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The story behind The Crown: Windsor Castle fire caps Queen’s ‘annus horibilis’
The royal residence and Europe's largest inhabited castle was severely damaged in a 12-hour blaze - the final ignominy of the Queen's infamous 'annus horribilis' of 1992.
The year 1992 should have been a landmark year for Elizabeth II as she marked 40 years as Queen with a low-key Ruby Jubilee.
But, as depicted in The Crown season 5 by Imelda Staunton, it was a 12 months that she memorably described as an ‘annus horibilis’ – a horrible year.
At the heart of the personal pain was the breakdown of three of her children’s marriages – Princess Anne divorced Mark Phillips, and Prince Andrew separated with wife Sarah, Duchess of York after photographs were published suggesting she had had an affair.
Perhaps most painfully of all, the marriage of her heir, Prince Charles, to Princess Diana, was collapsing in the full glare of publicity.
Then on 20 November, 1992, the Queen was devastated when a fire at her favourite residence, Windsor Castle, raged for 12 hours and caused damage estimated at £36.5 million.
How the fire broke out
The blaze began at 11.33am in the Queen’s Private Chapel on the first floor of the castle’s north-east wing. It was found to have been sparked by a 1,000-watt spotlight used by renovators, which was left switched on too close to a curtain.
Due to a lack of firebreaks and fire-stopping materials in cavities and roof voids, the blaze quickly spread into the neighbouring Brunswick Tower and the castle’s banqueting space, St George’s Hall (pictured below after the fire and following restoration), and into the private apartments in the eastern wing of the building.
Castle staff, tradesmen and soldiers formed a human chain to remove precious furniture, artworks and antiquities from the building, helped by Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, who had been working in the castle when the fire broke out. Because rewiring works were being carried out in the area of the building affected by the fire, many valuable paintings and pieces of furniture had already been removed.
Nine principal state rooms were destroyed, with over 100 more being severely damaged – covering around one-fifth of the castle’s area. Restoration works would not be completed until November 1997.
At least 225 firemen fought the blaze using 39 appliances; according to Fire Brigade figures, Greater London has only suffered one other fire which required more than 30 appliances to be present since 1973.
At the time, Windsor had its own fire department of 20 men, six of whom were full-time. To stop the fire spreading, tradesmen were asked to construct firebreaks in order to block off the majority of the castle. These were put in place at around 1.30pm.
Who pays for the repairs?
Tourists were allowed back into the castle grounds within three days, and the Queen was back in residence a fortnight later.
A debate followed as to who should foot the bill for repairs to the castle. Technically Windsor Castle is owned by the state, not the monarch, and some MPs and parts of the media called for the Queen to pay for the repairs herself.
In response, the Queen agreed to open up parts of Buckingham Palace to the public for the first time, with money raised from the £8 entry charge going towards Windsor’s restoration. This covered around 70% of the repair bill, while the Queen donated £2 million of her personal wealth towards the refurbishment.
The 'annus horibilis' speech
Four days after the fire, in a speech at the Guildhall to mark the 40th anniversary of her accession, the Queen addressed the trials and tribulations of her Ruby Jubilee year.
"1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an annus horribilis," she said.
But the agonies of 1992 were not over for the Royal Family: on 9 December Prime Minister John Major told the House of Commons that Charles and Diana were to separate.
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