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'A Lose-Lose Situation': Prince Charles's Secret Letters Must be Made Public, UK Court Rules

After a 10-year legal battle, 27 mysterious letters, or the "black spider memos," that the heir to the British throne has written to UK politicians since 1969 must now be unsealed.
March 26, 2015, 7:07pm
Photo by Timothy D. Easley/AP

Confidential letters written by Britain's Prince Charles and sent to various members of the British government must be made public, according to a Supreme Court ruling delivered on Thursday.

The heir to the British throne has been sending letters to politicians for decades, the first as early as 1969, when he opined on the over-fishing of salmon in the Atlantic. His epistles have been nicknamed the "black spider memos" — an apparent reference to his inky scrawl. It is uncertain what exactly is contained in the correspondence, except that they include Charles's "most deeply held personal views and beliefs."


The 10-year legal battle to reveal the contents of the 27 disputed letters began in April 2005, when Guardian journalist Rob Evans applied to see written communications between Charles and several government ministers in the seven months from September 2004.

In 2012, the then-Attorney General Dominic Grieve intervened by issuing a ministerial veto to block the publication of 27 pieces of correspondence written by the prince.

Last year, the Court of Appeal ruled that Grieve's veto was unlawful, causing the government to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

The final judgment was announced on Thursday morning. Seven judges ruled on the case, and they noted that the panel had not read the letters in question and "did not need to do so" in order to make a decision.

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In an article published on Thursday, Evans wrote: "I knew that what we were asking to see was sensitive, but I would not have predicted that it would develop into a tussle that would require rulings from 16 judges, stretching from a lowly tribunal to the highest court in the land."

During the lengthy legal battle, Evans said, "the ghost in the proceedings has been Charles himself. Nothing has been seen or heard from him, while his lawyers have not made representations in the hearings."

In one hearing, Evans added, six royal aides and lawyers were seen discreetly monitoring the arguments. "Outside the hearings, however, his spokesman made it clear to the Guardian that the Prince of Wales 'has not consented to disclosure' of the letters," he continued.


Evans added that the case had raised some major political points around how the British public feels about the royal family. "It is far from clear whether the British people are prepared to accept a monarch who feels he is entitled to interfere in British politics," he said.

Prince Charles is generally known to be much more political than his mother. The 88-year-old queen has been praised for refraining from making controversial statements and generally getting involved in politics. The closest she has come in recent years was her appeal to voters to "think carefully" before the Scottish independence referendum.

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Catherine Mayer, Prince Charles's biographer, was in the Supreme Court on Thursday for the ruling. She told VICE News that the reaction had been very "sedate." She added that the prolonged nature of this case had resulted in a lose-lose situation for the prince. "This judgment that has been handed down is something that is going to create problems for him because people will now pour over those letters and definitely will find something to make headlines out of," she Mayer explained.

"But if they had not been revealed — because of the nature of the wording in the Attorney General's original veto — there would be a great deal of speculation about the content of those letters that might have been far more damaging."


Mayer told VICE News that she has a good idea of what is in the letters, though she doesn't know the specifics. She also said that she believed there had been a great amount of "frustration" at Clarence House, the prince's private office, over the way the case had unfolded.

"The absolutely last thing that they wanted was to have information dragged out of them, they would have rather volunteered it in some way," she said. "So everything about the process has been uncomfortable and unpleasant for them."

As someone who has seen a couple of the Prince Charles letters, it will certainly be of high public interest to have them out in the open.

— Andrew Neilson (@neilsonandrew)March 26, 2015

Having seen P Charles letters when a minister I fear journos and citizens are going to be disappointed as so often w HRH

— Denis MacShane (@DenisMacShane)March 26, 2015

The Guardian's outgoing editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger, said he was "delighted" with the result. "The government wasted hundreds of thousands of pounds trying to cover up these letters, admitting their publication would 'seriously damage' perceptions of the prince's political neutrality," he said. "Now they must publish them so that the public can make their own judgment."

Meanwhile, Clarence House released a short statement after the ruling, which read: "This is a matter for the government. Clarence House is disappointed the principle of privacy has not been upheld."

This comes the same day that Richard III was reburied in Leicester — just 530 years after his death in 1485. The controversial monarch was the last British king to be killed in the UK while at battle, but his body lay underneath a parking lot until 2012. Oscar-nominated actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who is reportedly Richard III's third cousin 16 times removed, read a poem at the service.

Related: British political candidate resigns after allegedly attempting to stage fake anti-Islam rally. Read more here.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd