King’s estate facing questions over £14m in ‘bona vacantia’ not donated to charity | King Charles III #Kings #estate #facing #questions #14m #bona #vacantia #donated #charity #King #Charles #III

A royal insignia shines from the heart of a stained glass window in the Savoy chapel in London. The ornate 150-seat church is tucked incongruously between the theatres of the Strand, the Savoy hotel and the Thames.

It was built on land previously occupied by a palace that was torn down during the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt against the inequities of feudalism. More than 600 years later, a remnant of that feudal system still funds the chapel.

The Duchy of Lancaster, a land and property estate that raises “private” income for the king, collects the assets of people who die with no will or known relatives hundreds of miles away in Lancashire, as well as in parts of Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Cheshire and Cumbria.

The duchy then helps divert millions of pounds of those assets south to help pay for the maintenance of what is sometimes called “the king’s chapel”.

There are plaques on the walls recognising philanthropic donations from illustrious benefactors such as Harriet De Wint and King George VI. Yet there are no signs marking the contributions from thousands of deceased northerners whose assets – known as bona vacantia – maintain the chapel.

Interior of the Savoy chapel in London
Interior of the Savoy chapel in London. Photograph: Andy Scott/Creative Commons/Wikipedia

The duchy has for decades said that, after it collects bona vacantia funds and deducts certain costs, the proceeds go to charities, such as the charity that funds the chapel. However, the Guardian has revealed that a significant portion of bona vacantia funds are secretly being spent on renovating properties owned by the king that are rented out for profit by his estate.

Duchy accounts suggest it has collected £61.8m in bona vacantia funds over the last decade. Of those, only £9.3m or 15% of the total has gone to charities. Now there are fresh questions about a further £14m, earmarked for charitable causes, but seemingly not donated. The duchy is refusing to explain why the funds have not been transferred to charities.

‘Historical obligations’

The king’s estate has never provided the public with a detailed breakdown of how tens of millions of bona vacantia revenues are spent, but analysis of the duchy’s accounts over the last 10 years provides some clues.

About £8.6m or 13% of bona vacantia revenues have been parked in a late claims fund, which is used for relatives of deceased people who may turn up in the future to make a claim on their rightful inheritance.

Almost half of bona vacantia revenues – £29.5m over the last decade – have been spent by the duchy on what it calls “costs of palatinate administration and historical obligations”. The administrative costs are understood to be a reference to the operation of the bona vacantia system, including solicitors’ fees.

The reference to “historical obligations” is more opaque. It includes the Savoy chapel but appears in large part to be spent on “upkeep of castles and historic monuments”. The expenditure on this line item has increased significantly over the last decade, from £39,000 in 2013 to £3.5m in 2023.

The Savoy chapel
The Savoy chapel is sometimes called ‘the king’s chapel’. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Once administrative costs and so-called historical obligations are deducted from the duchy’s bona vacantia funds, the remaining revenues are supposed to go to charity. The duchy’s website states that “the balance is distributed” among three registered charities. However, only a portion of the balance appears to have been distributed to those charities.

The charities

The oldest of the trio of charities is the Duchy of Lancaster Benevolent Fund, which over the last 10 years has received £1.7m in bona vacantia funds. It uses the revenues and the proceeds of a huge endowment fund to issue grants to support charitable causes in places such as Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside.

It distributed the money to youth work charities, bursaries for a grammar school that charges boarding fees, churches, clerics as well as the king’s own charity, the Prince’s Trust, which received £6,500 over three years.

The Duchy of Lancaster Jubilee Trust has received £5.4m in bona vacantia revenues since 2013. More than 99% of its payouts over that period have gone to maintaining the Savoy chapel.

Queen Elizabeth II is greeted by members of the choir at the Savoy chapel in 2012
Queen Elizabeth II is greeted by members of the choir at the Savoy chapel in 2012. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The third charitable recipient of bona vacantia funds is the Duke of Lancaster Housing Trust, set up in 2007 with the express aim of providing rural affordable housing. It owns 38 properties, according to its latest accounts. Two-thirds of the properties are rented to tenants with a Duchy of Lancaster connection.

Several of the trust’s properties have been purchased from the duchy itself.

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Between 2011 and 2013, the duchy gave £3.3m in bona vacantia funds to the housing trust. Over the following two years, the trust then bought eight properties from the duchy costing in total £1.3m.

The three charities have received £9.4m in bona vacantia funds in total from the Duchy of Lancaster. However, that leaves £14m that has not been paid out to charity but instead appears to have been put aside by the king’s estate.

The Duchy of Lancaster declined to explain why the £14m had not been donated to charities in accordance with its stated policy. It also declined to say whether it intended to use any of the money renovating the king’s properties.

#Kings #estate #facing #questions #14m #bona #vacantia #donated #charity #King #Charles #III

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