Between scandals with the tabloid reporters, pressure from the international community, and questions about the role of the monarchy within the coming decades, the Royal Family certainly deals with a lot of issues in the fifth season of The Crown. Peter Morgan’s Emmy award-winning series deals with a lot of the most unbelievable events in British history, but one of the most critical storylines in the fifth season is an accidental occurrence that reshaped the role of the Royal Family’s home. A 1992 fire at Castle Windsor caused significant damage to the largest inhabited castle in the world; in many ways, it was a metaphorical indication that the Royal Family would need to adapt in order to fit the demands of their position in the upcoming 21st century.
Season 5 picks up with events in the 1990s as Prince Charles (Dominic West) and Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) grow further apart. Queen Elizabeth (Imelda Stanton) and Prince Phillip (Jonathan Pryce) begin to realize that they are no longer the young, heroic figures that the press imagined them to be; questions are being raised about the relevancy of the Royal Family and the significance that Great Britain will have in the international community moving forward. Can Great Britain still be considered a superpower, and should the Royal Family hold on to the same traditional role that they’ve played for generations? Is that what the country even needs right now?
The Fire at Castle Windsor
The first sign that Queen Elizabeth gets that the Royal Family may be antiquated comes early on in Season 5 of The Crown when her home is nearly destroyed. In November of 1992, agents of the Royal Household were inspecting a collection of artwork. A fire began to spread in Queen Victoria’s Private Chapel, and soon spread to the Brunswick Tower, several other rooms, and the State Apartments.
While contractors working during the outbreak initially attempted to subdue the flames using fire extinguishers, several curtains caught aflame, putting the inhabitants in even more danger. The contractors were intent on removing historical works of artwork from the chapel so that they would not be engulfed in flame and destroyed. These items held personal and sentimental value for the Royal Family, and many of them were considered priceless.
While Windsor Castle had its own fire brigade equipped with a pump tender and Land Rover, the 25-member fire brigade quickly became aware that they would not be able to subdue the outbreak. After a request for assistance was filed through a direct line to the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service, the castle’s fire department arrived at the scene less than 20 minutes after the outbreak, with additional appliances brought in moments later.
The Aftermath of the Fire at Windsor
The department’s operation revolved around saving historical items of value, including furniture, art, and personal relics. The building contractors and additional staff workers were evacuated. The only member of the Royal Family present at the fire was Queen Elizabeth’s son, Prince Andrew (James Murray), Duke of York, the controversial figure who recently settled out of court in a sexual assault case.
The fire later spread to the banquet room of St George’s Hall, and the Brunswick Tower officially collapsed. It wasn’t until nearly midnight that the fire was completely extinguished, and several smaller outbreaks had to be subdued overnight using water from the River Thames. An on-duty staff of 60 firemen with eight appliances remained at the scene for a week afterward to ensure that additional outbreaks didn’t start in any of the cavities in the roof. 125 castle staff, 125 contractors, 100 military personnel, and 20 Crown Estate staff participated in a salvage operation to collect additional items of value from the scene of the fire.
According to the Royal Collection Trust, 115 rooms (including nine staterooms) were destroyed. There were no deaths or serious injuries, other than the significant blow to national pride. Although a majority of the artwork had been saved, some portraits, such as the 13 by 16 feet painting George III and the Prince of Wales Reviewing Troops had been too large to remove. However, the Royal Family was keen to keep the castle functioning as it had always been; tourism was allowed three days later, and the Queen returned to residency.
Queen Elizabeth later referred to 1992 as “annus horribilis” due to the fire and the three breakups in the Royal Family; Charles and Diana had separated, Princess Anne (Claudia Harrison) and the Olympic gold medalist Mark Phillips were divorced, and Prince Andrew was separated from his wife Sarah Ferguson (Emma Laird Craig). 1992 was also the year that Andrew Morton’s book — about Diana’s time with the Royal Family, Charles’ affairs with Camilla Parker Bowles (Olivia Williams), and the resistance Diana received from Queen Elizabeth — was released.
A restoration project cost £36.5 million (equivalent to £62 million in 2019). In 1993, it was announced that Queen Elizabeth would be personally contributing £2 million, and that she would start paying income tax on the property (something that a member of the Royal Family had not done since the 1930s). 70% of the costs were funded by admissions costs that charged the public for entering the castle’s surrounding areas. Queen Elizabeth held a reception in 1997 following the completion of the restoration and invited the building contractors and architects that had overseen the operation.
It’s revealing to see how the members of the Royal Family react to the news of the fire in The Crown. Princess Margaret (Lesley Manville), who had just been making plans for the future with her former lover Peter Townsend (Timothy Dalton), suspects foul play. She has multiple suspects in mind, as Diana, Charles, and Andrew have all had their disagreements. A majority of the seasons focus on Elizabeth’s reflections on how she has treated Margaret over the years, and there are even Season 5 flashbacks to their younger years featuring Claire Foy and Vanessa Kirby.
While the show has been criticized for its dramatizations and occasional historical inaccuracies, it’s interesting to see how these noted historical figures are depicted with empathy. 1992 isn’t just “annus horribilis”; it’s also the 40th anniversary of Elizabeth’s succession. In the wake of the Queen’s tragic death earlier this year, it’s fitting that this latest season depicts her in a more empathetic fashion.
The Crown Season 5 is now available to stream on Netflix.