- Paul Burrell, 64, was Princess Diana’s butler for 10 years until her death in 1997
- On Nov 1, 2002, he was dramatically cleared of stealing Diana’s property
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It was the court case that shook the Royal Family to the core – and no member more so than Prince Charles.
Just five years since the death of Diana, her butler Paul Burrell had been accused of the theft of a total of 310 items, which were said to have been stolen from Kensington Palace, home to his former employer.
If the public interest was huge, and Burrell’s evidence at the Old Bailey eagerly awaited, for Prince Charles the prospect of an angry former royal insider in the witness box was a matter of trepidation.
Just what would he say?
So imagine the relief when on November 1, 2002 the case was unexpectedly thrown out in its entirety – thanks to a dramatic intervention from Her Late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.
Burrell had been accused of obtaining and selling the Princess’ possessions. Now, in quite astounding circumstances, he had been cleared.
Burrell, now 64, worked for the Royal Family for 21 years, beginning as the Queen’s footman and eventually becoming Diana’s butler for 10 years until her death in 1997.
The case against him had proceeded on the basis that he had not told anyone that he had kept items belonging to the princess.
However, 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.
Despite serious misgivings among some senior royals, the prosecution went ahead in October 2002,
But, suddenly, something remarkable happened – 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.’
On October 25, 2002, The Queen, Charles and Prince Philip had driven together to St Paul’s Cathedral for a memorial service for the victims of the Bali bombing.
Driving past the Old Bailey, she asked why a crowd was standing outside. Charles answered that Paul Burrell was on trial. The Queen was apparently unaware that he was being prosecuted.
Then she mentioned that, some years before, Burrell had sought an audience with her to explain that he was caring for some of Diana’s papers, and she had agreed that he should do so.
Given the importance to the prosecution case of the question of whether or not Burrell had told anyone that he had taken items from Kensington Palace, the relevance of this information was quickly drawn to the attention of the police.
The prosecution barrister, William Boyce QC later told the Old Bailey: ‘In all the circumstances, the prosecution has concluded that the current trial is no longer viable because it has proceeded on a false premise that Mr Burrell had never told anyone that he was holding anything for safekeeping.
‘The prosecution consider that if the defence were to apply for the jury to be discharged, although it would be a matter for My Lady, the prosecution could not oppose that application’.
After hearing submissions from the prosecution and defence, the judge, Mrs Justice Rafferty, dismissed the jury and told Mr Burrell he was free to go on November 1, 2002.
If the trial had continued, the former butler would have been called to give evidence and may have faced questioning about his time in the Queen’s employment as well as Princess Diana’s.
Outside the court, Mr Burrell said: ‘The Queen has come through for me. I’m thrilled, I’m so thrilled.’
It had been a turbulent two years, indeed, for the butler, who in January 2001, was awoken by Detective Chief Inspector Maxine de Brunner and three other police officers at 6.50 in the morning.
Scotland Yard carried out a dawn raid at his house in Cheshire following the arrest of 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.
‘Do you have any items from Kensington Palace in this house?’ Burrell was asked.
‘No,’ he lied. He was then placed under arrest.
As it transpired, the full details of what occurred that morning would never be heard in court.
But they were later pieced together by investigative writer Tom Bower, author of Rebel Prince: the Power, Passion and Defiance of Prince Charles.
What detectives found, he established was far beyond their expectations.
Rooms were filled with paintings, drawings, china and photographs that had clearly belonged to Diana and her children William and Harry.
Other items included signed photographs of Diana, the princess’s daily personal notes to William at school, and clothes belonging to her – including a blue-ribboned hat she’d worn during her visit with Prince Charles to South Korea in 1992.
Writing in The Daily Mail, Bower said: ‘As Burrell’s sobs intensified, an officer shouted from the attic: “It’s full of boxes, wall to wall!”
‘The boxes were wrenched open: inside were bags, blouses, dresses, nightgowns, underwear, shoes, jumpers, suits and hats that had belonged to Diana, including a blue-ribboned hat she’d worn during her visit with Prince Charles to South Korea in 1992.
‘Late that afternoon, officers filled a lorry sent from London with 2,000 items that de Brunner judged had been illegally removed.
‘The princess, she believed, would never have given away such personal material, and certainly not in such quantities.
‘Nevertheless, a large number of Diana’s possessions remained in the house. But without orders from Scotland Yard either to seize everything that had belonged to the family or to seal the house as a crime scene, there was no more to be done.
‘I want white lilies on my coffin,’ wailed Burrell as he was escorted to the waiting police car.
That year, Mr Burrell was charged with theft of a total of 310 items, reportedly worth £5m, which were said to have been stolen from the Princess’ home before her death.
He denied any impropriety and maintained the items were given to him by Diana.
In the years since the trial, Burrell has enjoyed 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.
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 revealed earlier this year that he is suffering from prostate cancer.