Calling all Royal fans! With the Coronation around the corner, Spin Genie had the exclusive opportunity to sit down with Paul Burrell, RVM, a former servant of the British Royal Household and one-time butler to the beloved Princess Diana. With his firsthand experience, Mr. Burrell shared fascinating insights into the intriguing world of British royalty, covering topics ranging from Charles and Diana's engagement to the tumultuous split between the iconic couple, as well as the more recent headlines surrounding Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Read on to discover the captivating stories and unique perspectives shared by this royal insider.
What do you remember about Charles and Diana’s engagement?
I was with the Queen on duty that day, and I remember her saying to me ‘Mr Thomas the crown jeweller is coming in this morning, would you make him a cup of tea and make him settled and I’ll let you know when I’m ready to see him’. So I put him in the room around the corner and gave him a tea tray and he sat there with his little attaché case. I thought he was coming in to show the Queen a signet ring for Prince Andrew because all the boys get signet rings so she rang her bell and I went in and she said ‘is Mr Thomas there?’ and I said ‘yes he is’ and she said ‘could you show him in?’, I said, ‘yes of course’. I went round the corner and brought him round and showed him into the room, bowed and said ‘Mr Thomas, your Majesty’. ‘Mr Thomas, how lovely to see you, do come in’ and the Queen said ‘before you close the door, would you call the Prince of Wales and tell him that I’m ready to see him as well’. At that time the Prince of Wales was living at Buckingham Palace, he had his own apartment so I called him and said ‘Your Royal Highness, Her Majesty is waiting to see you in her sitting room. ‘Oh I’ll be right down, Paul’ and down he comes. I show him in and the three of them are in there and I thought ‘this is pretty strange’ so 20 minutes later Mr Thomas comes out of the room all smiles and the Prince of Wales comes out the room and disappears.
The Queen said to me ‘would you set an extra place at the tea table’ - she always had tea at 5 o’clock in her dining room - ‘Lady Diana Spencer’s coming to join us for tea. After we’ve fed the dogs at 4 would you take the dogs out on the other side of the garden, take them as far as possible by the tennis courts so the other side of the lake?’ This is all bizarre to me because the Queen knew everything that was going to happen. I later found out that the press were going to come to the palace to witness the engagement of the Prince and Princess of Wales as they came down those steps onto the lawn at the back of the palace. I could see them, I was with nine corgis on the other side of the lake and I witnessed that brood of paparazzi press following the Prince and Princess of Wales getting their pictures.
It wasn’t until after that the penny dropped and I realised that the Prince of Wales, Mr Thomas and the Queen had chosen that ring. The Princess of Wales was not in the loop, she did not choose her engagement ring. The Queen, the Crown Jeweller and the Prince of Wales did and that was the Burmese sapphire surrounded by diamonds. That’s how that came about and I was there to witness it which was incredible. I discovered from Evelyn, the Princess’ dresser, that that outfit she wore actually was off the peg and came from Harrods, they sent out for a suit and that’s the suit that came to the palace and the suit she wore, It wasn’t made for her, she didn’t know until that day what she was going to wear and that’s what came from Harrods.
It’s a gorgeous ring but the Princess always said, if I’d had my choice I would’ve chosen something simpler.
Did you see her face when the Prince of Wales was asked ‘are you in love sir?’ and he said ‘whatever love is’ and she turned to him and looked at him with a nervous giggle thinking ‘don’t you know?’ because she had fallen in love with her prince of course, any young girl would. When she met him she was only 18 years old and he was the first man who ever showed her any true affection and she fell in love with him. She was bowled over by her prince who was going to carry her away to a beautiful future and a fairytale castle somewhere, she was very naive.
What was your immediate reaction to them as a couple?
