This Day In History: November 20

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On November 20, 1992, Windsor Castle, the historic English royal residence and home to Queen Elizabeth II, catches fire. The blaze comes during a particularly difficult year for the royal family.

According to the Royal Collection Trust, at around 11:30 in the morning, a fire broke out in the Queen's Private Chapel after a faulty spotlight ignited a curtain. From there, the fire spread to more than 100 rooms, including St. George's Hall and Brunswick Tower. The blaze took fifteen hours and more than 220 firefighters to extinguish. Staff and soldiers, along with Prince Andrew, Duke of York, worked to remove precious artworks from the castle as the fire spread. Ultimately the fire destroyed only a handful of pieces from the castle's valuable art collection, though several firefighters were injured. The castle was restored as close to its original condition as possible, with renovation works concluding on the five-year anniversary of the fire, in 1997. 

Windsor Castle, which overlooks the River Thames near London, was first built in the 11th century by William the Conqueror. It has served as a royal residence for almost 1,000 years, spanning 39 monarchs, and is the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world.

The fire at Windsor Castle occurred near the end of a year in which the royal family struggled with its public image. Speaking a few days after the fire, Queen Elizabeth acknowledged that 1992 "turned out to be an 'annus horribilis'", or horrible year. Prince Charles, Prince Andrew and Princess Anne all announced the ends of their respective marriages. 

On top of these royal scandals, the damage to Windsor Castle raised questions about the cost of the British monarchy. Prime Minister John Major suggested that parliament pay for the restoration of the castle, but this provoked a public outcry. Windsor Castle and its contents were too expensive to insure, so the Crown had to pay for the repairs without the help of insurance or funds from parliament. Queen Elizabeth decided to open Buckingham Palace to visitors for the first time in history, and used the admission fees to pay for most of Windsor Castle's restorations. The price tag of the work totaled nearly 36.5 million pounds over five years. 

As a result of increased scrutiny of the Crown and its mysterious finances, Queen Elizabeth announced that she would begin paying taxes on her personal income, although the sovereign is not legally bound to do so. King Charles III has confirmed that he will do the same. 

HISTORY Vault: Profiles: Queen Elizabeth II

Chart the unexpected rise and record-breaking reign of Queen Elizabeth II, which unfolded in the turbulent modern history of the English monarchy.

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