Queen Elizabeth II is not like you and me.
Did you know she is immune from prosecution? That she has her own personal poet, paid in Sherry wine? Or that she holds dominion over British swans, and can fire the entire Australian government?
It’s true that her role as the British Head of State is largely ceremonial, and the Monarch no longer holds any serious power from day to day. The historic “prerogative powers” of the Sovereign have been devolved largely to government ministers. But this still means that when the British government declares war, or regulates the civil service, or signs a treaty, they are doing so only on her authority.
And she still wields some of these prerogative powers herself — as well as number of other unique powers, ranging from the surprising to the utterly bizarre.
Most famously, she owns all swans in the River Thames.
Technically, all unmarked swans in open water belong to the Queen, although the Crown only “exercises her ownership on certain stretches of the Thames and its surrounding tributaries,” according to the official website of the Royal Family.
Today, this tradition is observed during the annual “Swan Upping,” in which swans in the River Thames are caught, ringed, and set free again as part of census of the swan population.
It’s a highly ceremonial affair, taking place over five days. “Swan uppers” wear traditional uniforms and row up-river in six skiffs accompanied by the Queen’s Swan Marker.
“The swans are also given a health check and ringed with individual identification numbers by The Queen’s Swan Warden, a Professor of Ornithology at the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology,” according to the Royal Family website.
The Sovereign also has dominion over all dolphins in British waters.
“Rule, Britannia, Britannia rules the waves,” goes a classic British song — and this rule extends beneath the waves too. The sovereign has dominion over a variety of aquatic animals in British waters.
The Queen still technically owns all the sturgeons, whales, and dolphins in the waters around the UK, which dates back to a statute from 1324, during the reign of King Edward II, according to TIME.
According to the article: “This statute is still valid today, and sturgeons, porpoises, whales and dolphins are recognised as ‘fishes royal’: when they are captured within 3 miles (about 5 km) of U.K. shores or wash ashore, they may be claimed on behalf of the Crown. Generally, when brought into port, a sturgeon is sold in the usual way, and the purchaser, as a gesture of loyalty, requests the honour of its being accepted by Elizabeth.”
The law is still observed: In 2004, a Welsh fisherman was investigated by the police after catching a 10-foot sturgeon, the BBC reported at the time. The Scottish government also issued guidance on the law in 2007, writing that “the right to claim Royal Fish in Scotland allows the Scottish Government (on behalf of the Crown) to claim stranded whales which are too large to be drawn to land by a ‘wain pulled by six oxen’.”
The Queen can drive without a licence.
Driving licenses are issued in the Queen’s name, yet she is the only person in the United Kingdom who doesn’t legally need a licence to drive or a number plate on her cars, according to TIME.
Despite not being required to have a licence, the Queen is comfortable behind the wheel, having learned to drive during World War II when she operated a first aid truck for the Women’s Auxillary Territorial Service. (As a result of the Queen’s training, she can also change a spark plug, TIME notes).
Queen Elizabeth II isn’t afraid to show off her driving skills, either. In 1998, she surprised King Abdullah of Jordan (then still a Prince) by driving him around in her country seat of Balmoral.
Former British Ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles recounted the meeting in the Sunday Times: “As instructed, the crown prince climbed into the front seat of the front Land Rover, with his interpreter in the seat behind. To his surprise, the Queen climbed into the driving seat, turned the ignition and drove off. Women are not — yet — allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia and Abdullah was not used to being driven by a woman, let alone a queen.”
Cowper-Coles continued: “His nervousness only increased as the Queen, an army driver in wartime, accelerated the Land Rover along the narrow Scottish estate roads, talking all the time. Through his interpreter, the crown prince implored the Queen to slow down and concentrate on the road ahead.”
The Queen doesn’t need a passport, either.
Unlike other members of the Royal family, the Queen does not require a passport. It’s not clear what Her Majesty uses for travel documents, but she has been abroad many times.
She has two birthdays.
When you’re the British head of state, one birthday just isn’t enough. The Queen’s official birthday is celebrated on a Saturday in June, although her actual birthday is on April 21.
“Official celebrations to mark a sovereign’s birthday have often been held on a day other than the actual birthday, particularly when the actual birthday has not been in the summer,” according to the Royal Mint.
Both birthdays are celebrated in suitable style, too. Her actual birthday “is marked publicly by gun salutes in central London at midday,” according to the official website of the British Monarchy. This includes “a 41 gun salute in Hyde Park, a 21 gun salute in Windsor Great Park and a 62 gun salute at the Tower of London. In 2006, Her Majesty celebrated her 80th Birthday in 2006 with a walkabout in the streets outside of Windsor Castle to meet well-wishers.”
