‘Annus Horribilis’: Why Queen Elizabeth II Called 1992 a Horrible Year

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Queen Elizabeth II called 1992 her “annus horribilis,” or horrible year, in a speech marking the 40th year of her reign, saying: “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‘.”

The marriages of three of her four children ended; there was a fire at her beloved home, Windsor Castle; and the publication of a racy book and leaked phone conversations from Princess Diana and Prince Charles to their lovers—known as the “Squidgygate Tapes” and “Camillagate,” respectively—added scandal to a year when taxpayers were questioning the cost of the royal family. Media scrutiny on these matters exacerbated the Queen’s private pain.

Divorce and Separation

The Prince and Princess of Wales look their separate ways during a memorial service in Korea in March 1992. The Queen requested that the couple move towards an early divorce after their increasingly acrimonious and public separation.

1992 was a bad year for royal marriages. In March, the Queen’s son Prince Andrew separated from Sarah Ferguson. Ferguson would reappear in headlines in August when the tabloids published topless photos of her having her feet kissed by American businessman John Bryan in the South of France. “The worst part to the British public was that her young daughters were present and a taxpayer-funded policeman was disporting himself on a lounger close by,” says former BBC royal correspondent Michael Cole.

In April, the queen’s only daughter, Princess Anne, divorced Mark Phillips, her husband of 18 years. And in December, Prince Charles, heir to the throne, separated from Princess Diana following a year of tabloid coverage that broadcasted their marital troubles to the world in a media blitz known as “The War of the Waleses.”

The royal separations and scandals became fodder for critics of the monarchy like then-Labor MP Dennis Skinner, who said: “It’s high time we stopped this charade of swearing allegiance to the queen and her heirs and successors, when we do not know from time to time who they are.”

Andrew Morton Releases ‘Diana: Her True Story’

Princes Charles and Camilla

Prince Charles at left, and Camilla Parker Bowles at a polo match, circa 1972.

Andrew Morton’s Diana: Her True Story caused a sensation when it was published in 1992. It named Camilla Parker Bowles as Prince Charles’ lover and detailed Diana’s struggles with mental health and bulimia. 

“Morton’s book effectively shattered the mystique of the monarchy,” says Carly Ledbetter, a senior reporter at HuffPost who covers the royal family. “One could easily conclude that The Firm was messy, it was human, and it wasn’t as impenetrable as everyone thought.”

It wasn’t until after Princess Diana’s death in 1997 that she was revealed to have cooperated with Morton on the book, providing materials and recordings to him via Dr. James Colthurst.

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Leaked ‘Squidgygate’ and ‘Camillagate’ Tapes

In August 1992, The Enquirer published transcriptions of a private phone conversation between Princess Diana and car dealer James Gilbey from New Year’s Eve 1989. The intimacy of the conversation and his referral to the married princess as “darling” and “squidgey” ignited a scandal… alongside comments Diana made about “all I’ve done for this f***ing family.” “Audiences and royal watchers around the world couldn’t get enough of the intimate details,” says Ledbetter. “People were split between horror and fascination.”

Squidgygate” was quickly overshadowed by the November reveal of a private call between then-Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. It was nicknamed “Camillagate,” then “Tampongate” for a particularly intimate wish Charles expressed to Camilla over the phone. “He was an object of ridicule internationally,” Cole says. “The royal family became less popular in the public’s esteem.”

“Tampongate and Squidgeygate had—and continue to have—an enormous impact on the credibility of the royal family,” says Ledbetter. “The recorded phone calls greatly impacted the public perception of the heir to the throne and called into question Charles’ ability to one day be king.”

Windsor Castle Fire

Queen Elizabeth II surveys the scene at Windsor Castle on November 21, 1992 following the fire.

Queen Elizabeth II surveys the scene at Windsor Castle on November 21, 1992 following the fire.

On November 20, 1992, a fire broke out in Windsor Castle that burned for 15 hours and caused about $47.5 million worth of damage. The historic royal home was first built by William the Conqueror in 1070. Valuable works of art and furniture were saved from the blaze by a human chain that included palace staff and Prince Andrew.

The Windsor Castle fire was devastating to the Queen, who had spent much of her childhood and formative teenage years there. “She regarded it as home because she spent most of the Second World War there,” says Cole. “She was not evacuated to Canada. The Queen Mother famously said, ‘The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave the King. And the King will never leave [England].’” Windsor Castle was also the site of Elizabeth’s beloved Royal Windsor Horse Show, which she attended every year since its inception in 1943.

The fire renewed public scrutiny of the cost associated with the upkeep of the royal family. Windsor Castle is owned by the crown, not the monarch personally, and the question of who would pay for repairs sparked debate—especially Prime minister John Major’s suggestion that the public foot the bill. Labour politicians like Alan Williams, a member of the House of Commons public accounts committee, implored the Queen to pay for it from her untaxed income, arguing the fire was an example of the “inconsistency of the relationship between the monarchy and the taxpayer.”

Queen Elizabeth acted quickly. To fund repairs, she opened parts of Buckingham Palace to the public for the first time. In another shrewd move, she volunteered to start paying income tax—a tax the sovereign had been exempt from since 1937. She also reduced the civil list, the number of royals whose expenses are paid by parliament. To make up the difference, she used her income from the inherited Duchy of Lancaster. “She’s always believed in keeping up with the times,” says Cole. “It was a token effort to join the real world.”

Queen Appeals for ‘Gentleness’ and ‘Good Humor’

The “Annus Horribilis Speech,” as it has come to be known, marked the close of a difficult 40th year in power for Queen Elizabeth II. She closed with a plea for kindness: “No institution…should expect to be free from the scrutiny of those who give it their loyalty and support, not to mention those who don’t. But we are all part of the same fabric of our national society and…scrutiny…can be just as effective if it is made with a touch of gentleness, good humor and understanding.” 

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