‘The Crown’ Season 5 Episode 4: Recap And Ending, Explained: What Does Annus Horribilis Mean?

1992 was the year that some of the worst events Queen Elizabeth II faced in her long reign occurred. In her own words, she termed it “annus horribilis,” which, in Latin, translates to “an unfortunate year.” But what happened in 1992 that made it so tough for not just the Queen but everyone included in her family? We will take a deep dive into the reasons, as an entire episode of Season 5 stands dedicated to it. Surely, that’s a lot. Let us begin!


Annus Horribilis is certainly one of the most dramatic episodes of the season so far, resting its attention squarely on the most notable recorded events through an insider’s gaze. Directed by May El-Toukhy, it begins with perhaps the smallest prelude ever in the history of the show: Elizabeth holding a tissue to cover her sniffles due to a cold, even though it’s the anxiety that is apparent on her face. As Philip signals to her that it’ll be okay, she makes her way to the infamous speech. In comes the introduction, and we are drawn into a flashback that will take us through the occurrences that made her consider the year the toughest in quite some time. It is Leslie Manville’s Princess Margaret who zooms in first as a radio show guest, choosing some of her favorite songs for the show, one of them being “Stardust” by Hoagy Carmichael, which, as she says, holds a special place in her heart. The shot cuts to another room altogether as an older Peter Townsend (Timothy Dalton) croons to the song on the radio.

Princess Margaret has become one of the most memorable characters in the show, and in Leslie Manville’s grasp, she turns into a volatile creature of sorts, her prickliness hiding a deep sense of hurt. Townsend does write a letter to her after hearing her voice on the radio show, and she accepts it. They hold hands for an extended dance sequence—all these years haven’t diminished their affection for one another.


Back home, Elizabeth will not be left in peace by her children and their disastrous marriages. Anne is hellbent on marrying Tim, who works as a correspondent, even though that would mean going against the Church of England. Charles is at his begrudging best as he makes his unhappiness in the marriage with Diana clear for the umpteenth time, citing the sheer monstrosity of Andrew Morton. Finally, it is the favorite child himself, Andrew, who is humiliated by his fiancée’s toe-sucking scandal and has to bring up the D-word. Not diplomacy, as the Queen quickly tests. Divorce, mummy, is what it has come to.

Yet the worst nightmare of all occurs when a fire breaks out at Windsor Castle and destroys around 100 rooms. The Queen is stunned and shows that she certainly expresses her grief over the castle more than her children’s complaints. As Peter and Margaret take a walk together in the episode’s most heartbreaking scene, they chat about old times. Peter confesses that he is dying of an illness and wants to meet her one last time and ask her if their love is just a fleeting kind or a lasting one. He plants a kiss on her lips without waiting for an answer and leaves. Margaret is left alone and stumbles her way to her sister’s room—she’s exhausted from the hurt and wants to share her peace of mind with her sister. As she confronts Elizabeth, who is still devastated by the loss caused by the fire, Manville brings in a feverish force of anger and pain in her words. Margaret is unable to understand why the outcome of her choice to marry Peter is different from Anne’s choice to marry Tim. Why are there now such double standards? Her sister dare not acknowledge the harm and pain she has caused her for all these years. Elizabeth is left speechless, and she processes Margaret’s outburst silently.


Later, she changes her speech to make it more personal, even with her mother’s marked disapproval. For her peace of mind, Philip encourages her to go on with the changes. The scene then cuts back to the prelude as Elizabeth is shown delivering the speech as an acknowledgment of the horrible year she has had and the sacrifices her family has had to endure in the process. Margaret and Elizabeth get on the phone together before going to bed, and Margaret invites her to lunch, but the Queen has other commitments lined up that she cannot miss. Duty always comes before family, as one knows by now. On quite a surprising note, both of them express their love for each other. So middle class, Margaret comments and promises not to ever do that again. 

Annus Horribilis is certainly one of the most important episodes of the season so far, and correctly so. The 90s were extremely turbulent for the monarchy, and 1992 was the year that it all began. Tracing the degradation of the marriages and the internal tensions that built up strategically within the royal household provides an uncharacteristically cold perspective on the family that is supposed to provide an example of idealized family life. Since Elizabeth stands at the center of it all, it is she who has to face it all with a strong face. She cannot reveal. Yet, it is her peace of mind, which is constantly challenged in the episode, that brings her to accept her faults as a monarch, as a mother, and as a sister.


Yet, I couldn’t really bring myself to be as invested in the unraveling of the incidents in this particular episode of The Crown. Is it because this episode brings together almost all the key members of the royal family, and given that they are all new faces, there is still a certain sense of distance associating them with their characters? Quite possibly, though, Staunton and Manville are unsurprisingly great together, and the confrontation scene between them is a standout of the episode. Or is it because the episode follows a fairly conventional approach to gluing together snippets from different plotlines, carrying with its heavy plot a sense of exhaustion? Could be. 

The writing is markedly weak in Annus Horribilis, creating many of the roadblocks in the episode’s favor. The main setback that this episode suffers from is a certain sense of restlessness, where one character arrives, makes their complaints known, and departs. This makes way for another character to arrive. The central conflict of the Queen doesn’t register until the very end, and when it does, with the breadcrumbs of humanity that are offered through the speech, it is barely convincing. Just as we are starting to sympathize with a character, they disappoint further and then disappear. The only saving grace of Annus Horribilis is Leslie Manville as Princess Margaret, fabulously making the role her own after Vanessa Kirby and Helena Bonham Carter in the previous seasons. Her reunion with Peter Townsend is a painful reminder of the unfair treatment that they’ve had to endure for belonging to a system. Alas, what could have been only lasted for a brief while.


See more: ‘The Crown’ Season 5, Episode 3: Recap And Ending, Explained: Who Is Dodi Al Fayed?

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Santanu Das
Santanu Das
Santanu Das is a writer who likes to have Sally Rooney books by the table, and when not reading or writing, you will find the champ clicking pictures of the sky that brightens his mundane days. He believes a film a day can cure almost all feelings of doubt and make everything just perfect.

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