He called himself Princess Diana's confidant, "the hub" of her world, the keeper of all her secrets. He became an indispensable part of her life and probably knew her better than anyone else. And even after writing two tell-all books following her death, he insisted there were stories he would take to his grave. So when Paul Burrell, Diana's former butler, first refused to answer the question, you knew the answer had to be bad.
The minute he took his oath at the inquest into the deaths of Diana and her boyfriend Dodi Al-Fayed on Monday, Burrell became the closest thing this extended soap opera has to a star witness. Sitting with his hands clasped in front of him, speaking so softly that the lawyers had to ask him several times to talk louder, he spent most of the day answering questions about relationships: his and Diana's, Diana's and Prince Philip's, Diana's with Dodi's versus that with her ex-boyfriend, heart surgeon Dr. Hasnat Khan. But it was near the end of the day that focus turned to the friction between Diana and her mother, Frances Shand Kydd.
Michael Mansfield, lawyer for Dodi's father, Harrod's owner Mohamed Al Fayed, asked Burrell to repeat for the court what he had heard Kydd who has since died say to her daughter during a phone call in June 1997, a call that Diana had let Burrell listen in on. At first, Burrell balked, saying, "Respectfully, that's not very kind to a woman who's no longer here." But the judge ruling over the inquest, Lord Justice Scott Baker, insisted. Burrell stared down at his desk, chewed his lower lip, took a deep breath, and then, as his voice started to crack, said: "She called the Princess a whore and said she was messing around with eff-ing Muslims and she was disgraceful and said some very nasty things." It was after that conversation, he said, that Diana decided she didn't want to speak to her mother ever again.
Mansfield's goal was to counter Burrell's earlier claims that nobody had a problem with Diana dating Dodi and Khan, both Muslims. Al Fayed's case depends on it; he alleges that the Royal Family had his son and the Princess assassinated to stop her from marrying a Muslim. Earlier that morning, Burrell, who flew in from his home in Florida for the inquest, had called Al Fayed "a very kind man," before going on to demolish in the nicest possible way Al Fayed's claims that Diana and Dodi were engaged.
Sure, Burrell said, Diana told him Dodi was "charming, handsome and very attentive." But, from what the butler saw, he was just "a rebound," and it was Khan who Diana wanted to spend the rest of her life with. "This was her soul mate," he said. "This was the man she loved more than any other. It was a very deep and spiritual relationship." Khan would often visit Diana and her boys at Kensington Palace, Burrell added, because the Princess was "adamant" that William and Harry get to know and grow to like Khan. Dodi, on the other hand, had only come round to the house once, and only for five minutes.
Burrell revealed that he and Diana discussed giving Khan his own quarters at the Palace and that the Princess was so serious about marrying Khan she asked Burrell to find out if it was possible for them to have a private wedding. But Khan was unwilling to go public with their romance and, frustrated, Diana broke up with him. She started dating Dodi in part, said Burrell, to make Khan jealous. Their courtship "took place on the world stage," he said. "And she was used to the world stage. She knew very well what she was doing." All those tabloid photos of Dodi and Di cavorting on his yacht? The Princess counted on the cameras watching them, Burrell said. "That was her message, I believe, to Dr. Khan to say, 'Well, look at me now.'"
Like in any good soap opera, this episode ended on a cliffhanger. In an attempt to show that Burrell knew something significant about Dodi and Diana that he wasn't telling, Mansfield read out the last page in Burrell's 2003 book A Royal Duty. It quotes a letter Diana had written to the butler not long before she died. In it, she refers to "the coming weekend" being an important one. Then she goes on to say, "I wanted to write on paper how enormously touched I am that you share this excitement with me as well. What a secret!" Mansfield wanted to know which weekend she meant and what was this secret? This time, Burrell refused to talk. But it looks like the letter will do the talking for him. Just before proceedings adjourned, Judge Baker insisted that Burrell take an overnight trip to his house in Cheshire over 150 miles (245 kilometers) out of London to get the letter and bring it back to court the next day. The question is, how far will the butler go to keep a secret?