The fourth episode of The Crown’s latest season introduces viewers to a truly distressing incident in royal history. On Nov. 20, 1992, a fire broke out in Windsor Castle, which was more than 850 years old and stood as the world’s oldest occupied castle. The blaze would burn for hours and do tremendous damage, stunning the royal family at the tail end of a notoriously difficult year.
It is believed the fire began when a 1,000-watt light being used in a renovation malfunctioned within the castle’s Queen Victoria’s Private Chapel. It sparked a flame that caused a 19-foot-long curtain to catch fire. The chapel was rapidly destroyed. An art conservator working next door in St. George’s Hall, a 180-foot-long banquet room, noticed the smell and sent up an alarm.
The fire moved quickly, aided by the fact that the castle had few elements in place to stop flames. St. George’s Hall was destroyed after the walls and ceiling collapsed. 225 firefighters gathered at the site, using 36 pumps to douse the blaze. The fire tore through the Crimson Drawing Room and State Dining Room, two grand entertaining spaces.
Prince Andrew was at the castle when the fire began and helped carry items out of the building. Queen Elizabeth rushed to Windsor and to observe the situation, as did Prince Charles. Of great concern was the fate of the precious pieces of art kept in the castle. It was only through great luck that the majority of the collection, which included works by da Vinci, Michelangelo, Holbein, Rubens, and van Dyck.
By 8 p.m. the fire had been brought under control and it was extinguished entirely by 2:30 the next morning. Tours of the property resumed three days later and the Queen returned after two weeks. Restoration of the castle cost £36.5 million (coming in way under the estimate of £60 million) and was completed on Nov. 20, 1997—five years to the day of the fire and on Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip’s 50th wedding anniversary.
Adrienne Gaffney is an associate editor at ELLE who previously worked at WSJ Magazine and Vanity Fair.
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