A version of this story appeared in the November 19 edition of CNN’s Royal News, a weekly dispatch bringing you the inside track on Britain’s royal family. Sign up here.
Here in the UK, a deep-seated debate on privacy is taking place after the Guardian newspaper announced it was taking legal action over the media’s exclusion from a hearing on Prince Philip’s will earlier this year.
In September, Andrew McFarlane, president of the High Court’s Family Division, ruled that Philip’s will would be sealed for 90 years. Among the few present was a lawyer representing the duke’s estate from law firm Farrer & Co, the Queen’s private solicitors, and the attorney general, the government’s chief legal adviser. The media weren’t told of the hearing or permitted to attend, with the public interest represented by the attorney general.
A Guardian News & Media spokesperson told CNN in an emailed statement that the High Court’s decision to ban the media from the court hearing without informing outlets or allowing them to make representations “is a clear threat to the principles of open justice.”
“It is also concerning that the court appears to believe that only the attorney general can speak to the public interest,” the spokesperson continued. “We are seeking permission to argue that the behaviour of the high court in this instance constitutes a failure of open justice and that the case should be reheard.”
According to British law, if a person prepares a will prior to their death, it becomes a public document after being admitted to probate, and anyone can obtain a copy from the Probate Registry for a fee.
However, anyone can ask the court to “seal” a will and keep it private, according to Geoff Kertesz and Judith Swinhoe-Standen from UK law firm Stewarts. “The court must be persuaded that it would be ‘undesirable or otherwise inappropriate’ to make the will public,” they told CNN. “Historically, the courts have approved such applications only for senior members of the royal family. It is unclear under what, if any, other circumstances the court might agree to keep a will private.”
One recent senior royal whose will was made public was Diana, Princess of Wales, who gave up her HRH title when she divorced Prince Charles.
Judge McFarlane said in his ruling that “it has become the convention that, following the death of a senior member of the Royal Family, an application to seal their will is made” and that “it appears that such applications have always been heard in private and have invariably been granted.”
He said it was understood that the first member of the royal family whose will was sealed was Prince Francis of Teck, the younger brother of King George V’s wife Queen Mary, who died in 1910.
Legal and royal expert Michael L. Nash told CNN: “It was Queen Mary who used these unusual royal powers and prerogatives never used before.”
Francis died suddenly at the age of 40, following a botched medical examination of his nose, according to Nash, who also authored “Royal Wills in Britain from 1509 to 2008.” He said the prince was a “reckless gambler” but also an “extremely lovable character,” who bequeathed treasured family jewels to his mistress in a draft version of his will.
Nash, who has seen a copy of the draft will that surfaced in archives in Northern Ireland, said the prince was constantly in financial trouble, and upon his death “Queen Mary knew that the creditors, once they saw the will, would descend and everything that Frank died possessed of would have to be sold in order to satisfy these massive debts.”
He continued, “And she was absolutely mortified that the public would be able to know about the state that her brother had got himself into.”
Nash also pointed out that the family has faced legal challenges to the secrecy of royal wills before, the most recent of which was considered by the court in 2007. He highlighted an application by Robert Andrew Brown, who claimed to be the illegitimate child of the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret. Brown sought to open Margaret’s will, as well as that of the Queen Mother, but the claim was dismissed as a fantasy, Nash said.
Privacy has become the debate of the modern era for the British monarchy, with the question of how much privacy a family member deserves routinely emerging. Critics often say royals use their positions and privilege to secure exemptions and evade scandal, while also noting that the Windsors are funded by taxpayers.
In his judgment, McFarlane said he was the custodian of a safe holding more than 30 envelopes, each of which supposedly contains the secret will of a dead royal. The most recent additions were made in 2002 with those of the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret.
McFarlane also touched upon why privacy was afforded for royal wills, saying: “The answer to the question ‘why should there be an exception for senior members of the Royal Family?’ is, in my view, clear: it is necessary to enhance the protection afforded to the private lives of this unique group of individuals, in order to protect the dignity and standing of the public role of the Sovereign and other close members of Her family.”
Lawyers Kertesz and Swinhoe-Standen said there was a notable difference in the handling of the Duke of Edinburgh’s wills and those of royals before him.
