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Last Updated: Monday, 22 December, 2003, 09:17 GMT
A royally difficult year

By Nicholas Witchell
BBC Royal Correspondent

After the emotional outpourings last year, with the Golden Jubilee celebrations and the death of the Queen Mother, 2003 was a year which the royal family hoped would be low key.

The Queen began it last January with a rare health problem. She wrenched her right knee shortly before last Christmas and was clearly in some pain when she attended morning service at Sandringham on Christmas Day.

The Queen has undergone some minor operations this year

In January she was admitted to the Kind Edward VII Hospital in London for surgery to the knee to remove a small piece of torn cartilage. The delicate keyhole surgery required the Queen to have a general anaesthetic.

After two nights in hospital she left for a period of recuperation which took longer than expected. Eleven months later she was to return to the hospital for an identical operation on her left knee and surgery to her face to remove what Buckingham Palace described as "benign skin lesions".

These growths had appeared in recent months: one on her left eyebrow, another, much smaller growth below her left eye and a third on the left side of her nose.

As the Queen emerged from hospital on 13 December the evidence of the surgery was clearly visible on her face, with two stitches in the incision on her left eyebrow.

Burrell trial legacy

She seemed cheerful, however - looking forward to a period of recuperation over Christmas, and reflection on a year when, once again, the royal family had been caught up in the continuing backwash from the trial, last year, of Paul Burrell, the former butler to Diana, Princess of Wales.

How the royals must regret that that prosecution ever went ahead.

Indeed, senior royal officials express themselves with uncharacteristic bitterness about what they regard as the foolishness and incompetence of the Metropolitan Police over the way the Burrell inquiry was handled.

Former royal butler Paul Burrell sparked a bout of negative publicity
Once again it has been the Prince of Wales who has been the principal loser from it all.

First, in March, his Private Secretary Sir Michael Peat produced his report into the allegations which had emerged in the aftermath of the trial.

Sir Michael concluded that there had been "deficiencies" in the way the prince's household had dealt with the handling of official gifts. Of 180 such gifts to the Prince in the previous three years, 19 could not be accounted for.

The report also found that members of the prince's household had accepted a "range of gifts and entertainment" from Royal Warrant holders and other suppliers. In one case, the aggregate value had amounted to several thousand pounds.

Fresh allegations

Much of Sir Michael's inquiry in this regard had focused on the prince's former valet and special assistant, Michael Fawcett, a man who was said to be "indispensable" to the prince.

Whilst Sir Michael's inquiry failed to produce "any evidence of financial impropriety on his (Mr Fawcett's) part" the report stated that he had infringed internal rules relating to gifts.

Michael Fawcett resigned from the household, though he was immediately awarded a contract to advise the prince as a freelance consultant on entertainment and other matters.

It was of course the same Michael Fawcett who figured in another, even more bizarre legacy of the Burrell trial.

Michael Fawcett
Michael Fawcett left the Prince's staff in March

In October, whilst the Prince of Wales was on an official visit to India, his household (which had, by then, moved from St James' Palace to the prince's new London home at Clarence House) was informed by the Mail on Sunday newspaper that it was intending to publish a long interview with a former royal footman by the name of George Smith.

Mr Smith had alleged that he had been raped by a male member of the household. This allegation was first made in 1996.

The Princess of Wales had tape recorded a conversation with Mr Smith in which he named his alleged attacker and also made an even more astonishing allegation: that he had witnessed a male member of the household in a "compromising position" with a senior member of the royal family.

Media battle

The tape of this conversation has not been seen since the days immediately after the princess's death in 1997.

The police believed that Paul Burrell might have kept it, and it was in pursuit of it, and other highly sensitive items, that they raided his home in Cheshire, where they found - not the tape - but the many other items which formed the basis for their failed prosecution of him for theft.

George Smith's allegations had been swirling around royal circles for years. He is - even in the view of his supporters - an unreliable witness with a history of emotional difficulties.

Prince Charles
Rumours have rocked Prince Charles' household
The Mail on Sunday never published its full interview with George Smith because Michael Fawcett obtained a High Court injunction preventing it.

A few days later, Sir Michael Peat made a televised statement in which he identified the Prince of Wales as the hitherto anonymous "senior royal" who was the subject of this "risible" allegation. He made the statement on the basis that the prince had absolutely nothing to hide.

Very few reasonable people, I suspect, will have given the (still unspoken) allegation any credence, but the cumulative effect of all of this is certainly not helpful to Prince Charles' image or indeed, in a broader context, to the image of the royal family firm.

Fifty years after her Coronation, the Queen will indeed put her bruised knee up this Christmas and look back on a year which they'd hoped might be dull, but which most certainly wasn't.


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