Do we need | a royal family?

The UK has had a royal family for centuries but is it now time to let go of this age-old tradition? They have more privileges than most of us. But what about everything they do for charity and beyond? Hmm... 

Test your royal knowledge!

How much power does the Queen actually have?

Dr Priya Atwal (University of Oxford) takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the UK monarchy, commenting on its history and explaining the role that the Queen has today.  

The British Crown Jewels

The history of Britain’s monarchy and royal family is pretty special. It’s packed with plenty of drama and surprising plot-twists, but it’s also quite unique because (alongside Denmark) Britain has the oldest monarchy in Europe. The current queen, Elizabeth II, can actually trace her family roots all the way back to the ninth century: starting with her ancient ancestor, King Egbert of Wessex! 

So what do we mean by the term ‘monarchy’? A monarchy in the strongest sense of the term means a state governed by a single ruler (known as a king or queen). They have absolute power and they pass this power to their heirs. This is usually their children or closest blood relations. By ‘absolute power’, we mean that the monarch has the right to do anything they choose: including making decisions about people’s lives, demanding money from them whenever they like, deciding how the country should be run and even whether or not go to war with other countries. 

The Queen today does not have any such rights. Instead, Britain is ruled over by a ‘constitutional monarch’. In other words, a king or queen whose powers are limited by the laws of the land. Laws that are drafted and passed by members of Parliament, who are themselves elected by ordinary people over the age of 18 who are allowed to vote. The Queen can still reject (veto) a law, but if that happened today it would cause huge controversy (the last time that the ‘Royal Assent’ was refused was back in 1707!).

Over the centuries, Britain has witnessed countless struggles between the Crown and its subjects, which have gradually resulted in the power of the monarchy being whittled away. 

One of the biggest showdowns in royal history was the clash between King John of England and a group of ‘rebel barons’ of England in 1215, which led to the signing of one of the most famous legal documents in the world, the Magna Carta.  Although this document ultimately had little success in bringing peace between the overbearing king and his subjects in their lifetime, it’s still celebrated in English history as setting in stone the principle that a monarch should have to respect and live by the law in just the same way as one of their subjects. It also preserved the idea that the rights of individuals had to take priority over the personal wishes of the king, meaning that the Crown has a duty to govern responsibly. 

Portrait of King John of England

Image: King John of England

The seventeenth-century Stuart kings were perhaps the most infamous for messing with these principles, and their attempts to do so backfired on them dramatically! The Scottish dynasty inherited the English throne from Elizabeth I and were firm in their belief that they had a ‘divine’ or God-given right to absolute power. James I even set out his ideas in a book called Basilikon Doron (Greek for ‘royal gift’). In this text, James explained his vision for how to be a good and effective king. He argued that the monarch should not act as a tyrant but that their powers were derived from God alone and could not be controlled by laws or his subjects. His son and heir, Charles I would attempt to put such ideas into practice in his own way, but it didn’t go so well, especially after he tried to demand taxes from the people without first asking for the consent of Parliament. He ended up provoking a civil war in England, and was later imprisoned, convicted of high treason and then beheaded in 1649!

Britain underwent a unique period of leadership without a monarch after Charles’ execution. This only lasted until 1660 however, when Charles II (Charles I’s son) was given the throne back after the collapse of Oliver Cromwell’s republican government. The British people have kept kings and queens on the throne ever since then. This history suggests that the role and authority of monarchy in Britain is pretty fixed and that the Crown is not an institution that is likely to be got rid of easily. However, alongside this it’s important to remember that many deliberate efforts have been made to reduce the power of the Crown very significantly since the reign of Charles II. Ordinary men and women have gained a much stronger voice in the running of the country through Parliament as a result of the major political changes that have occurred in the past four centuries. 

Portrait of King Charles II

Image: Charles II

This has meant that the activities and nature of Britain’s monarchy have also changed dramatically over time, with the Crown taking on more of a ceremonial and influential role, rather than a directly political and powerful one. The reigning Queen still gets access to all sorts of official and secret papers produced by the government, and has regular meetings and conversations with the Prime Minister. She is also the head of Britain’s armed forces and the Church of England, as well as of the Commonwealth (an association of countries almost all of which were formerly part of the British Empire). And without her signature, any laws passed by Parliament are void. Unlike her Stuart predecessors however, instead of being able to dictate the making of new laws or actively direct the government in the business of running the country, the Queen now only enjoys the ‘right to be consulted, the right to encourage [and] the right to warn’. Most of her speeches are actually written for her by government ministers, as the monarch is no longer allowed to express his/her own political opinions publicly. 