“All previously sealed royal wills are to be kept private indefinitely, but Prince Philip’s will is different in that its privacy is time-restricted to 90 years,” the pair said. “After 90 years, certain officials may inspect it, and they may then invite the court to rule on whether the will should be made public at that point, or kept private for a further period.”
Nash described the time limit as an “important advance,” as the previous position meant wills were concealed in perpetuity. “That gave serious misgivings to historians, lawyers, researchers – everybody that had a valid reason for reading the will,” he added.
“I can see in future cases that 90 years tumbling down to, say, 50 years or even less. So that there is at least some possibility of people living now being able to read (a will) at some time in the future during their lifetime.”
HAVE YOUR SAY
So, what do you think: Should or shouldn’t the public be allowed to read a royal will, and why?
It’s certainly an interesting one to ponder. Let us know your thoughts on email (email@example.com). Don’t forget to include your name and where you are writing from, and your views could feature in a future edition of Royal News.
WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING?
Meghan dishes on life on the West Coast.
Unlike when she sat down with Oprah, the Duchess of Sussex’s chat on The Ellen DeGeneres Show yielded few bombshells. This time, she revealed Archie and Lili’s Halloween costumes and pranked street vendors on the studio lot where the show is filmed. Get the whole story.
Queen is all smiles at first engagement since health scare.
Elizabeth II warmly greeted the head of the Armed Forces when they met at Windsor on Wednesday – her first face-to-face engagement since she missed the Remembrance Sunday service in London last weekend. “Her Majesty received General Sir Nicholas Carter at Windsor Castle today upon relinquishing his appointment as Chief of the Defence Staff,” Buckingham Palace said. Dressed in an orange, green and white floral dress, the 95-year-old monarch stood to greet the outgoing general before the pair chatted in the Oak Room at Windsor Castle. Read more here.
William heads to Microsoft HQ.
The Duke of Cambridge visited Microsoft’s offices just outside London on Thursday to find out how new AI-scanning tech is helping to tackle the illegal wildlife trade. William spoke with developers following a recent successful trial at London’s Heathrow airport, where the software proved capable of detecting illegal ivory products hidden among baggage and cargo. The prince, who set up the Royal Foundation’s United for Wildlife, explored poaching cases from end-to-end, learning how partner organizations are assisting in disrupting criminal networks.
IN THE ROYAL DIARY
Charles and Camilla visit Jesus’ baptism site.
The Prince of Wales and wife Camilla took a special trip while on their tour in Jordan Tuesday. The pair, who conducted their first major overseas visit since the start of the pandemic this week, traveled to a site on the river Jordan where Jesus is believed to have been baptized. The couple were permitted to dip their fingers in the water and are taking “five or six dozen bottles” of holy water home for future royal baptisms, according to the Daily Mail. The royal couple kicked off their four-day autumn tour on Tuesday.
Clarence House said the trip was at the request of the British government and engagements would focus particularly on addressing the climate crisis. In Jordan, they were welcomed to Al Husseiniya Palace by King Abdullah II and Queen Rania, complete with two honor guards.
After a packed schedule across two days, the royals traveled to Egypt, where they met President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and first lady Entissar Amer at Al-Ittahadiya Palace. Charles then attended an interfaith reception at Al Azhar Mosque, where he met with the Grand Imam. They concluded their first day with a visit to the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Great Sphinx before attending a reception. They separated for engagements on their final day in Egypt, with the duchess visiting a Cairo veterinary hospital while Charles went to a business meeting downtown.
PHOTO OF THE WEEK
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge dressed in their finest for a night out at the Royal Albert Hall in London on Thursday. The couple left the children at home to watch the Royal Variety Performance. The annual show – which this year marked a century of royal patronage – is held to fundraise and support members of the entertainment industry. After the show, the couple were photographed chatting with comedian Bill Bailey and musician Ed Sheeran, among others.
Thanks for reading today’s send – we hope you enjoyed it. Just a heads-up that we’re taking a brief break over Thanksgiving next week but will be back to bring you all the comings and goings of the Windsors on December 3.
–Max & Lauren