By Richard Lacayo Jonathan Cooper
October 10, 1990 12:00 PM

Sure, their circuses are irresistible, nut are the Windsors worth all that bread? In the following pages, we explore now the Queen got to be the richest woman in the world as well as how her frugal and freeloading family and all those cushy fringe benefits keep her that way. Finally, we consider the tedium and danger that dog the royal rounds and then rudely address the multibillion-dollar question or questions…

I ARE THESE FOLKS LOADED, OR WHAT!

Money is such a vulgar subject.—Prince Charles

Earlier this year the Queen complained that her updated portrait on the British £5 note made her look old. It was probably the first time in ages that she had taken a close look at a bank note. The royals never carry cash, not a penny. Elizabeth’s famous pocket-book is a stage prop: It sometimes contains only mints for her horses. In any transaction that might require the actual jingle of coin on a counter, a royal retainer steps in with the specie.

Otherwise, Windsors come in contact with currency the way other people encounter God—mostly on Sundays. Before church, Charles is reportedly provided with a £5 note for the collection plate; he likes to have it sprayed and ironed by his valet, then neatly creased and left for him beneath his clove box. You know, the box that holds your before-dinner clove. You probably have one around somewhere.

For a family that has a thing about not laying hands on actual money, the Windsors have managed to pile it up quite nicely. By FORTUNE’S calculation, the Queen is the richest woman in the world and No. 4 overall, behind only the Sultan of Brunei ($25 billion), Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd and his family ($18 billion) and America’s Mars candy-bar clan ($12.5 billion). FORTUNE estimates Elizabeth’s worth at $11.7 billion, but other appraisers believe it to be much higher, given such personal assets as her racehorses, stamp collection and art acquisitions. Charles, meanwhile, is believed to be worth about $536 million, which would still place him among Britain’s 40 wealthiest people. “Gosh,” said Diana after marrying Charles, “I’m becoming a rich lady.”

How rich? Most people can list their household furnishings on the back of ah envelope. The Windsors have theirs inventoried in 30 leather-bound volumes stamped in gold with Queen Victoria’s initials. But the Windsor wealth is complicated. A considerable portion is their own, acquired by them or their ancestors with personal funds. That would include Sandringham and Balmoral, two of the royal country estates, which they own the way the Cart-wrights owned the Ponderosa. Both were purchased during Queen Victoria’s reign. But the greater part of the wealth that surrounds them is held in trust for the nation. That means the Windsors can wear it, sit on it, eat off it and go lightheartedly skipping down its glinting corridors. They just can’t sew any name tags on it or cart it off to Christie’s for auction. That would include the royal palaces, the sumptuous furnishings, the Tintorettos and Holbeins and Da-Vincis and, of course, the crown jewels. The royals have fun with such things nonetheless. In a Christmas telecast two years ago, the Queen assured her subjects what pleasure it gives her to gaze upon the many splendors she stewards for the nation. To paraphrase Mel Brooks: It is good to be Queen.

If Britain should ever decide to get rid of the royal family, it would be a messy divorce. There’s some confusion about which of their property belongs to the state and which is their own. In particular, who rightly possesses the lavish gifts from foreign potentates? Like the 2,000-year-old necklace from Egypt’s former King Farouk? The sapphire-and-diamond earrings and necklace from the Sultan of Oman? The photo albums stuffed with pictures of Imelda Marcos? From Imelda Marcos, naturally. You imagine both sides graciously declining that one.