Of course, the Queen still enjoys some incredible perks with her job, even if she has less power. She lives in some of the finest buildings in the country, she doesn’t need a passport to travel and she also owns all of the dolphins and whales in British waters! 

Queen Elizabeth II
Image: Queen Elizabeth II in 2015

Royal firsts - what have monarchs brought us?

  1. The flushing toilet
    1. The first ever ‘water closet’ or flushing toilet was invented some time in 1584-91, by Sir John Harington, the godson of Queen Elizabeth I. Harington was a well-known poet and gentleman, but he got into trouble after writing some particularly dodgy poetry, and was excluded from the Queen’s court until he could make amends. While hiding away at his newly-built house in Kelston, near Bath, inspiration of a completely different kind seems to have struck Harington, and he came up with an idea for making a flushing toilet! He invited Elizabeth I to visit his home in 1592, during which time she tried out his loo. Apparently she liked it so much that she forgave him for his earlier mistakes and requested that he build her a loo too, at her palace!

  2. Photography
    1. We are used to seeing the Royal Family splashed over the covers of magazines and newspapers. But did you know that Prince Albert and Queen Victoria were instrumental in making photography a popular form of art and media in England? They attended exhibitions and became enthusiastic collectors of the new kinds of printed pictures that early photography pioneered in the 1840s. They also became patrons of the newly-established Photographic Society of London. The Queen and Prince Consort also commissioned photographers to take pictures of themselves, their family and friends, and their favourite scenes, which they collected together into beautifully-bound photo albums. Like the Royal Family today, however, they were not too pleased about photos being published of them without their permission. As a result, they ended up fighting the first ever legal cases to defend their rights over pictures of themselves.

  3. The Church of England
    1. The ‘Church of England’ or ‘Anglican Church’ was effectively founded by King Henry VIII in the 1530s, after he decided to break with the Pope and the Catholic Church in Italy. Henry VIII infamously wished to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, so that he could marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. However, being a member of the Catholic Church, which was against divorce, Henry was not allowed to end his marriage to Catherine and so he resorted to drastic measures to get his way. He dramatically broke off ties with Catholicism and appointed religious scholars to produce research that would enable him to justify this move, as well as to support his claim to be the rightful head of the Church in England instead of the Pope. This allowed Henry not only to marry Anne Boleyn (and later, four other wives!) but also to transform the Church of England into a Protestant church rather than a Catholic one. This move brought about a major and long-lasting cultural shift across Britain and caused decades of conflict between England and its powerful Catholic neighbours in Europe.  

  4. Tax scandals
    1. Monarchs and tax have long had a messy and complicated history. The current queen, Elizabeth II, became the first reigning monarch to pay taxes from 1992, even though the sovereign is not legally obliged to pay anything. The Queen agreed to do so after a terrible fire ravaged her favourite royal residence, Windsor Castle. It was a good move to win over the public, after they were saddled with a hefty restoration bill (£36.5 million!), at a time when the monarchy’s popularity was weak in Britain. However, only recently a new tax scandal raised new questions about how the monarchy spends its money. This happened when the publication of the Paradise Papers by British newspapers revealed that millions of pounds from the Queen’s private estates had been invested in offshore tax havens - said to be without the Queen’s knowledge.

  5. Smallpox vaccine
    1. In the eighteenth century, smallpox dramatically changed the succession of the British royal family from the Stuart dynasty to their cousins, the rulers of Hanover. The disease killed off the eleven-year old Prince William, the only son of Queen Anne, in 1700. This meant that the Crown ended up passing to George I who travelled from the small German state of Hanover to take over the British throne in 1714, bringing his family with him. England was hit by another smallpox outbreak in 1722. This time however, one of the most well-known ladies in fashionable English society, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, was not prepared to let the disease take as many lives as it had done in the past. She had stayed for some time in Turkey, where her husband was working as a diplomat, and whilst there had experienced the Turkish method of vaccinating against smallpox. A liquid containing a small amount of the live smallpox virus was mixed into a cut in the skin of a healthy person, to enable their body to develop the disease but in a form that could be more safely overcome. Lady Mary persuaded Caroline, Princess of Wales (wife of the future George II) to vaccinate her own children using this procedure. The royal family waited for the results of tests carried out on prisoners at Newgate before getting vaccinated themselves. But after seeing how successful the attempt was, King George I agreed to have his grandchildren treated – and they survived. This very active royal stamp of approval meant that vaccination became much more widely accepted across British society, and helped to pave the way for the life-saving impact later made by Edward Jenner’s vaccine. 

