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As he sits down to watch his former servant on television tonight, Prince Charles will be wishing he had never come back from Italy. After lunch at the presidential palace in Rome on Friday, he strolled by the peaceful graves of Keats and Shelley. Then he flew home, back into the eye of a storm that threatens the very existence of all the heir to the throne holds dear. Constitutional experts will spend today speculating on the damage done to the House of Windsor by allegations that the Prince ordered a rape in his household to be covered up.
By the time Paul Burrell appears on screen talking to Trevor McDonald this evening, Charles will know how many more royal secrets have been brought into the light by the peculiar power of police incompetence, bitter servants, and tabloid cash. This time, unlike the failed prosecution of the former butler, there is a real and serious crime involved.
A footman says he was raped and also sexually assaulted by a male aide close to the Prince, a dozen years ago. He kept silent, being an old soldier and loyal to the crown, even when the trauma caused him to enter a psychiatric hospital and contributed to the break-up of his marriage. Yesterday, while the royal bags were being unpacked at Highgrove, the year-old man, who must remain anonymous for the time being, was in hiding, considering offers of big money.
He is on the edge of another breakdown according to his father. The trouble for both his son and Prince Charles is that Princess Diana did not listen when she was told to forget all about the tittle-tattle. Instead she sat, it is alleged, at the end of the victim's bed at the Priory Clinic in London, with a tape recorder hidden in her handbag, and persuaded him to talk about what had happened.
The Princess knew that knowledge was power. So she supposedly kept the tape in a box with other intimate possessions that might come in useful one day, such as threatening letters from her father-in-law, the Duke of Edinburgh. The story of the recording — and the rape — may well have remained secret if she had not been killed. It emerged during the trial of Mr Burrell, because the tape was one of the things the police were looking for when they hammered on his door early one morning in January Lady Sarah McCorquodale, Diana's sister, had said they might find this potentially explosive recording there.