What is the Crown Estate and who owns it? This question comes up whenever I debate how the monarchy is funded in the United Kingdom.
At issue is the Sovereign Grant, the annual disbursement the Queen gets from the Treasury to conduct her official business and maintain her official residences. The Queen receives the Sovereign Grant in exchange for surrendering the profits of the Crown Estate to the Treasury, and the amount of the Sovereign Grant is set as a percentage of the Crown Estate’s profits. Having the profits of the Crown Estate go to the Treasury serves several purposes. It allows for parliamentary control of what percent of the profits go to the Queen. It also allows for greater transparency and parliamentary scrutiny of the Crown Estate’s operations and of spending undertaken by the Queen under the Sovereign Grant. Equally important, it allows the Treasury to keep the bulk of the Crown Estate’s profits for other purposes.
The relationship between the Crown Estate, the Treasury, and the Sovereign Grant is at the heart of the debate over whether the Queen is ‘taxpayer’ funded. I’ve gone over this debate at length in an earlier post, but the underlying tension is this: to make the case that the Queen is taxpayer funded, it helps to claim that the Crown Estate is publicly owned, and that its profits therefore belong to the taxpayer, as evidenced by the Treasury controlling them. Those of us who reject the taxpayer funded argument point out that the Crown Estate belongs to the Queen in her official capacity and that the profits have to be surrendered by each new monarch, so the monarchy is basically funding itself (and then some) through the Estate’s profits.
A related question is whether the Crown Estate would inevitably become public property if the United Kingdom became a republic. Those on the taxpayer funded side think the expropriation of the Crown Estate would be part of a republican transition. Once Parliament ended the monarchy, it would take possession of all lands and goods that previously belonged to the monarch in an official capacity. Everything that belonged to the Crown would be absorbed by the new British republic.
While there’s no doubt that Parliament would have the power to expropriate the Crown Estate if it wanted, I think the Windsors could try to negotiate a better deal, with those portions of the Estate that are vital to assert sovereignty going to the state and those that generate profits being returned to their family as private property. The Windsors are far from the only wealthy landowners in the United Kingdom, after all, and they might wonder why they should have to surrender hereditary lands that other aristocrats get to keep, especially since their family lived under specific laws and were expected perform official functions that prevented them from living ‘normal’, private lives. This isn’t to say that they have been hard done by, of course, but they might still feel that they should get back what was once theirs if their family’s bargain with the British state comes to an end.
To help decided where you, dear reader, might fall on this question, it’s useful to expand on what the Crown Estate is, both today and in the past.
The first place to look is the Crown Estate website. It tells us the following:
Since 1760, the net income of The Crown Estate has been surrendered to the Exchequer by the Monarch under successive Civil List Acts, passed at the beginning of each reign.
The Crown Estate is though owned by the Monarch in right of the Crown. This means that the Queen owns it by virtue of holding the position of reigning Monarch, for as long as she is on the throne, as will her successor. Responsibility for managing The Crown Estate is trusted to us, under the Crown Estate Act, and the Queen is not involved in management decisions.
By contrast, the Queen also has private assets, which include Balmoral and Sandringham, and are hers to deal with as she chooses. But by no means all of what is commonly called Crown Land or Crown Property forms part of The Crown Estate.
In the UK “the Crown” is used not only to describe the Monarch, but also the Executive and the Judiciary. Thus properties owned and managed by Government departments are also Crown Property; these have nothing to do with the funding of the Monarchy or The Crown Estate.
What can we glean from this? First, the Crown Estate doesn’t include all Crown land or Crown property. There’s something unique about the Crown Estate. Second, the Crown Estate is owned by the monarch in right of the Crown, the Queen in her monarchical (i.e. official) capacity. This further ensures that the Crown Estate will automatically be owned by her successor. But this wasn’t always the case. Originally, the monarch simply owned the lands that make up the Estate as a natural person. When we’re told that “the Queen also has private assets, which include Balmoral and Sandringham,” this is further indicating that the monarch also owns private property that’s separate from the Estate.
To make sense of all this, we need to understand how the monarchy evolved in the United Kingdom. Originally, the monarch was simply a person like you and me (Ma’am, if you’re reading this, I don’t mean you, of course.) Their authority belonged to their person and there was no need to distinguish between who they were and the position they held. As the English state developed, it became necessary to make a conceptual distinction between the monarch as a living person and the monarch as an immortal office, as detailed in the classic study, The King’s Two Bodies. This was done for a variety of reasons, notably to place the monarch as the sovereign authority on a firmer legal footing, to ensure automatic royal succession, and to ease the continuity of laws, decisions, and contracts. Essentially, in a legal capacity, the monarch endured and remained, no matter who was the living embodiment of the Crown at the time. Yet, because the monarch still needed to exercise authority and make decisions, these two capacities also had to be tightly connected. Accordingly, the monarch as a natural person and a legal person were fused into a corporation sole, meaning that the two capacities could be treated as a single entity when necessary. Among other things, this corporate status gives the Queen a bunch of privileges and powers, such as not having to travel with a passport and being immune from criminal prosecution.