I thought ‘oh my goodness’ that gap, that age gap is going to be an obstacle to begin with because they are from two generations. I thought to myself, is she too young and too naive for him? Because he is very worldly, he’s travelled the world and dated many girls and she seems to be such an innocent. Before the engagement was announced she was incarcerated in the old royal nursery in Buckingham Palace all alone. The Prince of Wales went to Australia I think on a royal tour and she was left behind. She was lonely. The nursery footman in those days was in charge of that floor and he was a friend of mine called Mark Simpson. He lived next door to me on the top floor of Buckingham Palace and he’d say to me ‘she’s down there all by herself, so lonely, let’s go down and cheer her up’ So we used to go down and chat with her and she said to me one day, you know what I’d really love? I’d love a Big Mac and fries and a strawberry milkshake, do you think you could make that happen?’. Mark and I went down to Victoria, way back all those years, McDonalds weren’t on every street corner then and there was one by the cathedral in Victoria. We got Big Macs and Strawberry milkshakes, we took them back to the Royal nursery and sat on the floor crosslegged with her and it was a party, a picnic in a palace.
Then she’d say ‘is it okay if I wander round the palace’ so I said ‘of course it is’. She said ‘would you help me roll back the carpet in the throne room because I want to practice my ballet dance lessons’. I said ‘sure, I’m not so sure the Queen would approve of this’. I was the Queen’s footman at the time. She said ‘I’m sure she wouldn’t mind’ so I did help her roll back the huge red carpet in the Throne Room to expose a wooden parquet floor which she could easily dance along. So before she became Princess of Wales she was dancing her way through the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace.
They didn’t portray that image in the Crown, they did use the rollerskating. She did put on rollerskates to rollerskate through the corridors but they should’ve shown her doing her ballet dancing in the Throne Room, that would’ve been a very poignant image with the thrones, the Queen’s and Prince Philip’s on the dais behind with her practicing her moves. It would’ve been a very poignant scene because it’s a picture of something that should’ve been which never could be.
Did the Queen ever catch her going about her ballet lessons?
I told the Queen what was happening, obviously I was very close to the Queen. She just giggled, she said ‘really?’ I said ‘yes, she’s so bored up there’. Occasionally the Queen would have her down for tea, she’d say ‘tell her to come down for a cup of tea with me’. She’d come down and have a cup of tea with the Queen but of course she was busy being Queen so she couldn’t watch over her and she was left to her own devices. She was rather abandoned and that was a sort of a signal of what was about to happen because she would be abandoned from time to time over the years and she should’ve taken note of that, that the palace courtiers didn’t really care. I remember the day I left the Queen, one of the Ladies in Waiting asked me to go for tea in her sitting room with her and she said to me ‘you know you’re backing the losing don’t you?’. I said ‘what do you mean?’ she said ‘Diana is such a silly girl, she’s going to be gone and forgotten in a few years time and no one will ever remember who she was.’ Didn’t she get it wrong, 25 years later we’re still talking about her and Diana’s ghost is still haunting the House of Windsor.
It’s surprising the Palace didn’t try to introduce her to other young ladies in that social sphere, so she’d have someone to keep her company?
They thought ‘well she has her own friends, she can go out and see her own friends that she grew up with, we don’t need to supply anybody for her’. She was literally abandoned. I suppose the Prince of Wales called her from overseas and I suppose he kept in touch with her but it was as if she was put on ice until she was revealed. She couldn’t be revealed until the Prince of Wales came back and they became engaged. Then times were very different. Or were they? I’m not so sure they were because he still was the Prince of Wales, he still had official duties to do and she was not involved in many engagement duties before they were married except the really famous one where she wore the black taffeta dress. They went to the London Palladium I think. She stepped out of the car a little too low and people could see her cleavage. Well that black taffeta dress was meant to be an homage to the Queen. Because when the Queen was Princess Elizabeth she wore a dress very similar to that and Diana thought it would be a nod to her future mother-in-law which was, I think, overlooked at the time. They just thought that she was rather daring with these bare shoulders and too much cleavage. The press were very critical of this young girl from day one and it’s a shame because she was only trying to find her way. She said to me ‘I was pushed in the deep end, into a shark pool and I learned to swim very fast’.
A lot of talk about their relationship is centered on the negative parts and their split. But did you witness many positive moments?
