The king is profiting from the deaths of thousands of people in the north-west of England whose assets are secretly being used to upgrade a commercial property empire managed by his hereditary estate, the Guardian can reveal.
The Duchy of Lancaster, a controversial land and property estate that generates huge profits for King Charles III, has collected tens of millions of pounds in recent years under an antiquated system that dates back to feudal times.
Financial assets known as bona vacantia, owned by people who died without a will or known next of kin, are collected by the duchy. Over the last 10 years, it has collected more than £60m in the funds. It has long claimed that, after deducting costs, bona vacantia revenues are donated to charities.
However, only a small percentage of these revenues is being given to charity. Internal duchy documents seen by the Guardian reveal how funds are secretly being used to finance the renovation of properties that are owned by the king and rented out for profit.
The duchy essentially inherits bona vacantia funds from people whose last known address was in a territory that in the middle ages was known as Lancashire county palatine and ruled by a duke. Today, the area comprises Lancashire and parts of Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Cheshire and Cumbria.
A leaked internal duchy policy from 2020 gave officials at the king’s estate licence to use bona vacantia funds on a broad array of its profit-generating portfolio. Codenamed “SA9”, the policy acknowledges spending the money in this way could result in an “incidental” benefit to the privy purse, the king’s personal income.
Properties identified in other leaked documents as eligible for use of the funds include town houses, holiday lets, rural cottages, agricultural buildings, a former petrol station and barns, including one used to facilitate pheasant and partridge shoots in Yorkshire.
Upgrades include new roofs, double-glazing windows, boiler installations and replacements of doors and lintels. One document references the renovation of an old farmhouse in Yorkshire, helping transform it into a high-end residential let. Another upgrade is helping turn a farm building into commercial offices.
Three sources familiar with the duchy’s expenditure confirmed the estate was using revenues collected from dead citizens to refurbish its profitable property portfolio, making considerable savings for the estate. One said duchy insiders regarded the bona vacantia expenditure, which has until now not been publicly disclosed, as akin to “free money” and a “slush fund”.
The diversion of bona vacantia funds in this way has proven a financial boon to the king’s estate. The practice is helping make rental properties more profitable, which indirectly benefits the king, who receives tens of millions in duchy profits each year – income that Buckingham Palace says is “private”. Earlier this year, in his first annual payout since inheriting the estate from his mother, Charles received £26m from the Duchy of Lancaster.