Windsor Castle fire: What started it and was the Queen at Windsor Castle when it was on fire?

A terrible moment in Royal history

Windsor Castle on fire in 1992
(Image credit: David Cooper/Alamy/Future)

The Crown season 5 covers the terrible Windsor Castle fire, and we shine a light on the events surrounding the shocking moment for the Royals.

The Windsor Castle fire broke out on November 20, 1992, and was reported at 11.30am that day. The castle burned for 15 hours and was finally extinguished at 2.30am on Saturday November 21, following dedicated work from fire crews. It took 225 firemen who arrived from seven different counties, to battle the flames. During the peak of the fight against the fire, firefighters were using 36 pumps and discharging 1½ million gallons of water. Read on to find out what started the fire, and if the Queen was residing at the Castle when it broke out. We will also take a look at what was lost, and the monumental restoration project that ensued in the aftermath.

For fans of the series wanting to know which building stood in for Windsor Castle in the TV series, our guide to where The Crown filmed (opens in new tab) from seasons 1 through to 5 has the stand-in for every iconic location covered. We also have a recap of The Crown cast (opens in new tab) throughout every season so far, to distinguish your Claire Foys from your Olivia Colmans. A lot of viewers are also asking did the Queen watch The Crown (opens in new tab), and we weigh in on the evidence.  

What started the Windsor Castle fire?

The Windsor Castle fire started when a 1,000-watt spotlight being used by renovators in the Queen’s private chapel overheated, igniting a curtain pressed up against it.

Flames then spread rapidly to the neighbouring Brunswick Tower, St George’s Hall banqueting space, and private apartments situated in the Castle’s eastern wing. The fire was able to spread easily due to a lack of firebreaks and fire-stopping materials in the cavities and roof voids. According to The History Press (opens in new tab), Castle staff and soldiers working in the building at the time, immediately formed a human chain to try and get as many precious items to safety as possible. 

Windsor Castle fire by night

(Image credit: Martin Beddall/Alamy)

Windsor Castle had its own fire department at the time of the incident, consisting of 20 people - six were full-time. Being based in stables two miles south of the castle, allowed the Castle’s own fire team to arrive on the scene within minutes. Fire services from London, Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Oxfordshire, and Berkshire were called upon for assistance, due to the scale of the fire. To slow the spread, tradesmen were asked to construct firebreaks to block off the rest of the Castle - these were made and put in place at around 1.30 p.m. Firefighters then had the fire almost under control, although the roof of the State Apartments had begun to collapse.

By 3:30pm, the floors of the Brunswick Tower collapsed and by 4:15pm, the fire had once again revived in the tower. Overnight, the flames remained concentrated in the tower, which by 6:30pm were up to 50 feet high and totally engulfing it. At 7:00pm, the roof of St George’s Hall collapsed and one hour later the fire was under control. The main fire continued for another three hours with secondary fires remaining until 2:30am that were the last to be extinguished. 

The Queen and fire crews during the Windsor Castle fire

(Image credit: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy)

Was the Queen at Windsor Castle when it was on fire?

The Queen was not at Windsor Castle during the fire, but Prince Andrew was on site. The Queen was informed about the fire by a phone call from her son who was staying at the Castle while undertaking research for his course at Staff College, Camberley. 

She arrived at 3pm on November 20, staying at the Castle for an hour, returning the next morning, to inspect the damage. Prince Andrew gave a press briefing, informing reporters the Queen was devastated by the event. The Prince of Wales - now the King - visited the castle in the evening of November 20. 

According to History (opens in new tab), The Windsor Castle fire was devastating to the Queen, as she spent much of her childhood and teenage years there. She also spent much of the Second World War there, instead of being evacuated to Canada as advised. The Queen Mother said at the time “The children won't go without me. I won't leave the King. And the King will never leave [England].’” The Castle also played host to the Queen’s much loved Royal Windsor Horse Show - the former Monarch attended this every year since it began in 1943. 

Fire damage at Windsor Castle following the 1992 fire

(Image credit: Heritage Image Partnership LTD/Alamy)

What burnt at Windsor Castle?

  • The Chester Tower
  • The Crimson Drawing Room
  • The Green Drawing Room
  • The Queen's Private Chapel
  • The St. George's Hall walls survived, but the ceiling collapsed
  • The State Dining Room in the Prince of Wales Tower
  • The Grand Reception Room
  • The Star Chamber
  • The Octagon Room
  • Brunswick Tower
  • Cornwall Tower
  • The Holbein Room
  • The Great Kitchen 

There was major structural damage caused by the fire, and several rooms and areas listed above were either seriously damaged or totally destroyed.

King Charles spoke of the experience in the documentary Windsor Castle Restored. He said "I was looking on the television and seeing all these terrifying flames and smoke coming out of the castle. I felt the first thing I needed to do was jump in a car and come up here. One of the worst things, I think, was coming up the motorway coming and seeing this glow and this smoke pouring into the sky".

He had travelled from Norfolk to support his family, adding "That I think was one of the worst images of all. It was somewhere where I had been brought up for so much of my childhood. So when I got here it looked even more like a scene of devastation than I would have believed possible. It made the blood run cold".

Fire crews battling flames at the Windsor Castle fire

(Image credit: PA Images/Alamy)

What was lost in the Windsor Castle fire?

Only two items were lost completely in the Windsor Castle fire - the Sir William Beechey equestrian portrait entitled George III and the Prince of Wales Reviewing Troops, and a 1820s sideboard by Morel and Seddon.

Some items of porcelain, several chandeliers, the Willis organ, and the 1851 Great Exhibition Axminster carpet were partially burnt but salvageable. In a stroke of luck, because rewiring was being carried out in the areas of the building most affected by the fire, most of the valuable paintings and furniture had already been removed.

See more

History reported Architectural firm Donald Insall Associates were appointed to take charge of the restoration, and Sidell Gibson dealt with reconstructing St George’s Hall and the new Lantern Lobby and Private Chapel. Over half of the rooms destroyed - including the State and Octagon dining rooms - were under instruction to be restored to their original state. New designs were drawn up for the St George’s Hall ceiling, East Screen, the Queen’s Private Chapel, and the Stuart and Holbein Rooms. 

The newly restored Grand Reception Room at Windsor Castle.

(Image credit: Anwar Hussein/Alamy)

Who paid for Windsor Castle fire repairs? 

An independent trust for private donations towards the repairs was set up on 16 February 1993 by the Queen’s bank, Coutts. The Queen also opened up parts of Buckingham Palace to the public, with money from admission charges going towards the restoration - she also donated £2 million of her own wealth to cover the costs.

Buildings such as Windsor Castle are too valuable to insure, with items inside them not insured against loss. This led to a debate surrounding who would pay the repairs bill as the Castle is owned by the state. Some MPs and the media called for the Queen to pay for the repairs herself, with the Monarch eventually settling on opening up Buckingham Palace as a partial solution.   

Initial estimates put restoration costs at approximately £60 million. However, the final cost came in much lower than expected, at £36.5 million. Visitors were welcomed back to the Castle grounds within three days of the fire, to areas unaffected - the Queen took up residence two weeks later. The final restoration was completed in November 1997, five years after the fire broke out.

Related Netflix Features:

Video of the Week