With the death of his mother Queen Elizabeth II last week, the Prince of Wales became King Charles III. But inside the business he has headed for more than half a century, the new monarch was known simply as “the boss”.
During his record-breaking stint as heir to the throne, Charles threw much of his energy into shaping the Duchy of Cornwall — an estate created almost 700 years ago to fund the next in line to be monarch — alongside other business interests such as his Duchy Originals food range.
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 holds £92mn of financial investments. But the bulk of its income comes from its commercial property portfolio, investing in assets such as offices and retail parks. It generated a £23mn surplus in 2021-22, of which £21mn was paid to Charles.
To run the Duchy, Charles surrounded himself with business people. The current secretary and keeper of the records — equivalent to a chief executive — is Alastair Martin, a former partner in the property agency Carter Jonas.
The Duchy’s “council”, similar to a board and chaired by Charles until his mother’s death, includes the investor Jonathan Ruffer and former SSE chief Ian Marchant, while hedge fund manager Michael Hintze is an adviser, according to its latest accounts.
Yet Charles himself has been “very hands on”, Martin told the ITV documentary. “He has met all of our main tenants . . . I have regular briefings with him,” he said.
One person who has worked with the King added: “He [Charles] has shaped the Duchy of Cornwall, unquestionably, as the Queen has in her office.”
Alongside holdings aimed primarily at a financial return, and historic assets such as the Oval cricket ground, the portfolio reflects Charles’s preoccupations.
Its holdings include Poundbury, the village on the outskirts of Dorchester begun in the 1980s, which combines Charles’ longstanding preference for “traditional” period-style architecture with once-niche but now popular ideas such as streets designed to deter car traffic. A newer estate at Nansledan in Cornwall follows similar principles.
The Duchy owns some of Charles’ residences, such as Highgrove House in Gloucestershire and Llwynywermod, the Carmarthenshire former home of a relative of Anne Boleyn bought for a reported £1.2mn in 2006. It also runs holiday cottages and a plant nursery.
Charles, mocked in the 1980s for saying he talked to plants, was an early adopter of environmentalism and the Duchy this year set out plans to reach net zero carbon emissions by the early 2030s.
The Duchy of Cornwall was established in 1337 by King Edward III for his son and heir Prince Edward, “to preserve the state and honour of the said duke according to the nobility of his kind”.
Charles became entitled to its full income at the age of 21, unlike his siblings who alongside his parents were funded by the separate Duchy of Lancaster.
This “enable[d] him to enjoy a level of luxury unequalled by his siblings, and would set him definitively apart from them”, according to a biography by the US writer Sally Bedell Smith. Some funds also go to his charities.
Until Charles’ son Harry broke away from the monarchy in 2020, income from the Duchy supported both of his children’s households, although the family have no 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 oaten biscuits and launched in 1990 as an outlet for organic food grown on his Highgrove estate.
In 2004 the venture’s growth 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, combined with the 2008 financial crisis, pushed Duchy Originals to a steep loss. It was rescued by supermarket Waitrose, which now manufactures and sells the foods under the Waitrose Duchy Organic brand. It reported £3.6mn of profit last year and operates separately from the Duchy of Cornwall.
At the Duchy, there is little question that Charles and his advisers have made some astute financial decisions, helping net revenues shoot up from a mere £95,000 in 1952.
Sir Bertie Ross, who formerly ran the estate, has recalled pulling out of equities before the financial crisis. A shift into urban commercial property significantly boosted returns from the 1990s onward, the journalist David McClure has reported.
But the Duchy has also been aided by its special status. While Charles began voluntarily paying income tax alongside his mother in 1993, the Duchy is not liable for corporation or capital gains tax. It also has other legal exemptions, such as from a requirement to sell the freeholds of houses to leaseholders.
In 2013 the House of Commons public accounts committee said the Treasury should scrutinise the Duchy more closely and warned that its “tax exemption might mean that competing businesses do not have a level playing field on which to operate”.
Lord Tony Berkeley, a Labour peer based in Cornwall, has run a long but unsuccessful campaign to challenge the Duchy’s structure and make it more transparent.
“They like to have it both ways — they are private [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 comply with the law as it applies to everyone else’.”
The Duchy now transfers to Charles’ eldest son Prince William, who has been visiting the estate over several years to learn the business. Berkeley expressed hope this will herald change, saying: “I hope William will do an in-depth review of how it works and how it could work better.”
But this looks unlikely. William told the ITV documentary: “I’m not going to rock the boat. I’ll do much the same as what my father’s doing.”