Speaking to a crowd gathered at the London Guildhall on November 24, 1992, Elizabeth II reflected on the previous 11 months: “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”—Latin for “horrible year.” The British queen added, “I suspect that I am not alone in thinking it so.”
Over the course of 1992, the royal family endured a cascade of misfortune, from the breakdowns of three royal marriages to a devastating fire at Windsor Castle. The British press and public followed these events with almost voyeuristic glee, pulling back the curtain on the notoriously private family and questioning the very institution of the monarchy itself.
This concentration of ill-fated happenings plays a central role in the fifth season of “The Crown,” Netflix’s award-winning dramatization of Elizabeth’s reign, which premieres on November 9. The season begins around late 1990 and ends sometime before Princess Diana’s death in a car crash in August 1997. A new cast led by Imelda Staunton (as Elizabeth) and Jonathan Pryce (as the queen’s husband, Prince Philip) presides over this tumultuous period in royal history, continuing the show’s tradition of replacing its actors every two seasons. Dominic West and Elizabeth Debicki round out the cast as Prince Charles and Diana, respectively.
Ahead of the series’ return to the small screen, here’s what you need to know about Elizabeth’s annus horribilis and other events dramatized in season five, which is poised to be the show’s most controversial yet.
What events does season five cover?
Season four of “The Crown” concluded with an episode titled “War.” Set around Christmas 1990, the episode’s name referred to a number of conflicts: the battle raging between Charles and Diana, who have been unhappily married for almost a decade; the push to oust Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher from office; and ongoing clashes between the rebellious Diana and the more traditional royal family.
Season five picks up where “War” left off, chronicling the separations or divorces of three royal couples (Charles and Diana, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, and Princess Anne and Mark Phillips). Key moments featured include the publication of a tell-all book about Diana in 1992, the leak of the “Camillagate” tapes in 1993 and Diana’s precedent-breaking 1995 interview with Martin Bashir of the BBC.
Beyond these affairs of the heart, the season addresses such topics as the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991; the return of British-controlled Hong Kong to China in 1997; and the royals’ relationship with Conservative Party leader John Major, who served as prime minister from 1990 to 1997. Another storyline of note is the royals’ introduction to Egyptian businessman Mohamed al-Fayed and his son Dodi, who died alongside Diana in the 1997 car crash. (The pair’s deaths will be addressed in season six of “The Crown,” which is currently filming in Europe.)
Why is season five so controversial?
Previous seasons of the series have sparked spirited debate over historical accuracy in period dramas. But this season is particularly controversial because “it’s dramatizing events that are so close to the present day,” says Carolyn Harris, a historian at the University of Toronto in Canada. Whereas seasons one and two of “The Crown” explored comparatively distant events of the 1950s and ’60s, season five touches on readily remembered topics that many viewers already have “strong opinions on,” she adds.
Another concern is the timing of the new episodes, which arrive just two months after Elizabeth’s death at age 96 and her eldest son’s ascension to the throne as Charles III. “We’re seeing some of the most difficult moments in Charles’ personal life … being brought to the public’s attention once again,” Harris says.
One notable critic of “The Crown” is actor Judi Dench, who recently called for Netflix to add a disclaimer at the start of every episode. “[T]he closer the drama comes to our present times, the more freely it seems willing to blur the lines between historical accuracy and crude sensationalism,” the stage and screen legend wrote in a letter to the London Times. Dench’s comments followed similarly reproving remarks made by Major, who described the series’ depiction of Charles attempting to force his mother to abdicate in 1991 as “malicious nonsense.”
Perhaps in response to these critiques, Netflix added a disclaimer to its official trailer on October 21, updating the YouTube video’s description to read, “Inspired by real events, this fictional dramatization tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II and the political and personal events that shaped her reign.” Previously, the streaming service had never explicitly marketed the show as “fictional.”
Reflecting on the controversy, showrunner Peter Morgan tells Variety, “I think we must all accept that the 1990s [were] a difficult time for the royal family, and … Charles will almost certainly have some painful memories of that period. But that doesn’t mean that, with the benefit of hindsight, history will be unkind to him, or the monarchy. The show certainly isn’t. I have enormous sympathy for a man in his position—indeed, a family in their position.”
What happened during Elizabeth’s annus horribilis?