The Windsor cash flow pours in from several sources. One is the salary drawn annually from the public treasury, called the Civil List. Parliament ponies that up largely to reimburse the monarchy for the costs of staff and expenses related to public duties. The Queen, who last year herself received $7.9 million, paid out about $6.2 million in salaries, about $350,000 for garden parties, $200,000 for care of her ceremonial horses and $98,000 for flowers. The Civil List also doles out shares specified by law to Philip and their children and to the Queen Mum, Margaret, Princess Alice (Elizabeth’s aunt) and royal cousins the Duke of Gloucester, the Duke of Kent and Princess Alexandra. Last year the Civil List totaled $10.5 million. In July, despite some carping from Labor M.P.s, it was increased to $20.3 million, a figure that will hold for the next 10 years. The Queen and Charles have another source of income. As part of the deal by which Parliament created the Civil List in 1760, George III agreed to turn over to the nation all of the vast crown properties throughout England—with two exceptions. Income from the 55,000-acre Duchy of Lancaster, spread over Yorkshire and six other counties, was reserved to provide for the monarch, as it continues to do to this day. Last year it brought Elizabeth about $4.6 million, mostly from farm rents. The 128,047-acre Duchy of Cornwall—extending from the splendid landscape of the West Country to some rundown portions of South London—provides for the heir apparent, who gets nothing from the Civil List. Out of this income Charles pays a treasurer, an accountant, two valets and a chauffeur, plus five secretaries to handle his mail and two grooms to pamper his polo ponies. Last year the duchy pumped $4.3 million into the Prince’s lap. Along with farm rents, it boasts such other money-makers as Dartmoor Prison, a maximum-security facility that the duchy leases to the government. By law and ancient tradition, Charles has claim as well on any whales that wash ashore.

The Windsors also bring in the odd pound the old-fashioned way—they earn it. Before Prince Edward left to found his own venture, he was pulling in $36,000 working for composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. Andy makes about $39,000 as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Until she wed Andrew in 1986, Sarah collected $37,500 a year as a book editor.

The Queen Mum tries to chip in too. At her home at Clarence House she has a bookmaker’s “blower”—a device that provides direct information on race course results and betting odds. She’s no Pete Rose, but she does lay down the occasional wager (and is said to be slow to pay off losses). It’s not known whether she ever bets against any of her daughter’s steeds.

While the Queen’s subjects are socked with a tax rate as high as 40 percent, income from the Civil List and the Duchy of Lancaster is tax free. To discourage sarcasm about royal freeloading, Charles voluntarily turns back to the government 25 percent of his duchy income. He also pays taxes on his considerable portfolio of personal investments, which are kept confidential to protect his privacy. Of course, quite a few costs of monarchy are borne by the government. The upkeep of royal palaces is paid for from the Department of the Environment. Palace postage is free.

In all, it’s not a bad life. Yet sometimes all that glitters is not a goal. In 1969, Charles was invested as Prince of Wales in a ceremony of stunning pomp and drama. Everything was sumptuous, but the weighty gold crown created for the occasion threatened to give the heir a royal headache. So a slight adjustment was made. When Charles knelt in fealty, the glittering orb on top of his crown was in fact a Ping-Pong ball sprayed gold.

II PROUD TO BE ‘MEAN’

In his bathroom, Charles keeps a silver keylike device, stamped with the official three feathers of the Prince of Wales, that squeezes the last drop of Maclean’s toothpaste out of the tube. The Prince has been on a concerted economy drive at least since his bachelor days, when there would be leftovers for dinner and a funny smell in the refrigerator from leftovers left over too long. In all that sort of thing, Charles is just a chip off the old block. The Queen saves string. She has palace bed linen turned daily to reduce laundry bills, and instead of nudging up the heat she advises anyone who feels a bit chilly to put on another sweater. She allows nothing to go to waste, not even her own subjects. When she needs names for her new puppies, she prefers to borrow them from the day’s obituary columns.

For a family that doesn’t like to handle pennies, the Windsors know how to pinch them. Their servants are paid modestly, even meagerly. A footman gets about $12,600 a year. That may explain why at Sandringham they are apt to wait around politely until they get the £5 tip expected from each weekend guest.

On the far side of the big drop of water, the word “mean” means frugal, sparing, thrifty. In that sense the Windsors have a mean streak a mile wide. Their parsimony stretches back to Victoria and constitutes a tradition that has, in fact, endeared them to the nation. After a run of spendthrift predecessors, she came to the throne saddled with $250,000 of debt from her father, the Duke of Kent, and a determination to put the family into the black. A relative who once asked for a loan was waved off with the news that “pearls do not grow on bushes at Windsor.” At her death she left $20 million. She accumulated that wealth by hoarding her Civil List salary, especially during the decades of her widowhood, when she refused to take part in the public duties that the List was supposed to recompense. A century before Blanche DuBois, Victoria discovered the kindness of strangers. An eccentric millionaire with no links to the throne left her $250,000—about $1,250,00 at the prevailing exchange rate.

