Giving By Degrees – Gifting in the British Royal Family: Article by David McClure

  August 5, 2015 at 11:02 am by

Following the three-part series on the wealth of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom we brought to you back in April, royal author David McClure has shared with us another article – this time focusing on the manner in which members of the British Royal Family have distributed their wealth in the form of gifts – based on his book, Royal Legacy: How the Royal Family have made, spent and passed on their Wealth from Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II. 

Discussion based on this article can be made in the ‘Royal Wealth and Finances‘ thread, or leave a comment below and we will endeavour to get a response to any questions from Mr McClure.

Giving by Degrees: How the Windsors Pass on their Wealth at Key Rites of Passage

If you’re born a royal, birthdays can prove bountiful. Just a few months into her life, Princess Charlotte has already been inundated with a torrent of presents ranging from a pink dress embroidered with the letters “From Israel with Love” from that country’s President to a merino wool blanket and a donation to a possum sanctuary from the Australian Prime Minister – and a further flood is likely if the experience of her elder brother is a reliable weather vane.

In the twelve months after his christening, Prince George was showered with more than 4,000 gifts – everything from a boxed set of Roald Dahl books (from David Cameron) to a fattened black bull (from Samburu tribesmen). The gifts that kept on giving became so unrelenting that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge hinted on his first birthday that it was time to call a halt as they now had an embarrassment of riches.

Prince William holds a mini motorcycle gifted to Prince George by Motorcycle Live during a visit to the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, November 2013

Clarence House was happy to trumpet what Baby George received from the public but they drew a veil the thickness of a swaddling cloth over private gifts from the royal family. Even reports that Pippa Middleton gave her nephew a £7,000 silver sculpture of his hands and feet were met with a polite refusal to comment from the palace.

Was this coyness designed to protect privacy or to hide what actually happens to family heirlooms at key rites of passage?

But now, with the disclosure in the new book Royal Legacy of the sales records from two recent royal auctions, we can get a clearer picture of how much wealth is transferred within the royal family at major milestones like birth and birthdays rather than at death.

A surprise beneficiary of these living gifts was Prince William’s great aunt, Princess Margaret. The cascade of presents began as early as her first birthday on August 21, 1931 when she received the first of twelve silver royal candle-holders which were presented each year until the age of twelve. Although not the most practical of gifts for a young child, they brought in £18,000 for her own children at a Christie’s auction in June 2006. Her second birthday present was no more suitable for a toddler – a ruby cultured pearl necklace (worth £27,600), nor was the additional gift of a French painted fan (£28,800).

Princess Margaret, 1967

On her ninth birthday, she received another chain gift which continued over several years – a silver royal tea and coffee service (£28,800) with a note from her grandmother, Queen Mary, explaining that she was giving her parts of the collection “by degrees” for birthdays and Christmas.

The phrase “giving by degrees” sums up perfectly Mary’s method of transferring her wealth. Sometime around Margaret’s ninth birthday, the dowager queen also gave her a Honiton lace fan worth £14,400. On her eighteenth birthday, she also received an art deco pearl and diamond necklace (£276,800) that became one of her favourite pieces of jewellery.

In total, Princess Margaret received by the age of twenty-one around £800,000 worth of gifts from her grandmother in birthday, Christmas and confirmation presents. This total at 2006 prices represents only the gifts we know about from the Christie’s sale and the real figure is likely to be much larger since not all her possessions were put up for auction.

A peal necklace belonging to Princess Margaret on display ahead of auction, June 2006

Queen Mary had one of the greatest jewellery collections of any royal and some of the best pieces were passed to the young Princess Elizabeth as living gifts. In the case of the future Queen, this did not happen at early birthdays as few royals thought it likely that she would be sovereign before Edward VIII’s surprise abdication in 1936 and so the bulk of the jewels were given much later, at her wedding in 1947. Mary gave a total of 25 gifts which included antique furniture, silver salvers and 9 pieces of stunning jewellery, the most valuable a diamond tiara (the so-called “granny’s tiara”).

A stickler for protocol, Mary was dutifully following a tradition established by Queen Victoria for passing on great tranches of royal wealth at weddings and significant anniversaries. With nine children who all married, the Widow of Windsor had frequent opportunities to provide generous presents for her five daughters. When Princess Alice sailed off on honeymoon after marrying Prince Louis of Hesse-Darmstadt in 1862, the royal yacht almost keeled over under the weight of the gold, silver and jewellery gifted by the queen. The overriding concern was to keep the wealth firmly in the family.

But another reason why Mary may have been so keen to share her wealth before she died was to mitigate inheritance tax. Although in public family wealth and tax were considered taboo subjects for the Windsors, in private senior royals like the Queen Mother and the Duke of Windsor often railed against death duties which had destroyed the lavish country house lifestyle of their interwar generation. It is significant that while Queen Mary possessed one of the most valuable jewellery collections in the world, she left behind an estate of just £406,407 9s 8d.

The Girls of Great Britain and Ireland Tiara, a wedding gift from Queen Mary to Princess Elizabeth

The probate figure for Princess Margaret’s assets was also smaller than many expected – a relatively modest £7,603,596. Missing from her estate was her most beloved possession – the Mustique holiday home. On November 3, 1988 – 14 years before her death – she transferred it to her son Lord Linley on his 27th birthday.

The behaviour of Mary and Margaret suggest that while jewellery is transferred along the distaff side of the royal family, landed property and less movable assets go down the male line. This was certainly the case with the possessions of Prince Henry, the previous Duke of Gloucester. When part of his estate was auctioned at Christie’s in January 2006, sales records revealed how Queen Mary gifted a remarkable £137,580 worth of antiques and silver to the three male heirs to the Gloucester title. Prince Richard, the current Duke of Gloucester, received a silver tea and coffee service (worth £9,000) for his second, third and fourth birthdays, a silver mustard pot (£3,360) for his fifth and a silver bucket (£13,200) for Christmas 1952.

It is not known whether the 89-year-old Queen has been following the example of her grandmother in gifting away the family silver but if royal precedent is anything to go by, in the coming years Princess Charlotte can look forward to not just many happy birthdays but a steady trickle of jewels and much other wealth.

This article is based on David McClure’s Royal Legacy: How the Royal Family have made, spent and passed on their Wealth from Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II (Thistle Publications 2015, available from Amazon as e-book {£3.99} or paperback {£12.99}).

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