It sounds like the beginning of a Britwit stand-up routine: Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip and Prince Charles are riding in a Bentley. And Philip says to Charles, "It's a bit tricky for Mummy because she saw Paul, you know." Paul, it turns out, is Paul Burrell, 44, the late Princess Diana's former butler, who had been charged with stealing hundreds of Di's personal items and was on trial in London. Further conversation among the royals in the limo on that Oct. 25 led Charles to a stunning conclusion: that shortly after Diana's death in 1997, the butler told Queen Elizabeth he had taken some of Diana's things "for safekeeping"—which is exactly what Burrell had told police.

Days after Prince Charles passed this tidbit to police, the case screeched to a halt, a judge dismissed charges, and various officials said dramatic things, all of which, taken together, added up to one big Oxford-accented "Oops." Outside London's Old Bailey on Nov. 1, a relieved Burrell said, "The Queen came through for me."

The question is: What took so long? Twenty-two months have passed since police raided Burrell's home in rural Farndon, removing 284 items—including crystal, clothes and letters—allegedly belonging to the late princess. The investigation and trial cost taxpayers an estimated $2.3 million. Burrell was due to testify when the Queen's recollection came to light. Some of Her Majesty's subjects are wondering if the timing of her statement was an attempt to silence a potentially blabby butler. Says Diana's close pal Lucia Flecha de Lima: "Paul knows everything."

He has been offered millions to tell it. Burrell did accept $468,000 from Britain's Daily Mirror newspaper for an interview in which he said the Queen told him, "There are powers at work in this country which we have no knowledge about" and warned him to be "vigilant." And a legal document—filled with racy details of life inside Kensington Palace (see box)—has already been leaked to the press. But aside from discussing the case, says his dad, Graham, 68, "there will be no secrets from him."

There might be a few contestant clues, though; Burrell's agent is shopping around a game show for him to host called What the Butler Saw. Until then, it's back to wife Maria, 48, their two sons and the family's flower shop, says the ex-butler: "I just want my life back."