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Princess Diana’s Former Butler Offers Fascinating Glimpse into the Royal Household

Monday, 06 July 2015

“Take your chance, what is the worst that can happen to you?” This was the advice given by Paul Burrell as he addressed an audience of Senior School boys at Bolton School. The former footman to the Queen and butler to Diana, Princess of Wales regaled the boys with tales and insights from his time, from 1976-1997, serving in the royal household. He told the audience that he was a “soldier” not a “General” and had always preferred to show people how to do things as opposed to telling them how to do things. Conscious that it is now 18 years since Diana’s death and that many boys would not know who he is, he opened his address by talking about his appearance in the fourth series of I am a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here in 2004 in which he was the runner-up. He joked that he was probably the first Brit to be shown eating kangaroo’s testicles on British television! 

The presentation took place in the boys’ Great Hall and Mr Burrell immediately recognised two photos of the Princess of Wales in Bosnia, looking at landmines - a visit that he had accompanied her on. The photos were part of a collection on display that had been lent to the School by former pupil Ian Jones, Royal Photographer, when he returned in 2010.  

Mr Burrell told the audience of his upbringing in Grassmoor, a mining community in Derbyshire. He left school at 16 years of age without a qualification to his name but intent on not following his father and grandfather down the mine, he determined to work in the hotel industry. Having completed his hotel catering course, he applied for a job at Buckingham Palace but was turned down. He then started work in Torquay in the hope of becoming a hotel manager but received a call from the royal household to say they had changed their mind about employing him. He quickly worked his way up to become the Queen’s footman. 

He offered the boys much insight into the royal family saying the Queen is a good, kind Christian lady who is devoted to her people and that she is devout, always honest and would not hurt anyone. His job allowed him access to Prime Ministers, Kings and Queens from around the world and even to the Queen of Hollywood, Elizabeth Taylor. He woke the Queen every morning with a cup of tea and would often be the last person to see her before she retired to bed, usually around midnight. He told how the Queen works hard and reads and signs every Act of Parliament. One peculiar piece of correspondence was when she received a piece of bone and a letter saying it was from the beheaded Charles I. The Queen decided to reunite it with Charles I and consequently the Dean of St George’s Chapel, Windsor opened up the coffin and placed the bone inside. He said that Charles I had been embalmed and perfectly preserved and that you could still see his goatee beard and the large, clumsy stitching where his head had been sewn back on! 

The boys learnt about the Imperial State Crown, which weighs 4lbs, and which he called “England’s greatest treasure”. He also talked them through the various royal households including Windsor, Sandringham, Balmoral and “the office” Buckingham Palace, which is about to be rewired and re-plumbed. His personal favourite abode was the Royal Yacht Britannia, which he had been fortunate to travel on, accompanying the Queen around the world on visits including to the South Pacific, Australia, New Zealand, Tonga and Fiji.  

He served the Queen for 11 years before then working for Diana for 10 years and was, ultimately, awarded the Royal Victorian Medal (RVM) for his services to her. He spent time at Highgrove in Gloucestershire, which with only six bedrooms, was much smaller than the other royal palaces and is where Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall now live. Mr Burrell then worked at Kensington Palace, where he looked after Diana, waking her each morning with a glass of carrot juice. He reminded the boys that the wedding of Diana and Charles in 1981 was the most watched tv programme ever, only to be surpassed in terms of viewer numbers by the tv coverage of her funeral in 1997. He said he went to Paris to help bring her home after her untimely death and described her as “unique, the most beautiful woman in the world and irreplaceable.”

Mr Burrell proffered the view that we are all made in the first 10 years of our lives and he felt that this was true of her boys, Princes William and Harry. He said Harry particularly had inherited Diana’s sense of fun and naughtiness but was still a fine young man. He recalled how after her death, William decided to have her watch as a heirloom as it reminded him of his mother as she was always telling him the time and Harry her ring which included a sapphire, surrounded by diamonds. The ring ultimately ended up on the finger of the Duchess of Cambridge, which he felt was apt. He also recalled talking to Elton John at the funeral who had reworked Candle in the Wind for the occasion and how the singer said to him he would never sing it again. He also showed the boys lots of photos of the young Princes doing ordinary things such as visiting Alton Towers with his own boys who are of a similar age. 

He told the audience not to believe everything they read in the newspapers as they have to sell copies and sometimes make things up. He advised the boys that it is always best to make your own mind up about somebody rather than listening to others’ views. Speaking of himself, he said: “I was an ordinary man thrown into extraordinary circumstances.” When asked what was the best bit of his job – he said it was that nobody said “no” to me – if the Queen wanted it then nobody refused her!

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Paul Burrell, former Butler to the Princess of Wales with Amir and David

Paul Burrell, former Butler to the Princess of Wales with Amir and David

Mr Burrell offered a fascinating insight into his own life and that of the Royal family

Mr Burrell offered a fascinating insight into his own life and that of the Royal family