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 within the business he has run for more than half a century, the new monarch was known simply as “the boss”.

During his time as heir to the throne, Charles devoted much of his energy to shaping the Duchy of Cornwall – an estate created nearly 700 years ago to fund the next in line to become monarch – along with other business interests such as the Duchy of Gamma original foods.

The Duchy of Cornwall is “not just a business. It encompasses everything he’s passionate about,” Charles’ wife Camilla told 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 has financial investments of £92 million. But most of its revenue comes from its commercial property portfolio, investing in assets such as offices and retail parks. It generated a surplus of £23m in 2021-22, of which £21m was paid to Charles.

To run the Duchy, Charles surrounded himself with businessmen. The current secretary and keeper of the records—the equivalent of a chief executive—is Alastair Martin, a former partner at property firm Carter Jonas.

General view of Poundbury, the urban extension of Dorchester in Dorset
The Duchy of Cornwall’s holdings include Poundbury, the village on the outskirts of Dorchester started in the 1980s, which combines Charles’ long-standing preference for ‘traditional’ period architecture © Chris Ison/PA

The Duchy’s “council”, akin to a board of directors and 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 an adviser, according to his latest accounts.

However, Charles himself was “very practical”, Martin told the ITV documentary. “He has met all of our key tenants. . . I have regular updates with him,” he said.

A person who has worked with the King added: “He [Charles] has shaped the Duchy of Cornwall, arguably, as the Queen has in her office.”

Apart from holdings aimed primarily at financial performance and historic assets such as the Oval cricket ground, the portfolio reflects Charles’s concerns.

His holdings include Poundbury, the village on the outskirts of Dorchester started in the 1980s, which combines Charles’s long-standing preference for “traditional” period architecture with once niche but now popular ideas such as streets designed to prevent traffic cars. A newer estate at Nansledan in Cornwall follows similar principles.

The Duchy owns some of Charles’ residences, including Highgrove House in Gloucestershire and Llwynywermod, Anne Boleyn’s former relative’s home in Carmarthenshire which was bought for £1.2 million in 2006. It also runs cottages and a nursery.

Charles, who was ridiculed in the 1980s for allegedly talking to plants, was an early adopter of environmentalism and the Duchy this year unveiled plans to achieve net zero carbon emissions by the early 2030s.

Authentic Duchy products at Clarence House
Charles also developed Duchy Originals, which was launched in 1990 as an outlet for organic food grown on his Highgrove estate. © Dan Kitwood/WPA/Getty Images

The Duchy of Cornwall was founded in 1337 by King Edward III for his son and heir Prince Edward, “to maintain 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 brothers who, along with their parents, were funded by the separate Duchy of Lancaster.

This “activation[d] to enjoy a level of luxury unmatched by his brothers and which would permanently set him apart from them,” according to a biography by American author Sally Bedell Smith. Some funds also go to his charities.

Until Charles’ son Harry stepped down from the monarchy in 2020, the income from the Duchy supported the households of both his children, although the family does not have access to the capital value of its assets.

As heir to the throne, Charles also developed a new business venture: Duchy Originals, known for its oat biscuits and launched in 1990 as an outlet for organic food grown on his Highgrove estate.

In 2004 the growth of the venture prompted him to boast to British diplomats in Spain “I’m a self-made millionaire!”, according to Bedell Smith.

But an ill-fated expansion into the US, coupled with the 2008 financial crisis, pushed Duchy Originals into a steep loss. It was rescued by Waitrose supermarket, which now manufactures and sells the food under the Waitrose Duchy Organic brand. It reported profits of £3.6m last year and operates separately from the Duchy of Cornwall.

At the Duchy, there is no doubt that Charles and his advisers have made some shrewd financial decisions, helping the net income rise from just £95,000 in 1952.

Sir Bertie Ross, who previously ran the property, recalled pulling out of the stock before the financial crisis. A shift to urban commercial property boosted yields significantly from the 1990s onwards, reported journalist David McClure.

But the Duchy has also been helped by its special status. While Charles began paying income tax voluntarily with his mother in 1993, the Duchy is not liable for corporation or capital gains tax. It also has other legal exemptions, such as from requiring owner-occupied homes to be sold to tenants.

In 2013 the House of Commons public accounts committee said the Treasury should scrutinize the Duchy more closely and warned that “the tax exemption could mean competing businesses do not have a level playing field to operate”.

Lord Tony Berkeley, a Labor peer based in Cornwall, ran a long but unsuccessful campaign to challenge the structure of the Duchy and make it more transparent.

“They like to have it both ways – they’re private [sector] when it suits them and royal when it doesn’t,” he said. “[Charles] he could say “I will do the right thing and obey the law as it applies to everyone else.”

The Duchy is now passed to Charles’ eldest son, Prince William, who has been visiting the estate for several years to learn the business. Berkeley hoped this would herald change, saying: “I hope William will do an in-depth 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 will do almost the same as my father does.’

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