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Royals, Part 3: Troubled times

Scandals involving the queen's family, including Sarah Ferguson, made 1992 the monarch's "annus horriblis"  

By CNN's Richard Quest

LONDON, England (CNN) -- It should have been a time for joy -- 40 years of dedicated service to her country.

The queen had much to celebrate. Instead, 1992 turned into the worst year of her reign. And for the most part, there was no one else to blame but the royals themselves.

"I think it was a very important year in the queen's life," says royal watcher Robert Jobson. "I think it was the year that she realized and the people realized that the royal family was not really a family that one should look up to in moral terms."

By 1992, all the queen's children except Edward were married. Most ceremonies, such as the marriage of Prince Andrew to Sarah Ferguson, had been major national occasions. The public still had an appetite for these larger-than-life events.

People in the news
presents a special report by
CNN's Richard Quest
Part 1: Rise to power 
Part 2: Fairytale and nightmare 
Part 3: Troubled times 
Part 4: Shock and sorrow 
Part 5: Coming of age 
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In the end, though, it was the children and their spouses who proved to be too rich even for the British stomach.

Sarah Ferguson loved to live life to the full. Used to royalty but not aristocratic herself, initially she fit in well with the modern royal family. Yet soon the strains showed.

"I think the public was fascinated with Fergie because here was this good-time party girl who found herself in the royal family," says People magazine senior editor Anne-Marie O'Neill. "She didn't really exhibit the required stature of dignity whatsoever."

With her husband away on naval or royal duties, scandal soon beckoned.

A series of photos published in early 1992 left the British in no doubt that Sarah had been playing around -- from the pictures of her with Texan Steve Wyatt, to the famous "toe sucking" pictures that scandalised even a public used to naked women on Page 3 of their national papers.

"I mean, sucking toes. ... It's not like it was pornographic. It was just so undignified," says O'Neill. "And the tabloids had such a good time with it that it really was the first time that the royal family was opened up to such ridicule."

Andrew and Sarah agreed to separate -- and it was only January.

'Why are they there?'

Another royal marriage -- this time Princess Anne's -- was also finished off in 1992.

Princess Anne, the Princess Royal's marriage to estranged husband Capt. Mark Phillips ended in 1992  

Although the Princess Royal, as she was known, and her husband, Capt. Mark Phillips, had lived apart for several years, the final decision to divorce was tainted by salacious tittle-tattle -- for her, love letters from a palace staff member; for him, claims of fathering an illegitimate child.

"I think that whole year, and all of those scandals, really opened the royal family up to criticism and made people wonder: 'Why are they there? They're not so different from us. They are not really this dignified symbol of our country. So why do we have them?' It made them much more vulnerable as an institution," says O'Neill.

If all this was good for gossip, the breakdown of Charles and Diana's marriage was far more serious stuff.

After all, this involved the future of monarchy. Any illusion that the palace had created of a couple still in love went right out the window with two foreign visits -- a trip to South Korea, where they were nicknamed The Glums; and a journey to the Taj Mahal, the temple to love, where Diana sat alone.

The Glums: A trip to South Korea in 1992 highlighted the problems between Prince Charles and Princess Diana  

"The mess about Charles and Diana overtook all other perceptions of the royal family," says O'Neill. "You didn't really care that year what the queen had to say in her Christmas address.

"All you cared about was what other illness Di had developed because she was so depressed with her marriage to Charles. And really, it just became a soap opera about Charles and Di."

The publication of a semi-official book, "Diana, Her True Story," ended the illusion for good. The year continued with scandal after scandal, including more photos of Sarah and tapes of Diana's extramarital flirtations. Leaks and rumours filled the British papers.

"The private lives of the royal family dominated the news more than their public duties," says former Buckingham Palace aide Charles Anson.

"And the function of the monarchy is to perform public duties. It's not to have their private lives played out in public ... but inevitably that happened."

Windsor burning

Then the event that hit the queen really hard: Her favourite home went up in flames.

The fire at Windsor Castle became a metaphor for a royal family that appeared to be disintegrating  

Windsor Castle is the queen's weekend retreat -- the oldest inhabited castle in the world. The queen and Andrew joined the firefighters and household staff to rescue treasures as flames consumed the historic building.

It wasn't enough that the castle had burned -– there was also a nasty row over who would pay for the renovations.

The public rebelled at the $100 million bill. A compromise was reached -- the queen would open up Buckingham Palace for the first time, and the paying visitors to the palace and the castle would foot the bill.

The queen also agreed she would pay income tax for the first time.

With her family and her castle in ruins, it was an ill and sorry-sounding queen who gave a speech that defined the year:

"1992 is not a year that I shall look back on with undiluted pleasure," she said. "It has truly been ... in the words of one of my more sympathetic chroniclers, my annus horriblis."

And then at the end of the year, just when it seemed it couldn't get much worse, came the announcement that everyone was expecting. It had just been a question of when.

For Queen Elizabeth, 1992 was "rather like being on ... a heavy sea in a big storm," a former palace aide said  

"It is announced from Buckingham Palace that with regret, the Prince and Princess of Wales have decided to separate," then-Prime Minister John Major told Parliament.

1992 will go down in royal annals as a truly terrible year, where scandal and scrutiny pummeled the monarchy. This wasn't the country's No. 1 family; they had turned royalty into an international joke.

"It's rather like being on a very small boat on a heavy sea in a big storm," says Anson. "I mean, there comes a moment where you just have to fasten all the ropes down and wait for the storm to pass, and that's what 1992 felt like."

Next: Shock and sorrow




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