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The Crown: Annus Horribilis

Prince Charles: “For years, I've called for a more modern monarchy that reflects the world outside. Look at the rates of family breakdown out there, and then look at us. Margaret, divorced. Anne, divorced.”
Queen Elizabeth: “All right.”
Prince Charles: “Andrew, humiliated and... and heading for divorce. Me, trapped and dreaming of divorce. And you talk about moral examples. If we were an... ordinary family and social services came to visit, they'd have thrown us into care and you into jail!”

For once Queen Elizabeth does not maintain a stiff upper lip and admits that the last year – her 40th on the throne – was wretched. The royal marriages are troubled and Windsor Castle caught on fire.

The cold open begins with Princess Margaret choosing music (including some Hoagy Carmichael) for a radio show and explaining why she has chosen each piece. I have no idea if this ever happened, but the artistic reason for this scene is because she was the first in her sister’s life who was too near to the throne, the first who had her hopes and heart squashed because her sister was the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith.

In case you need reminding, Princess Margaret, when she was young, was not permitted to marry Peter Townsend, the man she loved. Why not? Because Peter Townsend was a divorcé, and divorced people were not allowed to remarry in the Church of England. So instead Princess Margaret married Antony Armstrong-Jones, and ended up divorced anyway.

The Crown showcased Princess Margaret’s unhappiness before, and with 20-20 hindsight, it’s hard to see why such cruelty could be necessary. However, the only reason Queen Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth when she did was because her uncle David was compelled to abdicate because he wanted to marry the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson. Therefore, allowing other members of the royal family to marry divorced people would weaken her claim to the throne.

Besides, if you believe in the divine right of kings, that means you have to believe in the divine, or else it all falls apart. At the time, the Church of England did not permit divorced people to remarry while their exes still lived.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip apparently had a good marriage (although he complains in this season about how they grew apart). However, her sister and her three eldest children did not. Princess Anne announces she’s planning to divorce and to marry Tim Lawrence, the man she had been seeing for three years. Prince Andrew comes in and says his wife has been caught doing something with various men, and he wants a divorce to avoid the humiliation.

The real problem is Prince Charles, who as heir to the throne and with the super popular wife, can’t escape the spotlight. He’s the one who has been in love with another woman since before his marriage – and he wasn’t allowed to marry Camilla because she had had a few boyfriends. In fact, one of the pluses of Diana was that, being so young, there was little past to worry about.

Prince Charles has a great conversation with his mother. I don’t know if he ever told her off like this, but it’s the conversation I was always wanting to take place. Queen Elizabeth may have had a few chats with the clergy, but she probably could have done more; times have changed – and they had changed by the 1990s. Instead of putting her family first, she put the Crown first. And to what end? Most of the marriages failed, causing great misery in the meantime.

In a very much secondary story, Peter Townsend contacts Princess Margaret and meets her again. As he's married, it's all above board. I guess we're meant to believe that marriage would have worked out well. Anyway, Timothy Dalton is still easy on the eyes.

I expect the fire at Windsor Castle was devastating for the royal family. On the other hand, wasn’t she just telling us a few episodes ago that the Britannia was her real home? I'm sure the British lost some important treasures, but I cannot feel sorry for the Queen. The bad marriages were, in a large part, her fault. And if you own several dozen estates and palaces, well, occasionally one will catch on fire.

Title musings. “Annus Horribilis” is the title of the episode, and it is Latin for horrible year. It’s a phrase the Queen used herself (as shown) to describe a really wretched year for her and for her family. Apt.

Bits and pieces

I loved the Hoagy Carmichael references. He was born (and is buried) in the town where I grew up. I’ve walked past his old house many times.

I wonder if I'm taking less to Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth because she was the horrid Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter movies.

Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones (1st Earl of Snowden) divorced in 1978. She did not remarry. He, however, did, but separated from his second wife in 2000. Reports indicate he did not make a good husband.

As the Duke of Windsor never had children, Princess Elizabeth would have still been the presumptive heir, but she would have ascended to the throne in 1972 instead of 1947.

The fact that the Church of England was so anti-divorce is ironic, given that Henry VIII started it because he wanted to divorce his first wife.

