New ‘annus horribilis’ for the Queen? How history from 1992 threatens to repeat itself
“An annus horribilis” is how Queen Elizabeth (95) described her year in 1992 during an unprecedented candid speech. Although the British Queen was due to celebrate her 40th anniversary that year, there was no celebration. In 1992 it became clear for the first time that the members of the court do not always go through life as one big happy family. How could the Queen cope with this royal crisis? And is she reaching for her ‘disaster plan’ again because of all the fuss this year?
Will the British crown survive, or is the monarchy in danger of falling? For the first time since 1992, Britons from all walks of life don’t seem to shy away from asking whether the royal family is still up to date.
There can be little doubt that the tabloids and ‘scandal press’ are among them for much: although the year is only halfway through, the royal problems are mounting rapidly, and the Queen has already had a particularly hard time.
Her heart was broken by the death of her husband Prince Philip and her grandson Prince Harry and Meghan were even more heartbroken during their infamous interview with Oprah Winfrey. And now, too, Elizabeth and the court have been hit again: her son Prince Andrew is officially charged with sexual assault, while her grandson Prince Harry is bustling with his upcoming and explosive memoir.
While 2021 may be a “disaster year” for the British royals, it is not the first time the royal family has struggled through such a difficult period.
For in 1992, too, the Queen said her year was “horrible”: in London’s Guild Hall in the heart of the city, the Queen said in a hoarse voice – indicating the fatigue and worry she carried – that 1992 was not a year is what I will look back on with undivided pleasure. The 500 guests almost fell off their chairs from the candour: “It became, in the words of my well-disposed letter writers, an annus horribilis. And I don’t think I’m the only one who thinks that way.”
It was the first time the monarch made such a public response to the problems that befell her. For example, the divorce of heir apparent Charles and Diana was widely covered in the media. That same year, Prince Andrew’s marriage to Sarah Ferguson broke down over Fergie’s “romp” with her financial adviser – John Bryan, later Astrid Coppens’ ex – also captured by paparazzi. The divorce between Princess Anne and Mark Phillips also followed in 1992, and then there was the devastating fire at Windsor Castle, to which the people’s reaction was devastating.
Attacked by the press
For example, the fire at Windsor Castle was called “tragic” by the Queen, but she made no mention of a royal contribution to the costs involved in refurbishing the castle. The damage was estimated at more than 70 million euros, but those costs would be passed on to the taxpayers. Immediately there was great indignation: the British newspapers were unusually harsh and even called the Queen on their front pages.
“Why the Queen should listen to us,” Daily Mail headlined page-wide. “Both the Royal Family and the British Conservative Government have no idea what the people think. The Queen and her ministers misunderstand the situation. They are not aware of what they are risking.” It also inspired other newspapers such as the Daily Mirror: “A dishonest woman” they wrote above a full-page photo of the Queen. The caption was also mocking: “This old lady’s house was destroyed by fire.”
“In 1992, a certain myth of the monarchy came to an end,” said writer-journalist Andrew Morton, Princess Diana’s great confidant. Historian David Starkey was also unhappy: “It is impossible for members of the royal family to claim that they uphold moral values,” he said. “Who would want to take an example of Prince Charles’ divorce and his relationship with another’s wife, or of the Duchess of York’s intimacies with her lover, in front of her daughters?”
According to the British media, there was only one solution: the Queen should finally start contributing to the state income to restore the waned confidence in the monarchy. A message that reached the Queen: the people’s anger took such forms that the Queen indeed ‘suddenly’ thought it advisable to announce that she too would henceforth pay income tax. For the first time, there was a change in the subservience of citizens, which had been the norm for decades, and thus also led to a changing functioning of the monarchy.
In the years that followed, the Queen continued to roll out her ‘disaster plan’: she worked steadily to strengthen the position of her family and boost their image. The Queen paid more taxes, the number of members of the royal house – paid by the taxpayer – was reduced and ‘The Firm’ now opted for more frugality instead of an extravagance.
Yet the very survival of the monarchy was really jeopardized one more time later, and that was after Diana’s death. The people were overflowing with emotion, and they also wanted to see emotion and tears in their Queen. One day after the tragic news of their mother’s death, it was ‘shamed’ that Elizabeth simply took her grandchildren to church as if nothing had happened.
While countless flowers and honors were laid for Diana in London, criticism grew against the royal family labeled as cold and heartless. “Show us you care,” the tabloids ran a big headline, even demanding the Queen’s return to London. Five days after Diana’s death, she departed from her residence in Scotland and delivered a much-discussed TV speech in which she commemorated Diana.
Her court was far from reassured: they feared that the Queen would encounter angry citizens and be booed during her next public appearance. Yet the Queen managed to save the furniture and the crown even then: by hanging the flag at Buckingham Palace at half-mast and bowing low before Diana’s coffin, she got the British on her side again.
Does history repeat itself?
The British Queen is once again confronted with critical voices. As the royal family is embroiled in one scandal after another, questions are being raised about the court’s functioning and the monarchy’s right to exist for the first time in years.
The coming months will show where the most blows fall, but experts say the British royals will also overcome these – and by extension, the undoubtedly many more crises to follow: “The monarchy is evolving. But the Queen doesn’t go with all the winds. She is realistic about changes. Her circumspect demeanor may seem old-fashioned, but it also offers security. She understands it’s not about short-lived popularity but long-term respect,” said royal author William Shawcross, who wrote several biographies about the royals. “The Queen can close the door behind her troubles, to always be cheerful and happy outwardly.”
The Queen, through all the turmoil, is still in full ‘steadfastness’. In fact, according to her son Prince Charles, the continuity his mother provides is invaluable to the country. “She’s an anchor. She assures us that something has remained timeless in times when everything is constantly changing,” he said earlier.
Lord William Rees-Mogg, former editor-in-chief of The Times, said earlier during a major debate that he considered it unthinkable that the monarchy would fall, as opponents of the court and royals have been demanding for years: “Monarchies are not abolished, they after lost wars or during revolutions.”
“Above all, there is Elizabeth’s desire to maintain the monarchy. The Queen understands that the monarch serves the institution,” said Clive Irving, author of The Last Queen: How Queen Elizabeth II Saved The Monarchy.
“She understands fully and clearly that whatever the mess is, the monarch must be above it. You can now see this happening with the enormous havoc that is going on: you will not find the ‘fingerprints’ of the Queen anywhere. And however this unfolds, no one will blame the Queen. Presumably, that’s exactly how she wants it. For if the monarch remains untouched, then the monarchy will also survive.”