It was a morning like any other at Buckingham Palace on July 9, 1982. Queen Elizabeth II was still asleep in her four-poster bed. The overnight police sergeant who watched the corridor outside her bedroom had gone off duty, as scheduled at 6 a.m., and the palace’s domestic staff had started their shifts. A footman had taken the queen’s beloved corgis outside for a walk and a maid was cleaning a nearby room but had closed the door so she wouldn’t wake Her Majesty from her royal slumber.
Everything around the palace grounds was going according to its normal daily plan. So much so that no one heard the queen’s night alarm bell and her two calls to send the police to her bedroom didn’t set off any urgency because of her calm tone.
But in fact, minutes before, a strange man had just pulled back the curtains of the queen’s bed with a bloody hand and a piece of an ashtray he had just broken in an anteroom.
Michael Fagan, a 33-year-old London-born unemployed man, had somehow managed to stay undetected through all the palace security, becoming the best-known Buckingham Palace intruder.
Fagan had first broken into the palace the previous month
The shocking feat seemed like it would have taken meticulous planning and maneuvering, but apparently, it was simply a series of odd happenstances that led Fagan into the Queen’s chambers.
And even more surprising, it wasn’t his first time there. On June 7, 1982, Fagan, whose wife had just left him, climbed through a maid’s bedroom window into Buckingham Palace with one mission in mind: to use the restroom.
“I found rooms saying ‘Diana’s Room,’ ‘Charles’ Room,’ — they all had names on them. But I couldn't find a door which said ‘WC,’” Fagan told The Independent UK. “All I found were some bins with ‘Corgi Food’ written on them. I was breaking my neck to go to the toilet. What do I do? Pee on the carpet? So I had to pee on the corgi food. I got into Charles' room and took the wine off the shelf and [drank] it. It was cheap Californian.’”
He claims to have wandered through the palace, trying chairs “like Goldilocks and the Three Bears” — claiming he even tried out the throne — and exploring various rooms before walking out a door to the back gardens.
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One month later, Fagan broke into the palace again
After his royal jaunt, still reeling from the pain of his wife leaving him, Fagan stole a car in London and drove it to Stonehenge, looking for her. He was arrested for the auto theft and spent three weeks in a Brixton jail before being released on bail. And the day after he was free again, he went back to his favorite new playground.
Around 6:45 a.m., he climbed over the railings of the gates near Buckingham Palace's ambassador’s entrance and entered the building through an unlocked window into a room with the Royal Stamp Collection. The doors to the rest of the palace were locked, but that didn’t deter Fagan — as he set his sights higher.
He went back out the window and climbed a drainpipe to the roof, where he found an unlocked window which had been opened for the day by a maid. He left his sandals and socks on the roof and entered into the office of Sir Peter Ashmore, the Master of the Household.
Without catching anyone’s eye, he wandered the halls of the 775-room palace, which has 52 royal and guest bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices and 78 bathrooms.
Fagan considered slashing his wrists in front of the Queen
Claiming he had no prior plan, Fagan says he found his way to the private apartments by “following the pictures."
In the first anteroom, he saw an ashtray and suddenly came up with a new action plan. He broke the astray and “said that he intended to slash his wrists in the presence of Her Majesty.”
With a piece of the broken ashtray in his hand, Fagan entered Her Majesty’s bedroom and opened the curtains of her bed. Decades later, he told The Independent UK, “It was a double bed but a single room, definitely – she was sleeping in there on her own. Her nightie was one of those Liberty prints and it was down to her knees.”
The Queen pushed her night alarm bell, but since it was after the night police’s shift and no one was in the corridor or the pantry where it rings, it went unanswered. She then used the telephone by her bed, telling the palace’s telephonist to send police to her room. The police lodge received the call at 7:18 a.m.
Six minutes later, no help had arrived, so she called again. While she continued to wait, the Queen was able to catch the eye of a maid — and two worked together to lead Fagan into a pantry by offering him a cigarette. During this time, the footman returned from walking the dogs and helped occupy Fagan while the queen tended to her beloved corgis. Eventually, the police did show up and removed him from the palace.
Fagan remembers the incident differently, telling The Independent UK that as soon as the Queen saw him, “She went past me and ran out of the room; her little bare feet running across the floor.”
With a generally relaxed security protocol, palace break-ins were not uncommon.
A complete investigation was launched, concluding that a failure in communication between police officers may have been the cause. One officer had seen Fagan climbing the railings and passed along the message, but no action was taken. An alarm in the first Stamp Room also went unanswered. But ultimately it was the “inadequate” response to the Queen’s calls that truly posed the biggest risk, according to the Scotland Yards report.
This incident was not an isolated one. Palace break-ins were not entirely uncommon, especially during that time. On June 19, 1981, three Germans made it into the gardens by climbing a wall, thinking they were going into Hyde Park; on August 5, 1981, a 24-year-old man was found on the palace grounds and taken into psychiatric care; and on June 17, 1982, a 25-year-old showed a knife to bypass two guards.
The royal family’s security may have seemed lax by American standards, The New York Times said, stating, “Traditionally, the royal family has preferred a minimum of security so as to limit the disruption to their lives and the barriers from the people.”
While more measures were put in place after the 1979 killing of Earl Mountbatten by the Irish Republican Army, they still weren’t quite as sealed as one would imagine for the world’s most famous monarch. More stringent security measures were put into place after the Fagan break-in, including around-the-clock security by the royal apartments.
Fagan was not charged for the intrusion
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that Fagan was not charged in the incident since a palace spokesperson said he had simply trespassed, which is a civil law violation, but not a crime in Britain.
Instead, it was actually his first incident in June that sent him to court because drinking Prince Charles’ wine was considered “stealing.” The jury acquitted him in 14 minutes that September. While he said it was “cheap Californian” wine in the 2012 interview, back in 1982, Fagen claimed, “It was Australian wine. It was on the filing cabinet.” Since he had no “dishonest intent,” he was off the hook.
While his royal exploits didn’t land him in trouble with the law, the stolen car incident, as well as a reported assault against his stepson did keep him in custody.
Decades later, in The Independent UK interview, Fagan claimed that during the incident, “I was scareder than I'd ever been in my life.”