The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh will be celebrating their 71st wedding anniversary today, but they will be sharing the date with an infamous event in Royal history: the Windsor Castle fire.
This November 20th marks the 26th year since a fire tore through one of The Queen’s favourite residences in 1992, causing extensive damage and subsequently raising questions about The Royal Family’s relationship to the taxpayer.
The fire started in The Queen’s Private Chapel. Windsor was undergoing rewiring maintenance at the time, and the blaze started when a high-watt spotlight was left too close to a curtain which eventually ignited. The Castle’s onsite fire brigade arrived within minutes, but despite their best efforts the fire quickly spread to the Brunswick Tower, St George’s Hall and the private East Wing apartments – a result of the castle’s structure lacking firebreaks and other fire-prevention materials in its roof voids and cavities.
Prince Andrew was working in Windsor Castle at the time and assisted in forming a human chain to rescue valuable items in The Royal Collection. Fortunately, the majority of paintings and furniture had already been removed from the most affected areas to allow for the maintenance work to take place. The only painting that was destroyed was “George III and The Prince of Wales Reviewing Troops”, which was too large to remove from the State Dining Room.
Flames rose higher than 50ft in the Brunswick Tower, the roof of St George’s Hall collapsed, and the Grand Reception Room was completely destroyed. It was not until the early evening that the firefighters brought the blaze under control; burning for nearly 15 hours, the last of the fires was finally extinguished at 02:30am on Saturday November 21st. Nine state rooms were destroyed, along with 115 smaller rooms. All told, one fifth of Windsor Castle lay in ruins.
The rescue operation comprised 225 firemen using 39 fire appliances from departments in London, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Surrey and Oxfordshire – making it the first major incident to require more than 30 appliances since 1973. By the end, 1.5million gallons of water had been used to extinguish the fire, drawing on any body of water available in the vicinity – from swimming pools to the River Thames itself.
Four days after the fire, The Queen gave a speech at the Guildhall to mark her 40th year on the throne. She described 1992 as her “annus horribilis”, as it was the same year that the marriages of three of her children had broken down, two of them plagued by scandal.
Meanwhile, controversy surrounded the Windsor fire with regards to who should pay for the damages, opening up the debate on how the monarchy should be funded; by the Royal family themselves or by the taxpayer. It’s a question that, ever since, has never entirely faded from public consciousness.
The total cost of the damage came to £36.5million, equivalent to £74.46million in 2018. In order to pay for the damages themselves, The Queen personally paid £2m towards the restoration, and became the first monarch since the 1930s to start paying income tax. Buckingham Palace was opened to the public for the first time and the £8 entrance fee was used to cover 70 percent of the restoration bill.
Within three days, tourists were allowed back into Windsor Castle, and The Queen moved back in a fortnight later. On November 20th 1997, the restoration was completed in time for The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh’s golden wedding anniversary.
To watch the documentary Windsor Restored which looks at the terrible devastation caused by the fire and the magnificent restoration that took place afterwards click here.