Fusing the natural and legal capacities of the Queen also allows the monarch to protect the Crown’s interest in British law. British constitutional practice holds that the Queen’s and Prince of Wales’ consent is required to allow a bill that affects their prerogatives or interests to become law. This consent is usually given on ministerial advice, though there are some areas where the Queen or Prince would arguably have a right to exercise their discretion or engage in tactful obstruction, notably where the bill touches on their “hereditary revenues, the Duchy of Lancaster or the Duchy of Cornwall, and personal property or personal interests of the Crown.” As a matter of constitutional principle, the Queen could withhold her consent if she felt that a bill undermined her ability to perform her constitutional duties by threatening her with financial duress.
The British government’s report (PDF) on the Queen’s and Prince’s Consent provides us with greater detail about which assets falls under these categories. Hereditary revenues include the following:
2.11 The hereditary revenues of the Crown come principally from land or other property which is, or becomes, vested in the monarch in right of the Crown (i.e. as monarch). It does not include revenue from the land and property of government departments.
2.12 In particular, the hereditary revenues come from
- the Crown Estate
- the Osborne estate
- treasure vesting in the Crown under section 6(1) of the Treasure Act 1996.
2.13 It is not entirely clear whether revenues from the Duchy of Lancaster also form part of the hereditary revenues of the Crown. Nothing turns on this point as far as Queen’s consent is concerned for the reason given in paragraph 2.18.
2.14 The Crown Estate is worth £13 billion. In relation to England, Wales and Northern Ireland it consists of the land and other property, rights and interests of the Crown which are under the management of the Crown Estate Commissioners (as established under the Crown Estate Act 1956 and managed in accordance with the Crown Estate Act 1961). In relation to Scotland the Crown Estate consists of the land and other property, rights and interests of the Crown which are under the management of Crown Estate Scotland (following the transfer in 2017 of the Commissioners’ functions in relation to Scotland to the Scottish Ministers under section 90B of the Scotland Act 1998).
The report also provides us with a succinct summary of what’s included in the Crown Estate:
2.15 The Crown Estate includes:
- the rural estate, consisting of about 140,000 hectares of agricultural land and forest;
- the urban estate, including property on historic estates in London and elsewhere such as estates at Regent’s Street and St James’s (but excluding the Royal palaces)
- the Windsor estate (including the Great Park and Ascot racecourse but excluding Windsor Castle);
- the marine estate consisting of just under half of the UK’s foreshore, tidal riverbeds and almost all of the sea-bed within the 12 nautical miles limit (including rights to all minerals excluding hydrocarbons);
- rights to all naturally occurring gold or silver (the Mines Royal);
- rights to all minerals (excluding hydrocarbons) from the UK’s continental shelf.
As well, the report identifies what counts as the Queen’s personal property and how it was determined as distinct from the hereditary revenues:
2.20 The private estates of the Queen are an example of the personal property of the Crown. Section 1 of the Crown Private Estates Act 1862 defines them for the purposes of that Act as:
- land or other real or heritable property or estate purchased at any time by Queen Victoria or her heirs or successors out of money issued and applied for the use of the Privy Purse or out of any other money not appropriated to a public service,
- land or other real or heritable property or estate which came to Queen Victoria or her heirs or successors (whether by gift, inheritance or otherwise) from any other person (unless not intended to be transferred as private estate),
- land or other real or heritable property or estate which belonged to, or was in trust for, Queen Victoria or her heirs or successors at the time of their accession and which was, before their accession, capable of alienation.
2.21 Balmoral and Sandringham are private estates of the Queen.
2.22 The private estates differ from the Crown Estate in that they can be freely disposed of and are not subject to the Sovereign Grant Act 2011.
This description of the Queen’s consent tells us a few things. Although the Queen is not involved in the management of the Crown Estate, she retains a right to be consulted about how bills might affect it, unlike other assets that the Crown owns through government departments; she has a stake in the Crown Estate that she does not have regarding other Crown lands. This suggests that the Crown Estate cannot simply be understood as public properties like any other.
On the other hand, there are clearly aspects of the Crown Estate that a republican Parliament would probably not allow a private person to own, notably the marine estate, mines, and minerals. Yet it is unclear why the British state would necessarily need to expropriate the rural, urban, and Windsor estates under a republic. This aspect of the Estate would resemble holdings of other aristocratic families, such as the Grosvenor Estate held by the Duke of Westminster. It would be unclear, to me at least, why a British republic would be justified in expropriating these parts of the Crown Estate while leaving those of the Duke of Westminster and others untouched. (Yes, yes, off with all their heads, you Jacobins. Very original.)
The counter-counterargument would be to point to the personal properties the Queen has inherited from Queen Victoria. Surely that should be enough to keep the Windsors in a lifestyle to which they are accustomed. (Whether the lucrative Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall would become personal property if there was no Crown is still another debate.)
It is worth noting, though, that there are quite a few ‘working royals’ and that the Queen’s personal wealth stands at around £370 million, far from the estimated £13 billion that the Crown Estate is worth. The likelihood that the Windsors would simply settle for that smaller amount without a fight strikes me as unlikely. And if they were to make a case for ownership of a part of the Crown Estate, the formal procedures that still surround it –the surrendering of the profits by each new monarch, the distinction made with land held by government departments, the Queen’s consent– could be used to highlight why these are not merely public lands owned by the ‘taxpayer’. They could argue, as I would, that the estates found in the Crown Estate are only held in trust as part of a longstanding agreement between Parliament and the monarch that is predicated on Britain being a constitutional monarchy. Ownership of parts of the Estate might therefore be retained by the original inheritors were that arrangement terminated as part of a republican transition.