How King Charles channeled his passions through the Duchy of Cornwall
With the death of his mother Queen Elizabeth II last week, the Prince of Wales became King Charles III. But inside the business he’s run for more than half a century, the new monarch was known simply as “the boss”.
During his record stint as heir to the throne, Charles devoted much of his energy to shaping the Duchy of Cornwall – an estate created almost 700 years ago to fund the next to become monarch – alongside other business interests such as his duchy. Original food range.
The Duchy of Cornwall is “not just a business. It encompasses everything he is passionate about,’ Charles’ wife Camilla said in an ITV documentary three years ago.
The Duchy owns almost 130,000 acres of land, including the Isles of Scilly, large parts of Dartmoor and 260 farms, and holds £92 million in financial investments. But the bulk of its income comes from its commercial property portfolio, investing in assets such as offices and retail parks. He generated a surplus of £23m in 2021-22, of which £21m went to Charles.
To lead the duchy, Charles surrounded himself with business people. The current secretary and custodian of records – the equivalent of a managing director – is Alastair Martin, a former partner at the real estate agency Carter Jonas.
The board-like “council”, chaired by Charles until his mother’s death, includes investor Jonathan Ruffer and former SSE chief Ian Marchant, while hedge fund manager Michael Hintze is a counselor, according to his latest accounts.
Still, Charles himself has been “very active”, Martin told the ITV documentary. “He met with all of our major tenants. . . I have regular briefings with him,” he said.
A person who worked with the king added: “He [Charles] shaped the Duchy of Cornwall, no doubt, as the Queen did in her study.
Alongside holdings primarily aimed at financial return and historic assets such as the Oval cricket ground, the portfolio reflects Charles’ concerns.
Its holdings include Poundbury, the village on the outskirts of Dorchester begun in the 1980s, which combines Charles’ longstanding preference for ‘traditional’ period architecture with once niche but now popular ideas such as designed streets to deter vehicular traffic. A newer estate at Nansledan in Cornwall follows similar principles.
The Duchy owns some of Charles’s residences, such as Highgrove House in Gloucestershire and Llwynywermod, the former Carmarthenshire home of a relative of Anne Boleyn bought for £1.2million in 2006. It also runs homes holiday homes and a nursery.
Charles, mocked in the 1980s for saying he was talking to plants, was an early adopter of environmentalism and the Duchy this year outlined plans to achieve net zero carbon emissions by the start of the 2030s.
The Duchy of Cornwall was created in 1337 by King Edward III for his son and heir Prince Edward, “to preserve the state and honor of the said Duke according to the nobility of his kind”.
Charles was entitled to his full income at the age of 21, unlike his siblings who, alongside his parents, were funded by the separate Duchy of Lancaster.
This “allows[d] would allow him to enjoy a level of luxury unmatched by his siblings, and would definitely distinguish him from them,” according to a biography by American writer Sally Bedell Smith. Some funds also go to his charities.
Until Charles’s son Harry separated from the monarchy in 2020, income from the Duchy supported his children’s two households, although the family did not have access to the capital value of their assets.
As heir to the throne, Charles also developed a new business: Duchy Originals, known for its oatmeal cookies and launched in 1990 as an outlet for organic food grown on his Highgrove estate.
In 2004, the company’s growth prompted him to boast to British diplomats in Spain “I’m a self-made millionaire!”, according to Bedell Smith.
But an unfortunate expansion into the United States, combined with the financial crisis of 2008, pushed Duchy Originals to a steep loss. He was rescued by the Waitrose supermarket, which now manufactures and sells the food under the Waitrose Duchy Organic brand. It brought in £3.6million in profit last year and operates separately from the Duchy of Cornwall.
At the Duchy, there is no doubt that Charles and his advisers made shrewd financial decisions, helping net incomes soar by just £95,000 in 1952.
Sir Bertie Ross, who previously ran the estate, recalled pulling out of equities before the financial crisis. A shift to urban commercial real estate boosted returns significantly from the 1990s, journalist David McClure reported.
But the duchy was also helped by its special status. While Charles began paying income tax voluntarily alongside his mother in 1993, the Duchy is not subject to corporation or capital gains tax. It also has other legal exemptions, such as the requirement to sell the freeholds of houses to tenants.
In 2013, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said the Treasury should take a closer look at the Duchy and warned that its “tax exemption could mean competing businesses do not have a level playing field to operate “.
Lord Tony Berkeley, a Cornwall-based Labor peer, led a long but unsuccessful campaign to challenge the duchy’s structure and make it more transparent.
“They like to play it both ways – they’re deprived [sector] when it suits them and royal when it doesn’t suit them,” he said. “[Charles] could have said ‘I will do the right thing and obey the law as it applies to everyone else’.
The duchy has now passed to Charles’ eldest son, Prince William, who has been visiting the estate for several years to learn the trade. Berkeley expressed hope that this will herald a change, saying, “Hopefully William will do a thorough review of how it works and how it could work better.”
But that seems unlikely. William told the ITV documentary: ‘I’m not going to rock the boat. I’ll do pretty much the same thing my dad does.