National Archives censor files showing late queen concealed relative’s wealth | Monarchy

Staff at Britain’s National Archives have censored documents that show how the late Queen Elizabeth II concealed details of a relative’s wealth from the public.

They recently withdrew the papers, removed parts of them and then placed them back in the public domain.

However, the Guardian has established that the suppressed portions contain a request from the late queen to keep secret the will of one of her relatives.

The serial concealment of the wills of the Windsor family has become a contentious issue for the monarchy.

For more than a century, the Windsors have been able to keep secret the contents of wills belonging to 33 members of their family. They obtained a special carve-out from a law that ordinarily requires the wills of British citizens to be made public.

This exemption has enabled the royal family to prevent the public from finding out what types of assets – such as property and jewels – have been acquired by the Windsors and how these were then distributed to, for example, relatives, friends or staff.

The censored documents contain a direct request from the late queen to keep secret one of these wills more than five decades ago. Buckingham Palace declined to say whether she had requested other wills to be hidden from the public.

The Windsors have for decades steadfastly shielded the scale of their wealth from the public. The family do not disclose how rich they are. Last year, the Guardian estimated that King Charles III had a personal fortune of £1.8bn.

One of the ways they have kept details of their wealth secret was by exploiting an obscure legal procedure to obtain court orders to keep wills of family members secret after they died. This has been used even for remote members of their family. In 1987, the will of a Danish prince was closed; Prince George Valdemar Carl Axel was only distantly connected to the Windsors as a second cousin to the Queen’s late husband, Philip.

Since 1911, the Windsors’ personal lawyers have obtained the orders from high court judges in secret hearings. Lawyers for Prince Philip, the queen mother and Princess Margaret have successfully applied to keep their wills confidential since 2002.

However the secrecy of this practice has been challenged recently amid controversy that the arcane procedure gave the royal family a right that is not granted to other British citizens. There has also been criticism that the wills were being kept secret in order to cover up how much money the Windsors had accumulated from public funds.

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Two years ago, staff at the National Archives in Kew, south-west London, the official repository that holds government documents dating back more than 1,000 years, removed a file that chronicled official discussions about the royal wills between 1957 and 1970. The file had been opened to the public in 2018.

When the file was returned to the public domain last year, parts of two documents, and a letter, had been withheld. The Guardian has been able to establish what was censored because it photographed the complete file in 2021.

One of the documents was a report written by a senior judicial official, Robert Bayne-Powell, in 1970. The censors have removed a paragraph that said: “I learn that her majesty requested the solicitors for the executors to apply to seal up the will of the Princess Royal, Countess of Harewood. I suggest that any royal will should be sealed up if the sovereign so requests.”

Report before and after the reference to the late Queen has been removed
Report before and after the reference to the late Queen has been removed

The Countess of Harewood – an aunt of the queen and daughter of George V – died in 1965, having accumulated wealth worth £5.6m in today’s money.

In the second act of censorship, staff at the archives removed from the file a letter dated June 1970 in which a Whitehall official recorded a conversation with Lord Tyron, the courtier in charge of the Queen’s finances.

Tryon had told the official: “The Buckingham Palace lawyers consider that except in special circumstances (for example a will containing something which should not be made public) ‘fringe members’ of the royal family need not have their wills sealed. This should only be for HRHs.”

Letter referring to royal courtiers that has been removed from the National Archives
Letter referring to royal courtiers that has been removed from the National Archives Photograph: The Guardian

The passage is significant because it indicates that even royal courtiers were unsure whether minor members of the royal family should be afforded the perk of having their wills kept secret.

Other official documents that have been published have shown that behind the scenes senior government officials privately believed the practice was questionable, calling the legal basis for the court orders “rather slender” and “somewhat haphazard”.

In the third instance of censorship, the National Archives removed a seemingly innocuous paragraph from an official memo in 1970 that recorded the fact that Lord Tryon and Michael Adeane, the Queen’s private secretary, had discussed with a Whitehall official whether the will of a junior member of the royal family should be closed.

The National Archives said that the documents had been removed, in consultation with the Ministry of Justice, because they contained information relating to communications with the monarch. Such information was kept secret under a section of the Freedom of Information Act, they said.

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