LONDON -- The legacy of Princess Diana -- dead five years now -- haunts the beleaguered British royals yet again, as a fierce debate rages about the motives of Queen Elizabeth II, whose belated revelations cleared Diana's former butler on charges he stole from the House of Windsor.
On Friday, prosecutors dropped theft charges against Paul Burrell, the longtime royal servant whom Diana called "my rock," after the queen revealed that Burrell told her five years ago that he had taken some of the princess's papers for safekeeping.
Many Britons expressed skepticism Saturday about the monarch's motives, while others rushed to defend her honor and judgment.
"The collapse of this case poses more questions than it answers," said Martin Salter, a lawmaker from the governing Labor Party.
Burrell, 44, had been charged with taking more than 300 items from the princess and other members of the royal family between Jan. 1 1997, and June 30, 1998. The property allegedly included letters, photos, and compact discs owned by Diana, Prince Charles and their son Prince William.
Prosecutors alleged that no one in the royal family knew he had the items.
"The queen came through for me," a relieved Burrell, who always maintained his innocence, said Friday. But many asked why she had taken so long to speak up.
On public display
"The butler didn't do it -- and the queen knew all along," said the tabloid Sun newspaper.
The queen said her private conversation with Burrell took place in the months after Diana was killed in Paris on August 1997. Burrell was arrested in January 2001.
"She could have put this in the public domain a very long time ago," said Bob Marshall-Andrews, a lawyer and Labor lawmaker. "Of course the question has to be asked why didn't she do so."
Buckingham Palace said Elizabeth had realized only recently that her private conversation with Burrell might be relevant.
But the case had put details about Diana's personal life back on public display, with her mother and sister both testifying in court. Skeptics said the monarch may have acted to prevent her relatives from having to testify, or to stop Burrell from embarrassing the royal family if he took the stand.
"The most likely reason is that when Paul Burrell came to give evidence he was going to provide extremely damaging new information" about the royals, said Labor lawmaker Paul Flynn.
Burrell's supporters said he would never reveal secrets of the queen and her family.
"I think he would have gone to jail sooner than be disloyal to the queen," said Burrell's father, Graham.
Some royal experts said the queen, too, acted in good faith.
"She came to the conclusion that something needed to be said and quite rightly the meeting with Paul Burrell was brought to the attention of the police," said Lord St. John of Fawsley, a friend of the royal family.
"As for this conspiracy theory," he told the British Broadcasting Corp., "anyone who knows the queen knows she would be incapable of such actions. You don't have to meet the queen to know her. Everybody knows of her devotion to duty."
Newspapers agreed that the collapse of the case -- reported to have cost $2.3 million -- reflected badly on the police and the justice system.
And some said the queen's delay in coming forward with information to clear Burrell had further eroded the standing of the monarchy.
"This case could do more damage to the monarchy than any amount of adultery or tawdry tape recordings, not least because it reflects so poorly on the character of the monarch herself," said The Independent in an editorial.
It's far from the first time embarrassing headlines have dogged the royal family. The queen suffered through the highly publicized divorces of three of her four children, including Charles, who had an affair with the divorced Camilla Parker Bowles while he was married to Diana.
Burrell was charged after police searched his home and found the items which he was accused of stealing. The initial search apparently was prompted after Diana's sister, Lady Sarah McCorquodale, told authorities she had given Burrell a box containing several letters and a signet ring from the princess's former lover and had never seen the items again.
Detective Sgt. Roger Milburn testified that police had searched for the box and its contents at Burrell's home but never found them. He said they went to Burrell's home seeking documents which the detective did not describe. Burrell told police he did not know where the contents were and denied ever having removed the box.