History Aflame

updated 12/07/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/07/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

THE ROYAL FAMILY HAS TAKEN SO MUCH HEAT THIS YEAR that Queen Elizabeth joked that she couldn't wait for 1992 to be over. Then came the inferno. Three days after flames had destroyed seven state rooms at her favorite weekend home, she could joke no more; "Nineteen-hundred and ninety-two is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure," she told a civic group in a prescheduled speech. "It has turned out to be an annus horribilis."

Any way you look at it—as monster fire or metaphor—the conflagration that gutted the northeast corner of Windsor Castle on Nov. 20, the Queen's 45th wedding anniversary, was spectacular. It took 220 firefighters 12 hours to bring the blaze under control. The castle, parts of which are more than 900 years old, is a symbol of Britain's heritage and one of the world's leading tourist attractions. Repairs, which could take 10 years and run to $90 million, have already set off a vigorous public debate about who should pay.

The blaze is believed to have started when a picture restorer working in the Crimson Room of the 1,000-room palace accidentally sprayed cleaning fluid onto a halogen lamp, creating a blowtorch effect that ignited a tapestry. The stale apartments, used for high-level official entertaining, where the fire took hold, did not have a sprinkler system, and in the end more than three acres of floor space were destroyed.

Prince Andrew, the only family member on site, met firefighters when they arrived—minutes after the first alarm—and said simply, "I'm the Duke of York. How can I help?" After quickly calling his mother, who was at Buckingham Palace receiving new diplomatic appointees, he joined the castle staff of 400—prerehearsed for just such an eventuality—in shuttling furnishings, artworks and entire suits of armor onto a plastic tarp in the castle's green 1½-acre quadrangle. When his mother arrived and toured the site, he turned press spokesman, telling reporters, "The Queen is absolutely devastated."

The Princes Edward and Charles visited the smoldering site on Saturday, while Anne was too booked with official engagements to come. The Queen's husband, Prince Philip, spent his wedding anniversary in Argentina and viewed the damage in person on Monday.

The monumental 13-acre structure, 20 miles west of London, is imbued with British history. William the Conqueror first barricaded the site in 1070. Ten kings are buried there, and the castle houses such treasures as the bullet that killed Admiral Nelson and a shirt Charles I wore on the day of his execution.

It holds special memories for the Windsors as well. The family, once known by the German name Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. took its present name from the castle during World War I. During World War 11, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were evacuated to Windsor to avoid the blitz; as Queen, Elizabeth has tended to use Buckingham Palace in London as her office and Windsor as her weekend home.

Two days after the smoke cleared, curators were able to report that all of the castle's most valuable artworks had survived. It may take weeks simply to determine the extent of the damage, and much longer to settle the tab for restoration. Even before the fire, the royal scandals of '92 had caused increasing numbers of Brits to question the cost of the monarchy. Handing the public a $90 million tab during a recession will not ease the Windsors' discomfort.

Because Windsor Castle belongs to the nation, Heritage Secretary Peter Brooke told Parliament that bills for structural support and fixtures such as ceilings, floors, wall paneling and gilding will go to the taxpayers. He was instantly challenged by Labour Party members, who insisted that the Queen, whose fortune is estimated at $11 billion, should at least make a major contribution.

Whatever the financial fallout, the disaster should be viewed in perspective. "It's an awful experience," said the Very Reverend Patrick Mitchell, dean of Windsor. "But the building is more or less a thousand years old, and there have been fires and alarms and excursions throughout that time. It is a very serious fire and a very great tragedy, but life has got to go on."

LOUISE LAGUE
TERRY SMITH in Windsor and MARGARET WRIGHT in London

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