As Britain’s longest-reigning monarch – a rule of 68 years and counting – it’s fair to say that Queen Elizabeth II has probably seen it all. Prime ministers have come and gone; the royal family itself has endured scandal and division; battles on both a personal and international level have been fought, won and lost. But in 1982, not long after celebrating her 56th birthday, the Queen became embroiled in one of the most bizarre – and shocking – episodes of her reign. An event that would secure a place in history as one of the biggest royal security breaches of the 20th century.
At about 6.45am on 9 July 1982, 31-year-old painter and decorator Michael Fagan scaled one of Buckingham Palace’s 14ft perimeter walls, precariously navigated its barbed wire and spiked crown, dropped quietly – and unnoticed – into the palace grounds and tried, unsuccessfully, to access the wider palace through a ground floor window.
After shinning up a drainpipe, Fagan, who later confessed to having imbibed several glasses of whisky before enacting the audacious stunt, removed his socks and sandals before entering the palace through an unlocked window. After smashing – and accidentally cutting his hand on – a glass ashtray, which he intended to use to slash through pigeon netting on the roof as he exited the building, a bleeding Fagan, still clutching fragments of glass, began wandering the empty corridors. Fagan later claimed he had intended to slash his wrists with the glass in the presence of the Queen – an intention that had formed in his mind after smashing the ashtray.
What did Michael Fagan say to the Queen?
Precise details of what happened next have changed through the years, with Fagan himself altering his story several times. What we do know is that, at around 7.15am, the dishevelled intruder, barefoot and tipsy, eventually made his way to the Queen’s bedroom, whereupon he gazed down at his no doubt startled and highly alarmed monarch in bed.
With the poise and calm for which she is famous, the Queen apparently asked Fagan “What are you doing here?”, before summoning help via an emergency buzzer. Initial reports that she stalled Fagan in 10 minutes of conversation while waiting for security are, according to later interviews with the intruder, unfounded. “Nah! She went past me and ran out of the room; her little bare feet running across the floor… Her nightie was one of those Liberty prints and it was down to her knees,” said Fagan in a 2012 interview with The Independent.
The Queen found herself in a predicament: the police sergeant who guarded her door at night had gone off duty at 6am; the footman was outside exercising the dogs; and two phone calls made by the Queen to the palace telephonist asking to send police to her bedroom had failed to bring help. But Her Majesty eventually managed to attract the attention of the maid and together they ushered Fagan into the pantry on the pretext of supplying him with a cigarette, whereupon – according to Fagan – the returning footman “[took] a bottle of Famous Grouse from the shelf and pours me a glass of whisky”.
The Queen herself kept the dogs away from the increasingly agitated Fagan and he remained in the pantry until the police finally arrived. The official Scotland Yard report later confirmed that a piece of glass had been found in the Queen’s bed, as well as a bloodstain on the bedclothes which had come from the cut in Fagan’s thumb.
Why did Fagan break into the palace?
Motivation for Fagan’s break-in is as vague as some of the events of that morning. The unemployed father-of-four variously blamed the influence of alcohol, as well as the magic mushrooms he had put in his soup some five months earlier – the after-effects of which, he claimed, had severely impacted his mental state. Certainly, Fagan was no stranger to the law and, prior to the palace break-in, had chalked up previous convictions for heroin dealing and a number of petty crimes. He also blamed his encounter with the Queen on the disintegration of his marriage and subsequent mental breakdown – his wife, Christine, had left him just weeks earlier – and the misguided idea that the monarch could help him.
Fagan’s family seemed equally perplexed about the causes of his bizarre actions. According to The Sun newspaper, Fagan had told his wife that he was visiting a girlfriend in SW1 named Elizabeth Regina, who also had four children, but who was a little older than him. He had told his mother, too, about an SW1 “girlfriend” named Elizabeth. Fagan’s father, meanwhile, described his son as a “royal fanatic”, telling The Sun: “I think he would have put the Queen at ease straight away. He could smooth-talk anyone.”
But in a 1993 radio interview – part of BBC Radio 4’s Famous for 15 Minutes series – Fagan gave listeners more of an insight into why he had broken into the palace. “The Queen, to me, represented all that was keeping me down and [my] lack of voice,” he said. “I just wanted her to know what it feels like to just be an ordinary chap trying to make ends meet.” When asked by presenter Jenni Mills if he had wanted to be caught, Fagan agreed, saying “Yes, just to make that statement: I am, I am…”
The real history behind The Crown
Want to know even more about the real events from history that inspired the drama? Read more from the experts…
- Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth II: what was their relationship like?
- The Queen’s “rebel sister”: 8 facts about Princess Margaret
- Why did Diana and Charles’s marriage fail?
- The Crown: the real history behind series 1–3
- Princess Diana and Prince Charles’s wedding: everything you need to know
- Why was Lord Mountbatten, Prince Charles’s great-uncle, assassinated?
- Prince Charles and Camilla: a history of their romance
- Everything you need to know about Prince Charles
- Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon: why did their marriage break down?
- Who is Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall?
- Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip: 8 milestones in their marriage
- Who is Princess Anne, daughter of Queen Elizabeth II?
How many times did Michael Fagan break into Buckingham Palace?
The plot was to thicken even more when, in the wake of the scandal, it transpired that Fagan had form when it came to royal break-ins. When interviewed by police he claimed that his out-of-hours royal excursion on 9 July was, in fact, his second in a matter of weeks. The Sun stated that Fagan had actually made at least 12 visits to the palace. An earlier break-in, Fagan said, had taken place in June; just a few days later, according to an interview with The Independent, Fagan had stolen a car and driven from London to Stonehenge in search of his estranged wife, who had disappeared with the couple’s children, earning himself a three-week spell in Brixton prison.