I saw them, I was still with the Queen of course, I waited their wedding breakfast in Buckingham Palace. I was responsible for the top table, the round tables and on the table was the bride and groom, the parents of the bride and groom, the Queen, Prince Phillip, Mrs Shand Kydd and Earl Spencer, and the bridesmaids, so that was my table. I waited that meal and she didn’t eat a thing, she didn’t touch any thing at her wedding breakfast after which she told me her tummy was tied up in knots and she literally could not eat. I noticed and I saw that closeness with them and even though he may not have been in love with her, I think he certainly loved her. Those children were born out of love and in the years that I witnessed, their early years, I saw them with the Queen, at Balmoral and Sandringham whenever they came to stay and I noticed they were very close and she adored him. She put all her eggs in one basket and he played that game, he played it even though there was somebody in the wings and even though [Camilla] was always there and Diana knew that, she loved him and she thought she could change him. She thought her beauty, freshness and her naivety would be attractive to Charles but it wasn’t because he was looking for someone more mature. But in those early days I remember her saying how wonderful the honeymoon cruise was even though she found those cufflinks. But she said she was very lucky. I saw a letter of Diana’s to the Queen, in it she said how much she adored Charles and how lucky she was to be married to him and how fortunate she was to be Princess of Wales and she took that very seriously. She played the part and she was always playing the part. Behind the scenes when things started to fall apart of course they started to fall apart pretty quickly and unfortunately I think they had four years of marriage that were basically uninterrupted until Harry was born. When Harry was born I think that was the time that Charles returned to Camilla.
Was that a case of having ‘the heir and spare’?
It was, that was exactly the case because Diana told me years later. She said when Harry was born Charles came into the room and looked into the cot and said ‘oh red hair’ and she said ‘Charles, you know that’s a Spencer gene, you know that my family have red hair’ and he said ‘well, at least I have my heir and spare now and I can go back to Camilla’. She said on the night Harry was born she cried herself to sleep knowing that her marriage was over.
That’s the way royal life sometimes is hard. You have to understand that they are gods in their own kingdoms and they can do whatever they want. So he did. He returned to Camilla and life was never the same again. At Highgrove, Diana would come every weekend with the boys because they were at school in London then and they’d play happy families at the weekend, they would argue and shout and it wouldn’t be such a happy family but they’d try and hide it from the children. On Sunday after lunch Diana would leave the front door of Highgrove and go down the front drive with her children in the car and they’d wave goodbye to papa, and 10 minutes later in the back drive would come Mrs Parker Bowles. So I had to try to walk a tightrope between the two women, a tightrope in the Prince’s’ life. On the one side was the Princess of Wales and two young princes and on the other side was a mistress called Mrs Parker Bowles and it wasn’t easy to walk that tightrope because I was very fond of the Princess, even back then. I knew that my loyalties were divided between two different worlds and yet I was paid by one boss so my loyalties should’ve been with the man who paid my wage but my heart was with someone else.
We see a very different image with the current Prince and Princess of Wales who in public appear to have quite a close relationship with little gestures and touches made between them, but could this be a contrived image considering the legacy of the Prince and Princess of Wales before them?
Kate is in such an incredible position because it all rests on her really, the future rests on Kate and that’s an enormous responsibility because if she decided that she didn’t want to be a part of her marriage any more then I think the royal family would collapse. Everything is pinned up by Kate, the future is underpinned by Catherine Middleton and that’s incredible. Back in my day the future seemed to be pinned on Diana Spencer, our future queen. Now we’re looking at another Princess of Wales who is in the same role that Diana had, married to a Prince of Wales and the future of the monarchy is down to her. It’s not an enviable position to be in. I want to believe, I don’t know because I’ve never been behind closed doors with Department 2. I’d love to meet Kate as I’ve said before but knowing William, he is a steady pair of hands and he is unlike his brother in the fact that he’s very stoic, very safe, very measured. I don’t think he has a wild temper, I’ve never experienced that wild temper although it wouldn’t surprise me if it occasionally peeped out. I want to believe that they are as in love in private as they appear to be in public. Those little gestures are lovely to see from the public’s point of view because it reassures us something is good, something is being done right because Diana wouldn't have done that. In the later years you saw her do the opposite of that. You saw her turn her cheek against the Prince of Wales when he came to kiss her. You saw her looking the other way out of the car when she wanted to portray a different message. What Kate and William are trying to portray is a very positive, together image and I think that is good for the royal family. Kate wouldn’t do that if she didn’t feel it. William wouldn’t do that if he didn’t feel that, so it must be true.
There are lots of rumblings about the coronation and whether Harry and Meghan will be in attendance, do you think they will go or stay away?