The Church of England has allowed divorced people to remarry in church – subject to a priest’s discretion – since 2002. However, the events in this episode all took place before 2002; 1992 is the annus horribilis.

One reason Queen Elizabeth did not move on was because Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was still alive and quite disapproving. She died in 2002. Perhaps that was what allowed the Church of England to finally take a different tack.

My, how times have changed! When I was young, the idea of living with someone was literally called living in sin. Now, many couples in the western world would not consider marriage without having been intimate first.


Princess Margaret: It's a hymn, so I would have thought the significance would have been obvious. My faith. Without faith, you might as well say you've given up, and I haven't. Faith has always informed every decision I've made.
Radio host: In your royal life, or your personal life as well?
Princess Margaret: When you have a sister who is Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith, it's sometimes a little difficult to separate the two.

Princess Margaret: When one reaches a certain age, one cannot help embarking on an audit of the heart. A review. And one considers all those... loves, those dreams, and youthful passions, in the context of a whole life. And it's interesting to note what endures. There are some that remain and become lasting loves... and some that fade, and one realizes were probably never true loves at all.

Prince Andrew: It's... It's just the sheer humiliation of it all. Which is why, this time, I'm left with no option but to, well, mention the D-word.
Queen Elizabeth: Diplomacy? DĂ©tente? Is it asking too much to say "duty"?
Prince Andrew: Divorce, Mummy.

Princess Anne: I'm here to talk about Tim.
Queen Elizabeth: Tim? Commander Laurence? Oh. Are you two still...
Princess Anne We are. And I'm here to say we intend for it to be permanent. As in, till death do us part.
Queen Elizabeth: What? You hardly know one another.
Princess Anne: Almost three years, Mummy.
Queen Elizabeth: And the ink is barely dry on your divorce from Mark.

Princess Margaret on phone: Annus horribilis?
Queen Elizabeth: It has been, for all of you. And I can see much of that has been my fault.
Princess Margaret: For the record, no one blames you.
Queen Elizabeth: On the contrary, everyone blames me, all of the time. And you're right to. This system, of which the sovereign is the principal beneficiary, is horribly hard on the rest of you.

Overall rating

A good episode, covering an important matter. Three out of four Hoagy Carmichael songs.

Victoria Grossack loves math, birds, Greek mythology, Jane Austen and great storytelling in many forms.


  1. Apologies for being an annoying history buff, but Henry VIII never actually divorced any of his wives. He broke away from Rome and founded the Church of England because he wanted his first marriage annulled so that, legally and religiously, it effectively never happened. Basically he wanted a loophole so he could marry again without getting divorced.

    1. And one of the reasons the Pope was reluctant to grant the annulment was because the previous Pope had already granted an annulment of the marriage of Catherine Aragon and Henry's older brother, Arthur. I guess he thought there shoukd be a limit of 1 annulment per person.

  2. Good point, Anonymous. But then the others royals should have been able to get annulments too. And I would argue that an annulment was how people got out of marriages in that culture, as divorce was not an option. Unlike the Romans, who divorced all the time.

  3. There still needs to be grounds for an annulment, even as king and head of the church Henry VIII still had to give a reason why he thought his marriages were false. Since annulments declared the marriage null and void, any children produced of that marriage automatically become illegitimate and removed from the line of succession. That wasn't an issue for Henry VIII because he wanted a son to inherit his crown, but could've cause problems for other royals.

  4. An interesting point. It would be pretty easy for Diana to argue that her marriage to Charles should be annulled based on the fact that he was in love with someone else when he married her. However, that would remove William and Harry from the succession. But regardless of the legalities of the situation, it's difficult to view the founder of the Church of England as a great believer in the sanctity of marriage.

  5. The radio show that Margaret is on at the beginning of the episode is called Desert Island Discs. It is one of BBC Radio's most popular, having been on the air for 80 years. It has been called the greatest radio program of all time. There are loads of episodes available to listen to online. I highly recommend playing around with some of them. You can find Princess Margaret's here:


    I loved this episode and got very weepy through it. The pain that this family has inflicted on itself is hard to watch. The scene where Margaret calls out her sister was an acting tour de force. And, the fact that the Queen then references Margaret's words in her speech is a writing one. Great moments.


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