The royal family and the 1990s decade of turmoil

Three divorces, the Windsor Castle fire and Diana’s tragic death – how the turbulent 1990s were a royal decade like no other…

  • The Queen gave her ‘annus horribilis’ speech in 1992
  • But worse was to follow with more heartache and Diana’s tragic death
  • Read more here: Netflix bosses in hot water for ‘rewriting history’ in The Crown 

It was a decade quite like any other for the Windsors.

There had been difficult times before, not least the abdication crisis of 1937 and the dark war time years of the 1940s.

But the 1990s brought a new problem to the fore – the breakdown, often very public, of personal relationships.

There had been no royal divorces until Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon were formally parted in 1978.

But between 1992 and 1997, the late Queen saw three of her four children split from their spouses, with scandals and intimate details  making headlines across the world.

The whole ordeal had started with a single devastating blow – a huge fire at Windsor Castle destroying more than 100 rooms.

This led to the Queen making an unusual public declaration, reflecting on her family’s personal life, that 1992 had been an ‘annus horribilis’ – a horrible year that she would not look back on fondly.

It was a decade that drew to a close with the devastating death of Princess Diana, leaving teenage Prince William and Prince Harry without a mother.

Here, the Mail’s Royals section looks back at a decade of turmoil.

The 1990s were a decade of turmoil, including three divorces, a fire at Windsor Castle and the tragic death of Princess Diana. Pictured: Prince Charles and Princess Diana on their Canadian tour in 1991 

A fire broke out in Windsor Castle on November 20 1992. It destroyed more than 100 rooms, including nine state rooms 

It was in 1992 that the Queen made her ‘annus horribilis’  speech at the Guildhall

At the end of the decade the royal family was hit with an unimaginable tragedy when Princess Diana was killed. Pictured: Charles Spencer, his nephews Prince William, Prince Harry and then Prince Charles at the Princess’s funeral 

Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson announce separation

Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson announced their separation in March 1992.

A statement from Buckingham Palace broke normal royal protocol as it gave insight into the Queen’s personal upset over the matter. 

The statement from the time read: ‘In view of the media speculation which the Queen finds especially undesirable during the general election campaign, Her Majesty is issuing the following statement: 

Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson announced their separation in March 1992 just six years after they married in 1986

Fergie pictured in September 1992 as her impending divorce took its took, as she began to cry at a charity function 

The statement from Buckingham Palace said that a ‘formal separation’ had begun for the Duke and Duchess of York

‘Last week, lawyers acting for the Duchess of York initiated discussions about a formal separation for the Duke and Duchess. 

‘These discussions are not yet completed, and nothing will be said until they are.

‘The Queen hopes that the media will spare the Duke and Duchess of York and their children any intrusion.’

The Queen was said to have been saddened by the separation at the time, following Princess Anne’s announcement three years earlier that she would be separating from her first husband Mark Phillips.

From this point, the Duchess of York ceased taking part in royal engagements.

The announcement came on March 19, 1992, six years after the couple announced their engagement.

Princess Anne and Mark Phillips finalise their divorce

On April 23, 1992, Princess Anne and her husband Captain Mark Phillips announced they had divorced.

The couple had announced three years earlier in 1989 that they would separate, but stated there were ‘no plans for divorce proceedings’.

Earlier in 1992, however, it came to light that Mark had a lovechild, who was conceived after a one-night stand in a hotel room in Auckland, New Zealand in 1994 while he was still married to the Princess.

On April 23, 1992, Princess Anne and her husband Captain Mark Phillips announced they had divorced. It came three years after they initially announced their separation. Pictured: Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips at the Badminton Horse trials in 1977 

A formal statement, shown on the Press Association wire, back in 1989 declaring that the Princess Royal and her husband had formally divorced 

Heather Tonkin, an art teacher, came forward in 1991 claiming Captain Phillips was the father of her six-year-old daughter Felicity.

At the time, the captain contested the claim, however, a paternity test later found it to be true.

He was then forced by a court to support the girl financially, but she appears to have had little involvement with her half siblings, Zara Tindall and Peter Phillips.

The Princess Royal and Captain Phillips had been married for 18 years.

The divorce was granted by a senior district judge at Somerset House in London, taking just four minutes to grant it. Neither party attended.

By the time their divorce was finalised, it was well known that Princess Anne was in a relationship with Timothy Lawrence – the Queen’s equerry.

The pair married later that year on December 12.

Tell-all biography Diana: Her True story published by Andrew Morton

In June 1992, a controversial new book about Princess Diana was published, rocking the monarchy.

It is now known that Andrew Morton’s tell-all biography, Diana: Her Story, was based on a series of interviews he had with Princess Diana herself.