For her “official” birthday celebrations, meanwhile, she “is joined by other members of the Royal Family at the spectacular Trooping the Colour parade which moves between Buckingham Palace, The Mall and Horseguards’ Parade.”
She has her own private cash machine.
Less a “power” and more a perk of the job, there is a private cash machine for the royal family’s personal use installed in the basement of Buckingham Palace. It’s provided by Coutts, one of Britain’s most prestigious — and exclusive — banks.
The Queen has her own personal poet.
The poet laureate is a honorary position in British society appointed by the Monarch to a poet “whose work is of national significance,“ according to the official website of the British Monarchy. When first the role was introduced, the appointee was paid £200 per year plus a butt of canary wine. Today, the poet laureate is given a barrel of Sherry.
The role is currently held by Carol Ann Duffy, who will hold the position until 2019.
She has to sign laws.
The Queen’s consent is necessary to turn any bill into an actual law. Once a proposed law has passed both houses of Parliament, it makes its way to the Palace for approval, which is is called “Royal Assent.” The last British Monarch to refuse to provide Royal Assent was Queen Anne, back in 1708.
Royal Assent is different than “Queen’s consent,” in which the Queen must consent to any law being debated in Parliament which affects the Monarchy’s interests (such as reforming the prerogative or tax laws that might affect the Duchy of Cornwall, for example). Without consent, the bill cannot be debated in Parliament.
Queen’s consent is only exercised on the advice of ministers, but its existence provides the government with a tool for blocking debate on certain subjects if bills are tabled by backbench rebels or the opposition.
It has been exercised at least 39 times, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information act, including “one instance [in which] the Queen completely vetoed the Military Actions Against Iraq Bill in 1999, a private member’s bill that sought to transfer the power to authorise military strikes against Iraq from the monarch to parliament,” the Guardian reported in 2013.
She can create Lords.
The Queen has the power to appoint Lords, who can then sit in Parliament, the upper house in Britain’s legislative system. Like many other powers, this is exercised only “on the advice of” elected government ministers.
She doesn’t have to pay tax (but she does anyway).
The Queen does not have to pay tax, but she has been voluntarily paying income tax and capital gains tax since 1992.
The Queen has the power to form governments.
The Queen previously wielded the power to dissolve Parliament and call a general election, but the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act put an end to that in 2011. Now, a two-thirds vote in the commons is required to dissolve Parliament before a five-year fixed-term is up.
However, she does still play a part after an election, when she calls on the MP most able to form a government to do so.
This caused some worry in the run up to this year’s General Election. At point, it looked like the Conservatives might not have a majority (but would be the largest party), and would try and form a government. Meanwhile, it was feasible that Labour could form a majority despite having less seats, but only by entering into a coalition with multiple other parties.
In this situation, the Queen would have been stuck between a rock and a hard place. Every year, she opens Parliament with the Queen’s speech, which lays out the government’s plans. But to give David Cameron’s speech would arguably be to tacitly endorse his government — while staying away would send the opposite message.
At one point, The Times was told by sources that she planned to “stay away,” if Cameron failed to secure enough MPs, but the Palace later had an about-face. “Royal sources confirmed she would lead proceedings, even if there was a risk the speech would be overthrown the following week because the Tories had failed to muster enough backing from smaller parties,” The Times subsequently reported.
Jeff Kubina/Flickr (CC)
The Queen’s knights: Not nearly this cool.
She has knights.
Sure, they no longer ride around on horseback wooing maidens with their tales of valour, but Britain still retains knights. Like Lords, they are appointed by the Queen — and she knights them personally.
Knighthoods are typically given to figures who have made a particular contribution to British society — whether that is in business, the arts, the military, or elsewhere. When the late Terry Pratchett was knighted, the Queen used a special sword the legendary fantasy author had forged himself using pieces of a meteorite.
The individuals knighted are decided by ministers, the BBC reports, “who present her with a list of nominees each year for her approval.”
She is exempt from Freedom Of Information requests.
All information about the royal family is exempt from Freedom of Information requests. The exemption was made following a legal battle between The Guardian and the government to have letters from Prince Charles sent to Whitehall ministers made public. The so-called “black spider memos” were recently released, but the change means the same can’t happen in the future.
She can ignore or overrule ministerial advice in “grave constitutional crisis”
While the overwhelming majority of the Queen’s prerogative powers are devolved to her ministers, there is one exception that allows her to wield power herself. Only “in grave constitutional crisis,” the Sovereign can “act contrary to or without Ministerial advice.” With no precedent in modern times, it’s not clear what would actually constitute this, but the possibility remains.
The Queen holds the ability to fire the entire Australian government.
As the Head of State in Australia, the Queen has certain powers over the government. In 1975, for example, the Queen’s representative in the country at the time, Governor General Sir John Kerr, fired the Prime Minister in response to a government shutdown.
