Elizabeth II, the “annus horribilis” that marked her entire life

We exclusively reproduce a fragment of Robert Hardman’s great biography of the queen, which is published on Wednesday and gives an account of the worst year, 1992, of his life

Any other patrimony or family business could react, for example, by bequeathing assets from one generation to another, but no monarch could resort to such a thing without abdicating well in advance or handing over much of the monarchical machinery while still on the throne. That, however, was an argument the anti-monarchists did not want to hear. For them, the royal family had knelt before a “victory of popular power”(words from “The Sun”). The next day, the Daily Mirror’s political chief, Alastair Campbell, mercilessly attacked the Crown with the headline “Her Majesty the Tax Evader” and a caricature of the queen smirking and counting as a Possess your riches with the calculator. “The queen is set to become the UK’s biggest ‘tax evader’, paying a mere £2 million for her vast fortune.” After all the efforts that had led to that moment, the cover was about to make the queen cry, confesses a member of the Royal House .

But, although royal finances ended up taking a back seat, at least for a time, that long annus horribilis still had more misfortunes in the hat. On December 9, John Major appeared before the House of Commons to announce the separation of the Princes of Wales. It wasn’t a big hit, but it did serve to formalize what had until then been a carousel of tabloid headlines. The war between Carlos and Diana had become a full-fledged political debate. Both the BBC and newspapers such as the “Daily Telegraph,” which had always considered the cracks in the marriage a private matter, now commented on them bluntly, emphasizing above all one statement by Major: “There is no reason why the The Princess of Wales should not be crowned queen in due time.” The matter was no longer just personal, but legal . Cabinet Secretary Robin Butler later admitted that it had been a mistake to say that, adding that Major simply wanted to “cushion the blow.”

«The war between Charles and Diana was transformed into a full-fledged political debate»

The queen enjoyed a mirage of happiness at the end of that week, when the family gathered at Crathie Church for the most modest royal wedding in history. The princess had stressed that she wanted a frugal ceremony for her marriage to Commander Tim Laurence. There were no horse carriages or wedding limousine. Ana drove from Balmoral Castle to the church in her father’s Land Rover and the mass was behind closed doors.

The family’s relations with the media had reached such a level of wear and tear that even a van carrying snacks was expelled from the premises to the frozen Accredited Press, who were waiting in a public parking lot in the area. Nor would anyone from the royal family be able to stay in the castle, which had been closing for the winter for some time. Only one room was reopened for a short reception with soup and sandwiches, but afterward all the guests left for Aberdeen airport. The newlyweds indulged in a thirty-six-hour honeymoon at a family mansion. According to the princess’s biographer, Brian Hoey, the entire act cost less than two thousand pounds.

“The monarchy seemed to have become little more than a puppet for the media”

And yet the year had not yet exhausted its arsenal of misfortunes. Two days before Christmas, the monarch’s annual message appeared in great detail on the pages of “The Sun.” Perhaps the newspaper thought that it was simply offering its readers an advance, but from the Palace they assured that the leak had “greatly distressed” the queen. The monarchy seemed to have become little more than a puppet in the hands of the media; she thought they had gotten past her plea at the Guildhall, when she had asked for a bit of leeway and understanding. In the words of Charles Anson, then her press secretary: “For me it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and I think the queen thought the same.”He ordered his lawyers to sue the newspaper for flagrant copyright infringement. Curiously, “The Sun” did not stand up; he published an apology on the front page, paid all court costs and donated £200,000 to charity.

When the message was finally broadcast on December 25, the public saw the queen admit her misfortunes, but without succumbing to them: “As some of you will know, because you have heard me point it out, this has been a dark year. But Christmas is, without a doubt, the ideal time to try to get over it.  Curiously, of all that happened in 1992, a sad event has been the one that has helped me the most to relativize my concerns». She was talking about when she had met Leonard Cheshire shortly before he died.Despite suffering from a terminal illness, he only talked about others. As the queen noted: “She summed up the message in those well-known words: ‘Kindness in other people’s misfortune, courage in one’s own’.” In conclusion, Isabel said: “I’m sure 1993 will bring new challenges.”

Carlos and Camila, caught

We didn’t have to wait long. After a few days another telephone recording appeared in all the newspapers between Carlos and Camilla Parker Bowles talking in a very intimate way. Surely the queen thought the new year was on its way to equaling the old in infamy. Her mother’s strategy in such situations, pretending nothing was wrong, had earned her the nickname “imperial denier” among the Royal House staff.

But the queen responded by following her father’s example as always, reminiscent of her days on the high seas, when she had learned to deal with the adversity of the ocean. According to John Major, who worked closely with her during this phase: “Storms come and go, and some are worse than others, but she will always put her head down and attack the problem head-on.The queen has always been governed by the doctrine of “it will pass”. Although she was sometimes accused of being slow of reflexes, she could never be accused of succumbing to panic. In the face of crises, her natural attitude was calm.

This is what Charles Anson comments: “Throughout the entire annus horribilis, I can’t remember a single occasion when I went to see her and she exclaimed: ‘No, what else can happen?’ Some events were humiliating, but she got over them. In situations like this, it’s a huge comfort to work for someone who doesn’t give up.” And he adds that throughout the process she was “never brusque or irritable, but she was the personification of temperance.”

“In the face of crises, his attitude was calm. The queen might be slow, but she never succumbed to panic.”

More tragic news arrived. The queen’s former nanny, wardrobe attendant, and confidante, Bobo MacDonald, had died at the age of eighty-nine. She served her “tadpole” unconditionally since kindergarten, and the feeling of affection was mutual. Bobo had retired to a flat owned by the Queen above Her Majesty’s Apartments at Buckingham Palace, where she lived to the end of her days. The queen mother also received fateful news. In her case, she lost Martin Gilliat, her private secretary, as devoted or more than that of the queen. 

However, a happy coincidence occurred just before Bobo’s death. During the state visit to Germany the previous autumn, the queen had been very impressed with the ambassador’s housekeeper, whom she had met at the embassy. Soon after, Angela Kelly received a call asking if she would be interested in working as a wardrobe attendant at the palace. Three decades later, she is not only in charge of the queen’s outfits, but she was one of her most loyal confidants.

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