The frugal strain has been strengthened through matrimony too. Many of those who married into the family were impoverished aristocrats who knew how to scrimp. Queen Mary, the wife of George V, was the daughter of a debt-ridden German prince. She would prove to be a shrewd shopper. When the other crowned heads of Europe were swept from their thrones after World War I, she bought up jewels at fire-sale prices. Prince Philip came to the altar to marry Elizabeth in darned socks. A penniless son of exiled Greek royalty (actually his ancestry is German and Danish, his family having been invited to fill the vacant Greek throne), he had two suits to his name. Now Philip has his own tailor, but he still deducts the cost from his income tax as an official expense. He also is credited with relentlessly paring costs on the royal estates to make them profitable.

One of their favorite ways to cut down on the out-of-pocket is not to pay for things, especially travel. The expenses for a royal visit, including security, airfare and accommodations, are borne largely by the host country, which means that it can be a mixed blessing to have the Windsors show up on your doorstep. According to the lively omnibus study Royalty Revealed, by Unity Hall and Ingrid Seward, Charles has a knack for finding official reasons to visit countries on the international polo circuit. Hall and Seward also report that Margaret was famous for her devotion to attending the independence ceremonies of small colonies in the Caribbean, giving her a lift toward her house on Mustique.

When Princess Anne decided that she wanted to accompany her husband on a business trip to Australia in 1983, she made herself available to the Australian government for a royal junket. They begged off—Charles and Di had made an expensive tour there that year. Undaunted, Anne got an Australian television station to pay her round-trip airfare in return for an on-camera interview.

The Windsors can also rely on the kindness of British businesses. Cars, for example, they can lease advantageously. Anne acquired a new $160,000 Turbo Bentley after her big brother got his. “If Charles can have one, so can I,” she reportedly said. When Sarah Ferguson married into the royal family, her unbridled lust for free goodies caused the family some embarrassment. The press started calling her Freebie Fergie after she became too avid about borrowing clothes and jewels—usually on a nonreturnable basis—from fashionable shops and such design houses as Yves Saint Laurent, establishments that were only too pleased to parade the royal connection. When the tabloids started nipping at her heels, she backed off, still protesting that “We are only No. 2 [to Charles and Di] and we don’t have much money.”

Fergie should have studied the methods of Queen Mary, the wife of George V. On visits to wealthy households, Mary was known to drop broad hints when her gaze fell upon a tempting knickknack. A remark like “I am caressing it with my eyes” was intended to prod the owners to insist that she take it home. Otherwise she might announce at her departure that she wanted to bid the precious object farewell. At which point it was her hapless hosts who could kiss the thing good-bye.

III SO ARE THEY WORTH IT?

Prince Philip was once a guest at the grandiose estate in Bavaria of Prince von Thurn und Taxis, one of the wealthiest men in the world. Deeply impressed, Philip let drop that the Windsors could never afford such a place. “What do you expect?” said his host. “No workey, no money.”

No money? No comment. No workey is another matter. At one time royalty played a central decision-making role in the affairs of their people. Now they’re barely more useful than a shoehorn. Are the Windsors worth the public expense of keeping them on the throne? Most Britons think so, though in a poll earlier this year by the Times of London, fully a quarter of those questioned called the royal family “a luxury we can’t afford.”

When Fergie gave birth this year to her second child, one British anarchist group issued a press release noting with “deep regret” the birth of “another royal parasite.” The skepticism goes deeper than radical fringe groups. When Parliament debated an increase in the Civil List payments in July, there was lively Windsor-baiting, mostly from Labor. “Why should they get a penny?” asked one M.P. “They live in splendor while millions of people in this country live in poverty.” The Queen Mum’s allotment, said another, would pay “for next year’s gin supply.”

Labor lefty Tony Benn summed up the problem: “There are many people who believe the sums paid to the royal family far exceed the service rendered.” What are the services? They largely consist of official engagements, quite a few of them. In the U.K. in ’89 the Queen carried out 147 official visits and opening ceremonies, made faint, obliging smiles at 73 banquets and receptions and soldiered her way through 268 lesser meetings and audiences. She also clocked in 18 days abroad on official visits.

