On November 20, 1992, a fire broke out at Windsor Castle. The flames took 15 hours to contain, and by the time it was extinguished, the blaze had consumed 115 rooms in the historic royal residence. Season five of The Crown depicts the destruction, with Burghley House standing in for the Castle. Here, details of the real-life royal crisis—and how Queen Elizabeth reacted.
The fire started in Queen Victoria's Private Chapel.
Around 11:15 a.m. on Friday, November 20, 1992 a faulty spotlight in the Private Chapel of Windsor Castle ignited a curtain. Per the official report on the Windsor Castle Fire released by Buckingham Palace, "Three officers of the Royal Household were present in the Chapel at the time and were studying one of the Queen's pictures with a view to restorative work." Around 11:15, the report continues, one of those present "detected a faint smell of burning." Yet, there "was no visual evidence of fire other than what was believed to be an undue amount of dust in the air."
At some time between 11:20 and 11:30 a.m., likely more between 11:25 and 11:30, the fire was discovered, and the three members of the royal household left the chapel. The palace's report details what happened next:
All three persons present left the Chapel at this stage and no attempt was made to extinguish the fire. One of the officers went into the adjacent St George's Hall and sought the help of contractors working there. Another went to the Holbein Room and summoned assistance from other picture restorers. The third went to the Queen's Vestibule and made an emergency call from the telephone located there using the internal 222 number directed to the Castle Switchboard. In so doing she would have passed the red fire telephone connected directly to the Castle Fire Control Room.
By 11:34, the Castle Fire Station had been alerted, and at 11:36, the Royal Berkshire Fire department had been notified; Chief Fire Officer, Marshall Smith, told them "Windsor Castle here; we have got a fire in the Private Chapel. Come to the Quadrangle as arranged."
Most of the art and furniture in the fire's path was saved.
As Windsor Castle's fire department and the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service began to fight the fire, staff worked to remove works of art from the path of the fire. Per the Royal Collection Trust, "The Castle's Quadrangle was full of some of the finest examples of French 18th-century furniture, paintings by Van Dyck, Rubens and Gainsborough, Sèvres porcelain and other treasures of the Collection." Ultimately, only two works of art were destroyed in the Windsor Castle Fire: A painting by Sir William Beechey and a rosewood sideboard.
Per the New York Times, Prince Andrew was involved in helping carry valuables out of the castle. He was the only member of the royal family on the grounds during the time of the fire. According to the Palace's report on the fire, approximately 370 people took part in the salvage process, including 125 Castle employees and community members.
Over two hundred firefighters from seven counties battled the fire.
225 firefighters were involved in getting the fire under control, using 36 pumps and 1.5 million gallons of water, per the RCT. The water was sourced from hydrants, a swimming pool, and a pond in the East Terrace Gardens.
The floors of Brunswick Tower collapsed under the fire, as did the Roof of St George's Hall. It took the firefighters until 8 p.m. to get the fire under control, and by 11 p.m., the main fire was extinguished. By 2:30 a.m. on November 21, the last secondary fires were finally extinguished—fifteen hours after the original fire began.
Why was the Windsor Castle fire so destructive?
"The fire at Windsor Castle occurred during its refurbishment, a time when any building is at its most vulnerable," the report states. "The work in process can be linked directly to the cause of the fire (removal and replacement and rewiring of spotlights), its rapid early development (officials and contractors unfamiliar with the facilities available for first aid firefighting and summoning help) and the subsequent hindering of firefighting effort by the presence of scaffolding."
The report continues, "It appears likely that the fire was burning for a significant time before it was ultimately sighted. By that stage it was virtually out of control. A sophisticated automatic detection system would probably have prevented this stage being reached and it is likely that an automatic suppression system would have at least contained the fire until the arrival of the fire brigade."
Essentially, the severity and rapid spread was due to the lack of basic fire protective measures in Windsor Castle, and no fire detection (i.e. fire alarm) and suppression systems (i.e. sprinklers).
How did Queen Elizabeth react to the fire?
Prince Andrew was the one to alert his mother of the fire. Queen Elizabeth traveled to Windsor that afternoon, where she stayed for about an hour. Andrew described her as "absolutely devastated" to the press.
Her chief spokesman, Dicky Arbiter, told reporters, "Probably the same reaction as yours if you saw your house burning down. She appeared very upset."
Four days later, in a speech marking forty years on the throne, she said, "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."
The Queen continued, "Indeed, I suspect that there are very few people or institutions unaffected by these last months of worldwide turmoil and uncertainty. This generosity and whole-hearted kindness of the Corporation of the City to Prince Philip and me would be welcome at any time, but at this particular moment, in the aftermath of Friday's tragic fire at Windsor, it is especially so. And, after this last weekend, we appreciate all the more what has been set before us today."
In addition to the Windsor Castle Fire, three of her children's marriages collapsed in 1992.
The cost of the repairs was around £36.5 million.
The cost for repairs and restoration was met by charging the public for entry to Windsor Castle, and by opening Buckingham Palace for admission. In addition, Queen Elizabeth contributed £2 million of her own money, and she agreed to start paying income taxes.
According to the BBC, "Buckingham Palace has denied the announcement is related to growing public concern about the rising cost of the monarchy. Questions have been raised about who will foot the bill for repairing Windsor Castle, which was severely damaged in a fire last week... a palace spokesman said the Queen and Prince Charles had made their decision before the July summer recess of Parliament."
The restoration work was completed five years later, in November 1997.
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