The book gave an insight into Diana’s own mental health issues, such as attempting  suicide as many as five times and details about her eating disorder, bulimia nervosa.

In June 1992, royal expert Andrew Morton (pictured) published a tell-all biography Diana: Her Story. It was later revealed that Princess Diana had spoken to Morton in a series of interviews

One element in the book detailed Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, who he would later go on to marry. Pictured: Lady Diana Spencer and Camilla at Ludlow Races where Charles was competing in 1980 

The Sunday Times ran the first exert of the book under the headline: ‘Diana driven to five suicide bids by ‘uncaring Charles.”

Other elements of the book detailed Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. One passage read: ‘Diana had accidentally overheard her husband talking on a mobile telephone while having a bath. She was deeply upset when she heard him say, ‘Whatever happens, I will always love you.’

At the time a statement from Buckingham Palace said that the Princess, who was still married to Charles, ‘did not co-operate with the biography in any way whatsoever’ – this was later proven not to be true.

Mr Morton at the time was accused of creating scandalous rumours or gossip, which he rejected.

He said: ‘It is not hearsay. It is what the Princess of Wales told her friends about what happened to her in 1982, in the early 80s, and the last suicide attempt I think was in 1986.

‘My job is as a biographer, not as someone who is organising or orchestrating the future of the royal family.’

The book also led to an outcry from politicians, who questioned the ethics behind the writing.

Former Labour MP Clare Short said at the time that the author had shown ‘outrageous and gross misbehaviour’ while former Conservative MP Patrick Cormak blamed the paper for publishing a piece, seeing as an ‘attempted destruction by the lackeys of a sovereign republican’.

After the Princess’ death in 1997, Mr Morton revealed that the interviews with Diana had been recorded on tape.

In 2017, speaking ahead of a new edition of the biography, he said: ‘I was keen to talk to the Princess directly, but this was simply out of the question. At 6ft 4in tall and as a writer known to Palace staff, I’d hardly be inconspicuous.

‘So I interviewed her by proxy — giving my questions to James Colthurst [the pair’s mutual friend], who then conducted six taped interviews with her in her sitting room at Kensington Palace.’

Various scandals published in the press

It was during this decade a series of infamous scandals and intimate details were published in the British press about the Queen’s children and their partners.

On August 20 1992, the Daily Mirror ran a front-page story showing Fergie being intimate with her financial advisor John Bryan.

The Sun also released photos of the American sucking the toes of the Duchess of York at a villa in Saint Tropez in the South of France.

As the stories broke, Sarah had been at Balmoral with the royal family, which she later wrote in her book My Story that it everyone had been left with ‘eyes wide and mouths ajar’.

On August 20 1992, the Daily Mirror ran a front-page story showing Fergie being intimate with her financial advisor John Bryan (pictured)

Photos showed the couple kissing and embracing in the pool, one showing two-year-old Eugenie sat nearby.

The night before the story was published, Daily Mail royal expert Richard Kay said he received a message from Princess Diana on his pager which read ‘the redhead’s in trouble’.

It is believed to have been a turning point in Fergie’s relationship with the royal family.

Prince Philip was said to have been furious with the incident, regarding the Duchess of York as ‘simply beyond the pale’.

For the rest her stay, before she drove to Aberdeen airport and flew back to London with her two daughters, the Duke of Edinburgh tried to avoid her.

Recalling the awkward time, she said: ‘It was ridiculous. As soon as I came in through one door, he’d be falling over the corgis to get out of the other.

‘It was very funny. Except, of course, it wasn’t.’

At the time Mr Bryan told Mr Kay that he had simply been ‘kissing’ the Duchess’s feet and was still pushing that narrative as recently as last year.

He told the Mail on Sunday in December: ‘We were in a private villa with seven acres of land surrounding us to ensure our absolute privacy. The girls [Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie] were tiny, just four and two. We were out by the pool and I was practising swimming with the children.

‘Yes, Sarah was topless, but this was the South of France for heaven’s sake. And we were in private – or so we thought. We’re with the kids, having a great time. We used to play fun games, make-believe games. On this day we were playing Cinderella and I said, ‘Look, let’s kiss Mummy’s toes’. It was part of the game. I did it first and then I think one of the girls, probably Beatrice, did it.

‘It was totally innocent; a beautiful family moment of love.’

Just three days after the Duchess of York’s scandal was published in the press, on August 23 another story was published that briefly blighted the royal family.

The Sun published a front-page story detailing a recorded conversation between Diana and James Gilbey, who she had been romantically linked to, however, the Princess always denied this relationship.

The conversation, recorded in 1989, revealed Diana speaking about the royal family, including complaining that Charles was making her ‘life real, real torture’.