  6. New media
    1. Royals throughout history have often been quick to learn about and embrace new ways of communicating, so that they could more effectively run their kingdoms and portray themselves according to their desire. But even in more modern times, when the monarchy has taken on more of a ceremonial role, royal figures have not shied away from an interest in new types of communications technology. Queen Victoria was technically the first person to send a transatlantic telegraph message, when a note was sent in her name to President Buchanan of the USA, on 16 August 1858. The message didn’t quite manage to get through however, mainly because it was far too long: consisting of 98 words in total, it took more than 19 hours to transmit! The reigning queen, Elizabeth II, did a much better job of keeping her message short and sweet when she sent the first royal tweet, whilst opening an exhibition at London’s Science Museum in 2014. She is perhaps more famous for another royal technological first however: the Christmas TV broadcast. The royal tradition of a Christmas broadcast began with radio speeches by the King in 1932, but 1957 saw the first live broadcast by the Queen on BBC television. It was intended as a way of modernizing the monarchy and bringing it closer to ordinary families – through their TV sets – and is still watched by millions of people today!

Prince William once said: "As I learned from growing up, you don't mess with your grandmother [a.k.a the Queen!]"

Prince William once said: "As I learned from growing up, you don't mess with your grandmother" [a.k.a the Queen!]


A royal tour - what monarchy means to other parts of the world

A basic definition of ‘royalty’ is a person who reigns in the position of a king or queen, or more broadly speaking, is thought to have ‘royal blood’ or status. But people’s understandings of how royalty should work varies according to culture. Today, there are 26 monarchies around the world, ruling over 43 countries in total. Let’s dig deeper…

