Paul Burrell: Loyal to the end, a 'rock' who found himself in a hard place

Kim Sengupta
Saturday 02 November 2002 01:00

At the age of eight Paul Burrell was taken by his parents from his home in a Derbyshire mining village to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. He would recall, moist-eyed: "I thought it was magical. I said, 'One day I am going to work there'."

Master Burrell achieved his ambition and has undoubtedly become the best-known royal servant to have worked for the House of Windsor. Mr Burrell will claim that his is an unwanted notoriety. He has, he would stress, been the model of discretion about Diana, Princess of Wales, whom he last served, and to whom he became extremely close even though spilling her secrets would have made him millions.

But this is only partly true. Mr Burrell did hanker after fame, albeit coyly. He wrote books on etiquette, learnt during years of tending to his "betters", and gave lectures aboard cruise ships for £3,500 a time about his experiences.

His flirting with "celebrity-hood" was what brought him to the attention of Scotland Yard. His appearance on the television programme Through The Keyhole revealed that his home was full of royal ornaments and memorabilia. This was seen by Diana's sister, Lady Sarah McCorquodale, who alerted the police. Officers apparently also had information from inside the Palace.

During his years of service Mr Burrell was undoubtedly devoted to Diana, never addressing her as anything other than "ma'am", or "your Royal Highness", something he continued to do even after she was acrimoniously stripped of the title by the Royal Family after her divorce from the Prince of Wales.

And although his attraction was primarily towards the Princess, it was not exclusively so. His home in Farndon, Cheshire, is also a shrine to the Queen and Prince Philip, with photographs and framed letters. He was, he would say, a royalist without doubts.

There is nothing in Mr Burrell's background to suggest he would become a servant. His father was a lorry driver with the National Coal Board and his mother a cleaner in the village of Grassmoor.

Mr Burrell's two brothers went down the pit, but after gaining six O-levels he decided to study hotel management. At 18 he was accepted for a job with the Royal Household.

The Royal Family is notoriously Scrooge-like in paying its staff, and the hours are long. But Mr Burrell had found his true vocation. Within a year he had been made a personal footman to the Queen and revelled in his role.

"The first time I had flown anywhere at all was in Her Majesty's jet," he said. "I even walked with her along the Great Wall of China." There were delights, too, in serving back in Britain. "When I helped the Queen feed her corgis we would be alone. You could talk about anything while she mixed the food."

He married Maria, a maid to the Duke of Edinburgh. The couple spent their honeymoon in Balmoral, and were given a set of Coalport candlesticks embossed with the royal monogram as a present.

One night, Mr Burrell found Diana, then not yet engaged to Charles, wandering lost in the dark corridors of Balmoral. He guided her to her room and then spent a long time chatting to her. A rapport was struck.

After the wedding, the Burrells moved to Highgrove, the Prince of Wales' home, as butler and maid. There they were witnesses, at close quarters, to the fracturing of the marriage. Mr Burrell was privy to Diana's dalliances, and also the Prince's affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. But ever the discreet retainer, he kept the confidence of both parties.

After the separation, Diana asked the Burrells to work for her. He was at first reluctant, worried about career prospects and the meagre salary of £18,000 a year. But the move was made, and it was the beginning of a strangely intimate relationship.

At its height, Diana called Mr Burrell her "rock". He was entrusted with taking her divorce documents to her solicitors, and private letters to friends. When she made her will, he was the witness. When she began her now celebrated clandestine nocturnal "princess of hearts" visits to hospitals, he accompanied her. When she was killed in Paris, it was he who dressed her for the coffin.

Mr Burrell also became privy to her affairs and saw at first hand her anger towards the Royal Family and the mercenary nature of her own. When she asked her brother, Earl Spencer, after her separation whether she could stay at one of the houses at their parents' estate, Althorp, he reportedly demanded rent of £12,000. Diana gave the butler gifts of cufflinks, CDs, ties. She also gave presents to Mrs Burrell, including designer dresses worn only a few times, as well as gifts to their two sons, Alexander, now 16, and Nicholas, 13.

Mr Burrell recalls: "Every single morning, the minute she rose, I'd bow. It was my way of showing my respect, saying, 'This is where I belong, this is my world.'

"She'd put on an outfit and come downstairs and look at me and say, 'You don't like this, do you?' I'd say, 'No, I don't.' She'd go back upstairs and put something else on." The night Diana was killed, Mr Burrell chose a black suit by Catherine Walker from her wardrobe, packed it in a small suitcase and took it to Paris.

He recalled that, at the morgue, "I knew for sure it was the Princess as soon as I saw her red toenails. She used to walk around Kensington Palace in her bare feet. The first thing she did when she came through the door was kick her shoes off." He flew back with the coffin, and the night before the funeral stayed with it until dawn.

Mr Burrell spent six months making an inventory of Diana's possessions, with the aid of Christie's, for clothes, and Garrard's, for jewellery. He oversaw the stripping of her Kensington Palace home, down to the last wire coat hanger.

Mr Burrell was left £50,000 by Diana in her will, and he was given a £35,000-a-year job as events organiser for the Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. He now found himself in the limelight.

He hosted a celebrity auction in Hollywood and reported: "The actress Angela Lansbury was such a great help ... Jane Seymour was there, she started crying after I spoke ... Rod Stewart came up to me and insisted I dance with his wife, Rachel Hunter. Well, who was I to turn it down?". He watched the Oscar ceremony at the home of Elizabeth Taylor, lying on her king-size bed. "She joked, 'Hey Paul, do you want to hold my Oscars?'"

But the Memorial Fund found the publicity he was generating incompatible with his post.

Officials accused him of " red carpet fever" and he was sacked with £3,000 compensation. Mr Burrell seemed destined for obscurity until the police came knocking.

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