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1992: Queen Elizabeth II's “Annus Horribilis”

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Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

The Queen’s “Annus Horribilis” Speech

At the Guildhall building in London on November 24, 1992, Queen Elizabeth II gave a luncheon speech at an event to commemorate her 40 years as monarch. During the speech she lamented her challenging year, stating:

“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. I suspect that I am not alone in thinking it so. Indeed, I suspect that there are very few people or institutions unaffected by these last months of worldwide turmoil and uncertainty.”

The Queen was serious, as 1992 had been a hard year for her and the royal family, one she didn’t want to repeat.

Horrible Year

The phrase “annus horribilis” used by the queen comes from Latin and translates to “horrible year.”

From Cassell’s Latin Dictionary: annus is a noun meaning “a circuit of the sun, a year,” and horribilis is an adjective meaning “horrible, frightful, dreadful.” Putting the two words together—in Latin the adjective follows the associated noun—you get “horrible year.”

Prince Andrew and his wife Sarah Ferguson in 1988.

Prince Andrew and his wife Sarah Ferguson in 1988.

Marital Problems Between Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s middle son, Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, had been a playboy in his youth. That all ended when he met his match with Sarah “Fergie” Ferguson.

The handsome young prince often told his friends, “She is the best thing in my life.” With their relationship in full bloom, she gushed, “I love his wit, his charm, his looks. I worship him.” But as sometimes happens in marriages, after the birth of their two daughters, Andrew and Sarah began to grow apart.

In January 1992, Prince Andrew and Sarah met with the queen to tell her that their marriage was all but over. Sarah later commented on the painful meeting, “She asked me to reconsider, to be strong and go forward.”

Sarah Ferguson and John Bryan

Not long after the meeting, photos surfaced of a topless Sarah by a pool while her “financial adviser” John Bryan sucking her toes. The damning photos made the front pages of newspapers and magazines throughout Britain and around the world, causing embarrassment for the royal family.

The queen berated her daughter-in-law for exposing the monarchy to such embarrassment. Sarah later recounted the impact of the queen’s wrath, “Her anger wounded me to the core.”

Prince Andrew and Sarah, Duchess of York, legally separated in the spring. Since their divorce in 1996, they have remained close friends and have worked together to raise their two daughters.

1973 Guernsey stamp commemorating wedding of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips.

1973 Guernsey stamp commemorating wedding of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips.

Divorce of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips

The year 1992 saw another royal marriage disintegrate. In April, the 42-year-old Princess Anne’s divorce from Mark Phillips was formalized. Troubles between the two had been brewing for years. Reports of extra-marital affairs were rampant, and the couple separated in 1989.

English law allows for an uncontested divorce if the couple are separated for at least two years. So, to the queen, the news of their divorce, though sad and disheartening, was not new.

Married In 1973

Princess Anne, an avid horse enthusiast, had met Mark Phillips at an equestrian event in Mexico City in 1968. They started dating shortly afterward. Their relationship blossomed and an engagement followed, with a grand royal wedding held in 1973.

The couple was asked after the engagement announcement, “Do you think the marriage can withstand the enormous pressures of public duty and publicity that you have to endure?” Anne replied, “Can? It’s got to, hasn’t it?” The wedding was held at Westminster Abbey, with an estimated 1,500 guests in attendance and some 500 million viewers worldwide.

Princess Diana and Prince Charles on their wedding day in 1981.

Princess Diana and Prince Charles on their wedding day in 1981.

Marital Problems for Prince Charles and Princess Diana

In what was portrayed in the press as an almost fairy tale arrangement, in 1981 Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer, 13 years his junior. She was the shy, doe-eyed youngest daughter of the queen’s former equerry (assistant) Earl Spencer.

Pretty and scandal free, the new Princess of Wales had grown up on the fringes of the royal world and knew the royal form. Though their union brought forth two boys, William and Harry, it was not a happy marriage. Private and then public cracks in their marital bond began to appear just a few years into their marriage.

The publicly tense and unstable marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana had been splashed across global headlines for years prior to the couple announcing their plans to divorce in 1992. In June, the first extract from the serialization of the book Diana: Her True Story appeared in The Sunday Times. In the article, a litany of problems in the marriage of Diana and Charles were exposed.

Princess Diana and James Gilbey

The Sun published a transcript of a three-year-old phone call between Diana and her friend James Gilbey. On the call he called her Squidgy or Squidge, as well as darling in the recording.

The transcript contained excerpts like this:

Gilbey: Squidgy, kiss me. Oh God. It’s so wonderful, isn’t it, this sort of feeling. Don’t you like it?