  1. In some countries, women lead the way 
    1. In most countries with monarchies, the blood or lineage of the father is considered the most important in determining who gets to inherit the throne from amongst the reigning royal family. And in the majority of cases, the throne will usually pass to a man e.g. the king’s son inherits the throne, followed by his grandson, etc. In the UK, women were only allowed to take the throne when there were no male heirs available. This rule had been in place for 300 years, but in 2011 it was agreed that if Prince William and Kate Middleton had a daughter first, she would be allowed to inherit the throne and become queen even if she had a younger brother. In contrast, 'matrilineal descent’ determined the order of succession in the Niger-Congo area of Africa (stretching from West Africa to Zambia in the southeast), as well as in Madagascar, and regions of West India and Southeast Asia. This is where ‘royal blood’ is only thought to be transmitted via women. This was certainly the case for the Bemba people of what is now north-eastern Zimbabwe. Children born from a king or prince without an African princess as a mother would not be deemed fit for the throne. The bloodline of the royal women was prioritized over the royal men. Within the Asante kingdom in West Africa, it was acceptable for royal women to have more one than husband or lover at a time. Often the identity of a royal child’s father would be kept a secret in order to protect the princess against any claims to power that could be made by the man. 
  2. Being a prince can be a risky business
    1. One of the defining features of a monarchy is that the right to rule a kingdom should pass from the ruler to a member of their family, usually one of their sons. However, in many cases, this form of succession is not exactly a simple or pain-free process. In the former Mughal and Ottoman Empires of South Asia and the Middle East, the practice of ‘open succession’ prevailed. This is where the brothers and sons of the reigning emperor competed to the death against one another, in order to capture the throne after the emperor died. In more than one instance too, such brutal competition could break out during the lifetime of the emperor. In the Ottoman Empire, fratricide, or the killing of brothers, was seen by many sultans as an effective way to guard against such threats. It became something of a tradition for newly-appointed sultans to have their brothers strangled with a silken cord in fact! By the seventeenth century, however, this gruesome practice shifted to the less deadly but still torturous practice of keeping princes imprisoned under a form of house arrest in a part of a sultan’s palace known as the kafes (or ‘golden cage’). This way they could be easily supervised and kept under tight control. 
  3. Most kings in history have tended to have multiple wives
    1. In order to keep themselves and their families in power, monarchs have historically used marriage as an important social and political weapon. Marriage could strengthen a king or queen’s ties with other like-minded and well-connected royal or aristocratic families. It could also provide a committed husband or wife with whom to produce and train future heirs to the throne. However, the practice of a monarch marrying just one person at a time has been only been a consistent trend in Europe. Up until the nineteenth century, royalty from many other countries across the world have been much more willing to take multiple marital partners, and also concubines. Concubines are women who live with a man, but who are not formally married to him and do not have equal status to a wife. It’s thought that the strict ideals regarding family life that Christianity promoted has a lot to do with determining why most Western European royal families stuck with marrying only one person. This partly explains why Henry VIII had to go to such lengths in order to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. That said, he and other European kings and queens were not quite obedient enough not to cheat on their husbands/wives as well! 
  4. ‘Royalty’ doesn’t always mean a ‘royal family’
    1. In some cases, ‘royalty’ can be defined in an alternative sense: through control over landed resources, or through embracing the particular pomp and style typically associated with monarchs. The Pope, as head of the Catholic Church and the ‘monarch’ of the Vatican, is an example of when royal status can be claimed by a person or institution that is not directly connected with a royal family. Under international law, the papacy is recognised as a monarchy, and popes have claimed the right to rule over territory in Italy since at least the eighth century. Interestingly, Sikhs view and place their holy scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib, on a very royal pedestal. At a Sikh gurdwara (temple), the Guru Granth Sahib is treated not as a book, but as an embodiment of the political and spiritual wisdom of God, who is worshipped as the Sacha Padshah (‘the truest emperor’). The Guru Granth Sahib is looked after and approached with similar kinds of ceremony to those performed in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century India by visitors to the court of the Mughal rulers, who were the contemporaries of the ten founding Gurus (teachers/spiritual leaders) of the Sikh faith. For example, the Guru Granth Sahib is typically covered with a richly-decorated canopy, and a fly whisk is waved over it, to prevent any dust or flies from landing on it, as was done to show respect to a Mughal emperor. Modern-day visitors to the gurdwara are expected to continue participating in some of these traditions and to pay their respects to the Guru, by covering their heads in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib, and bowing and making a small offering before it. 

Do the Royals bring in more money than they cost?

About 60% of people in Britain favour keeping the current monarchy, rather than becoming a republic with an elected head of state (YouGov, 2022). Alongside this, there's a long running-campaign for the monarchy to be abolished. Such campaigners for a republic often cite the cost of supporting the monarchy. Supporters of the monarchy, however, respond that monarchy is traditional and that people might not necessarily like a new president any more than they do the queen...



So how much does the Royal Family actually cost?

Official figures from the Crown Estate show that the royal family spent £56.8m in 2016/17. About one-quarter of this, or £14m, came from the Royal Family’s own funds. The remainder of £42.8m was funded by the taxpayer through the Sovereign Grant, a payment from the government to the Royal Family. To put this number into some kind of context, this amounts to about 65p per person in the U.K.

How is this money spent? 

The expenditure can be broken down into three categories. 
•    The Royal Family workforce: The Royal Household employed 436 people in 2016/17 for various roles, including curators for museums, chefs, and engineers which accounted for £20.3m. 

•    Royal travel: The royal family uses a mix of charter (not regularly scheduled flights), and scheduled flights, and trains to go on official visits, attend ceremonies and conduct their royal business. This can get pretty costly since this has included a trip by The Prince of Wales on a charter plane to Northern Ireland for £35,000. In total, the royal family spent £4.5m on travel in 2016-2017.

•    Royal bills: The Royal Family spends about £32m on property maintenance, utility bills, housekeeping and other expenditure. Spending in this category goes towards, for example, hosting 97 Receptions, 43 Lunches,  7 Garden Parties, and 56 Dinners.  Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, St. James's Palace and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, welcomed over 120,000 guests in 2016/17. With 27,000 cups of tea, 20,000 sandwiches and 20,000 slices of cake consumed at each garden party alone, you can imagine why this can be expensive!

And how much does the Royal Family bring in?

