NOVEMBER 24, 1992 was supposed to be a happy occasion for Queen Elizabeth II.
The monarch was set to deliver a speech to Guildhall, London, marking the 40th anniversary of her succession to the throne — her ruby jubilee.
She had 40 years of accomplishments to look back on, but the Queen was preoccupied by more recent events.
“1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure,” she announced.
“In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an ‘Annus Horribilis’. I suspect that I am not alone in thinking it so.”
Annus horribilis is a Latin phrase, quite literally meaning “horrible year”. It was a surprisingly glum admission from the monarch — but she was more than justified in making it.
Just four days earlier, Windsor Castle had caught fire, suffering extensive damage.
It marked an end to a year in which the royal family had been beset by tabloid scandals and public splits: To the general public, the royal family appeared a mess, its ‘fairytale’ reputation ruined.
THE QUEEN’S HORRIBLE YEAR
In 1992, divorce was still something of a taboo in the royal family — but then the monarchy was rocked by two broken marriages in very quick succession. On March 19 the Queen’s second son Prince Andrew, Duke of York, separated from his wife Sarah “Fergie” Ferguson, the Duchess of York.
Fergie — always a lively and unpredictable addition to the royal family — had been seen in the company of other men, one a Texan billionaire. Post-split, Fergie felt the Queen’s wrath: The palace announced that she would no longer carry out public engagements on behalf of the Queen, while the Monarch herself personally announced that she would not take responsibility for Fergie’s mounting and well-publicised debts. It was a royal excommunication and a very public humiliation for Fergie.
Just one month later, on April 23, the Queen’s daughter Princess Anne divorced her husband, Captain Mark Phillips. The couple had been separated for three years, leading increasingly separate lives since their marriage in 1973.
News of those faltering marriages was nothing compared to the scandals that were about to engulf the royal family. On June 8, Andrew Morton’s tell-all book Diana: Her True Story — written with input and co-operation from the Princess herself — was published.
Diana and Charles were still married, but across 448 pages, Diana detailed the dysfunctional state of their relationship in the most raw and unfiltered terms — a first for a senior royal. The book revealed the Princess was so unhappy with both her marriage and her life inside the royal family that she had been driven to suicidal thoughts.
An instant bestseller, the book caused a media storm.
But at least Diana’s ‘scandal’ was one of her own choosing as she reclaimed her voice: the next would be an embarrassment for all involved. On August 20, pictures of Fergie, Duchess of York sunbathing topless and being kissed on the feet by her friend and financial adviser John Bryan were splashed across the tabloids.
The “toe-sucking scandal” was not easily forgotten: Three years later, when Fergie sent a bouquet of flowers to Prince Andrew’s aunt Princess Margaret, she reportedly received a letter in reply telling her “You have done more to bring shame on the family than could ever have been imagined.”
The public barely had time to take in that scandal when, four days later, the details of intimate phone conversations between Diana and her close friend James Gilbey were splashed across the tabloids. Again, this royal scandal had its own nickname: “Squidgygate”, after the pet name Mr Gilbey called Diana literally dozens of times during their conversations.
Diana vented her frustrations to her close confidante during the secretly recorded conversation, telling him: “I was very bad at lunch, and I nearly started blubbing. I just felt so sad and empty and thought ‘bloody hell, after all I’ve done for this f**king family …’ It’s just so desperate. Always being innuendo, the fact that I’m going to do something dramatic because I can’t stand the confines of this marriage… He (Charles) makes my life real torture, I’ve decided.”
She told Mr Gilbey the Queen Mother would look at her with mix of “pity and interest”.
A great fire
By November, the royal family had become tabloid fixtures in a way they’d never been before, the public eagerly devouring each new report of their sex scandals and personal crises. Then, just four days before the Queen’s Guildhall speech — and on the Queen’s wedding anniversary — another shocking blow, as Windsor Castle went up in flames.
The largest inhabited castle in the world and one of the Queen’s official residencies, the castle suffered extensive damage in the fire, which started when a spotlight pressed up against a curtain caused it to ignite.
It took nine hours to get the fire under control, and while firefighters battled the blaze, royal staff and even Prince Andrew undertook a massive operation to save as many priceless artefacts as they could from the path of the flames.
Despite their efforts, the castle needed years of restoration work, at a cost of 36.5 million pounds.
THE QUEEN’S SPEECH
With the embers still burning in the grand castle the Queen called home, it was a sombre, reflective monarch who stood up in Guildhall on November 24, 1992.
“I sometimes wonder how future generations will judge the events of this tumultuous year. I dare say that history will take a slightly more moderate view than that of some contemporary commentators. Distance is well-known to lend enchantment, even to the less attractive views. After all, it has the inestimable advantage of hindsight,” she said.
“But it can also lend an extra dimension to judgment, giving it a leavening of moderation and compassion — even of wisdom — that is sometimes lacking in the reactions of those whose task it is in life to offer instant opinions on all things great and small.”
Look past the formal language, and you’ll find an unprecedented personal plea: “Go easy on us,” she seemed to be saying, “it’s been a tough year.”