Affairs to Remember
The lonely teenager was the future Princess Diana; her marriage to Prince Charles a year later was the first of two royal weddings of which Burrell, now 41, would have an insider's view. As a footman to the Queen, Burrell attended to the monarch's "meals, drinks, messages, mail and other personal requirements," he says. Assigned also to help Diana settle into the royal fold, he served the prince and princess's table at their wedding breakfast. When Prince Andrew wed Sarah Ferguson five years later, Burrell, riding on the Queen's carriage, was part of the day's pageantry.
In 1987, after 11 years at Buckingham Palace, Burrell and his wife, Maria, a maid for the Duke of Edinburgh, went to work for the Waleses at Highgrove, their country estate. Treasured by the princess (who called him "my rock "), Burrell served as her personal butler at Kensington Palace from 1992, after her separation from Charles, until her death in 1997. In March 1998 he became fund-raising and events manager of the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, a job he held for nine months before being fired from the controversial organization. Now living in a converted barn in Cheshire, on the English-Welsh border, with Maria, 45, and their sons Alexander, 14, and Nicholas, 11, Burrell still works voluntarily for some of Diana's causes, including land-mine clearing. (A photo of her graces the desk in his study.) He has also just completed a book on entertaining. His life today may be far removed from the rarefied world he once occupied, but his memories, particularly of festive occasions, have not faded. "When a member of the royal family marries," he says, "there's a jolly atmosphere that filters through the entire household." Here, Burrell reveals to correspondent Simon Perry the behind-the-scene happenings at a royal wedding.
At about 4 on the morning of July 29, 1981, Buckingham Palace began to come alive. Grooms, coachmen and harness cleaners at the Royal Mews started to stir, preparing horses and carriages for Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer's wedding procession. Charles was awakened at 7 a.m.—if he wasn't awake already. While his bride-to-be was tucked up in Clarence House, the Queen Mother's home, the prince spent the night at Buckingham Palace. My room was at the front, and I could hear the crowds camped out on the Mall singing "God Bless the Prince of Wales," so I imagine he could too.
The prince's valet had laid out his Royal Navy commander's uniform the night before. Both Charles and Andrew were married in their military uniforms. Edward, who left the Royal Marines after four months in 1987 and doesn't have a regiment, was married in a morning suit.
After Charles and his family dressed, it was breakfast. Breakfast is not a feast for the Windsors—they like small portions. For the Queen it would be toast with marmalade and Earl Grey tea and possibly a soft-boiled free-range egg. There is nothing special on the morning of a wedding—it is work as usual.
The Queen was jolly on her sons' wedding days. Down the corridors you could hear her laughter. She has a strong sense of humor and a distinctive hearty-laugh. She did not seem nervous. It was a public occasion that was the same as many others for her.
At Clarence House, Diana rose and had coffee and half a grapefruit. Then those helping her get ready arrived. Diana's hairdresser, Kevin Shanley, brought three hair dryers in case one broke, and designers David and Elizabeth Emanuel had made an extra wedding dress in case of a mishap. The bridal bouquet, made that morning by Longman's of Fenchurch Street, the royal florists, included orchids, freesias, Mountbatten roses, a sprig of myrtle grown from Queen Victoria's original wedding bouquet and, as is customary for royal brides, stephanotis for good luck.
The wedding dress's 25-foot train made it difficult for Diana to get in and out of the glass coach in which she traveled with her father, Earl Spencer, to St. Paul's Cathedral for the 11:30 a.m. ceremony. It was a 20-minute drive, and no one anticipated how badly the dress would travel. But Diana was not upset that it was creased—nothing could have upset her that day. She always said it was the happiest day of her life, despite what has been printed since. She was very much in love and full of hope for the future. She was nervous, but her worries were for her father, who was recovering from a stroke.
Back at the palace, the staff was able to see the morning unfold on TV. I watched, but I also had a most important job to do: take the Queen's 10 corgis for a walk. The dogs carry on and run off in tangents—it's more a case of herding than taking them for a walk.
