When Windsor Castle caught fire on a November morning in 1992, 35 fire trucks were dispatched to try to save the nearly 1000-year-old castle.
By the time night fell, flames lit up the sky and it would take 220 firefighters 15 hours to bring the blaze under control.
The following day, photographers captured what would become a heartbreaking and famous image: The Queen, a tiny, forlorn figure in a raincoat, looking helpless and lost as she surveyed the extent of the destruction of the precious building.
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This scenario, metaphorically speaking, is playing out again right now with the royal family fighting fires on a number of fronts, though this time, none show any sign of being brought under control any time soon.
During her annual Christmas speech last year, Her Majesty said that 2019 had been “quite bumpy,” a magnificent example of regal understatement. Only the month before, her (favourite) son Prince Andrew had been humiliatingly forced out of the royal workforce over his friendship with a convicted sex offender and his farcical, arrogant attempts to explain the situation.
Prior to that, much of 2019 had seen Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, monopolise headlines and divide public opinion with everything from a baby shower, to their home renovation, son’s birth and christening and summer holidays (plural).
The entire PR debacle made that much more damaging to the royal family’s image by the Sussexes’ increasing willingness to broadcast their unhappiness – literally – as the year went on.
And then 2020 rolled around and made the year before seem like nothing more than a troublesome taster of things to come.
The first three months of the year saw the tortured and sullen exit of the Sussexes from not only working royal life but the United Kingdom. They are currently in Los Angeles, having to contend with, according to the Daily Beast, a number of drones buzzing over their borrowed $30 million Beverly Hills home – hardly the perfect environment to “thrive” in.
While the family might be nearly 9000km away from Buckingham Palace, they are still cemented in Fleet Street headlines and their shadow still looms over the palace.
There’s the Sussex security issue – who will pick up the approximate $8 million tab for their security team?
And the Frogmore Cottage issue – they might be paying back the $4 million plus renovation costs for their UK home but it has been estimated it will take them 25 years to pay off the entire debt, news that was hardly met with enthusiastic applause as Britain faces a recession.
Then, there’s the pesky income issue and the lingering question of quite what their American future looks like, as the entertainment, business and tech sectors start to reopen and face drastically altered financial realities. Will those juicy corporate deals, replete with zeros and kudos, that the Sussexes need to help them independently fund their life eventuate in this brave new world?
While there are plenty of question marks when it comes to Harry and Meghan, when it comes to Andrew there is at least some closure, namely, the fact that he will never be allowed to return to working royal life. This week, the Times reported: “The Queen is believed to be resigned to her second son’s permanent removal from public life.”
However, the allegations that Andrew had sex with a 17-year-old sex trafficking victim on three occasions continue to loom large over the palace. Andrew has strenuously and repeatedly denied the allegation. So too does the public anger over the royal family’s handling of this situation show no signs of dissipating.
In April, the Telegraph reported that lawyers for the duke had been in touch with US prosecutors leading inquiries into Epstein.
Suffice to say, it appears this ignoble chapter in royal history looks set to have a way to run yet.
Next, we get to Andrew and ex-wife Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York’s financial mess, with news breaking late last month that they were being sued by the former owner of their Swiss ski chalet over an alleged outstanding payment of $12 million. While some reports had suggested that the Queen would step in and pony up the money to avoid the ongoing embarrassment of the situation, a spokesperson for the royal has now denied that, saying the property is on the market, the sale of which will sort out the debt.
If you are starting to get exhausted here, buckle in because we are yet to get to the most recent palace imbroglio after Tatler magazine published a cover story about Kate Duchess of Cambridge that painted her in a distinctly unflattering light. According to the story, Kate has been feeling “exhausted and trapped” having to deal with an “enormous” workload after the Sussexes’ departure.
Kensington Palace wasted no time getting out their Smythson pen and paper set and issuing a rare and stern statement denying the claims, only to then go a step further and have the Cambridges’ lawyers send the society bible a letter demanding they remove the controversial story from their website.
Tatler responded by putting out a statement.
“We can confirm we have received correspondence from lawyers acting for the Duke and the Duchess of Cambridge and believe it has no merit.”
It remains to be seen whether this situation escalates.
And all before we even get into the fact that the Queen is facing the Crown Estates’ revenue falling by about $32 million thanks to the coronavirus lockdown.
It’s enough to make any courtier worth their Gieves & Hawkes bespoke suits want to start taking big nips of gin before midday. While the Palace and the Queen have faced many a crisis over the last 67 years of her reign, it has been decades, at least, since they faced having to fight multiple PR battles at the same time.
The cumulative threat of all of these messy, unedifying issues is that the palace is looking increasingly out of its depth, clumsily trying to manage these particular “fires” without any success, all while the Queen is stuck at Windsor Castle, riding her beloved pony Fern around the garden. The overall image is increasingly of an ineffectual and doddery palace machine who seem to be losing control over the royal narrative and family members.
In a perfect world, coverage of the royal family would be wall-to-wall good deeds, the image of a small army sallying forth and working hard for Britain. Instead, the last six months has seen the royal family morphing into a soap opera, replete with a sex scandal, family feuds, arguments about private jets, a Swiss chalet, a Beverly Hills mansion and the looming threat of a legal stoush, all of which have consumed media oxygen, pushing all those good deeds to the margins.
The issue here is that this in turn, poses a threat to their level of public support. Will the British people happily keep paying for the royal family if the Windsors start to resemble more of a posh version of Eastenders rather than a dynamic battalion of British ambassadors?
After the Windsor fire, it took years of painstaking work to restore the historic building. The message here is one of resilience – the Queen, like her favourite home, is built to withstand a lot but it requires skilled professionals toiling away behind the scenes to ensure its longevity.
The test she now faces, as in 1992, is to survey the damage, not be defeated by the scale of the chronic mayhem and to take charge. The year the fire destroyed Windsor Castle, the Queen famously said it had been her “annus horribilis.” If she fails to act, 2020 could be even more “horribilis” yet.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles