What does the royal family actually do?

From official state duties to charitable pursuits, most of the royals keep themselves busy

Princess Anne, King Charles and Queen Camilla attending the Highland Games
Princess Anne, King Charles and Queen Camilla at the Highland Games in Braemar this week
(Image credit: Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

With a new king on the throne this year, the role of the monarch and his family has come under renewed scrutiny.

Although King Charles III is the UK’s head of state, “his powers are largely symbolic and ceremonial”, said BBC News. But given that Charles is personally worth about £1.8 billion – according to an investigation by The Guardian – many may wonder how the King and his family spend their time.

Despite their global fame and “the constant flood of royal paparazzi photos and press releases”, said Insider, “it can be tough to discern what it is the family members actually do”.

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What does the monarch do politically?

Although the monarch is politically neutral, that’s not the same as being politically uninvolved. First and foremost, the monarch appoints the government. Whoever wins a general election is invited to Buckingham Palace, and the monarch formally asks him or her to form a government.

The King opens each session of Parliament, giving a speech about the government’s plans for the year ahead. Charles also receives daily government dispatches in a red leather box, including briefings and documents needing his signature.

Every Wednesday, he meets the prime minister at Buckingham Palace, who keeps him “informed on government matters”, according to BBC News.

The monarch also has to approve every piece of legislation that passes through Parliament. With “Royal Assent”, legislation becomes law. This is “mostly a formality, though”, noted Insider. No monarch has refused to give Royal Assent since 1707, “when Queen Anne refused a bill that would have recreated the Scottish militia after England and Scotland were formally unified”.

And what about state duties?

The monarch’s days are filled with official “engagements”. They meet foreign ambassadors and host visiting heads of state, as well as carrying out state visits abroad. This year, Charles became the first British monarch to address the German parliament, but questions still abound as to whether he will be able to wield as much diplomatic heft as his late mother.

The head of the royal family also presents citizens with awards and honours, like knighthoods and military achievements.

“As a team,” said Insider, royals attend about 2,000 official engagements a year, entertain about 70,000 people at royal residences for meals, receptions and parties, and answer 100,000 letters a year.

In 2015 the late Queen Elizabeth II carried out 341 engagements, according to The Daily Telegraph, 306 in the UK and 35 abroad – the year before she turned 90. She “put the younger generation of the Royal family to shame”, the paper noted, by carrying out more engagements than Prince Harry, Prince William and Kate Middleton combined.

The King is also head of the Commonwealth, made up of 56 independent countries and comprising 2.5 billion people. He is the head of state of 14 of these, known as the Commonwealth realms, as well as the Crown dependencies like the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

What about the military, church and charities?

Technically, the monarch is the colonel-in-chief of the armed forces. The late Queen, all three of her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry also served in the military themselves.

William, for example, is “a skilled pilot”, said Marie Claire, “completing his Royal Air Force training in 2010 and later going on to serve as a search and rescue pilot for years”.

The family “also plays an important role in recognising and supporting the work of the Armed Services”, said the official Royal.uk website. Members have “official relationships with many units of the Forces, paying regular visits to soldiers, sailors and airmen serving at home and abroad”.

The King or Queen is also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, after Henry VIII broke with Roman Catholicism in the 16th century. That involves appointing bishops, archbishops and deans.

“Even so,” noted Good Housekeeping, “the Archbishop of Canterbury is head cleric of the church”.

Charitable work is another duty for many royals. About 3,000 charitable organisations list a member of the royal family as a patron or president, according to Royal.uk. Some also establish their own organisations.

Charles, for example, set up more than 20 charities over 40 years as the Prince of Wales, including the Prince’s Trust.

When he was the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William founded United for Wildlife with The Royal Foundation, to combat trafficking of illegal wildlife products. In June this year, he also launched a five-year programme to try to end homelessness.

As of her 90th birthday in April 2016, the late Queen was a patron of 600 charities.

And the rest of the family?

Working royals “support the King in his many state and national duties”, according to Royal.uk, and “carry out important work in the areas of public and charitable service in their own right”.

These “working royals” include Charles’s sister, Princess Anne, his brother Prince Edward, Edward’s wife Sophie (Countess of Wessex), the Prince and Princess of Wales, and some of the late Queen’s cousins.

In 2015, Princess Anne carried out 456 engagements in the UK and 88 overseas, said The Telegraph, “living up to her reputation as the hardest-working member of the royal family”.

“Involved in upwards of 300 different charity organisations, Anne spent roughly 180 days at royal engagements in 2018, making her the busiest member of the royal family that year,” said Town and Country magazine. The Princess Royal, as Anne is known, is also president of the British Olympic Association, a member of the International Olympic Committee, and since 1986 patron of the Scottish Rugby Union.

Some working royals have even had “day jobs”. William, for example, was a pilot for East Anglian Air Ambulance from 2015-17.

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Harriet Marsden is a writer for The Week, mostly covering UK and global news and politics. Before joining the site, she was a freelance journalist for seven years, specialising in social affairs, gender equality and culture. She worked for The Guardian, The Times and The Independent, and regularly contributed articles to The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The New Statesman, Tortoise Media and Metro, as well as appearing on BBC Radio London, Times Radio and “Woman’s Hour”. She has a master’s in international journalism from City University, London, and was awarded the "journalist-at-large" fellowship by the Local Trust charity in 2021.