Windsornomics: The Economic Impact of England’s King Coronation

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As you may have heard, a man in London had a very shiny hat put on his head yesterday.

It’s been 70 years since the UK saw its last coronation, and Charles III made various symbolic gestures to modernize the service. He announced proudly that his throne chair would be ‘recycled’, meaning the one that belonged to his grandfather George VI will be reupholstered. Exactly how this counts as recycling rather than “antiquing” highlights the dissonance inherent in a 21st-century coronation.

Since Elizabeth II was crowned queen in 1953, the UK’s economic, political, and cultural landscape has changed seismically. Coal mines were still part of the British economy (although ironically now, at the brink of a climate crisis, they may be making a comeback), Britain’s state-funded health service was barely 5 years old, and The Beatles had yet to release a single album.

Culturally there’s no getting around the fact that the monarchy is a relic, no matter how much old furniture Charles bedazzles. Economically, however, the monarchy has adapted to the times. Since Elizabeth took the throne the crown has franchised itself, operating like a modern commercial enterprise and creating a miniature economic ecosystem that relies heavily on the royal brand. The question is, can it keep that brand strong?

Financing Royalty

Discerning exactly how much money the Royal Family possesses is no mean feat as the Crown’s finances aren’t exactly transparent and one would have to start by figuring out what exactly counts as their private wealth versus what belongs to the state. In April, two UK newspapers, The Times and The Guardian, ran separate pieces on King Charles III’s individual net worth: The Times proclaimed it was £600 million, while The Guardian decreed it to be £1.8 billion. That’s a pretty big rounding error.

While the bulk of their income appears to come from their enormous real estate portfolio, the royal family receives financial support from British taxpayers. And that luxury allowance from public coffers has increased over the last 10 years. Add all that to the fact that the Crown maintains offshore bank accounts it uses to preserve and grow its wealth, and you’ve got an operation that’s closer to Gordon Gekko than George III.

On top of it all, the Royal family has its fingers in many high-quality, organic pies, and Charles himself is no stranger to leveraging a brand.

Charlie Feels His Oats

Until his ascension, Charles ran the Duchy of Cornwall — an area of real estate covering around 202 square miles — with the help of a business council that operated just like a company’s board, according to the Financial Times.

(Caption: In the run-up to the coronation, supermarket chain Sainsbury’s sold these “coronation roses” for £2 a pop. Photo credit: Isobel Asher Hamilton/The Daily Upside)

One major business arm to come out of the Duchy is Charles’ range of organic food products, which he began in 1990 under the brand name Duchy Originals. It started small, just selling oat biscuits, but the brand established partnerships with swanky retail outlets like Harrods and Fortnum & Mason – which has long enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the House of Windsor as the late Queen’s preferred source of groceries – and has since grown into its own business:

  • The Duchy Originals brand hit a rough patch in the late-2000s, taking a £3.3 million loss in 2007.
  • In 2009 however, it struck an exclusive partnership with the upmarket supermarket chain Waitrose. By 2021, the brand was chalking up an annual profit of  £3.6 million.

Personal Touches: Sources have characterized Charles as having been heavily and enthusiastically involved in both Duchy Originals and managing the Duchy of Cornwall — although descriptions of his work ethic sometimes shine a spotlight on the inevitable contradictions of being a ‘working’ royal. “He works much harder than most people realise,” Jim Walker, who managed the original oat biscuit product, told The Telegraph in 2014, adding: “At the start, he ate a lot of biscuits.”

The Para-Royal Economy

For British Republicans, i.e. people who believe the UK should be a republic without a monarchy, a pro-monarchy argument which they frequently meet is that the royals generate more income for the country than they take out of it.

It is entirely true that the monarchy generates merchandise. British businesses expect sales of around £250 million in the form of tchotchkes, commemorative dishware and other assorted knick-knacks in connection with this weekend’s coronation. Total expenditure, accounting for all the parties and flag-waving and high-teas, could add up to £1.4 billion, according to the Centre for Retail Research.

(Caption: Even Camilla is franchisable, according to Fortnum & Mason. Image Credit: Isobel Asher Hamilton/The Daily Upside)

A royal endorsement, or even a hint of one, is also enough to send a product’s worth into the stratosphere. Scotch whisky brand Royal Salute was born alongside Elizabeth II’s coronation when it released its signature 21-year-old blend. While a bottle of that original brand will set you back a cool $200 these days, its special edition for Charles’ coronation is selling for closer to $25,000, suggesting even monarchs are trending towards premiumization.

Fortnum & Mason currently has a section devoted to wares inspired by Charles’ private home, Highgrove. A quick perusal of the specialty shop offers an array of goods that Fortnum & Mason markets as “Sweet treats, hampers and sippable tipples, organically and sustainably managed in His Majesty’s much-loved gardens.” A bottle of Highgrove-branded ginger liquor retails for £24.95.

It’s not necessarily Brits who are the main contributors to royal chiconomics, either. Data given to Bloomberg by hotel booking platform suggests that the number of American tourists who booked four- and five-star hotels for the weekend of the coronation is 8% higher than a normal year. Meanwhile, Expedia data showed many Brits researching flights to Amsterdam, Paris and New York over the same period.

Long Live The Brand

In many ways, the Windsors and their royal predecessors are the original Kardashians. Influencers of the highest order. Their endorsements and general atmosphere of innate fame are what make the para-royal economy work in the first place. But public goodwill towards royal families is not an immutable quality. Just ask Tsar Nicholas II, or Marie Antoinette. Luckily for the Windsors, the guillotine is less of an immediate threat these days than a populist erosion of the family brand.

While the monarchy’s popularity is hard to gauge, it appears to be slowly ebbing away with each passing generation:

  • A recent poll conducted by YouGov found 58% of respondents think the UK should still have a monarchy, but attitudes are skewed widely by age. While 78% of respondents over the age of 65 backed the monarchy, only 32% of 18 to 24-year-olds agreed.
  • That doesn’t necessarily mean the younger generation is breaking out into “Can You Hear the People Sing,” as 30% of respondents in that age bracket said they simply don’t know if the monarchy should still, like, be a thing.

But for a monarchy that banks on its image rather than substantive political power, indifference may be just as serious as a Peasants Revolt.

Catchy, Right? If public sentiment towards the royals drops to critical levels of disinterest, the current dynasty is no stranger to a radical rebrand. Prior to 1917, the House of Windsor didn’t even exist. In those days, the family went by the name Saxe-Coburg-Gotha but was changed to sound less German what with the world war that the British Empire was fighting against “The Huns.” The name ‘Windsor’ was chosen not only because it sounded significantly more English but also because of Windsor Castle, a royal residence just outside London.

Today, that castle sits 3 miles down the road from the Legoland Windsor Resort.