Philip of Edinburgh took a striking secret with him to the grave: his will. The last will of Elizabeth II’s husband will remain sealed for 90 years. This is what a judge of the Supreme Court of London ruled a year ago and it is what the also British Court of Appeal has just ratified before an appeal presented by the newspaper The Guardian. The dispute pitted the protection of press freedom against the queen’s right to privacy. In the end, it has been decided to protect the latter, in a ruling that transcends the specific case of Philip of Edinburgh. Since 1911, the British royal family has managed to get around UK law, which requires that the wills of British citizens be made public. During this time, the Windsors have requested to keep 33 wills secret and assets worth at least 187 million pounds (about 223 million euros) updated at today’s prices have been distributed behind the public’s back, calculates The Guardian. The judiciary has never rejected one of these requests.
Last year, after the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, the English newspaper requested access to the will. He then argued that excluding the media from reading this document undermined the fundamental principle of open justice, which requires public access to judicial proceedings. For his part, Judge Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the family division of the high court, acknowledged understanding “the curiosity” to know the last will of such a prominent member of the royal family. But he argued that he had no “public interest” and that the media only pursued his publication for a “commercial interest.” For McFarlane, in fact, it was necessary to “improve the protection given to certain really private aspects of this particular group of people.”
This Friday, the three judges of the Court of Appeal have chosen to support the jurist’s thesis and have ruled that the media do not have the right to attend the hearing, nor to be notified about it, adding that the publicity “would have compromised the need to preserve the dignity of the queen and the privacy of her family.
This judicial confrontation has as its origin a mess of skirts and jewels that occurred more than 100 years ago. The practice of sealing royal wills began then, in 1911, with the death of Prince Francis of Teck. This well-known womanizer bequeathed in his will the most valuable jewels of the family to his mistress, a noble and married woman. Queen María de Teck, Francisco’s sister and grandmother of the current sovereign, then asked the court that her relative’s will be kept secret to avoid a scandal. She and she got it, establishing a precedent that the Windsors have clung to every time a relative has died, even if it was distant.
During this time there has been little official explanation from the judiciary or the British Government about this practice. Official documents from the British National Archives, relating to governments in the 1970s and 1980s, show that top government officials privately believed that keeping the royal family’s wills secret was a legally questionable tradition. Despite this, in 1981 they suggested to the ministers of Margaret Thatcher’s government that they not highlight this aspect in Parliament while a key piece of legislation was debated in the House of Lords.
Philip of Edinburgh has had no major public scandals during his reign, the longest ever for a consort in the British royal family. It seems hard to think of secret lovers and family jewels bequeathed in secrecy, but hiding their will from the public eye may save the Windsors more than one explanation. There is another aspect, minor but relevant, that has transcended. Privacy is not the only exception that affects wills in Buckingham. According to British law, there are two cases that allow you to save inheritance tax and not pay 40% of the amount to the public treasury: one is when the inheritance passes from consort to sovereign, as in the case of Philip of Edinburgh to Elizabeth II. The other is when it goes from sovereign to sovereign, which will happen when the current queen dies and her legacy passes into the hands of Charles of England, her firstborn. It’s probably the only thing the public knows about his will.