When Meghan Markle sits down with the rest of the royal family for their traditional Christmas dinner, it will be like being transported into ‘another reality’.
That’s the opinion of Princess Diana’s longtime butler Paul Burrell, who believes, based on his own experience, that the Duchess of Sussex will not be used to the intense four-day period she’ll go through at Sandringham Palace.
After the year Meghan has gone through with her own dysfunctional family – from her father Thomas Sr partaking in staged paparazzi photos to half-sister Samantha’s stream of vile public outbursts – she’d be entitled to think that a glass of sherry with the Windsors would make a welcoming change.
Yet 60-year-old Burrell warns that other royals will be out to trip her up at Christmas, and offers the advice: ‘Stay close to Harry and his granny… or you’re in trouble!’
Burrell, who served as a footman to the Queen and butler to Diana for a total of 21 years, feels great sympathy for the baptism of fire that Markle, 37, has so far faced.
Although this will be nothing compared to what will hit her on Christmas Eve when she travels up to the country estate in Norfolk, England.
Burrell explains that the festive period has always been used by the royal members to curry favor with the monarch and Meghan should seize the opportunity to talk to Her Majesty about what’s on her mind after a tumultuous few months where she’s been saddled as ‘difficult’ and blamed for a rift with sister-in-law Kate Middleton.
Burrell said: ‘It’s the most intense period of the year, I’ve been there for so many Christmases, this house is occupied by some of the biggest personalities and egos in the country.
‘All these people are members of the royal family, they are all larger than life, have character to go with it. Everyone is jostling for position and attention, and they’re bouncing off the walls after four days. It’s like a pinball machine.
‘They all want to please the Queen and want airtime with her, it’s the one time that they can sit down with the head of the family and make an impression.
‘It’s what I said to Diana when she first came into the family, try to get airtime with the Queen, speak into her ear.
‘The best time to do it is when she’s seated at her card table, before and after dinner, she will sit and play Bridge or Canasta and she’ll always ask people to join her, that’s your chance to get quality time and tell the monarch what you’re thinking and feeling.
‘That’s the time Meghan should grasp, don’t be talking dresses and jewels with other royals, head for the Queen. The Queen is the most humble, approachable and kind person you’ll ever meet, she’s a great listener, nothing will shock her, she’s heard everything, and you can tell her everything, and it will be safe.
‘The Queen has to be informed from the horse’s mouth, if you don’t do that, you’re doing an injustice, I hope that Meghan will get this advice from Harry, that granny knows best.
‘If you speak your fears, she will take it onboard and speak to the right person. She will change the rules, she did it for William and Harry, she can do it, but only if she knows about it.’
Burrell, who quit being a royal butler after Diana’s death in 1997 and now runs a florist shop in Farndon, Cheshire, understands the pressure cooker royal environment more than most.
He adds: ‘I personally think she’s finding it tough in there, no one could prepare her for it, not even on a film set, but this is the real world. Imagine Downton, but ramp it up. Sandringham is Downton Abbey on speed.
‘It is daunting as everyone around that table is a very famous person on the world stage, there’s not many times you can look at a dining room table and think: ‘Oh my goodness’.
‘I am sure Meghan will sit at that dining room table with her heart beating double time, thinking: ‘Pinch me, is this real?’ It’s far from reality, so detached from our world.
‘From the minute she arrives, she’ll be met by a valet and a dresser, who will unpack her suitcase and wash and lay out her clothes every morning, then pack her bag up again when it’s over.
‘This will be an intense period until the minute she leaves, she’ll have to give up her time completely as it’s about the royal family, she’ll have to understand that.’
Burrell isn’t surprised about the recent negative press surrounding Meghan – stories that she demanded air fresheners at her wedding in the ‘musty’ Windsor chapel and apparently made sister-in-law Kate cry over daughter Charlotte’s bridesmaid’s fitting. It’s exactly what happened to his old boss, the tragic Princess of Wales.
Burrell said: ‘The Queen will be very aware of the media attention (on Meghan), she reads every single newspaper, every morning.
