In the three decades since Elizabeth II’s famous speech, the phrase annus horribilis has passed into popular currency. Perhaps – at a time the monarchy’s popularity and relevance seemed at a low ebb – the fact that the phrase endured shows that the monarchy still retained its pulling power.


Or perhaps the fact the Queen chose Latin, a dead language, to describe 1992 showed the very reason people were finding the monarchy less relevant. “One’s Bum Year” was how The Sun newspaper translated the words, with deliberate crudity.

You couldn’t make up the saga of that year. Luckily for the media, they didn’t have to. For the British newspapers locked into a vicious circulation war, it was fortunate, and perhaps even now for the producers of season five of The Crown, due to debut shortly. But even a bald chronicle of events of 1992 shows how the blows kept coming, in a volley as relentless as the fusillade of gunfire on a Balmoral shooting day.

What happened to the royal family in 1992?

January 1992 saw the Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, and his Duchess Sarah, telling the Queen their marriage was effectively at an end; characteristically, she asked them to wait before making any definite decision. But later that same month, the Daily Mail published photographs of Fergie (as Sarah Ferguson was nicknamed by the tabloids) with American millionaire Steve Wyatt.

Things looked up briefly in early February as the country marked the 40th anniversary of the Queen’s accession, the BBC’s documentary Elizabeth R attracted a record-breaking audience of around 18 million. In the programme, she memorably stated: “I think as a human being one always has hope.” But celebrations of the anniversary had been generally muted; plans for a commemorative fountain in Parliament Square were abandoned at the Queen’s own request.

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Soon afterwards, the Queen’s statement about hope began to look almost ironic. In February, a visit by Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, to India saw the princess photographed ostentatiously alone in front of that icon of romance, the Taj Mahal. In March it was announced the Duke and Duchess of York would indeed legally separate; in April Princess Anne’s divorce from Captain Mark Phillips became final. These separations added up to a body blow for an institution that had, since Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s days, presented itself as a family monarchy. The marriages of three out of four of the Queen’s children had now, historically, gone down in flames.

More seriously, also in June came publication (and serialisation in the Sunday Times) of biographer Andrew Morton’s Diana: Her True Story; a damning portrayal of what Diana saw as an unfeeling husband and an uncaring monarchy. The Queen and Prince Philip held a crisis meeting with the Waleses at Windsor and urged greater efforts, but those moves foundered on Diana’s reluctance – and on mounting evidence that she had collaborated with Morton to tell her story.

August 1992 saw the Daily Mirror publishing photographs of the Duchess of York by a swimming pool, having her toes sucked by her ‘financial advisor’ John Bryan. Caught accompanying her daughters on the annual royal holiday in Balmoral when the story broke, Fergie had to face the Queen’s cold anger before fleeing south. Worse for the royals was shortly to come when, just a few days later, the Sun published the ‘Squidgygate’ tapes – conversations between Diana (‘Squidgy’) and her friend James Gilbey, in which she complained of the Windsors: “After all I’ve done for this fucking family…”

All-out war?

The three-year-old tapes emerged now in the context of a tabloid circulation war: The Sun were striking back at the Mirror (which, in turn, would soon retaliate with the transcript of a deeply embarrassing conversation between Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles). But what’s significant is the climate that permitted that to happen. Magazines abroad were even less restrained than the British press in their coverage; freelance paparazzi were using ever more extreme methods to try and entrap Diana, in particular, into an undignified reaction – the so-called lucrative ‘loon shot’.

There were more challenges on the world stage: a visit to Australia by the Queen and Prince Philip in February 1992 had seen a less enthusiastic reception than had greeted them on previous trips. A state visit to Germany in October – where the memory of RAF wartime bombings was still fresh – saw eggs lobbed at the Queen as she toured Dresden. When Charles and Diana visited Korea in November, the press dubbed them ‘the Glums’.

Queen Elizabeth II flanked by her husband Duke of Edinburgh (C) and the Lord Mayor of Sydney Frank Sartor (R) unveils a commemorative plaque at the Town Hall in Sydney on February 20, 1992 during a state visit to Australia. (Photo by Stephen DUPONT / AFP) (Photo by STEPHEN DUPONT/AFP via Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, unveil a commemorative plaque at the Town Hall in Sydney on 20 February 1992 during a state visit to Australia. (Photo by STEPHEN DUPONT/AFP via Getty Images)

On the home front, the monarchy was facing tough questions; as far back as the spring, there had been gloomy discussions about the long-term future of the monarchy. There was talk about the Queen’s exemption from paying tax, about the extensive royal family supported by the Civil List – and that was even before the Windsor fire.

