Like his brother Andrew, Prince Charles is currently sitting in hot waters—and this time, it’s not even about his marital history or his relationship with his youngest son. Instead, the Prince of Wales has found himself awfully close to a burgeoning “cash for access” scandal involving one of his charitable organizations, his former valet, some very rich men, and—a deep cut specifically for the historical romance fans, here—the editor of Burke’s Peerage. Three employees at the Prince’s Foundation have already resigned, and now Charles is facing the questions that no public figure wants to face: What did he know, and when did he know it?
Charles’s latest troubles began with an investigation into his foundation’s dealings with Saudi billionaire Mahfouz bin Mahfouz. In early September, the Times of London reported that Michael Fawcett, one of Charles’s closest aides—who rose from a job as a footman at Buckingham Palace to serve as Charles’s valet and ultimately became chief executive of the Prince’s Foundation, one of Charles’s charities—had temporarily stepped down from his position when he became aware they were planning to publish a story alleging he’d helped secure an honor called Commander of the Order of the British Empire for Mahfouz, after Mahfouz donated over a million pounds to royal charities. (CBEs are given to people “to recognise a positive impact they have made in their work.”)
“Mahfouz Marei Mubarak bin Mahfouz paid tens of thousands of pounds to fixers with links to the prince who had told him they could secure the honour,” the Times reported, adding that “Fawcett, whom Charles once said he could not survive without, co-ordinated the application process and helped “upgrade” the proposed honour for Mahfouz from an OBE to CBE, according to leaked emails.” This is, to put it simply, very much a no-no—and yet also, very much in keeping with a long history.
There is of course a proud British tradition, dating back centuries, of rich men essentially purchasing themselves a lordship, elevating their family’s rank in perpetuity. King James I was particularly notorious for selling peerages outright. (To be clear, that wasn’t the only way to get your hands on a title that wasn’t, say, enormous military success; sometimes a politician created swaths of peers to secure a tidy voting bloc.) There was also a late 19th-century influx of men who’d made enormous fortunes in the Industrial Revolution into the aristocracy (which is suspiciously convenient, whether or not money crassly changed hands). The American-born William Waldorf Astor donated lots of money in the UK and managed to get himself made into Viscount Astor in 1917, for instance.
After a 1922 cash-for-honors scandal under prime minister David Lloyd George—in which his party was accused of raising money by essentially selling off peerages through a third-party—Parliament passed the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act in 1925, which was supposed to put a stop to the practice. And nowadays, since the mid-1950s, the British government doesn’t really create the same type of traditional hereditary peer you’d recognize from Bridgerton. Instead, there’s a complicated and downright befuddling system of honors doled out upon various occasions, including life peerages, the type of non-hereditary lordship they hand out these days to people who are supposed to be particularly deserving, which comes with a seat in the House of Lords; titles like the MBE, CBE, and OBE, which are the kind of knighthood they give to people like Ed Sheeran; and other assorted honors like The Order of Merit, or The Order of St Michael and St George.
Technically, honors are the Queen’s purview; as the royal family’s website explains: “As ‘fountain of honour’ in the UK, The Queen has the sole right of conferring titles of honour on deserving people from all walks of life, in public recognition of their merit, service or bravery.” But she makes them upon the recommendations of others, which is how scandal enters the equation.
Outgoing prime ministers provide the Crown with a list of “resignation honors” they’d like to see bestowed on as they leave office, which is routinely a source of controversy; as the Guardian once put it, “splutters of outrage over resignation honors lists, whether over allegations of cronyism or cash for honors, have a history almost as long and blotchy as the system itself.” In 2006 and 2007, there was a significant scandal in the UK involving the Labour party and life peerages. Come to find out, some people nominated for life peerages under Tony Blair’s Labour government had made significant loans to the Labour party. It dinged Blair’s reputation, which was already in tatters thanks to the Iraq War.
The Prince’s Foundation stands accused of something similar in its dealings with Mahfouz. In the days since the story first broke, however, the scandal has evolved into a broader question of whether the Foundation or somebody there was running a cash-for-access operation, where big donors could essentially buy their way into Charles’s good graces. At the center of the scandal are Fawcett and William Bortrick, the editor of Burke’s Peerage, a guide to the British aristocracy who also has a sideline as a society consultant. The Times reported that Botrick used his publishing company “to receive payments for consultancy services to ultra-wealthy individuals seeking access to the British establishment.” And there are few bigger whales in the British establishment than the heir to the throne.
A follow-up story by the Times raised also questions about the Foundation’s dealings with a Russian banker named Dmitry Leus, and the Daily Mail raised questions about another donor. In the most recent development, the Times of London reported that Prince Charles himself met with Bortrick at least nine times in recent years, in both the UK and abroad; “Asked on three occasions whether Charles knew that Bortrick was remunerated for his work on behalf of wealthy individuals, his representatives declined to comment,” the Times reported, adding that they reissued their statement: “The Prince of Wales has no knowledge of the alleged offer of honours or British citizenship on the basis of donation to his charities and fully supports the independent investigation now under way by the Prince’s Foundation.”
The donations don’t go into Charles’s personal bank account. Clarence House, Charles’s office, also denies that Charles knew anything. None of that changes the fact that the whole story is sordid and intimately involves one of Charles’s closest aides, a man who has resigned from the Prince’s employ twice before in questionable circumstances, with the Prince rehiring him. At the very least, it prompts serious questions about Charles’s judgment—which is the absolute last thing the heir to the throne needs with his mother growing older every year and a host of major challenges to the monarchy. It’s also a pretty eloquent reminder of what the true face of aristocracy has often looked like, notwithstanding all the pretty talk about duty and tradition.