Prince Charles has been preparing for the crown his entire life. Now, at age 73, that moment has finally arrived. Charles, the oldest person to ever assume the British throne, became King Charles III on Thursday following the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II.
His accession to the throne, however, is likely to fuel debate about the future of Britain’s largely ceremonial monarchy, seen by some as a symbol of national unity and others as an obsolete vestige of feudal history.
The British monarch is mainly a ceremonial figurehead and is generally expected not to intervene in political matters. But as head of state, they have retained some constitutional powers and certain unusual perks. Charles will also inherit his mother’s private fortune, without having to pay inheritance tax.
- Role in Parliament: Parliament is the highest legislative authority in the United Kingdom and comprises the House of Commons, House of Lords and the Crown — another word for the monarchy. The Crown is the oldest part of Britain’s system of government, but its powers have withered away over time, and are now broadly ritualistic.
- Appointing a Government: The day after a general election, the monarch invites the leader of the party that won the most seats in the House of Commons to become prime minister and form a government.
- Opening and Dissolving Parliament: The monarch opens parliament every year at the tradition-heavy State Opening, and reads out the government’s plans for the next 12 months. The event usually begins with the monarch’s procession from Buckingham Palace to Westminster. Wearing the Imperial State Crown, the monarch proceeds to the House of Lords. An official known as Black Rod is sent to summon the Commons, and the door is shut in his or her face to symbolise its independence from the monarchy. The Crown also formally dissolves parliament before a general election.
- Royal Assent: After a bill has been approved by the House of Commons and the House of Lords, it is sent to the monarch to approve and turn into a law. Although the monarch could technically refuse, the practice is, in reality, a rubber-stamping exercise. The most recent monarch to refuse assent was queen Anne, in 1708.
- Prime Ministerial Confidant:Queen Elizabeth II held weekly meetings with all of her prime ministers, in which they would tell her of their plans and concerns. “They tell me what is going on or if they have any problems, and sometimes I can help in some way as well,” she said in a 1992 documentary. “They know I can be impartial and it is rather nice to feel one is a sponge.”
- Creating Lords and Knights: The monarch has the power to appoint lords to sit in parliament, but this is only exercised on the advice of government ministers. The monarch also personally confers knighthoods, which are given to those who have made a notable contribution to British society, in any walk of life. The government provides the monarch with a list of nominees each year for approval for public honours.
- Constitutional Crises: The monarch is allowed to exercise their prerogative powers “in grave constitutional crisis” when they are permitted to go against ministerial advice, although it has never happened in modern times.
- Head of Church: As supreme governor of the Church of England, Britain’s monarch has the power to appoint bishops and archbishops, but again this is exercised only on the advice of a Church Commission.
The UK’s new king will travel without a passport and drive without a licence, own all the mute swans in England and may continue a tradition of celebrating his birthday twice a year.
- No Licence or Passport: King Charles III will travel overseas without a passport because, unlike other members of the royal family, he will not need one as the document will be issued in his name. For the same reason, the king will be the only person in Britain who can drive without a licence.
- Two Birthdays: Charles’ mother, Queen Elizabeth II, had two birthdays — her actual birthday on April 21, which was held in private, and an official public celebration on the second Tuesday in June, when the summery weather tends to be better for outdoor parades. As Charles’ birthday is at the start of winter on November 14, it is likely he will also have an “official birthday” in a warmer month.
- No Voting: The British monarch does not vote and cannot stand for election. As head of state, he or she must remain strictly neutral in political affairs. They are involved in the formal opening of parliamentary sessions, approve legislation from parliament and hold weekly meetings with the prime minister.
- Swans, Dolphins and Sturgeon: The British monarch does not just reign over people. Since the 12th century, unmarked mute swans in open waters across England and Wales are considered the property of the monarch. Every year, royal rights are exercised on stretches of the River Thames, where the swans are counted in a tradition that has now become a conservation measure. The royal prerogative also applies to sturgeon, dolphins and whales in British waters.
- Official Poet: Every 10 years, Britain appoints a poet laureate who composes verses for the monarch. The honorary post includes a butt of sherry — equivalent to 720 bottles. The tradition goes back to the 17th century. Carol Ann Duffy became the first woman nominated as poet laureate when she was appointed in 2009. She composed poems for Prince William’s wedding in 2011, the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 2013 and the marriage of Prince Harry in 2018.
- Royal Warrant: Issued to those who regularly supply the monarch with goods and services, the warrant is a great honour and a boost for sales. Companies awarded the warrant are authorised to use the royal arms on their goods. Burberry, Cadbury, Jaguar Cars, Land Rover, Samsung and Waitrose supermarkets are among the companies with a royal warrant.
King Charles inherits not just the throne after the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, but also her private fortune — without having to pay inheritance tax. British monarchs are not required to reveal their private finances but according to the Sunday Times Rich List 2022, the queen was worth some £370 million ($426 million), up £5 million on the previous year.
The bulk of the late sovereign’s personal wealth will pass to Charles intact, without the British government getting a slice. The real royal wealth — the Crown Estate lands and the Royal Collection of art and jewellery, plus official residences and the Royal Archives — is held by the monarchy as an institution. As such, they will only pass to Charles in trust.
Similarly, The Crown Jewels, estimated to be worth at least £3 billion, only belonged symbolically to the queen and are automatically transferred to her successor.
The queen’s private wealth will be added to Charles’ own, which has been estimated at some $100 million by the site celebritynetworth.com.
- Gains Duchy of Lancaster: As king, Charles inherits the Duchy of Lancaster, a private estate of commercial, agricultural and residential assets owned by royalty since the Middle Ages. The monarch is entitled to use its income and largely uses it to meet official expenditure. In the financial year 2021-22, it delivered a net surplus of £24.0 million.
- Loses Duchy of Cornwall: On the other hand, Charles will lose the Duchy of Cornwall, another private estate, in southwest England. It brought in a revenue surplus of some £23 million in 2021-22. The duchy, created in 1337 by Edward III for his son and heir, prince Edward, will go to Charles’ eldest son, Prince William, who is now heir to the throne.
- Sovereign Grant: Charles will also receive the annual Sovereign Grant from the UK Treasury, which is set at 15% of the profits from the Crown Estate, and which the monarch surrenders to the government under a deal dating back to 1760. The Sovereign Grant covers costs of official engagements for the monarch and other senior members of the royal family, paying the salaries of their staff and the upkeep of royal palaces. In 2021-22, it was set at £86.3 million — equivalent to £1.29 per person in the UK — and included funding for the renovation of Buckingham Palace.
- Property Empire: The Crown Estate’s portfolio includes commercial and retail properties, including prime locations in central London, as well as rural and coastal land across the country, and the waters around England and Wales. That makes it one of Europe’s biggest property empires, with a huge commercial interest in areas such as developing offshore wind power generation. In the financial year to March 2022, it posted a net revenue profit of £312.7 million, up from £269.3 million in 2020-21.
- No Inheritance Tax: Inheritance tax in Britain is charged at 40% on estates above a £325,000 threshold. But the new king will not pay inheritance tax on the personal wealth he will inherit from his mother due to rules drawn up in 1993. Assets passed from one sovereign, or a consort of a sovereign, to the next monarch, are exempt so as to avoid wiping out the royals’ private wealth in the event that a series of monarchs died in quick succession.