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The Duchy of Cornwall is one of two royal duchies in England, the other being the Duchy of Lancaster. The eldest son of the reigning British monarch inherits the duchy and title of Duke of Cornwall at the time of his birth, or of his parent's succession to the throne. If the monarch has no son, the estates of the duchy are held by the crown, and there is no duke. The current duke is Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales.
The principal activity of the duchy is the management of its land and properties. The duchy has a financial investment portfolio and owns land totalling 540.9 km² (or 208.9 sq. mi.). Nearly half of the holdings are in Devon, with other large holdings in Cornwall, Herefordshire, Somerset and Wales. For the fiscal year 2011, the duchy was valued at £728 million, and annual profit in 2011 was £18.3 million, thus yielding 2.8%. The duchy also exercises certain legal rights and privileges across Cornwall, including some that elsewhere in England belong to the crown.
The duchy was established in 1337 out of the former earldom of Cornwall by Edward III for his son, Edward, Prince of Wales, the "Black Prince", who became the first Duke of Cornwall. The duchy consisted of two parts: the title and honour, and the landed estate that supported it financially. The core of the estate at its foundation was the 17 duchy manors found within the county. The duchy does not share the same boundaries as the county, and much of the estate has always been outside those boundaries. However, the duchy maintains a special relationship with Cornwall, and maintains various rights, such as that of appointing the county's High Sheriff. The extent of the estate has varied as various holdings have been sold and acquired over the years, both within Cornwall and also in other counties.
By this charter, all the manors of the earldom passed to the duchy and are known as the Antiqua maneria.
The duchy owns 133,658 acres of land (around 54,090 hectares) over 23 counties, including farming, residential, and commercial properties, as well as an investment portfolio. In modern times, the considerable income from the duchy has been the primary source of income for the Prince of Wales, both as to personal funds and public and charitable work.
The duchy was created with the express purpose of providing income to the heir apparent to the throne; thus, it traditionally goes to the eldest son of the reigning monarch. Although the duke owns the income from the estate, he does not own the estate outright and does not have the right to sell capital assets for his own benefit.
In 2010, the duchy generated £17.1 million in income. In 1913 the Government Law Officers gave an opinion that the Duke of Cornwall is not liable to taxation on income from the Duchy. However, since 1993 Prince Charles has voluntarily agreed to pay income tax at the normal rates (see: Finances of the British Royal Family). Approximately half of this income was spent on public and charitable works.
Since the passing into law of the Sovereign Grant Act 2011, revenues of the Duchy of Cornwall will pass to the heir to the throne, regardless of whether that heir is the Duke of Cornwall. In the event that the heir is a minor, 10% of the revenues will pass to the heir, with the balance passing to the Crown.
Both the Duchy of Cornwall and the Duchy of Lancaster — since 1399 held by the monarch in a personal capacity—have special legal rights not available to other landed estates: for example, the rules on bona vacantia, the right to ownerless property, operate in favour of the holders of the duchies rather than the Crown, such that the property of anyone who dies in the county of Cornwall without a will or identifiable heirs, and assets belonging to dissolved companies whose registered office was in Cornwall, pass to the duchy. In 2007, £130,000 was realised from the right of bona vacantia, and given to a charitable fund. The duke owns freehold about three-fifths of the Cornish foreshore and the 'fundus', or bed, of navigable rivers and has right of wreck on all ships wrecked on Cornish shores, including those afloat offshore, and also to "Royal fish", i.e. whales, porpoises, and sturgeon. The Duchy of Cornwall is the Harbour Authority for St Mary's Harbour. There are separate attorneys-general for the duchies. The High Sheriff of Cornwall is appointed by the Duke of Cornwall, not the monarch, in contrast to the other counties of England and Wales. The duke had a ceremonial role in summoning the Cornish Stannary Parliament.
In Bruton v. ICO the first tier tribunal found that the duchy was a public authority for the purposes of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. The Guardian reported in 2011 that, since 2005, the Prince of Wales has been asked to give his consent to a number of draft bills on matters ranging from town planning to gambling, because it could affect the interests of the Duchy of Cornwall. Andrew George, Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives, commented that "The duchy asserts that it is merely a private estate. Most people will be astonished to learn that it appears to have effective powers of veto over the government." Writing in the Guardian, lawyer David Gollancz commented that: "The duchy exercises a unique range of legal powers, which elsewhere are reserved for the crown.... It seems anomalous, and worrying, that such a huge estate, created and conferred by law and exercising significant legal powers, should be able to escape public scrutiny by calling itself a private estate." The requirement for the Prince of Wales to give consent to draft bills that could affect the interests of the Duchy of Cornwall is not a new power granted to Prince Charles, but a centuries-old parliamentary practice that involved the same requirement for consent being conferred on previous Dukes of Cornwall (see Prince's Consent).
Following the ruling that the duchy was separate from Prince Charles for the purposes of regulation, Republic, the campaign for an elected head of state, has asked HM Revenue and Customs to investigate if the duchy should still be exempt from tax. The tax exemption is based on the assumption that the duchy estate is inseparable from the tax exempt person of Prince Charles, which is now open to question.
For some Cornish activists, Cornwall itself is described, de jure, as a duchy as opposed to an ordinary county, and the duchy estates are distinguished from the duchy itself, having themselves been annexed and united to "the aforesaid duchy". The Royal Commission on the Constitution in 1973 recommended that Cornwall be officially referred to as "the duchy" on what it described as "appropriate occasions" given the nature of the county's "special relationship" with the Crown. The designation is sometimes found used informally in respect of the county as whole.
Historically all justices of the Assizes who visited Cornwall were also permanent members of the Prince's Council which oversees the Duchy of Cornwall and advises the Duke. There are on record at least three instances in which the prince over-ruled the king by instructing his officials to ignore or disobey orders issued to them by the King's Chancery.
The government considers the duchy to be a crown body and therefore exempt from paying corporation tax. The tax position of the duchy has been challenged by British republicans. Since 1993, the Prince of Wales has voluntarily paid income tax on the duchy income less amounts which he considers to be official expenditure. The Prince paid a voluntary contribution to the treasury of 50% of his Duchy income from the time he became eligible for its full income at the age of 21 in 1969, and paid 25% from his marriage in 1981 until the current arrangement commenced in 1993. Tax is calculated after deducting official expenditure, the biggest source of which is the Prince's staff of about 110 who assist with his performance of official duties, including private secretaries and a valet working in his office at Clarence House and at Highgrove House. The official expenditure of the Prince of Wales is not audited by the National Audit Office.
The armorial bearings of the Duchy of Cornwall are:
Arms: Sable, fifteen bezants Or.
Supporters: On either side a Cornish chough proper [beaked and legged gules], supporting an ostrich feather Argent, penned Or.
The shield is ensigned by the Heir Apparent's coronet. The supporters were granted by Royal Warrant of 21 June 1968.