The 1992 fire at Windsor Castle

On 20 November 1992, the Queen’s 45th wedding anniversary, fire from a workman’s light ripped through a hundred rooms of Windsor Castle: historic home of the monarchy, uninsurable and uninsured. When Elizabeth II arrived to view the damage, her devastation was plain to see. As always, she played down her feelings, but in a letter to her mother said the latter’s support that day had made all the difference to her “sanity”. The trauma was compounded when the press – and a public in the grip of a recession – rejected the Conservative government’s instinctive declaration that the nation would pay the multi-million pound repair bill.

WINDSOR, UNITED KINGDOM - NOVEMBER 20: Windsor Castle on fire. (Photo by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)
Windsor Castle on fire, 1992. (Photo by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

Even newspapers from whom the royals might once have expected support joined the critical voices. The Mail wrote that “the impression given is of an out-of-touch Government pandering to the wealthy insensitivity of an out-of-favour Royal Family.” In The Times, one columnist voiced the feelings of many: “While the castle stands, it is theirs, but when it burns down, it is ours.”

Calls for the Queen to pay repair bills on what (not altogether accurately) was seen as her own home were linked to suggestions that she should pay taxes. In fact, that question was one to which many in the Palace had already proved receptive. Talks with the Inland Revenue had begun in February. Now, some four months before any announcement had been expected, came news that the Queen and Prince Charles would indeed pay tax on their incomes from the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall. Elizabeth II would, moreover, take over financial responsibility for many of her family members formerly subsidised from public funds; and open the state rooms of Buckingham Palace to the public to help with the Windsor repair costs.

The Queen's Annus Horribilis speech

It was only four days after the Windsor fire that the Queen appeared in London at a Guildhall lunch to mark her 40 years on the throne. In a voice husky from a heavy cold – made all the worse by the smoke at Windsor – she told her fellow guests that 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 correspondent was later revealed to be her former assistant private secretary, Sir Edward Ford. The term is a riff on the ‘annus mirabilis’, wonderful year. But in the 1990s the royal family weren’t having many of those.)

The term is a riff on the ‘annus mirabilis’, wonderful year. But in the 1990s the royal family weren’t having many of those

Reporting the speech the next day, the Telegraph declared that “the Queen broke with tradition yesterday by publicly admitting the human frailty of members of the Royal Family.”

Though “no institution” could or should expect to be free from scrutiny, she had said, “Scrutiny… can be just as effective if it is made with a touch of gentleness, good humour and understanding. This sort of questioning can also act, and it should do so, as an effective engine for change.” Change would be a recurring theme, an often-heard word, in her speeches ahead.

The year, sadly for the royals, was not yet over. In December 1992, Buckingham Palace announced “that with regret, the Prince and Princess of Wales have decided to separate”. The statement declared that “their constitutional positions are unaffected”, but that opened the window in a whole new vista of problems. Bookmakers William Hill narrowed their odds regarding Prince Charles being forced to renounce his position as heir to the throne. The Queen and Prince Philip were said, as well they might, to be ‘saddened’ by the situation.

There was better news when, only days later, Princess Anne married Commander Timothy Laurence at Crathie Church in the town of Crathie, near Balmoral (the Church of Scotland, unlike that of England, allowing remarriage after divorce). But the ceremony was almost excessively low-key, the Queen being one of only 30 guests regaled on a reception of sandwiches.

The Queen’s Christmas message in 1992 declared that though, like “many other families, we have lived through some difficult days this year”, she would meet the challenges of the new year with “fresh hope”. Even that message, however, brought trouble in its wake when The Sun leaked a transcript of the speech in advance of the broadcast. Uncontroversial though the Queen’s words might have been, the breach of protocol was an affront; and for the first time the palace sued for, and received, damages for breach of copyright. (The money was given to charity.)

Of course, the royals’ problems continued through the 1990s; and other years in this 21st century have been described as anni horribiles. But 1992 had been pivotal – a benchmark against which to measure future difficulties. Small wonder that – just 30 years on – there’s establishment concern about its traumas being revived in the controversial season five of The Crown.


Sarah Gristwood is the author of Elizabeth: Queen and Crown and The Tudors in Love.


Sarah GristwoodHistorian, biographer and broadcaster

Sarah Gristwood is a best-selling biographer, historian, and broadcaster, and a regular media commentator on royal and historical affairs. Her latest book is 'The Tudors in Love: The Courtly Code Behind the Last Medieval Dynasty' (2021)