WITH the embers of Windsor Castle barely cool after last weekend's huge fire, the woman who has sat on the British throne since 1952 broke with tradition by admitting the human frailties of her family and asking for moderation from its detractors.
In a speech this week in London's financial district marking the 40th anniversary of her accession, Queen Elizabeth II said 1992 had been an "annus horribilis" for her and her family. It was "not a year to look back on with undiluted pleasure."
Experts who have chronicled the woes of the queen's fragmenting family during this "horrible year" are forecasting a major overhaul of the world's most enduring monarchy. "Royal watchers" warn that without changes such as reducing the size of the royal family, the monarchy will lose its place at the center of the British system of government and in the affections of Britons.
In a passage that stunned her audience of bankers and financial worthies and won extensive media coverage, she said: "There can be no doubt that criticism is good for people and institutions."
She continued: "No institution - city, monarchy, whatever - should expect to be free from the scrutiny of those who give it their loyalty and support, not to mention those who don't." But she called for scrutiny "with a touch of gentleness, good humor, and understanding."
The queen did not mention the increasingly controversial question of the monarchy's finances or give an inch of ground to critics who say she should pay taxes on her private income.
Sources close to the royal family suggest that behind the queen's carefully chosen words lies a determination to launch a reshaping of the monarchy and a paring down of the number of members of the royal family who play high-profile public roles. Elimination of junior members of her family from the royal retinue would mean their removal from the Civil List - the account from which the government pays them salaries.
Anthony Sampson, author of the best-selling book "Anatomy of Britain," says the Queen's "unprecedented speech" reflects the fact that "the magic of the monarchy has faded."
"The apparatus could be cut down without much suffering," Mr. Sampson says. "Many people, even inside Buckingham Palace, feel that the number of courtiers and the size of the queen's extended family have made things appear rather ridiculous."
In mentioning the royal woes, Queen Elizabeth was referring mainly to the marital troubles of Prince Charles, heir to the throne, his brother Prince Andrew, and their sister Princess Anne, which continue to receive minutely detailed coverage in the British media.
But royal sources say her remarks were triggered mainly by public reaction to the Windsor Castle fire and the government's immediate promise to pay for repairs expected to cost tens of millions of dollars. Several members of Parliament suggested that the queen, whose private fortune has been estimated at $9.88 billion, should help foot the bill. This was echoed by media normally supportive of the monarchy.
"What is now needed from the queen is a gesture," the conservative Daily Mail editorialized. "Either she can make a gracious gift or she can agree to have her income taxed. One way or the other, more cash should come from the royal purse to the public exchequer."
The left-wing Daily Mirror accused the royal family of "sowing the seeds of its own destruction," and spoke of its "meanness, greed, and blinkered disregard for the feelings of the people."
More ominously for the queen, two opinion polls published on the day she delivered her speech reflected the same views. In one, 95 percent of those questioned said taxpayers should not have to pay for the repairs at Windsor. In another only 1 in 5 respondents said the royal family represented good value for the $15.2 million paid out annually for the Civil List.
Yet there is argument about how much can or should be done to reform the monarchy and make it less vulnerable to public criticism. Lord St. John of Fawsley, a royal confidant and constitutional expert, says much of the problem lies with the fact that "the royal family, like other families in these times, is not immune to difficulties." Its problems, however, have been "grossly magnified" by media coverage, he adds.
Suggestions that the answer is to abolish the monarchy and institute a republic get scant support from anyone except a few radical politicians. Peter Hennessey, professor of contemporary history at London University, points out that abolishing the monarchy would require an act of Parliament. "Even in today's climate," he says, "that would not stand a chance."
HISTORIAN David Starkey, a British monarchy expert at the London School of Economics, says lengthy royal reigns encourage public criticism of the sovereign. "At one time toward the end of her reign, Queen Victoria was highly unpopular," he says. "The same was true of the first Queen Elizabeth - everyone was fed to the back teeth with her by the 1590s."
Stewart Steven, editor of the London Evening Standard, says the queen must establish a "new relationship" with the British people. "There is a sense that the modesty for which the royal family used to be famous has disappeared," he says.
Dr. Hennessey dismisses the suggestion that the queen should pass over Prince Charles and his wife Diana as heirs to the throne in favor of their eldest son Prince William.
"That too would require an act of Parliament, and I cannot see it happening," he said.