I don’t want to watch the Harry and Meghan show, I want to watch our King being crowned. This is a state occasion, it’s not a family occasion and it’s nothing to do with Harry and Meghan, it’s to do with the monarchy, it’s to do with our country, it’s to do with something that’s 1000 years old and so really Harry doesn’t have a place in it, Meghan certainly doesn’t have a place in it because they are not working members of the royal family, Harry is just the King’s son. It wouldn’t really matter if Harry wasn’t there. I personally believe Harry will attend without Meghan. I don’t think Meghan will be coming. I think she will be staying in California with her children.
I do not think Harry should wear a uniform, he doesn’t have an arrangement with any of our armed forces anymore, he should wear a morning suit, this should all be pointed out to him by the Lord Chamberlain's department directed by the King because the King will say Prince Andrew can’t wear a uniform either because he’s not affiliated to any of the armed forces any more and he should wear a morning suit as well. People should be put in their place by the King, this is the King’s coronation, it’s for him to put his foot down and say what he wants. It wouldn’t matter to me at all if Harry didn’t come because he’s not part of the future of our monarchy. It’s William and Kate and their children and that’s it as far as I’m concerned. It’s the King and his Consort, William and Kate and their three children.
I think Charles will rule what he wants and if Harry appears that’s by invitation of him and you can’t deny him that because he is his son. But he won’t play any part in the coronation, he’ll just be there to witness it.
What do you think he and Meghan will do next?
If Harry comes to the coronation, it will make him relevant again because he will have a tale to tell again. But can you imagine how isolated he will feel being sat in Westminster Abbey amongst his family who he’s pushed under the bus. It’s going to be quite icy and I think that’s what the media are looking for, they are looking for those cracks, that confrontation and I think that might be a distraction from the actual reason we’re watching the coronation. But what will his next move be? I think they have to be relevant and they have to be royal because if they’re not royal, what makes them different to anyone else. I think that’s the whole fascination about them in America. I think Americans are so fascinated by this splintered pack of the royal family come to live in America, they are royals as far as America’s concerned. If they lost their titles and they were not royal anymore they wouldn’t be as relevant would they. What is ironic is their USP is royal and yet they don’t want to be royal. It’s a bit of a conundrum. I think we’ll probably see something from Meghan next, it’s her turn. It’s going to be swings and roundabouts and we’ll go through the next 5 to 10 years backwards and forwards. What are they doing next? ‘Living At Home with Harry and Meghan’ on Netflix, surely that’s on the cards then I would think the couple will start to eventually do some charity work because surely eventually it will be payback time to travel through Africa, go back to Africa and see their charity work being progressed. I think it’s time for them to give back something. I think they’ve taken an awful lot over the past few years and I haven’t seen much return. I think if they gave back to charities and to people who’ve been forgotten, causes and plights that Diana supported, I think then they will gain a little bit more credibility. Right now I think their credibility is through the floor.
Perhaps we’ll see Archie and Lilibet as influencers down the line?
[The Royals] will move forward in the modern world by embracing social media which was never around in Diana’s day of course. Life may’ve been more difficult for her if TikTok were around. I can see Archie and Lilibet being TikTokers or whatever replaces that in five years time and I can see them sort of becoming little role models for Americans so it will sort of bypass Harry and Meghan eventually and the attention will go from them to their children. People will want to know what Archie and Lilibet are up to because we don’t see much of them and I think people are anxious to see what they look like and what they are up to. Time will pass very quickly.
You’ll see some outtakes now in the world in which Diana lived which have not been published before because there hasn’t been the avenue to publish it. Now TikTok is an incredible way of showing you some of the things that happened behind the scenes. I’ve seen things of the Queen and even the Queen Mother, conversations that were happening behind the scenes at the time where people put on TikTok just a tiny glimpse of them so in a way Diana is being reinvented yet again. She’s being brought to a new generation again, a generation that wasn't alive when she was alive. It’s incredible to think it’s 25 years since she passed and we’re still talking about the magic that was Diana and I want that magic to transfer to Kate, I want her to embrace that special something which her mother-in-law had and as Princess of Wales and future queen she should have. I think the coronation is a short bridge, this reign of King Charles and Queen Camilla is obviously a short bridge, it’s a stop gap, a time to reflect about our royal family before we get to the big act which will be King William and Queen Catherine.
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