What the ‘black spider’ memos reveal about Prince Charles

Cache of letters to public officials broach such subjects as farming, architecture, alternative medicaid and badger culling

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

LONDON — The British government has released previously secret letters written by Prince Charles to government officials — letters that were the subject of a lengthy legal battle that pitted Charles’s right to privacy against the public’s right to know.

The cache of 27 letters, including 10 written by Charles personally, includes letters written a decade ago to former Prime Minister Tony Blair and other top officials on topics that include agriculture, redevelopment in Northern Ireland and other matters. The British press has dubbed them the “black spider” memos, due to the handwritten greetings and closings that Charles wrote in his familiar cramped style.

The letter-writing is controversial because as future king, Charles is expected to remain neutral on political topics.

In the memos, the sometimes quirky prince, known for his commitment to organic farming and traditional architecture, freely expresses himself on matters like badger culling, the readiness of the Armed Forces and standards for the use of alternative medicines.

In one letter to Blair on Sept. 8, 2004, the future king and military veteran raises concerns about the British Armed Forces not getting enough resources. He mentions delays in delivering military aircraft due to budgetary pressures.

“I fear that this is just one more example of where our Armed Forces are being asked to do an extremely challenging job (particularly in Iraq) without the necessary resources,” Charles wrote.

Funding levels for the military is a political topic for any country’s government.

The British government tried for years to keep the letters secret —fearing that publishing them might damage public perceptions of Charles’ neutrality — but eventually lost a Freedom of Information case brought by The Guardian newspaper.

Charles’ press office issued a statement Wednesday defending the letters. It said Charles was “raising issues of public concern and trying to find practical ways to address the issues.”

The royal statement said Charles was expressing concerns about issues that he has raised before, including “the state of farming, the preservation and regeneration of historic buildings” and other matters.

Charles had earlier said he is unhappy that his privacy was not protected. The government has also indicated it may tighten rules to protect future royal communications from release under the Freedom of Information act.

There were signs of tension Wednesday as an angry senior press officer working for Charles tore the cover off the microphone being used by a TV reporter who asked the prince about the letters.

The government was ordered to release the letters in 2012 after losing its court case. But the attorney general vetoed the decision, arguing that Charles’ letters were part of his preparation to become king and should be kept private.

That was upheld by one court, but then overturned in 2014 by the Court of Appeal, which decided there was no justification for overturning the earlier decision. Britain’s Supreme Court in March supported that ruling, leading to Wednesday’s publication of the memos.

Here are some excerpts:


Charles mostly stayed away from hard politics, but did on one occasion raise his concerns about cuts to the defence budget.

Writing about the delayed replacement of military aircraft, he said: “I fear that this is just one more example of where our Armed Forces are being asked to do an extremely challenging job (particularly in Iraq) without the necessary resources.”

— To Tony Blair, Sept. 8, 2004



“Every support must be given to beef farmers so that they can seize the new opportunities and cope with the reduction in support — in other words they must be encouraged to co-operate and learn about marketing. … I wondered if it would be possible for the government to channel funds specifically to help the beef sector …?”

“So much depends on the consumer demanding British produce and I only wish that more could be done to encourage people to buy British … it would be splendid if the Government could find innovative ways to give the necessary lead.”

— To Tony Blair, Sept. 8, 2004



“I do urge you to look again at introducing a proper cull of badgers where it is necessary. I, for one, cannot understand how the ‘badger lobby’ seem to mind not at all about the slaughter of thousands of expensive cattle, and yet object to a managed cull of an over-population of badgers — to me, this is intellectually dishonest.”

— To Tony Blair, Feb. 24, 2005



“I particularly hope that the illegal fishing of the Patagonian Toothfish will be high on your list of priorities because until that trade is stopped, there is little hope for the poor old albatross, for which I will continue to campaign.”

The decline of the albatross is thought to be linked to unregulated fishing.

Charles also raised the question of whether the Royal Navy could play a role in tackling illegal fishing.

“I am probably being very ignorant about all this, so please forgive me, but is the Royal Navy, for instance, included in the discussions on this issue? I daresay you will tell me there are all sorts of legal problems that prevent any worthwhile action…!”

— To the Fisheries Minister, Oct. 21, 2004


“Do rest assured that you have a great deal of support and all I would say is that you may find it worthwhile to explore not just what industry can do to cut emissions, but also the wider community. Energy efficiency could make a huge difference and would engage the public in the whole subject in a way that simply focusing on industry’s role will not.”

