The life of Queen Elizabeth II, The Nineties: Divorce, death, the Windsor fire and an annus horribilis

·5-min read
 (AFP/Getty Images)
(AFP/Getty Images)

The 1990s were to prove the most testing of Her Majesty’s long and illustrious reign.The year 1992, in particular, was trying for the Queen as her children’s marriages unravelled. The year ended with Windsor Castle damaged by fire, threatening one of the world’s greatest collections of art. The Queen and the Duke of York helped to rescue priceless works as fire brigades from five counties fought the flames.

It took 250 firefighters 15 hours and 1.5 million gallons of water to put the blaze out. One hundred rooms were damaged, which was started by a spotlight shining on to a curtain.

An intense public debate was sparked about whether the taxpayer should foot the bill for repairs as the Government and not the Royal Family owns the castle. The Queen agreed to meet 70 per cent of the costs, and opened Buckingham Palace to the public to generate extra funds. The £40 million restoration was completed in November 1997.

In a speech that Her Majesty delivered to mark the 40th anniversary of her accession at the Guildhall she acknowledged that some of the criticism levelled at her family and the institution should be heard. Magnanimously, the Queen conceded, “No institution — city, monarchy, whatever — should expect to be free from the scrutiny of those who give it their loyalty and support.”

It was no wonder that the Queen dubbed 1992 as an “annus horribilis”.

The Windsor Castle Fire, 1992 (Tim Graham/Getty Images)
The Windsor Castle Fire, 1992 (Tim Graham/Getty Images)

Her sons Charles and Andrew separated from their wives and Princess Anne divorced Mark Phillips.

The Queen and Prince Philip met Charles and Diana for an intervention of sorts. Philip and Diana also exchanged letters that summer in which the duke expressed his disappointment at her and Charles’s extramarital affairs and asked her to see their slip-ups from the other’s point of view. At one point he seemed ready to give up, writing, “I will always do my utmost to help you and Charles to the best of my ability. . . but I am quite ready to concede that I have no talent as a marriage counsellor.”

In December, Prime Minister John Major publicly announced the pair’s “amicable separation”. The Queen reportedly wanted to let Diana continue to use her royal title HRH after her divorce but Charles insisted on removing it.

The divorce was finalised on August 28, 1996.

Years later, in a 2017 documentary to mark the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death, her sons told how their parents’ acrimonious split left them devastated as it played out in front of a world audience. Princes William and Harry revealed that they felt as though they weren’t getting enough time with Charles or Diana and were “bouncing’ between them.

Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh arrive at Buckingham Palace to attend the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales (AFP/Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh arrive at Buckingham Palace to attend the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales (AFP/Getty Images)

Diana’s death, just a year after her divorce from Charles, would see Her Majesty show the world a side the public had never witnessed. The Queen’s instinct was to keep the teenage princes at Balmoral to comfort them.

But for the first time in her reign she faced public serious criticism. She rescued the situation by returning to the Palace and delivering a heartfelt speech to the country. From that moment everyone saw a grandmother showing her concern, love and protection of her two grandsons, who had tragically just lost their mother in a car crash in Paris.

It showed Her Majesty’s grasp of the magnitude of the situation. She had to act and she did so decisively. It was a watershed moment. The criticism subsided.

Some of the happiest times of the Queen’s life had been spent on board HMY Britannia. But, in 1997, it was time for the Queen to say an emotional goodbye. At the ceremony at the end of the yacht’s 44-year service, the Queen wiped away a tear for the first time in public. Britannia had held a special place in the Queen’s heart since the day she christened it with a bottle of Empire wine on the Clyde, in 1953.

Queen Elizabeth II wipes away a tear at the decommissioning of the Royal Yacht Britannia, 1997 (Rex Features)
Queen Elizabeth II wipes away a tear at the decommissioning of the Royal Yacht Britannia, 1997 (Rex Features)

But 1997 was not entirely a year of sadness as Her Majesty and Prince Philip celebrated their golden wedding anniversary and their youngest son, Prince Edward, married Sophie Rhys-Jones.

Namibia, South Africa, Poland and South Korea were included in the 22 state visits in this decade. On a visit to the United States in 1991, Her Majesty made the first address to the US Congress by a British monarch.

That year, the Queen also met Nelson Mandela when he was representing the African National Congress as an observer of the Commonwealth conference in Zambia. Mr Mandela, who had recently been freed from prison, appeared at the summit ahead of the traditional banquet. The Queen immediately broke precedent and invited him to join them at the banquet.

One of his first acts as president of South Africa was to return his country to the Commonwealth.

The friendship between Mr Mandela and the Queen was an enduring one. He famously referred to Her Majesty as “my friend Elizabeth”. She returned the compliment and, in correspondence between the two, signed off, “Your sincere friend, Elizabeth.”

 (Queen Elizabeth and South African President Nelson Mandela)
(Queen Elizabeth and South African President Nelson Mandela)

In 1994 the Queen also visited Russia, the first British monarch to set foot on the country’s soil. (In 1908, Edward VII got as far as sailing into Russian waters for lunch with the Tsar.) The Queen and Prince Philip returned to India again in 1997 in the Queen’s first major tour of the country since 1961.

The trip marked the 50th anniversary of India’s independence, but there was no grand reconciliation between the country and its former colonial master. Instead, the Queen’s visit was overshadowed by her foreign secretary, Robin Cook, who was lambasted in the press for saying that the UK could mediate between India and Pakistan in the row over Kashmir. The headlines were of a “new British imperialism”.

One part of the tour did, however, go well — the visit to Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. The Queen laid a wreath at the spot where, in April 1919, a platoon of British soldiers killed 379 people and injured 1,100. It was one of the worst atrocities in the history of British India.

Not for the first time, the monarch had smoothed over potential hostility.