Senior members of the Royal Family reacted with incredulity last night after a coroner called in Scotland Yard to reinvestigate the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
A team of detectives is to inquire into the car crash in Paris which claimed her life, in part to help to dismiss the many myths and conspiracy theories that have since enshrouded the tragedy.
To the astonishment of journalists from across the world who attended the opening of the Princess’s inquest yesterday, Michael Burgess, Coroner of the Queen’s Household, said that he wanted police to investigate in an attempt to “separate fact from fiction and speculation” about the deaths of the Princess and her lover, Dodi Fayed.
“I am aware that there is speculation that these deaths were not the result of a sad, but relatively straightforward, road traffic accident in Paris,” Mr Burgess said. “I have asked the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to make inquiries.”
The attempt to dismiss the conspiracy theories suffered its first setback even before the inquests were opened and adjourned, however, when the Daily Mirror reported that the Princess had accused the Prince of Wales of plotting her death in a road accident so that he would be free to marry Camilla Parker Bowles.
The Princess is reported to have written in October 1996, almost ten months before her death: “This particular phase in my life is most dangerous — my husband is planning ‘an accident’ in my car. Brake failure and serious head injury in order to make the path clear for him to marry.”
A copy of the letter was passed to the Mirror, with the words “my husband” blacked out, after it fell into the hands of Paul Burrell, the Princess’s former butler. Mr Burrell sold the serialisation rights of his book about Diana to the newspaper last year. Even Piers Morgan, the newspaper’s Editor, conceded yesterday that any suggestion that the Prince planned the death of his former wife was “probably preposterous”.
An investigation by a French judge, Hervé Stéphan, established that the Princess and Mr Fayed died, along with Henri Paul, their driver, because Mr Paul had been under the influence of both alcohol and prescription drugs, and had lost control of his Mercedes in the Pont d’Alma traffic tunnel.
Members of the Royal Family had hoped that that investigation would be the last exhaustive inquiry into the deaths, and had expected that the coroner’s inquests would be brief formalities.
Instead, Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, indicated yesterday that he planned to supervise personally the team of detectives that will be reinvestigating the deaths in response to Mr Burgess’s request.
The Prince of Wales and his sons were devastated by the development. The mood at Clarence House and Highgrove yesterday was described as one of bewilderment and disbelief. “We just never saw this coming,” one friend of the Prince said.
After formally opening the inquest on the Princess at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in Westminster, Mr Burgess said: “The British police, on my behalf, and acting on my authority, will be exploring and following up various lines of inquiry.
“Only once that process has been completed can I consider who can help the inquest process by attending as witnesses.”
Mr Burgess is understood to have twice asked Mr Burrell to hand over the letter written by the Princess. Yesterday, the coroner said that “there is a common-law duty” on anyone with information about the deaths to disclose it to him, “without delay”.
He later opened the inquest of Mr Fayed at Reigate, Surrey. Both hearings were adjourned, and are not expected to be re-opened for at least 12 months.
John Burton, a former Coroner of the Queen’s Household, said of the inquests: “When it’s all over, 95 per cent of the people will still disregard all the facts and want to go back to their own conspiracies.”
However, one man who was delighted by Mr Burgess’s decision was Mohamed Al Fayed, the father of Dodi, who insisted yesterday that the deaths had been “absolutely black and white, horrendous murder”.
He added: “It’s just the beginning.”