Diana: “I love it, I love it.”

During the phone call Diana called her marriage “torture” and talked of her depression and abominable treatment by the royal family. On the other hand, Charles was not a saint.

Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles

On November 13, excerpts from a phone call between Charles and his old flame Camilla Parker Bowles came to light, and the conversation exposed their extramarital affair in no uncertain terms. Charles told her, “I adore you,” and added, “Your great achievement is to love me.”

According to the Daily Mirror much of the conversation was “too smutty” to be printed. Charles later admitted that he and Camilla had rekindled their relationship in 1986 after his marriage to Diana had “irretrievably broken down.”

With the dirty laundry of their marriage exposed for all the world to see, Diana and Charles had to publicly acknowledge their marital problems. In December 1992, British prime minister John Major announced the legal separation of the couple to Parliament.

In August 1996, Charles, Prince of Wales, and Diana divorced, after being advised late the previous year to end the marriage.

Fire at Windsor Castle

A team of builders working on the northeast corner of the 900-year-old Windsor Castle went on their morning break, leaving a curtain draped over a scorching hot work lamp. Within minutes the curtain was ablaze; from there the fire spread quickly, gutting the northeast corner of the over 1000-room castle.

On November 20, the day of the queen and Philip’s 45th wedding anniversary, 220 firefighters arrived at the castle and spent the next several hours getting the spectacular fire under control.

No Sprinkler System

The ancient building was not equipped with a sprinkler system, allowing the fire to consume three acres of floorspace. The only royal in the castle at the time was Prince Andrew. When his mother arrived at the horrific scene, Andrew turned press reporter, telling those present, “The queen is absolutely devastated.”

“It was awful for her,” said Lord Airlie, “Awful, awful, awful. It was a dark, miserable drizzly November day and here was this fire roaring across this fantastic building. That evening the Queen returned to Buckingham Palace where her staff greeted her with their sincere condolences. Charles Anson recalled that evening:

“Prince Philip isn’t back yet and it will be quite a lonely thing for her coming back by herself on a day like this. And I remember feeling distinctly nervous about it, because what do you say? So, she came in and we all murmured: ‘We’re so sorry, Ma’am.’ And she was brilliant.

Only Two Artifacts Lost

She looked very calm and said: ‘The maddening thing is I’ve lost my voice. I have a cold and the smoke has made it so much worse.’ We all said how sorry we were again, and she said: ‘It was ghastly but we managed to save the pictures.’ This wasn’t put on. She was just going to weather it.”

Though a significant portion of the castle were damaged by the fire, due to ongoing construction work at the castle, most of the treasures were in storage. To prevent damage to the remaining priceless pieces of artwork and artifacts, Prince Andrew arranged a human-chain to save the treasures from the fire. They managed to save all but two pieces: a rosewood sideboard and a large 1798 painting of King George III.

Aerial view of Windsor Castle, 2010.

Aerial view of Windsor Castle, 2010.

Tax Problems

When the British people learned they were going to be stuck with the bill for the repairs of Windsor Castle from the fire—an estimated $30 to $60 million—they grumbled. Throughout the year citizens had voiced their discontent about the monarchy’s expense to the British taxpayer and the queen’s exemption from taxes.

The queen responded by volunteering to pay taxes from part of her income from private investments, estimated to be $85 million per year. For the queen, this was a drop in the bucket, as her total net worth was around $11 billion.

Netflix's The Crown

If you enjoy watching The Crown on Netflix, the fourth episode of season five is titled "Annus Horribilis." The episode goes over much of the same topics as this article.


Simpson, D.P. Cassell’s Latin Dictionary Latin-English English-Latin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1968.

“Annus horribilis speech, 24 November 1992” The Official Website of the British Monarchy. Accessed September 24, 2022.

Stein, Lucia and Rebecca Armitage. “Queen Elizabeth II said 1992 was her 'annus horribilis', or horrible year. But could this year have rivaled it?” ABC New Australia. December 21, 2021. Accessed September 24, 2022.

Hardman, Robert. Her Majesty: Queen Elizabeth II and Her Court. New York: Pegasus Books, 2012.

Kennedy, Kostya (Editorial Director). Queen Elizabeth II: Her Platinum Jubilee. New York: Dotdash Meredith, 2022.

Jesvig, Kara. “All the Details About Princess Anne's Husband and Past Relationships” Brides, updated July 29, 2022. Accessed September 29, 2022.

West, Doug. Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom: A Short Biography. Missouri: C&D Publications, 2022.

© 2022 Doug West