‘She scans each one, then sees what they say, and makes an informed decision, based on what she reads with what she knows. She can then know if it’s truth or fiction.
‘She will try to resolve it, she will take her grandsons to one side, and ask: ”Is there any truth in this?” Or: ”I’ve heard this, how can I be of help?” She’s their granny. She loves them very much and wants them to be very happy. The Queen is their best friend.
‘At least Meghan has the support of Harry, he’s been there, done it, it’s part of his world. This is the way granny does it, we pay respect to it.
‘She’s already the same age as when Diana died, so is a mature woman, who comes from a mixed race background, and is American – these are positives that the royals should embrace to go forward in my eyes.
‘But she’s going to come up with opposition within the four walls of the royal household and they will be seen as negatives, like Diana did.’
‘But if you stray away from him and start to do things by yourself, that’s when there could be problems.’
This Christmas will be like nothing she’s experienced – a British royal family that is ‘entrenched in history, tradition, protocol, timetables – it’s a strict world, it’s a world Meghan’s not used to,’ says Burrell.
In years gone by with the Markle family as a child, she’d be delivering turkeys to homeless shelters in Skid Row, a square mile of downtown Los Angeles riddled with thousands of destitute people packed in dirty tents on the sidewalks.
But that didn’t stop the Markle family from helping those in need with her now divorced parents Thomas Markle and Doria Ragland insisting on handing out turkeys at holiday times.
At one stage, Markle even volunteered at Hippie Kitchen, a long-standing Skid Row soup kitchen.
In an essay on her humanitarian work, Markle later wrote: ‘My parents came from little so they made a choice to give a lot: buying turkeys for homeless shelters at Thanksgiving, delivering meals to people in hospices, giving spare change to those asking for it.’
In an exclusive interview, her nephew Tyler Dooley explains that she’s always had the ‘common touch’. He says: ‘Not coming from a royal background, but very humble beginnings, she was just a commoner – as the Brits would call it. She was just a normal person, but she has always had this ability to help people and the power to change things.
‘She wants to put smiles on people faces, she’s happiest when among people who haven’t got anything.’
Dooley remembers fondly Christmases with his aunt Meghan, especially on one occasion, with Markle’s father and his grandad, Thomas Sr.
‘I remember one Christmas, my grandfather would take me, my brother and Meghan, and we’d go to the mall in Los Angeles, and he literally said you can get anything you want in the store. My brother and I looked at each other, and were like: ”How cool is that?”
‘My grandfather is like a big teddy bear. It was so cool, all the Christmas lights, music playing, we ran into the toy store and got whatever we wanted, it was an amazing experience,’ says Dooley.
Paul Burrell, who served as Diana’s butler, has warned the royal family to protect Meghan Markle from being hounded by the press like Harry’s mother was.
He said: ‘It was always going to happen, I knew when she stepped into the royal family, she’d have the honeymoon period, then the wedding, all glorious, not a word spoken against her, then it happens, the media are looking for another angle, it happened to Diana.
‘She’s going to have to face it and be hard. But she’s got Harry there, he’s been through it, she just needs to listen to him, and be a friend to his granny, that’s all she needs.
‘Quite rightly, William and Kate get better protection as the heirs to the throne, but it seems to be open season for Harry and Meghan. It doesn’t seem to matter to the press how much damage they do – that’s wrong, they’re brothers with the same mother.
‘I just think there’s a danger pushing Harry and Meghan into the wilderness, but they should be embraced and brought into the fold.
‘Harry is outspoken and impetuous, he wants to protect Meghan as much as he can, he’s likely to be very outspoken and let both barrels fly, if they pursue Meghan too far.
‘He loves this lady very much and she’s about to be the mother of his child. Cut her some slack and leave her alone, she needs to be a mother and a wife, as well as a royal family member.
‘Diana was the press darling, got unstuck, then she was literally chased down the streets of London, she was hounded, I wouldn’t want that to happen to Meghan. Lesson should be learnt from the past.
‘If we carry on along this path, Meghan is going to be in a similar position to what Diana was. That’s unfair and not right.