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The Windsor fire, Fergie’s shame and TWO royal splits

HER voice husky with flu, the Queen summed up the worst year of her reign with typical understatement.

On a November evening in the 15th Century splendour of London’s Guildhall, she told guests gathered to celebrate her 40th anniversary as monarch: “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure.

The most difficult year of the Queen's long reign is widely considered to be 1992

The most difficult year of the Queen’s long reign is widely considered to be 1992

“In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an annus horribilis.”

The horrible year had begun badly — and just kept on getting worse.

In January, at Sandringham, she was confronted by her favourite son Prince Andrew and his wife telling her their marriage was all but over.

The meeting was brief and painful. Sarah Ferguson later wrote: “She asked me to reconsider, to be strong and go forward.”

The couple agreed to delay any decision for six months.

But later that month embarrassing photos of the Duchess of York holidaying with her Texan playboy lover Steve Wyatt were published, leading to a legal separation in March.

Meanwhile, the “War of the Waleses” was also occupying the front pages.

Charles and Diana had lived relatively separate lives since the mid-1980s while trying to keep up a show of public togetherness.

This was now cracking.

In India in February, Diana made a thinly veiled statement on the state of her marriage ­­by going alone to visit the Taj Mahal — the great monument to love — while Charles was at a business meeting.

She told reporters the visit had been “very healing” and when asked what she meant, replied: “Work that out for yourself.”

In April, Princess Anne’s divorce from Mark Phillips was formalised. Throughout these dramas, there had been no criticism of the Queen, but it was clear the royal brand was suffering.

She and the Duke of Edinburgh felt the change in the air on a visit to Australia in February, where their reception was only lukewarm.

The wife of the Australian prime minister even refused to curtsey.

Philip, ever the guardian of family affairs, told Diana, in the nicest possible terms, and Sarah more bluntly, that their behaviour was damaging the monarchy.

But the worst was still to come, though its plotting had begun the year before.

As royal expert Robert Lacey writes: “The turning point in the history of the modern monarchy occurred in a transport cafe in North Ruislip in the summer of 1991.”

Over bacon and eggs, Dr James Colthurst, Diana’s friend since her teenage years, had poured out the princess’s catalogue of marital grievances to journalist Andrew Morton.

He proposed that Morton should write a book with the princess’s covert assistance plus on-the-record testimony of family and friends who she would authorise to speak.

On June 7, 1992, the first extract from the serialisation of Diana: Her True Story appeared in The Sunday Times, and no detail of the agony going on inside the marriage was spared.

The next Saturday, Diana stood beside her mother-in-law on the balcony of Buckingham Palace for Trooping the Colour, looking as if absolutely nothing was amiss.

The collapse of Prince Charles' marriage to Princess Diana took its toll on the monarch

The collapse of Prince Charles’ marriage to Princess Diana took its toll on the monarch

The following week, at Royal Ascot, the tension was there for all to see.

Prince Philip snubbed Diana in full view of everyone in the Royal Enclosure, but at least the Princess of Wales was there. Fergie was not.

She was socially banished — then embarrassed the Queen by standing with her daughters in Windsor Great Park to watch the royal procession on its way to the races.

As the world lapped up Morton’s book, the question was yet again raised of Charles and Diana separating.

But unwilling to face up to the constitutional implications, the Queen fell back on her favourite solution — a six-month cooling-off period.

But August brought her a double dose of trouble.

She was on holiday at Balmoral when photos were published of a topless Duchess of York by a pool while her “financial adviser” John Bryan sucked her toes.

Even worse, Fergie was at Balmoral with daughters Beatrice and Eugenie when the story broke. The Queen, she recalled, was “furious”.

She did not scream or shout — that was not her way. Rather she was cold and abrupt as she berated her daughter-in-law for exposing the monarchy to such ridicule.

Fergie said later: “Her anger wounded me to the core.”

But for the sake of the children she was forced to spend three more humiliating days at Balmoral before returning to her rented home at Wentworth, Surrey.

By the week’s end it was Diana’s turn to come under the lash — with far greater consequence to the family — when The Sun published a transcript of a three-year-old phone call between her and friend James Gilbey.

Sarah Ferguson's affair with another man also emerged in 1992

Sarah Ferguson’s affair with another man also emerged in 1992

He called her Squidgy or Squidge, as well as darling, constantly during the recording, which included exchanges 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.