A widely discussed study from 2017 estimates that the annual contribution of the monarchy to the U.K. economy was £1,766m. This significantly outweighs the (direct) cost to the taxpayer of £42.8m. But this figure is only an estimate with some uncertainty surrounding it. 

With that uncertainty at the back of our minds, we can, broadly speaking, break down the benefit of the Royal Family to the economy into three parts:  


The Brand Finance Monarchy Report estimates that the monarchy boosts tourism by about £550m. In 2016, over 2.7 million tourists visited Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, the Palace of Holyroodhouse and other key royal attractions. Revenues from tickets and merchandise sales make up a large chunk of that £550m. But there are also indirect benefits to the economy, especially to places that the royal family has visited. According to the report, bookings for hotels increased 30% year-on-year after the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge stayed on the island of Anglesey where Prince William was stationed during his military service.

However, those in favour of abolishing the monarchy - such as the political pressure group, 'Republic' - point out that people would continue to visit places like Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle if Britain was a republic, and historic buildings would continue to make money for the country. Tourists still visit historic palaces in countries like France, Italy and Germany – all countries which no longer have ruling monarchs, but still have plenty of visitors.

The video below gives more details about 'Republic' and the key arguments the group presents for ending the monarchy:

The brand

The report estimates that through informal endorsements, royal warrants and patronage, and other media coverage the Royal Family added an extra £887m to the economy. Informal endorsements are acts of (usually) one-off support. For example, the extra sales of fashion brands that the Duchess of Cambridge and the royal children are seen wearing counts as this. Royal warrants are somewhat different in that they allow the warrant holder to display the royal arms to signal that the product is supplied to the Royal Family, e.g. Burberry and the Royal Mail.

An example of Royal Patronage – official support for a brand or a cause - is The Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry. This raises funds for military veterans, young people, wildlife conservation, and mental health. It was founded in 2009 and raised £10.1 million in 2016 alone. 

Royal babies also count towards this brand effect: Joshua Bamfield, director of the Center for Retail Research, estimates that the birth of baby George was responsible for people spending £156m on royal baby souvenirs, in addition to £62m on drinks and £25m on food for parties celebrating the royal newcomer. 

Prince William and Kate with Prince George

Image credit: Christopher Neve (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Crown Estate

The Crown Estate is a collection of land and property which belongs to the monarchy. It generates an annual profit through rental payments and ground rent among other things. In 1760, however, George III surrendered all revenues and profits from the Crown Estate to the government. In return he asked for annual payments from the government to cover his expenses, which is what we nowadays call the sovereign grant. 

The value of the sovereign grant is much less than the profits made by the Crown Estate. And because the U.K. government receives any remaining profits, the 2016 Crown Estate profits of £329m could be counted as a direct benefit to the economy.

However, some people would suggest that this line of thinking is flawed arguing that the Crown Estate is essentially public land which has in the past been claimed as monarch’s property. Its profitability does not come directly from the monarch. And they pose questions such as: can things like forest and farmland really be said to 'belong' to the crown? Should anyone have the right’ to control that much land; or be given so much wealth – based on the actions of their ancestors several centuries ago and quirks of inheritance? This applies both to private royal wealth (essentially obtained through medieval conquests) and the money given through the sovereign grant.

A further argument that forms part of this objection is that monarchy can be viewed as a symbol of inequality in Britain. The wealth of the Royals means they are very distant from ‘ordinary’ people on ordinary incomes. Although monarchy is ‘traditional’, could it now be time to move on to a more modern and democratic form of governance?

So is the Royal Family worth it?

With estimated benefits of £1,766m versus direct cost of £42.8m, for some people, this seems like an easy call to make. However, the true cost of the Royal Family is not entirely clear: yes, there is a direct payment but there are also the cost of security for events and buildings, which are usually borne by the hosting cities. These and other costs, ‘Republic’ estimates to come to £345m, which is more than the NHS England spends on the Cancer Drugs Fund. 

Even with this cost estimate, the monarchy still returns about £5 for every £1 spent. And given that the upper estimate of £345m boils down to about £5.30 per person per year or about 1.5p per day, it's up to everyone to decide for themselves whether they think the Royal Family’s benefits outweigh their cost.

That said - for people on both sides of the debate - monarchy is not just about the money - it’s about the principle. Monarchists speak of the need to preserve tradition and respect the past, and republicans argue that monarchy is incompatible with a democratic society.

What do you think?