During the June break-in, Fagan admitted to climbing a drainpipe and entering a window on the third floor. Despite being spotted by a chambermaid, who immediately ran off to alert security (after a brief search, security failed to find anything amiss) and setting off a number of alarms (these were deemed faulty and switched off without investigation), Fagan claimed he had been free to explore the royal residence at his leisure. He had apparently tried out the royal thrones for size and comfort, “like Goldilocks and the Three Bears”; wandered past the rooms of Prince Charles and Princess Diana; urinated in the royal corgis’ dog food (after failing to find a toilet) and viewed the Queen’s art collection, before setting up camp in room 108, where public gifts for the expected royal baby (Prince William) were being stored. There, he quaffed half a bottle of wine while he waited to be apprehended. When he failed to be discovered, he declared “‘Sod it’ and… went home.”
How did Fagan manage to evade security and police?
As far as scandals go, the 1982 palace break-in was seismic, both publicly and privately. Then-Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw offered his resignation to the Queen (she refused it), while Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rushed to the palace to apologise personally for the extraordinary lapse in security – a breach which had come just a year after would-be assassin Marcus Sarjeant had fired six blank shots at the Queen during the Trooping of the Colour ceremony.
The official Scotland Yard report into the incident found that the basic cause of the breakdown in security had been due to a series of failures by police officers to act properly –including alarms that were not acted upon, failures of communication between police officers, alarm beams out of alignment and the fact that the wiring of an alarm button connecting the police control room to the Queen’s bedroom was only partially completed. Unsurprisingly, the level of police patrolling outside the palace was considerably enhanced after Fagan’s audacious break-ins, and significant improvements were made to perimeter security.
10 other notable royal security breaches in history
Three German tourists scale the wall in Grosvenor Place and camp overnight in the palace grounds, believing it to be part of Hyde Park. They are discovered by two gardeners the following morning.
Stephen Goulding is jailed for three months after breaking into palace grounds. He claims he is Prince Andrew Windsor and declares that the Queen is his “mum”.
An intruder walks into St James’s Palace and drinks a whisky in Princess Alexandra’s private apartment.
After scaling the palace walls, anti-nuclear protesters hold a sit-down protest on the lawns of Buckingham Palace.
American James Miller is fined £200 and deported after he paraglides naked onto the roof of Buckingham Palace.
Student John Gillard rams Buckingham Palace’s wrought iron gates in his car at a speed of more than 50mph, tearing one of the gates off its hinges. Gillard is unhurt.
A drunken reveller enters St James’s Palace at night and reportedly knocks on Princess Anne’s door to ask for directions to Victoria station. He is apprehended before anybody answers.
Dressed as Batman, Jason Hatch, a Fathers 4 Justice campaigner, unfurls a banner on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
Convicted murderer Denis Hennessy is sentenced to four months in prison after climbing the perimeter walls of Buckingham Palace and spending 10 minutes “admiring” the gardens. When apprehended by armed police, Hennessy repeatedly asks officers: “Is Ma’am in?”
Homeless man Steven Lawlor causes £210-worth of damage after entering the Buckingham Palace grounds to sleep, breaking poster boards and a display cabinet to use as bedding. He is jailed for 28 days for trespassing and 21 days for criminal damage (served concurrently).
What happened to Michael Fagan?
In September 1982, Michael Fagan was tried for burglary at the Old Bailey as his weeping mother and sisters looked on. According to a report in The Guardian, Fagan smiled at his family, removed his false teeth, winked at girls in the gallery, groaned and wept at various points in proceedings, and was told to be quiet by the recorder, Mr James Miskin QC. Fortunately for Fagan, trespass was a civil offence in 1982 (it would become criminal in 1984), so he was only charged with burglary – ultimately, the jury took just 14 minutes to acquit him of the charge, and the judge committed Fagan for psychiatric evaluation.
Fagan spent more than three months at the top-security Park Lane psychiatric hospital in Liverpool, but was later deemed safe for release following a three-person, seven-hour mental health tribunal. He walked free in January 1983, despite an angry outcry by Conservative politicians. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher allegedly told parliament that while she understood the “deep feelings of anxiety” surrounding Fagan’s release, the Home Secretary had no jurisdiction over the case.
Delighted at his freedom, Fagan made the most of his ‘15 minutes of fame’ and in 1983 recorded a cover version of the 1977 Sex Pistols song ‘God Save the Queen’ with punk band the Bollock Brothers. But the Buckingham Palace incident would not be his final brush with the law: two years after the palace break-ins, Fagan was remanded in custody after a fracas in a beach café, and in 1987 he was found guilty of indecent exposure after allegedly running around with no trousers on in front of a woman in London. In 1997, Fagan (together with his wife and 20-year-old son) was imprisoned for four years for conspiring to supply heroin.
Fagan and his estranged wife did eventually divorce, and he was granted custody of their four children. In July 2020, the Daily Mail reported that Fagan was “lucky to be alive” after first contracting Covid-19 and then suffering a heart attack.
The Queen – who has never publicly commented on the episode – has gone on to celebrate several milestones in her reign, including, in 2015, surpassing the reign of her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria to become Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. She has also seen several other attempts by individuals to access the palace, although none have got as far as the royal bedchamber.
Charlotte Hodgman is the editor of BBC History Revealed