More dramatically, Diana called her marriage “torture”, talked of her depression and lamented her treatment by The Firm, “After all I’ve done for this f***ing family”.

In a tearful conversation after publication, Diana tried to persuade the Queen that she was being set up and hinted darkly that she believed some of her mother-in-law’s courtiers were conspiring to discredit her.

The Queen dismissed this as nonsense, her much-tried patience with Diana running out.

But both Her Majesty and Prince Charles clung to the hope the marriage could be saved and plans went ahead for the couple’s trip to South Korea in early November.

It was, as predicted, a disaster. There for all to see was a couple who could no longer stand the sight of each other. The Press dubbed them “The Glums”.

On November 13, excerpts from yet another illicit recording of a phone call, the so-called Camillagate Tape, were published.

Only a few lines were revealed but they were enough to confirm Charles was having an adulterous relationship with old flame Camilla Parker Bowles.

Charles told her: “I adore you”, and added: “Your great achievement is to love me.”

At the time, the Daily Mirror said the rest of the conversation was “too smutty” to be reported.

It was not until January of the following year that the full cringe-worthiness of the transcript was revealed: Charles: Oh, God. I’ll just live inside your trousers or something. It would be much easier!

Camilla: What are you going to turn into, a pair of knickers? Oh, you’re going to come back as a pair of knickers.

Charles: Or, God forbid, a Tampax. Just my luck!

Days after the first Camillagate story had broken, Charles arranged a shooting weekend at Sandringham with William and Harry.

Diana refused to go and told Charles she was taking the boys to Windsor.

Charles snapped and phoned the Queen.

When Her Majesty again pleaded for patience, he abandoned the training of a lifetime and shouted down the line at his mother, “Don’t you realise? She’s mad, mad, and mad!”, and slammed the receiver down.

The Royal Family was going up in smoke — and less than a week later that metaphor became literal. On November 20, 1992 — the Queen and Philip’s 45th wedding anniversary — Windsor Castle was engulfed by flames.

The fire started at 11.30am when a restorer’s lamp set a curtain alight. Flames quickly spread through the state apartments including St George’s Hall.

A fired devastated Windsor Castle that year as well

A fired devastated Windsor Castle that year as well
The charred remains of the Queen's home after the blaze

The charred remains of the Queen’s home after the blaze

Large areas of the castle were destroyed but, luckily, because rewiring and other works were in progress at the time, most of the artworks and valuables had been moved into storage.

Prince Andrew, who unlike the Queen and Prince Philip was there at the time, organised a human chain to bring out treasures that were still in place.

They managed to save all but two pieces: A rosewood sideboard and a huge 1798 painting of George III by Sir William Beechey.

One corner of the castle — fortress of the monarchy for almost 1,000 years — had been nearly reduced to smouldering rubble. The next afternoon, the Queen surveyed the damage, a small shocked figure in a hooded mackintosh.

There was a wave of sympathy for her, but on November 22 the mood turned to anger when the Government announced it would foot the bill for the restoration, expected to cost between £20million and £40million.

Throughout the year there had been rumblings about the monarchy’s expense to the taxpayer, and the Queen’s exemption from paying tax. The bill to fix up what was a private palace was for many the last straw.

In her Guildhall speech on November 24, the Queen responded: “We are all part of the same fabric of our national society and . . .  scrutiny, by one part of another, can be just as effective if it is made with a touch of gentleness, good humour and understanding.”

Two days later, PM John Major announced that she would start paying income tax.

She would also take on responsibility for paying the expenses of most of the royals on the Civil List, with taxpayers funding only her, Prince Philip and the Queen Mother.

The monarch holds her hand to her face as a firemen escorts her around the grounds of the fire-damaged Windsor Castle

The monarch holds her hand to her face as a firemen escorts her around the grounds of the fire-damaged Windsor Castle

Eventually, 70 per cent of the cost of the £36.5million Windsor repair works was met by opening Buckingham Palace to paying visitors, and by charging an entry fee into the castle precincts.

The Queen also added another £2million from her own money.

But the annus horribilis was not over. On December 9, John Major stood in the Commons and said: “It is announced from Buckingham Palace that, with regret, the Prince and Princess of Wales have decided to separate.”

The Queen did not watch the PM on TV, instead taking her corgis for a walk.

When she returned, a member of staff said how sorry he was to hear the news.

The Queen replied: “I think you’ll find it’s all for the best.”