The Queen being the Queen did her best to rise above the allegations of cover-ups, rape and financial irregularities, flashing a warm smile to the loyal throng who had waited patiently in the rain outside the Ritz hotel in London to catch a glimpse of their monarch. Prince Charles and his companion Camilla Parker Bowles joined her but the strain had clearly taken its toll on the 54-year-old prince, engulfed in scandal after scandal.
As the photographers lit up the damp night sky in the background, the slight figure of Sir Michael Peat could be seen in the background. Sir Michael, Charles’s private secretary, has been asked by the prince to carry out the much-criticised internal inquiry. His appointment has been ridiculed as evidence that the royals will never allow a proper investigation into the debacle following the collapse of the 1.5m trial of Diana’s former butler, Paul Burrell.
Serious questions remain to be answered, such as why Burrell had so many of Diana’s possession at his Cheshire home; and what is the truth of the Queen’s convenient intervention as Burrell was about to enter the witness box?
What he may or may not have said at the Old Bailey aside, perhaps what is more important is the fact that the time honoured neutrality of the monarch has been called into question. Worse still are the questions being raised about Charles’s judgment and his suitability for the role of heir to the throne.
The royal household is split. The Queen has at worst been badly advised by courtiers. Charles, some feel, has been more interested in spin than substance. Whatever the truth of the matter the popularity of the monarchy has been reduced to the poor levels it suffered in the aftermath of Diana’s death.
One effect of the whole sorry saga has been to push the private face of the royal household into the public eye. It is proving to be among the ugliest that even this troubled family has been forced to confront. We have heard in the last few weeks about the Falklands veteran who complained that he had been raped by a senior member of Prince Charles’s household, and was subsequently labelled an alcoholic; the devoted aide who delivers toothpaste on to the heir to the throne’s toothbrush, who holds the specimen bottle when the Prince has to provide a sample for his doctor, and who reportedly makes a tidy sum as the "fence" who sells on many of the gifts received by his boss.
And Burrell himself: the dapper, slightly other-worldly "rock", feted and then accused of treachery by the newspapers he spurned; accused of strange liaisons with a blond Australian backpacker and Michael Barrymore; the loyal servant who deftly applied the hammer blow which might just finish off the Royal Family’s traditional "way of doing things", once and for all.
In his St James’s Palace office and his country estate at Highgrove, Prince Charles alone employs more than 80 full-time office and domestic staff, but few of them have ever come to the public’s attention before.
"The only time you normally get to see these people is on royal tours, because they are accompanying Charles in his entourage," said one royal expert. "He’s highly dependent upon them. They are terribly grand. They tend to become more royal than the royals themselves.
"These people generally come from quite lowly backgrounds, but pretty soon they’re on the Dom Perignon with the rest of them."
It is a sweeping assessment of the backroom boys - and they are usually male - the valets, the footmen, the butlers who make up the backbone of the royal retinue, but it is one that many with experience of the system recognise.
"I was nervous when I first started work at Buckingham Palace," said ‘Adam’, who spent more than a year as a royal servant in the 1990s. "I was young, I wasn’t from the city and I was from a working class family .
"They seemed to go out of their way to intimidate me and it worked. It was like it was their club and I didn’t belong; they were upper-class and I wasn’t.
"It was only after I’d been there for a few months that they loosened up - and then I realised that they were the same as me. They were as working class as me, but they had picked up some expensive habits."
Expensive habits: the royal world is an intoxicating place for the type of person drawn both to the service ethic and the glamour of life in some of the most sumptuous residences in Britain.
"You have to ask yourself what sort of person would put themselves forward for this type of career," said psychologist David Simons. "We recognise the service ethic, but who would want to devote themselves to serving one family rather than a whole society, and to allow themselves to be called ‘servants’ in the 21st century?
"Some people are turned on by the idea of serving, rather than just working. In the case of working for the Royal Family, there also seems to be something about the power and privilege and glamour rubbing off on them. "
The royal household proudly proclaims its commitment to equal opportunities policies and advertises vacancies widely, including on its own website. But its standard application form retains curious characteristics that betray a weakness for traditional attributes: next to the space for the applicant’s National Insurance number, there is a request for "honours and awards" with just enough room for a CBE or a military distinction; after the traditional space for hobbies, there is a box for "Public Duties (GP, local councillor etc) undertaken"; and shortly afterwards there follows the unusual question: "Are you related to an existing employee?"
"They do advertise jobs openly, " according to one Royal observer. "But there are a lot of husband and wife teams, and a lot of members of the royal household have relatives who worked there before them."
Both Burrell and Michael Fawcett, the trusted, toothpaste-squeezing valet, married women who were also servants of the royals. Long-serving commentators routinely describe the royal household as a tight-knit community - one jealous of its traditions and fiercely loyal to its members - and this was once viewed as a positive asset.