“[Kerr] appointed a replacement, who immediately passed the spending bill to fund the government, Max Fisher writes in the Washington Post. “Three hours later, Kerr dismissed the rest of Parliament. Then Australia held elections to restart from scratch. And they haven’t had another shutdown since.”
In addition to the UK and Australia, the Queen is also the Head of State in Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu.
All the above are Commonwealth Realms, or former British colonies. The British sovereign retains the position she holds in the United Kingdom, that of Head of State. Like in Britain, this is largely a ceremonial role from day-to-day.
Chris Jackson/Getty Images
The Queen visits Canterbury Cathedral in Kent.
She’s the head of a religion.
Queen Elizabeth II is the head of the Church of England, Britain’s state religion first established after King Henry VIII famously split away from the Catholic Church in Rome in the Sixteenth Century.
Her formal title is Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and also has the power to appoint Bishops and Archbishops. However, like many of her other powers, this is exercised only on the advice of the Prime Minister, who himself takes advice from a Church Commission.
An interesting side-effect of this is that the Sovereign must be a confirmed member of Church of England. Catholics and those of other religions may not ascend to the British throne. If Prince Charles converted to Islam, for example, he would be unable to become King after Queen Elizabeth II dies.
She gets to give away special money to the elderly.
Maundy money is a special kind of silver coins that the Queen gives away to pensioners every year at a UK cathedral every Easter in a special ceremony. The number of recipients corresponds with the Sovereign’s age. This year, for example, she will be 89 when Easter rolls around, so she will give maundy money away to 89 pensioners.
The coins are technically legal tender, despite coming in unconventional 3 pence and 4 pence denominations. But given the coins’ rare status, they tend not to enter general circulation.
She’s also immune from prosecution.
All prosecutions are carried out in the name of the Sovereign, and she is both immune from prosecution and cannot be compelled to give evidence in court.
In theory, the Sovereign “is incapable of thinking or doing wrong,” legal scholar John Kirkhope told Business Insider. However, barrister Baroness Helena Kennedy QC told the BBC in 2002 that “nowadays, that immunity is questionable.”
“Although civil and criminal proceedings cannot be taken against the Sovereign as a person under UK law, The Queen is careful to ensure that all her activities in her personal capacity are carried out in strict accordance with the law,” according to official site of the Monarchy.
If the Monarch did commit a grievance offence he or she would almost certainly be forced to abdicate. There is at least one precedent of the Courts prosecuting the Sovereign. In the 17th Century, King Charles I was tried for treason following the English Civil War. He claimed that “no earthly power can justly call me (who am your King) in question as a delinquent.” The Court disagreed, and had him executed.
The Queen has the right to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn her ministers.
Assuming no “grave constitutional crisis,” the Queen’s input into the legislative process is supposed to be limited in real terms to the right “to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn” her ministers — advice delivered via meetings with the Prime Minister.
WPA Pool/Getty Images
The Queen also has certain historic rights and privileges. John Kirkhope, a lawyer who successfully campaigned to have details of “Queen’s consent” made public, provided Business Insider with a list of some of the stranger rights the Queen still holds.
- Hungerford has to present a red rose to the Sovereign in exchange for its fishing and grazing rights.
- The Duke of Atholl must pay by way of a rose whenever the Sovereign calls. The last time this happened was during the reign of Queen Victoria, so it’s not clear whether the rose has to be any particular colour.
- If the Sovereign passes near Kidwelly Castle in Wales, the tenant has to provide a bodyguard in full armour. This is complicated slightly by the fact the castle is a ruin.
- The Marquis of Ailesbury owns Savernake Forest, and is required to produce a blast on a hunting horn should the Sovereign pass through the Forest. This last happened in 1943.
- Similarly, the owner of Dunlambert Castle in Northern Ireland has to produce a blast on an ancient bugle.
And lastly, many land-owners must also pay a “quit-rent” — a kind of tax on their property paid to the Monarch. Some are pretty unusual.
- The owner of Sauchlemuir Castle must set out 3 glasses of port on New Year’s Eve for the grandmother of James IV of Scotland. (For reference, James IV served from 1474-1513.)
- The owner of Fowlis must deliver — when required — a snowball in mid-summer.
- The City of Gloucester pays for its holdings of Crown Lands by providing an enormous eel pie.
- Great Yarmouth must provide a hundred herrings baked in 24 pasties to the Sheriff, who then sends them to the Lord of the Manor — who then sends them to the Sovereign.
- The Duke of Marlborough has to present a small satin flag with a Fleur de Lys on August 13, the anniversary of the Battle of Blenheim.
- The Duke of Wellington has to present a French Tricolour flag before noon on June 19 — the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.