London. And Windsor Castle, just outside of London, where the Queen often hosts foreign leaders. Each one of these three properties represents a different way the royal family makes their fortune.
Queen’s private wealth
The royal real estate is one that falls in the Queen’s private wealth – which means if she were to leave the throne, it would still be hers. These can be traced back to the 1800s when Queen Victoria bought them and they’ve been passed down through generations. The other set of properties that contribute to their private wealth are the Duchies.
There is something called the Duchy of Lancaster. This is an old estate, an ancestral estate dating back to the 14th century. It’s now a portfolio of property and it provides a private income for the queen. That portfolio includes historic sites and land throughout the UK – which is a lot. But the most profitable property are Ogmore Castle, Pontefract Castle, Bolingbroke Castle, there are blocks of commercial real estate in central London, which includes Savoy Chapel.
Duchy of Cornwall
There’s also the Duchy of Cornwall, 130,000 acres of property that includes castles, holiday cottages, and a cricket stadium in London. Over the past 60 years, the Duchies have become increasingly profitable. In 2019 they each made just over 20 million pounds for the royal family. The income from the Duchy of Cornwall goes to the heir to the throne, Prince Charles. About 5 million pounds of that went to his sons, William and Harry, in 2019. And the income from the Duchy of Lancaster goes to the Queen. But there’s a catch. “She only gets that because she’s queen. It goes with the job. If she abdicated tomorrow, she wouldn’t get 30 million dollars a year. It goes with the Crown, as it were. And because it goes with the crown, it’s not really, totally a private estate.
The best guess of the net worth of the Queen, the richest royal family member, is about $370 million pounds. That’s obviously rich, but it puts her nowhere near the richest people in the world. The illusion of the royal family’s wealth is greater than their actual wealth because of the third way they make money: These properties are part of what’s called the “Crown Estate.” The Crown Estate includes iconic landmarks, like Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace, and the Tower of London. It also includes commercial real estate in London. And lots of lands, including the seabed around the UK. This group is worth billions of pounds – but – it doesn’t actually figure into the Queen’s wealth. And the reason behind that can be traced back to a time the royals really needed money. “In the 18th century, you had a long list of German kings, the Georges. Georges I, II to IV. And they wasted a lot of money, and they were terrible with money. And they got into lots of trouble with the government, and in the end, one of the Georges, George III said, ‘I’m broke. I’ll give you all my crown lands.’
These were the personal lands owned by the King. ‘And in return, you give me a set amount of money.'” So they gave up ownership of all these lands in exchange for taxpayer money that would pay for the royal family’s lifestyle. This part of their income today is called the sovereign grant. Between 2018 and 2019, that amounted to about 80 million pounds.
We don’t know exactly how much of the sovereign grant went to Harry and Meghan, but it accounts for 5% of the couple’s income as part of their royal titles, the other 95% comes from the Duchy of Cornwall. The sovereign grant funding doesn’t go into the royal family’s pockets, it’s supposed to “enable Her Majesty to carry out her official duties,” like to travel, to pay her staff, and to “maintain the royal residencies.” Even so, taxpayer support for the monarchy has long been controversial. And that became evident when Windsor Castle caught fire in 1992. “Smoke continued to roll from gaping holes in the roof” “15 hours and 1.5 million gallons of water later, as the royal treasures littered the lawn like an upmarket garage sale, it was learned there was no fire insurance.”
That debate continues today, every time the sovereign grant report comes out. The new home of Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, cost the public nearly $2.5 million pounds to refurbish, that’s more than $3 million.” But the argument in favor of public funding usually centers on how much people have always loved the royal family–and are willing to pay for it.
Royals are more of a Brand rather than having formal powers
The monarchy attracts millions of tourists every year. Their baby announcements and their weddings and even their scandals are broadcast around the world. Now, the royal family is all about image. They don’t actually have that much formal power. What they do have is a brand. They have been called one of the most valuable brands in Britain. But a big part of maintaining that brand is to not exploit it.
Being a working royal, you’re not really allowed to have a private source of income. You’re not allowed to cash in. That means not working outside of their official royal duties, like diplomacy and charity work. And that these real estate portfolios are the primary way they make money.
What Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are leaving behind
This is the financial model that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are leaving behind. In their announcement in early 2020, they said they’d give all this up in favor of being “financially independent.” What they’d be taking with them is their private wealth, which is a lot. Meghan was a successful actress on the TV series Suits, and Harry inherited millions from his mother, Princess Diana. They could also keep earning income from the Duchy of Cornwall. What they would be giving up is Duchies‘ part of their income. And also breaking free from the limitations of taxpayer funding.
But with that independence comes the fear that they’ll be committing the ultimate royal taboo: capitalizing off the monarchy. “They could be viewed as using the monarchy to boost their brand.” Especially if the brand that Meghan and Harry have created @SussexRoyal eventually eclipses the brand of the British royals.