There is also a large number of homosexuals involved in royal service. The nature of Burrell’s most startling revelations - the ‘gay rape’, the gay bed-hopping - and counter claims about his own homosexual past, have inevitably sparked astonishment, and accusations that Britain’s royal palaces are being run by a ‘gay mafia’.
Veteran royal watchers, no strangers to salacious stories, deny such conspiracy theories - but they also insist that nobody should be surprised at the number of homosexuals working for the Royal Family. "There are a lot of gay servants at the palace and there always has been," said one.
It is over 20 years since the palace launched an inquiry into an alleged homosexual orgy on the royal yacht Britannia.
The Queen Mother, who had a number of homosexuals - including at least one couple - on her staff, is reported to have told servants who delayed bringing her a gin and tonic, "When one of you old queens has finished, this old Queen would like a drink."
"It is an old story and there is no guarantee that it is true, but it proves a point," one royal observer said last night.
"There is a serious point, and that is that gay people do not have the family responsibilities, the children, and so they can devote themselves almost completely to their employer."
Now, with the inner workings of the system, and the behaviour of its participants, brutally exposed such unity looks like insularity, exclusivity and a fatal weakness.
Enter Sir Michael Peat, the Old Etonian accountant with the ear of the Queen and an eye on the balance sheet. Sir Michael could not have had a worse start three months into his job, but those who know him believe he will turn the situation to his advantage. If the personalities and the practices involved need reform he will do it.
The images of abuse of royal power and of backstairs corruption are the main issues that Sir Michael must counter. His friends say he is a man of integrity who will carry out a vigorous inquiry without fear or favour. After all it is in his interests to clarify the situation as soon as possible.
Sir Michael’s main problem, however, will be convincing Charles to act on his recommendations. Charles, fiercely loyal to his praetorian guard - such as the much talked about valet and personal secretary Fawcett - is likely to resist radical change to his staff but may find he has no choice but to accept Sir Michael’s recommendations or face more controversy.
The Queen has seen crises come and go before. At 76 she will not be flustered by the latest revelations; concerned yes, but not unduly worried.
As one former senior member of the royal household puts it: "Her Majesty is not somebody who makes short-term decisions or judgments. She looks at the bigger picture and will not be panicked into making radical changes." That may be true. But there are some who see the latest claims of cover-ups and cashing in on royal gifts as the tip of the iceberg.
Charles, despite his vast staff and privileged lifestyle, is a modernist. He knows if the monarchy is to remain relevant to its subjects it must change with the times. Ironically, this is something his late ex-wife Diana, Princess of Wales - now being tipped as one of our greatest Britons in the new TV series - knew instinctively.
More than five years after her death she is still casting a shadow over the House of Windsor. But some inside Buckingham Palace believe the royals must learn from her example if they are to remain a force for the future.
The modernists have long been arguing for change and say that this latest fiasco means that the changes must be made sooner rather than later: a reduction in the size of the Royal Family, more cost-cutting, less formality, now seem an inevitability.
Sir Michael’s report will be due before Christmas - as his monarch will be preparing to make her broadcast to the nation. In the past she has responded to calls for change just when she has needed to - such as her decision to pay income tax or address her people after the death of Diana. That time is nigh again.
This week, at the black tie Ritz party, the guests, attracted by Louis Roderer Cristal champagne, stayed until after midnight. "It was exquisite," said one of the party. Not surprisingly, Sir Michael Peat left a little earlier, after all a man tasked with saving the monarchy’s bacon needs his sleep.
They Also Served...
SIR WALTER RALEIGH
THE original regal confidante, Raleigh won his way into the affections of Queen Elizabeth I by the simple act of laying his cloak across a puddle to allow her to pass across it. But he quickly clashed with her successor, James I, who believed Raleigh opposed his accession. He was executed 13 years later.
QUEEN Victoria ‘inherited’ the gillie John Brown when she bought the Balmoral estate in 1848 and he became a close personal confidante, particularly after her husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861. For the next two decades the Crathie-born aide supported the widowed Queen and in return received a series of gifts and two medals. When he died in 1883 the Queen wore a locket containing a lock of his hair.
MARION ‘CRAWFIE’ CRAWFORD
THE former governess to the infant Princess Elizabeth was the first aide to break the vow of silence and publish details of life with the Royals - and she paid a terrible price for her actions. Crawford’s 1950 book an innocuous memoir but a valuable education about the Queen’s upbringing. She was shunned by the family.
COMMANDER Trestrail, who served as the Queen’s personal bodyguard for almost a decade, resigned in 1982 over revelations about his relationship with a male prostitute. It later emerged that Trestrail, 51, had protected the Queen and supervised her security for years, but had only been security vetted some three or four months before his resignation.
‘BACKSTAIRS Billy’ was well-known as the Queen Mother’s favourite servant and served her for over 50 years until she died in March. After the Queen Mother’s death, Billy was kicked out of Clarence House. He was later pictured lying drunk in a gutter.