It was dubbed ‘Squidgygate’ because in the conversation the former Lotus car executive reportedly called the Princess ‘Squidge’ or ‘Squidgy’ 53 times and spoke of wrapping his arms around her.

In 1993, another intimate conversation also recorded in 1989 was released to the British press.

This time is documented a bedtime conversation between Charles and Camilla, who were both married at the time.

During the call, the then prince referred to being reincarnated as the tampon brand Tampax and told Camilla that he wanted to ‘live inside’ her as they fantasised about being intimate with each other.

An audio recording of the conversation, dubbed ‘tampongate’, along with a transcript of the six-minute call was circulated by The People newspaper, following Charles and Diana’s split.

Fire at Windsor Castle creates millions of pounds worth of damage 

In yet another blow to the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, a fire broke out at Windsor Castle on November 20 1992.

The huge blaze had begun in Queen Victoria’s Private Chapel where a faulty spotlight had started the fire.

Within minutes the fire became unstoppable, spreading to St George’s Hall next door.

In yet another blow to the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, a fire broke out at Windsor Castle on November 20 1992. Pictured: The Queen inspecting the ruins of Windsor Castle with a fireman 

A total of 115 rooms were destroyed including nine State Rooms. The restoration of the castle is believed to have cost £36.5 million 

The fire was spotted at 11.39am in the morning and within three hours there were 225 firefighters from seven counties at the castle trying to battle the blaze.

Despite their efforts using 36 pumps and discharging 1,500,000 gallons of water, a total of 115 rooms were destroyed – including nine State Rooms.

The castle was finally restored exactly five years later on November 20 1997 and on the 50th wedding anniversary of the Queen and Prince Philip.

It was said to have cost £36.5 million to restore.

Initially the Secretary of State for National Heritage said public money would be used to restore the castle, but this led to widespread backlash.

As a result, Buckingham Palace opened to the public for the first time in 1993 in order to raise funds.

Queen gives her Annus Horribilis speech

As 1992 came to a close, the Queen made her most personal public declarations to date.

While speaking at the Guildhall in London on November 24 1992, to mark 40 years of her succession, the Queen declared it had been an ‘annus horribilis’ – a horrible year.

While speaking at the Guildhall in London on November 24 1992, to mark 40 years of her succession, the Queen declared it had been an ‘annus horribilis’ – a horrible year

While she thanked the general public for their help and support following the fire at Windsor Castle, she said 1992 would not be ‘a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure’.

She added: ‘I sometimes wonder how future generations will judge the events of this tumultuous year.

‘I dare say that history will take a slightly more moderate view than that of some contemporary commentators.

‘Distance is well-known to lend enchantment, even to the less attractive views. After all, it has the inestimable advantage of hindsight.’

Charles and Diana announce separation

The Queen’s horrible year did not quite end in November, as on December 9 Prime Minister John Major formally announced that Prince Charles and Princess Diana would separate.

Reading out the statement in the House of Commons he said: ‘It is announced from Buckingham Palace that, with regret, the Prince and Princess of Wales have decided to separate.

On December 9 1992, Prime Minister John Major announced their separation in the House of Commons. At the time he said the couple had no plans to divorce 

‘Their Royal Highnesses have no plans to divorce, and their constitutional positions are unaffected. This decision has been reached amicably, and they will both continue to participate fully in the upbringing of their children.’

As the world’s media reacted to the split, the New York Times wrote that it was ‘the unhappy ending today to a storybook marriage gone badly wrong’.

Charles admits having an affair with Camilla

While the couple formally split in 1992, it was not until 1994 that Charles admitted he had been having an affair with Camilla.

In an explosive interview which stunned the nation, Charles spoke of his marriage in great depth with ITV’s Jonathan Dimbleby.

In 1994, Prince Charles admitted during an interview with veteran broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby that he had been having an affair with his ‘dear friend’ Camilla while he was still married to Diana. Pictured: Charles and Camilla’s first public outing together in a relationship back in 1999

During the interview, Mr Dimbleby asked the heir whether he had been ‘faithful and honourable’ during his marriage to Diana.

The Prince replied ‘yes’ before pausing and adding ‘until (the marriage) became irretrievably broken down, us both having tried’.

He added that Camilla was ‘a dear friend’ and ‘a great friend of mine’ who he leaned on during the difficult days of his marriage.

Charles said that the failure of his marriage was ‘the last possible thing’ he ‘every wanted’.

Diana’s Panorama interview with Martin Bashir airs

On November 20 1995, Princess Diana’s renowned interview with Martin Bashir for BBC Panorama was released.

Throughout the intimate interview, she spoke of her experience with post-natal depression, her bulimia, Charles’ affair with Camilla and her own affair with James Hewitt.

