How Queen Elizabeth’s astonishing memory lapse destroyed the most sensational royal trial for more than a century (to the huge relief of ‘panicking’ Prince Charles and others…)
- Diana’s butler Paul Burrell amassed an ‘Amazon warehouse’ of her possessions
- But late in the day, The Queen had a sudden ‘recollection’ about the case
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So close were they that he dressed her for her burial, in an evening gown provided by the British ambassador’s wife. He was named a trustee of the Diana Memorial Fund and given the job of sorting through her possessions.
‘Often photographed two steps behind the Princess, he was the obsequious manservant who had supposedly displayed what the Royal household values most: absolute discretion,’ writes Tina Brown in her bestselling book The Palace Papers.
In the years following the death of Princess Diana of Wales, one man came to be seen as her ‘rock’ by the public
When the officers asked Paul Burrell if he had any items from Kensington Palace in his home, he said no. This was not the case
But on January 18, 2001 came a bombshell which shattered his carefully curated image (even the ‘rock’ bit had been his own invention).
Scotland Yard carried out a dawn raid at his house in Cheshire following a tip-off by Princess Margaret’s butler Harold Brown, who had been caught selling a two-foot be-jewelled Arabian dhow, a wedding gift to Charles and Diana from the emir of Bahrain. After he was arrested and later cleared, he told police that it had been supplied by Burrell.
READ MORE: Leaked letter reveals Charles and Cabinet’s fear over Paul Burrell Diana theft trial – just before it collapsed
When the officers asked Burrell if he had any items from Kensington Palace in his home, he said no. ‘A search of the house exposed him immediately,’ writes Brown.
‘It was a royal Amazon warehouse stuffed with paintings, photos, drawings and china belonging to the Princess.
‘The police discovered two thousand negatives, including a photograph of Charles in the bath with his children, and many others showing the young princes naked.’
There was also a ‘trove of personal notes to and from William at school’ using Diana’s nickname for him, Wombat, and a ‘huge cache of Diana’s underwear, blouses, suits, dresses and nightgowns.’
‘Even the mahogany desk Burrell was using was inscribed ‘Her Royal Highness’, writes Brown, adding that when he was carted away in the police car Burrell wailed: ‘I want white lilies on my coffin!’
Some items were missing, including secret tapes Diana had recorded of a former valet against Michael Fawcett, Charles’s right-hand man. Knowing these could potentially be made public sent Charles into ‘full panic mode’, according to Brown.
Burrell claimed that he had told the Queen he was going to take some of Diana’s possessions for safekeeping, and that she had assented.
Burrell claimed that he had told the Queen he was going to take some of Diana’s possessions for safekeeping, and that she had assented
Paul Burrell pictured, far right, with Princes William and Harry at Alton Towers in April 1994
So close were they that Burrell dressed Diana for her burial in an evening gown provided by the British ambassador’s wife
While Charles wanted the charges against Burrell to be dropped, Diana’s mother and sister did not believe his claim that he had the Queen’s permission to take her belongings.
They had grown ‘increasingly annoyed’ about the former butler ‘launching himself as a celebrity personality’, making money from writing a book and newspaper column and giving speeches on cruise ships on the back of his association with the princess.
They had no intention of backing up Burrell’s claim.
‘I hope his balls burn,’ Brown reports Diana’s mother, Frances Shand Kydd, as saying.
‘Even the butler’s long marriage to Maria [a maid and dresser for Diana] was a charade,’ claims the author. ‘He had so many affairs with guardsmen that Diana’s chef called him ‘Barrack-Room Bertha’.
In 2016, the couple finally divorced and Burrell married lawyer Graham Cooper.
Despite serious misgivings in the royal palaces, the prosecution went ahead and in October 2002, Burrell’s trial began at the Old Bailey in London. He was accused of stealing 310 items belonging to the Princess of Wales’s estate, totalling £4.5 million.
Then, suddenly, something truly remarkable happened – something ‘which can only be described as an episode of magical realism in 21st century Britain,’ writes
While Charles wanted the charges against Burrell to be dropped, Diana’s mother and sister did not believe his claim
The Daily Mail’s front page covering the event in October 2002, which reads: ‘Diana’s Butler Loaded His Car at 2.30am’
Paul Burrell giving a thumb-up to the media as he leaves the Central Criminal Court the Old Bailey, on November 1, 2002
Brown. ‘The trial of Paul Burrell was halted by an intervention from the Queen herself.’
At 8.30am on day 11 of the trial, Commander John Yates of Scotland Yard appeared, saying he had just spoken to Sir Michael Peat. Peat had told him: ‘Her Majesty has had a recollection.’
The previous Friday, the Queen had been driving past the Old Bailey with Prince Charles and Prince Phillip on their way to St. Paul’s Cathedral for a memorial service.
‘Noticing a crowd outside the courts, her Majesty asked Charles about it,’ writes Brown.
‘He told her that Burrell was on trial for theft, and the Queen apparently had no idea. When all was explained to the best-informed monarch in the world, she recalled a meeting five years earlier, soon after Diana’s death, when Burrell had sought an audience with her to explain that he was caring for some of Diana’s ‘papers’.’
‘As usual,’ Brown concludes, ‘when it came to her family, the Queen had avoided the problem as long as possible, and then executed a lethal coup de grace.’
She had found and fired a ‘golden bullet’.
Burrell was a free man, boasting to reporters outside the court, ‘The Queen came through for me.’ He sold his story to the Mirror for £300,000, while Burrell’s statement and proof of evidence about explicit details of Diana’s relationships with men including the surgeon Hasnat Khan were splashed over other newspapers.
Details such as that Charles would sneer at Diana’s outfits and call her an ‘air stewardess’ caused the Prince serious reputational damage.
The Evening Standard front page after Paul Burrell was cleared of all charges because of a conversation now suddenly recalled byThe Queen
Prince Harry accused the former butler of ‘milking’ his mother’s death for money with his book A Royal Duty
Burrell went on to enjoy a lucrative career as a royal commentator and reality show contestant, but in 2008, during Diana’s inquest, it emerged that he had secretly copied letters between her and other members of the Royal Family. He told the hearing it was for ‘historical importance’, but was accused of being a rock that was ‘porous’.
In his controversial memoir Spare, Prince Harry accused the former butler of ‘milking’ his mother’s death for money with his book A Royal Duty. ‘Mummy’s former butler had penned a tell-all which actually told nothing,’ he wrote. ‘It was merely one man’s self-justifying, self-centring version of events.
‘My mother once called this butler a dear friend, trusted him implicitly. We did too. Now this. He was milking her disappearance for money. It made my blood boil.’
Now retired after closing his floristry in 2019, Burrell, 64, revealed earlier this year that he is suffering from prostate cancer.
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