Even lesser branches of the royal tree are bent under the weight of public obligations. The Hon. Sir Angus Ogilvy, husband of the Queen’s cousin Princess Alexandra, once complained, a bit callously, that he spent too little time with his own children when they were growing up because he was always being called upon to perform charitable duties. “You decide to spend an evening with the children,” he moaned. “Then someone rings up and says, ‘Will you please come to a film premiere? If you come it will help us raise another £1,500, and this could help 300 spastics.’ ”

Britons don’t like royal slackers. The fact that Margaret perennially figures low on the active duty list has had much to do with her unpopularity. In the same way, Anne’s steady work on behalf of hungry children—she’s second only to the Queen on the public duties tote board—has turned public opinion in her favor.

Even so, many of the Queen’s subjects would like to see some of the younger Windsors pursue real careers. You can’t call it work when you get six weeks off around Christmas, two at Easter and a leisurely cruise through the Scottish Western Isles before the six-week late summer sojourn at Balmoral. Sometimes Charles will stay on in Scotland a week longer, as will the Queen Mum. The family do not surrender these perks easily. A public-relations disaster ensued in ’88 when none of the royals attended the memorial service for the victims of the terrorist bomb that blew up a Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. They were in Sandringham for the pheasant shooting. Charles went up to Lockerbie belatedly to make amends. They were hard to make.

Yet ultimately, being royal carries with it an incalculable personal price tag. The Windsors live with the nozzles of public fascination open full against them, the tabloid press spraying irreverence and sniffing their sheets nonstop. In ’87, in the midst of constant press reports about strains in her marriage, Di was snapped by a photographer as she emerged from a private party. Her bodyguard snatched the film from the camera. In tears Di told the stunned photographer, “I’ve got so few friends left, and this will only make things worse for me.” The next day he got back his negatives, minus the shots of the Princess.

It’s also an irony of their station that even though the Windsors live their whole lives in public, they can never speak their minds there. Charles causes an uproar nearly every time he ventures forth on architecture and the English language. If he were to criticize government policy, Parliament and the Prime Minister would be quick to slap him down. The royals even have to maintain a careful balance when they display their riches. When Queen Victoria attended her Golden Jubilee ceremonies in 1887 wearing a lace bonnet instead of a crown, she was accused of failing to symbolize the empire that Britain had become. The people, warned Lord Halifax, want “gilding for their money.”

Indeed, just growing up can be tricky. The royal aura tends to isolate them from real friends, while acting as a magnet for every breed of hanger-on. “Loneliness is something royal children have always suffered and always will,” the late Earl Mountbatten once said. “Not much you can do about it really.”

Finally, there are the threats to their very lives. Nine years ago a man fired six blanks directly at the Queen. In 1982, Michael Fagan scaled a wall at Buckingham Palace and entered the bedroom where Elizabeth was sleeping. The startled Queen kept him engaged in conversation for 10 minutes until she could summon help. The IRA car bomb that killed a Conservative member of Parliament last summer was a reminder of the terrorist blast that killed Mountbatten in 1979 when his boat was destroyed by IRA explosives. Some believe that the outrage against the IRA caused by that incident was enough to make them shy away from further attacks on members of the royal family. Others are not so sure. “It’s just a matter of time before one of them is hit,” says an informed security expert.

So are the royals worth their keep? You can add up the staggering overhead, match it against the galvanizing value of their official duties and factor in a few intangibles. They lure tourists when they’re at home; they plump for British products when they go abroad. But ledger-book arithmetic is beside the point. Their true value lies in the realm of moist eyes and lumps in the throat. It’s not merely that the Windsors ensure that Britain will always seem more glamorous than Bulgaria (though that’s a comforting thought). More importantly, they give Britain a symbol of nationhood, something sumptuous, venerable and more lovable by far than a whole chamberful of hooting MPs. The royal family is like a work of art—a source of incalculable pride and pleasure, worth whatever people agree it’s worth. Most Britons will tell you the Windsors are worth every penny.

—RICHARD LACAYO, JONATHAN COOPER IN LONDON