IN THE archaic and deeply covert world of the Royal household, where servants see and hear everything, the qualities of discretion and loyalty are prized above all.
It was these qualities that prompted Diana, Princess of Wales, a woman of many secrets, to famously refer to her former butler, Paul Burrell, as her "rock".
By publishing the story of his trial and acquittal last year, for stealing the princess’s possessions, he has already fallen foul of the first rule of royal butlerhood - discretion. Back then, he was accused of betrayal, but mostly by the tabloids who failed to secure the scoop.
But the latest accusation of betrayal levelled at the butler - after a string of revelations contained in a new book, A Royal Duty, being serialised in the Daily Mirror - is much more damning and calls into question everything that Mr Burrell claims to stand for. For his accusers are not other newspapers, royal reporters, or the myriad professional spokespeople set up as "sources close to" or "friends of" but the sons of the woman who called him "my rock."
The extraordinary statement issued by Princes William and Harry yesterday, accusing him of betraying the princess, is unprecedented and demonstrates just how much hurt they have felt over the past week. The princes, who have unquestionable ground for claiming that they knew their mother better than her butler, have said she would have been "mortified" at Mr Burrell’s actions if she were alive today, and called on him to put an end to his disclosures.
In the statement released by Clarence House, Prince William said: "We cannot believe that Paul, who was entrusted with so much, could abuse his position in such a cold and overt betrayal. It is not only deeply painful for the two of us, but also for everyone else affected, and it would mortify our mother if she were alive today and, if we might say so, we feel we are more able to speak for our mother than Paul."
It ends: "We ask Paul please to bring these revelations to an end."
Whatever effect the princes’ words have, they demonstrate just how far Mr Burrell has strayed from his post.
When, after her death in 1997 others around her rushed to print, he stayed silent. Not that anyone doubted he had damaging secrets to tell, least of all the Royal Family. So much so, that last year, when his Old Bailey theft trial was brought to a sensational halt after the Queen remembered he had told her he had some of the princess’s possessions, it caused a constitutional crisis - and accusations of a cover-up. The trial’s collapse came as Mr Burrell was about to take the witness stand, where he was obliged on oath to reveal whatever was asked of him, no matter how embarrassing to his former employers.
Even up to the last, his devotion to the Royals seemed solid. Oddly, for a man accused of stealing Diana’s private possessions - a crime which carried a seven-year jail sentence - Mr Burrell failed, until the 11th hour, to reveal the conversation with the Queen which led to his acquittal. This, he said, was out of loyalty to her Majesty, for whom he had once served as a footman.
Within days of his acquittal last year he sent a personal message to Prince William and Prince Harry, telling them: "I will never betray you. I will not change. My middle name is loyalty. Your trust in me is not misplaced. If you look deep in your hearts you will know that."
However, the lorry driver’s son from Cheshire sold his story to a tabloid newspaper for 350,000 after a furious bidding war. In it, he published his message to the princes, still insisting "If I betray you, I will be betraying everything I ever felt or thought, everyone I stand for, and I will never do that." He said that he had made his disclosures with care, so as not to damage the Crown he had served for 21 years.
Mr Burrell has insisted that his story was not sold for money, but for truth and justice. "Trust and loyalty do not have a price. Telling my story was never about money. It was only ever about truth and justice and telling it honestly and properly. That’s what this whole thing has been about - the truth."
However, this week, his motivation for revealing contents of the princess’s private correspondence has been called into question. Many, including Mohamed al-Fayed, the father of Diana’s lover, Dodi, have asked why Mr Burrell waited seven years to reveal the princess’s prediction of premature death and why he did not pass the letter onto a 1999 French inquiry into the crash.
Aside from his revelation of Diana’s claims that someone was trying to tamper with her brakes in order to set up a car accident to kill her, Mr Burrell also revealed correspondence with Prince Philip in which he told her that he could not imagine anyone "in their right mind" leaving her for Camilla Parker Bowles. Yesterday, Mr Burrell revealed that Diana had nine secret suitors.
Penny Junor, a royal biographer close to Prince Charles, said: "What he’s done is totally unjustified. It’s the lowest act of betrayal and it's caused a huge amount of damage."
Speaking of the Princes, she said: "Can you imagine how upsetting this will be, particularly coming from a man whom they once thought of as a friend? It will be devastating for them. They want their mother to be allowed to rest in peace."