After having a ‘difficult pregnancy’ while carrying William, she felt more positive after he was born but then began to feel very ‘low’.

On November 20 1995, Princess Diana’s renowned interview with Martin Bashir for BBC Panorama was released (pictured) 

Throughout the intimate interview, she spoke of her experience with post-natal depression, her bulimia, Charles affair with Camilla and her own affair with James Hewitt 

In the interview she detailed how she did not feel supported by the royal family.

She said: ‘Well, it gave everybody a wonderful new label: Diana’s unstable and Diana’s mentally unbalanced. And unfortunately, that seems to have stuck on and off over the years’.

It was during the televised conversation that Diana said in relation to her former husband’s affair, ‘well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded’ – a phrase that soon became infamous.

The Princess also acknowledges her own affair, which had been revealed by Mr Hewitt in a tell-all book published in 1994 called Princess in Love.

In it he detailed their five-year relationship, while Diana was married to the Prince of Wales, which occurred between 1986 and 1991.

During the chat, Diana confirmed the affair adding that she ‘adored him’ and ‘was in love with him’ but after he published the book she felt ‘very let down’.

When asked whether she agreed to do the interview as part of ‘revenge’ on Charles, she disagreed and said she did not have any ‘resentment’ towards the future King.

She concluded: ‘I sit here with hope because there’s a future ahead, a future for my husband, a future for myself and a future for the monarchy.’

At the time the interview was applauded for being an impressive scoop, with the investigative journalist even winning a BAFTA back in 1996.

However, the BBC was later subject to an investigation which found the organisation had failed to use ‘high standards of integrity and transparency’ to gain the interview with the Princess.

Mr Bashir had used fake documents and acted in a ‘deceitful’ way to obtain the interview.

He had shown the fake files to Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, who then persuaded her to take part in the televised interview.

The BBC and the journalist apologised to Diana’s family.

Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson finalise divorce

In 1996, four years after their separation, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson’s divorce was finalised.

Despite this, they continued to live under the same roof at the Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park to co-parent their two young daughters.

In 1996, four years after their separation, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson’s divorce was finalised but they carried on living together at the Royal Lodge, as they still do to this day. Pictured: Fergie, Prince Andrew and Princess Eugenie in 1993 

Commenting on their unusual situation more recently, Fergie told the Telegraph in 2019: ‘We always say we are the most contented divorced couple in the world. We’re divorced to each other, not from each other.

‘We are co-parents who support each other and believe that family is everything. I’m proud of the job we have done together in bringing up our children and sustaining a strong family unit. Our bywords are communication, compromise and compassion.

Charles and Diana divorce

Charles and Diana formally divorced on August 28 1996 – a year before the sudden death of the Princess.

The Princess was subsequently stripped of Her Royal Highness status but was said to have been given a large financial settlement of £17 million.

Princess Diana dies in tragic car crash

As the decade began to draw to the close the royal family was faced with an unimaginable tragedy.

On August 31 1997 Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris alongside Dodi Fayed, son of Egyptian businessman Mohammed Al-Fayad, and driver Henri Paul.

Prince William, then 15, and Prince Harry, 12, had been on holiday at Balmoral when their mother died in hospital.

Prince Charles was reportedly told in the early hours of the morning by the Queen’s private secretary Robert Fellowes. 

He later broke the news to his sons when they woke up. 

On August 31 1997 Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris alongside Dodi Fayed, son of Egyptian businessman Mohammed Al-Fayad, and driver Henri Paul. Pictured: Princess Diana and Dodi in the back of a car on the night of the accident 

Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s sisters Lady Sarah McCorquodale and Lady Jane Fellowes leaving the hospital where Princess Diana died 

The Queen and Prince Philip on the eve of Diana’s funeral looking at the floral tributes left outside Buckingham Palace 

Diana’s coffin arriving at Westminster Abbey as Prince Charles, Prince Harry, Earl Spencer, Prince William and the Duke of Edinburgh look on

The boys continued to stay at Balmoral for five more days to allow time for them to grieve out of the glare of the public eye and the media.

Charles accompanied Diana’s sister, Lady Jane Fellowes and Lady Sarah McCorquodale, to Paris to help accompany Diana’s body.

The funeral was subsequently held on September 6, with an estimated 32 million people in the UK.

The day before her funeral, the Queen paid tribute to the Princess of Wales.

She said: ‘This week at Balmoral, we have all been trying to help William and Harry come to terms with the devastating loss that they and the rest of us have suffered.

‘No-one who knew Diana will ever forget her. Millions of others who never met her, but felt they knew her, will remember her.

‘I for one believe that there are lessons to be drawn from her life and from the extraordinary and moving reaction to her death.

‘I share in your determination to cherish her memory.’

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