After Diana and Charles arrived at the palace, they and other immediate family members made their way to the balcony, where she and Charles kissed. She was an excited young girl, and after that famous kiss she went against royal protocol, gathered her train in her arms, shed her satin slippers and ran barefoot down the length of the principal corridor. The wedding was not like the state occasion it appeared on the outside—it was friendly, warm and giggly. Diana would tease the young bridesmaids and make jokes, encouraging them to be naughty.
In the ballroom the tables had been set since the early hours for the wedding breakfast, which was attended by 120 friends and relatives. The underbutlers use a measuring stick to ensure that each piece of china and crystal—engraved with the Queen's cipher, ERII—is laid out uniformly. The napkins were folded in the three-feather style of the fleur-de-lis symbol of the Prince of Wales.
The wedding breakfast was brill in lobster sauce, suprême de volaille Princesse de Galles (chicken breast stuffed with lamb mousse), and strawberries and cream. In addition to the main wedding cake—a five-foot fruitcake covered with marzipan and icing, which was served to the guests—there were about 20 wedding cakes adorning a side room, presents from bakers across the country. Those were just for show.
I had the great honor of serving at the prince and princess's table. Like the rest of the household staff, I wore the full state ceremonial dress, a scarlet jacket embossed with gold. It weighs five to six pounds, so maneuvering in it is difficult. Even though the princess had unhooked her train, I was fearful that I would tread on her dress when I served her, or spill something. But neither happened. She hardly ate a thing. The nerves of the occasion were too much.
After the breakfast the staff were presented with a piece of cake in a box with the three-feather cipher of the Prince and Princess of Wales. My wife and I still have ours. It is rather dried-up now.
The staff had given the prince and princess a wedding gift—silver cutlery. The couple received more than 2,500 presents in all, including a set of tribal chairs from Papua New Guinea and two cows from the island of Jersey. The Queen gave Diana a diamond watch that had belonged to her grandmother Queen Mary. It was returned to the royal collection after the princess's death. The pair also got mundane presents, but none were returned—it would be bad manners. Even if they got six toasters, they would be used—at Kensington Palace, at Highgrove or by the staff.
The entire household staff from porters to chefs were invited to the courtyard to watch Charles and Diana set off for their honeymoon. Balloons and a Just Married sign, a surprise from Princes Andrew and Edward, flew out behind the coach as they left. It seemed natural that the staff were there with the Queen, like one family united in joy.
Five years later, when Prince Andrew married Sarah Ferguson on July 23, 1986, the Queen insisted that some of her staff be invited. I forfeited my ticket to sit in the Abbey, choosing instead to perform my ceremonial duty as a footman and ride behind the Queen on her carriage.
As Diana had, Sarah left Clarence House at about 11 a.m. She, too, rode in the traditional glass coach. Sophie, by contrast, took the Queen's Rolls-Royce from the Royal Lodge at Windsor to St. George's Chapel.
I had a privileged point of view from the back of the Queen's carriage. It was tremendous to hear the crowds as we passed. There was talk after that day about whether Andrew, the Queen's third child, should have had such an extravagant wedding. Edward and Sophie did do things more simply, cutting down on pomp and ceremony. But I think it is important to have a public show, which the royals do so beautifully.
Sarah's father, Maj. Ronald Ferguson, rode with the Queen. They were chatty—they share a passion for horses. They probably discussed how they were performing that day. The Queen knows the horses and the grooms by name—in that order.
Whereas Diana had let the household take control of her wedding plans, Sarah paid great attention to detail. Sophie was more involved than either of them, and things have become more modern and informal. The wedding breakfast, for example, was a buffet—although the royal tables were waited on. I can't imagine the Queen queuing up for her dish of raspberries.
The Duke and Duchess of York were given a rousing send-off to their honeymoon on the royal yacht Britannia. A final touch came from prankster Prince Edward, who put a huge teddy bear in Andrew and Sarah's carriage.
Then the Queen headed to her apartment, kicked off her shoes and relaxed—as any mother would. She would anticipate and deserve her usual cup of tea at 5 o'clock—apart from cocktail hour, there is no drinking between meals at the royal residences. She had her corgis around her and her dispatch box from the government. Even on a wedding day, the Queen never stops working.