The 40th year of the queen’s reign, 1992 saw a series of embarrassing events shatter the British public’s vision of the royals as “the perfect family,” according to biographer Andrew Morton. Before the 1990s, “trusted editors, writers, interviewers and program-makers” often presented a sanitized, royal-approved version of the “dutiful, sober and industrious family,” writes Morton in Diana: Her True Story. But as tabloids proliferated and gross invasions of privacy became the norm, the relationship between the royals and the press deteriorated—a trend that continues today.
The year kicked off with the publication of photos linking Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, to Texas millionaire Steve Wyatt. Married to the queen’s second-eldest son, Andrew, since 1986, the duchess, also known as Fergie, separated from her husband that March. In August, Fergie once again made headlines after the Daily Mirror leaked intimate snapshots of her with financial advisor John Bryan. Andrew and Fergie officially divorced in May 1996, just over four years after their separation.
“I must explain that the British press at the moment is completely and utterly cruel and abusive and so invasive,” Ferguson told Oprah Winfrey in a 1996 interview. “It is very cruel and very painful when you are going to try and find the feelings within to be on such a public stage.”
In April 1992, a second royal marriage came to a close, with the queen’s daughter, Princess Anne, divorcing Phillips, her husband of almost 20 years. Both rumored to have engaged in extramarital affairs, the couple had separated three years prior, in 1989—the same year an anonymous source stole private letters written to Anne by Timothy Laurence, a household assistant for the queen, and shared them with the Sun. Anne and Laurence wed in December 1992 and have been together ever since.
Why was 1992 a turning point in Charles and Diana’s marriage?
Anne and Andrew’s older brother, Charles, navigated similar romantic troubles in 1992. Within a few years of Charles and Diana’s storybook 1981 wedding, the couple’s relationship had irretrievably broken down. Both had extramarital affairs: Charles with his former girlfriend (and current queen consort) Camilla Parker Bowles and Diana with army captain James Hewitt, among others. As the prince observed in a 1986 letter, he and his wife were fundamentally incompatible, making the marriage “dreadfully destructive” for both. In 1988, Vanity Fair offered a stark assessment of Diana’s everyday life:
She was the love object of everyone in the world except her husband. For the galling truth was that, despite all her beauty and style, she bored him. And she was faced in her mid-20s with something she found chilling to contemplate: a fairy-tale marriage that had cooled into an arrangement.
By 1992, rumors of the couple’s estrangement were rampant. That spring, Morton published Diana: Her True Story, a searing biography that contained intimate details of Diana’s mental health struggles and Charles’ ongoing affair with Camilla. Upon the book’s release, both Morton and Diana denied that the princess was directly involved in its creation; only after Diana’s death in 1997 did Morton reveal she’d provided audio tapes that served as the basis for his reporting. (Charles also worked with the press to tell his side of the story, collaborating with journalist Jonathan Dimbleby to produce an authorized biography in 1994.)
“Morton’s book effectively shattered the mystique of the monarchy,” Carly Ledbetter, a reporter who covers the royals for HuffPost, tells History.com. “One could easily conclude that the Firm”—an unofficial nickname for the royal family—“was messy, it was human and it wasn’t as impenetrable as everyone thought.”
Following the publication of Morton’s book, the queen and Prince Philip called Diana and Charles to Windsor Palace for a meeting on their marriage. As Morton wrote in a later edition of the book, the older royals flatly refused to “countenance even the idea of separation, in any form,” until Diana and Charles tried to resolve their differences.
Rather than bringing the couple closer together, the remainder of 1992 only widened the growing gulf between them. In August, the Sun leaked a transcript of a phone call in which James Gilbey, heir to a gin company, repeatedly called Diana “darling” and the pet name “Squidgy.” She, in turn, used an expletive when referencing all she’d done for the royal family.
Three months later, in an episode popularly dubbed “Camillagate,” People published details of an intimate call between Camilla and Charles. The heir to the throne joked about his desire to “live inside your trousers or something,” prompting Camilla to ask, “What are you going to turn into, a pair of knickers?” In response, Charles remarked that it would be “just my luck” to come back as a tampon.
“The backlash [to Charles’ comments] was savage,” wrote Diana’s former bodyguard, Ken Wharfe, in his 2017 memoir. “Establishment figures normally loyal to the future king and country were appalled, and some questioned the prince’s suitability to rule.”
As Dominic West, who plays Charles in the new season of “The Crown,” tells Entertainment Weekly, contemporary observers are perhaps more likely to view the couple behind the leaked call in a sympathetic light.