— To Tony Blair, Feb. 24, 2005


Charles, long known as a champion of alternative medicine, complained about a European Union directive on herbal medicines.

He wrote that the directive “is having such a deleterious effect in this country by effectively outlawing the use of certain herbal extracts.”

“I think we both agreed this was using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”

— To Tony Blair, Feb. 24, 2005

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What the ‘black spider’ memos reveal about Prince Charles

  1. I am curious to know if Prince Charles is the only member of the royal family to write such letters to any authorities. Some, no doubt, would say that is not his business, but I disagree … someone in his position should be permitted to highlight government anomalies. It is quite simply just free speech … and if he does not have such freedom, who does?

    • The crown must be neutral. Charles should know better.

    • Charles has a duty to discuss with ministers on issues that affect his country as does the queen. She doesn’t have an audience with the PM every Wednesday to discuss her wardrobe or the corgis’ diet. The royals act on the advice of government, and have a duty to discuss with government, to express their opinions. They cannot, however do this publicly, as they must remain neutral: they can’t run for office, they can’t refuse to sign on legislation adopted by a majority vote in parliament, The opinions they voice to their government must remain strictly confidential. They must always accept the decision and the advice of a government that commands a majority in the house, but they are totally free to express their views, as long as they remain confidential.

      • The crown must remain neutral. Charles should know better.

        • Seriously, you think that Elizabeth II has met every prime minister since Churchill every Wednesday these past 63 years to discuss her hats? Of course, the crown meets with the government to discuss the affairs of the country.

          The crown must remain neutral, but that doesn’t mean that it must remain silent. On the contrary, the crown has a duty to advise and counsel government. It is not that the crown cannot speak to government (the ministers) but that it can speak only to their government: the royals cannot speak publicly about public policy but they can certainly speak to the government. These conversations however should remain private.

          You should know better, or at least know the difference between neutral and silent.

        • Here:
          “The governor general acts on the advice of the prime minister and the government, but has the right to advise, to encourage and to warn. ”


          You’re confusing neutrality with silence. The crown has the right to advise, to encourage and to warn, and we’re not talking about advising, encouraging and warning about what’s for dinner here, but about public policy. While government is under no obligation to act on the advice or warning of the crown, the crown is obligated to act on the advice of the government.

          Same thing for the crown in the UK, including Charles who is heir apparent and on the public payroll. He must act when government asks him to but he is free to speak to government, and to government only, about public policy.

          Charles did nothing wrong. What’s wrong is the law. An amendment is necessary.

          • And you’re confusing the GG with the Queen.

            Cameron meets with the queen and tells her the ‘state of the country’.

            What’s ‘wrong’ is having a monarchy.

            She can say what she wants, and he can ignore her.

            Now for the part where you’ve confused the Prince of Wales with the Queen…..

          • Same system, same rules:

            “The Queen gives a weekly audience to the Prime Minister at which she has a right and a duty to express her views on Government matters.”


            Note that this is not only a right but a DUTY to express h views on government matters.

            I understand and respect your biais against the monarchy, but it has made you blind to the facts: Charles can only speak to government regarding his views on government matter. He cannot speak to anyone else. His letters don’t suggest that he is considering disallowance, for crying out loud. He has not transgressed any rules, on the contrary this episode proves that he fully understands his function and the rules.

            There needs to be an amendment to the law. That’s the problem that needs to be fixed.

            Why do you think you’re above the simple rules of etiquette with other human beings, EmilyOne?

  2. Regarding that part where I confused the Prince of Wales with the Queen, in one Charles’ letter to Blair he writes:

    “It was very good to see you again the other day and, as usual, I much enjoyed the opportunity to talk about a number of issues. “You kindly suggested that it would be helpful if I put them (his opinions) in writing – despite the Freedom of Information Act!”

    You choose to believe that the neutrality of the royal family rests entirely upon their actions. I choose to believe that it’s a shared responsibility between the member of the royal family and the government. Charles has been for many years the most active royal, paid by the public purse, something the government is responsible for. Charles travels abroad at the request of the government. He has recently represented the Queen at Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings.

    If confusion exists between Charles and the Queen it rests entirely on the shoulders of government to clarify. He cannot be bound by only one side of an obligation to remain neutral; the other side of the coin is that he’s allowed to advise government. They can do whatever they want with his advice….

    • Here is your problem….

      ” I choose to believe”

      Just as you choose to believe we need a senate

      Reality is a different matter.

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