When Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, she inherited not only a worldwide empire, but also a debt of £50,000. Since that low point, the Royal House of Windsor has done much better financially. Queen Elizabeth II is, by most reckonings, the richest woman in the world, with a personal fortune estimated at anywhere between $4 billion and $30 billion. But despite the enormous wealth of the Queen and her family, maintaining the monarchy still costs British taxpayers a substantial amount each year: now approximately $107 million.
Canadian taxpayers get off lightly, contributing cash only when members of the Royal Family visit Canada, as the Prince and Princess of Wales are doing this week. Ottawa, the province of Ontario and the four municipalities involved are footing the bill for their week-long stay (officials will not say how much it will cost). The Canadian armed forces will fly Charles and Diana to Toronto on Wednesday and take them home on Oct. 29.
Profits: The monarchy’s costs in Britain begin with the so-called Civil List, an annual grant from government revenues that is supposed to compensate the Queen and other royals for costs arising from their public duties. Britain’s House of Commons set the Civil List last year at $20 million a year for the next decade: $15 million for the Queen herself, with the rest divided among 10 other royals. Buckingham Palace officials emphasize that the payments are not salaries. Instead, the money is used to cover such costs as staff salaries and the day-to-day running of Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s London resi-
dence. Prince Charles is not on the list. His income comes from the annual profits of his own fiefdom, 125,000 acres of land scattered across southern England called the Duchy of Cornwall, which earned about $5.8 million last year, mainly from rents and profits from agriculture.
Other costs, including the expense of operating the royal yacht, Britannia, which will be anchored in Lake Ontario this week as a sort of floating hotel for Charles and Diana and their two sons, William and Harry, are borne by various British government departments. Britannia, which costs $17.8 million a year, the Queen’s Flight (a fleet of airplanes and helicopters set aside for royal use), which costs $13 million a year, and the Royal Train ($4.46 million annually) are financed by the defence ministry. The ministry of the environment covers another major cost of the royals: the $49.8-million annual tab for maintaining the palaces and properties.
Relatively few Britons appear to begrudge the Royal Family such support. Polls consistently show that most people say that the royals give good value for money: their constant touring is regarded as good for Britain’s image, and their very existence is seen by most people as a big boost for tourism. But during the conflict in the
Persian Gulf last winter, some members of the Royal Family were criticized for hunting, skiing and taking vacations while British forces were fighting. The Duchess of York was singled out for being seen in fashionable nightclubs during the conflict. As well, most people are critical of one aspect of the Queen’s financial position: her exemption from most taxes.
Exempt: Traditionally, monarchists have argued that the sovereign cannot pay taxes because they are levied in her name. In fact, according to documents uncovered this year by Phillip Hall, author of a new book entitled Royal Fortune, both Queen Victoria and her son Edward VII paid taxes on their income from private investments. In 1952, it was revealed in the House of Commons that the monarchy had won its tax-exempt status in secret negotiations with the British Treasury. In July, Simon Hughes, a Liberal Democrat MP, raised the issue in Britain’s House of Commons with a private member’s bill that would have abolished the Queen’s tax-exempt status. Hughes told Parliament: “I cannot justify to people with incomes just above the poverty line and paying taxes, and who pay tax as they are required to do, that the woman who by common consent is the richest woman in the country is at the same time exempt.” His bill lacked support and died.
The precise extent of the Queen’s wealth is a mystery. While such treasures as the Crown Jewels and Buckingham Palace are in effect public property that the Queen holds in trust for the nation, she does have extensive personal holdings. They include a vast collection of art, antiques and jewelry, her estates at Sandringham and Balmoral, and an extensive stock portfolio. An authoritative estimate by The Sunday Times put her personal wealth last year at $13 billion. Still, Buckingham Palace officials dismiss all such estimates as “wild guesses.” The Queen’s fortune, they insist, is “a normal and private matter.”
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