“I remember thinking it was something so sordid and deeply, deeply embarrassing [at the time],” he says. “Looking back on it … what you’re conscious of is that the blame was not with these two people, two lovers, who were having a private conversation. What’s really [clear now] is how invasive and disgusting was the press’ attention to it.”
Charles and Diana’s last-ditch attempt to reconcile—a four-day trip to South Korea in November 1992—failed, and on December 9, just two weeks after Elizabeth’s annus horribilis speech, Buckingham Palace officially announced the couple’s separation. They divorced in August 1996; Charles wed Camilla in 2005.
How did the annus horribilis affect the monarchy?
Capping off the personal turmoil experienced by the royal family in 1992 was the November 20 fire at Windsor Castle. Ignited by a faulty spotlight in a private chapel, the blaze destroyed 115 rooms in the royal residence and took 225 firefighters some 15 hours to extinguish. Most of the castle’s historic art and treasures remained undamaged, and no one was seriously injured. But the structure itself—the oldest inhabited castle in the world, dating to the 11th century—required extensive repairs.
The fire marked a “personal blow [to] the queen, as Windsor Castle was one of her favorite residences,” says Harris. “It was where she’d spent the Second World War, and it was where she would spend the Covid-19 pandemic. It was where the queen tended to go in times of crisis, but it also [represented] the monarchy, the name of the dynasty: the House of Windsor. … So a fire at Windsor Castle really seemed to symbolize the monarchy in jeopardy.”
Initially, Prime Minister Major proposed that British taxpayers foot the multimillion-pound restoration bill. But politicians, the public and the press alike rejected this plan, pointing out the irony of taxpayers covering the costs when the queen herself paid no income tax. In response to the backlash, Major announced that the queen would begin doing exactly that—a change she had reportedly suggested to him weeks before the fire. To help fund the restoration, the crown also opened Buckingham Palace to the public for the first time, charging visitors £8 for entry and ultimately covering 70 percent of the total bill of £36.5 million.
In her annus horribilis speech, delivered just days after the “tragic fire at Windsor,” Elizabeth referred to the incident as simply the latest episode in “these last months of worldwide turmoil and uncertainty.” Addressing the mounting criticism leveled at her family, she acknowledged that “no institution—city, monarchy, whatever—should expect to be free from the scrutiny of those who give it their loyalty and support, not to mention those who don’t.” At the same time, the queen added, “scrutiny … can be just as effective if it is made with a touch of gentleness, good humor and understanding.”
The Windsors certainly weren’t the first British royals to face public criticism, much of it aimed at whether their conduct was “in keeping with the wider values of the country,” says Harris. In light of the younger royals’ marriage troubles, for instance, Brits debated whether Elizabeth had parented her children to the exacting moral standards she’d been known for before the annus horribilis. Royal scandals “became bigger than the people involved,” Harris adds. “They became political discussions about the future of the monarchy [or] where society was headed, where the divorce rate was going, how children were being raised.”
Horrible as it was, 1992 didn’t irrevocably damage the royal family’s reputation. (Whether the same can be said of more recent headline-making years, from 2019 to 2021, is up for debate.) Senior royals convened a “Way Ahead” group that sought to make the centuries-old monarchy more responsive to current events and the changing tides of public opinion. Weathering such crises as Diana’s death in 1997 and her grandson Harry’s exit from the royal family in January 2020, the queen maintained a high level of popularity among the British public until her death in September.
At the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, the monarchy was a “distant and remote institution,” Vernon Bogdanor, a political scientist at King’s College London, told the Guardian in 2012. By the end of her life, he added, it was “a much more utilitarian institution, to be judged by what it contributes to public service and community feeling.”
Elizabeth ascended to the throne in 1952, at the age of 25, “so in many ways, the public hadn’t known her or her opinions particularly well before” she became queen, says Harris. Comparatively, Charles, who took the crown at age 73, has spent a lifetime sharing his opinions on everything from the threat of climate change to architecture.
“We see a shift in generations, where there was a great deal of the queen’s life … that was kept out of the public eye, compared to Charles’ personal life unfolding before the audience of the press and the wider public, [with] people weighing in on how [he and the rest of the royals] should behave,” Harris continues.
She adds, “Certainly those kinds of debates had happened previously,” including when Elizabeth’s uncle Edward VIII abdicated the throne in 1936 to marry socialite Wallis Simpson, “but the 1990s really accelerates the public passing judgment on the personal lives of members of the royal family.”