Usually I post a story about a famous intestate on Fridays, however in the interests of rounding this week of royal succession out is that unlike most Wills which become a matter of public record once probate has been granted, royal Wills are concealed. Buckingham Palace has argued that this is an ancient tradition the reasons of which are lost to antiquity but the practice dates only to 1910 – and that the reason it was introduced was to hush up a sex scandal.
At the centre of the controversy was Prince Francis, brother of Queen Mary. A notorious gambler and womaniser, he died, aged 39, of pneumonia in 1910 – shortly before his sister was crowned as Queen Consort to George V.
His Serene Highness Prince Francis, known as “Frank”, was born in 1870, son of the Duke of Teck. He joined the Army and was decorated for his service in Egypt and South Africa. Betting large sums of money on credit, and like most gamblers losing thousands,this resulted in his exile to India.
Frank left the family jewels, known as the Cambridge emeralds, to a mistress, Ellen (“Nellie”) Constance, Countess of Kilmorey; these gems were quietly bought back for Queen Mary to wear at the time of her husband’s coronation.
In 2005 whilst researching the Kilmorey family papers a draft of Frank’s Will was discovered, the documents show that Frank made “embarrassingly” generous provision for Lady Kilmorey in his will.
Queen Mary applied to the court for her brother’s will to be sealed, fearing scandal in her coronation year. This precedent has been followed by subsequent members of the Royal Family, in fact until after the death of Edward VII in 1910, the will of the monarch was available for public inspection, and scholars and researchers were able to see their contents.
In citing this tradition the Royal family have been accused more recently of using it to conceal their aggressive estate planning practices.
The Queen Mother’s assets estimated to be valued at up to £70m in her lifetime were bequeathed to her daughter free of inheritance tax, owing to an arrangement between the Queen and John Major when he was Tory prime minister in 1993. The Queen Mother’s Will would have shown how she bequeathed her estate for example in 1942 she was left the Greville inheritance that included a diamond necklace reputedly belonging to Marie Antoinette.
It was reported that Princess Margaret left £7.6m to her family, on which inheritance tax was levied at 40% however it is reported that she had disposed of up to £12m of assets, prior to her death including her Caribbean house in Mustique, to her son in 1988.
Interestingly the contents of Princess Diana’s Will were widely reported following her death.
It is a matter of equity and transparency that Wills are made public. The fact that the Royal Family is treated differently allows them to bequeath enormous wealth without paying death duties. If the Wills were made public there might be questions about whether they need as much money from the Civil List.