Queen Croesus

David Cannadine

  • Royal Fortune: Tax, Money and the Monarchy by Phillip Hall
    Bloomsbury, 294 pp, £18.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 7475 1133 0

In 1871, when Queen Victoria was in the tenth year of her widowhood, and when even the great British public was becoming increasingly irritated by her continued seclusion at Windsor, Osborne and Balmoral, a young, clever, radical MP named George Otto Trevelyan published a pamphlet which had the effrontery to ask: ‘What does she do with it?’ Where, Trevelyan wanted to know, was all the money going which the Queen was paid by the Government for the sole purpose of maintaining the duties and dignities of her position as head of state? Instead of being spent as it should have been, on court ceremonial, public appearances and regal display, he believed it was being improperly applied to the creation of a new and essentially private royal fortune. Like everyone else, Trevelyan could only guess at the true extent of the Queen’s recently accumulated wealth. ‘In the absence of authentic information,’ he observed, ‘it must not be a matter of wonder that statements which are probably great exaggerations should find belief.’ But whatever its extent, Trevelyan had no doubt that the amassing of great personal wealth by the monarch was ‘unconstitutional and most objectionable’. As far as both the history and the size of this royal nest-egg were concerned, he believed that ‘the people of England have a right to be informed.’

More than a hundred years on, Trevelyan’s arguments have lost none of their relevance, and none of their cogency. It is generally believed that the Queen is the wealthiest person in England, and very probably the fourth richest individual in the world. But no one, not even Her Majesty, seems to know the true extent of her fortune. (As Bunker Hunt, the one-time Texas billionaire, once observed, anyone who knows how much they are worth cannot be worth very much.) Estimates range from £100 million, which is scarcely serious riches at all, to more than £3000 million, which is truly a mind-boggling accumulation. One reason for this uncertainty is that no one really knows what to include among the Queen’s assets. Her shareholdings, and her houses and estates at Sandringham and Balmoral, are obviously her own, private possessions. But what of the crown jewels, the royal art collection, the royal yacht and the royal train, to say nothing of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle? And it is also the case, as Trevelyan had spotted, that the monarchy’s determined refusal to allow any serious investigation into its wealth leaves the field wide open for journalistic speculation. The British people may feel they have a ‘right to be informed’: but that right has been consistently disregarded, and the ‘authentic information’ has been deliberately withheld.

Yet it is not only the lack of hard data about the extent of the royal fortune which is extraordinary: it is also – and here again Trevelyan was absolutely correct – the very existence of that fortune. Before 1800, British monarchs were without private financial status, and could not personally own land. When George III’s children overspent, as they regularly did, it was Parliament which had to pay their debts. During the early years of Victoria’s reign, the monarchy was looked down on by the richest and most venerable aristocrats in the country as impoverished and parvenu, and the Queen’s marriage to a minor, hard-up German princeling did not improve matters. And when her eldest son, the Prince of Wales, resolved to live his social life among the fast set, it was feared by those in the know that he lacked the financial resources to do so. By the time Trevelyan wrote his pamphlet, things were clearly beginning to change. But not even he could have foreseen the apparently exponential growth in royal riches which has taken place during the last one hundred years, as the House of Windsor has evolved into a wealth-creating machine which even King Midas might have envied. It is to the unravelling of this extraordinary development that Phillip Hall has devoted the last ten years of his life, and as a result, he has produced a fascinating, indeed sensational book.

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