Updated February 12, 1996 12:00 PM

MOMENTS AFTER THE BBC AIRED its sensational Nov. 20 interview with the Princess of Wales—the confessional in which she described friends and retainers of Prince Charles’s as “the enemy” and accused them of portraying her as “unbalanced”—one of the Prince’s chums neatly confirmed at least one of her charges. On the network’s post-interview special, Armed Forces Minister Nicholas Soames, 48, said that Diana’s chronic unhappiness seemed to have blossomed into “mental illness” and that she appeared to be “in the advanced stages of paranoia.” At the time, Soames’s remarks seemed excessively mean-spirited, and an irate Prime Minister John Major forbade him from repeating them publicly. But now a growing number of courtiers—including several who have resigned—seem to agree that the near certainty of a divorce has brought out the worst in the princess.

Reports that became public last week suggest that Diana, 34, has recently played into the hands of those who may not wish her well. On Jan. 24, British papers pegged her as the source of a false rumor that Charles’s aide Alexandra “Tiggy” Legge-Bourke, companion to Princes William, 13, and Harry, 11, when they are with their father, had become pregnant by Charles last year and had an abortion. According to witnesses who gave their accounts when the story finally surfaced, Diana strolled over to Tiggy—whom she reportedly views as a rival for her sons’ affections—during the Waleses’ Dec. 14 staff Christmas party at London’s Lanesborough Hotel. “So sorry to hear about your baby,” she allegedly said to Legge-Bourke, 30, who replied with a stunned “What?” before dissolving in tears.

Two days before full details of the scandal hit the papers, the princess’s longtime private secretary Patrick Jephson, 39, resigned. Reportedly, after receiving a tongue-lashing from Di, he retorted, “You can’t treat people like this,” and walked out. The next day his assistant Nicole Cockell followed suit. The contract of chauffeur Steve Davies was not renewed, and he also left that same week.

Taken together, the upheavals suggest that “Soames [is] absolutely correct,” says a royal watcher who has often been sympathetic to Diana. Adds Brian Hoey, author of several books on the Windsors: “She is showing signs of paranoia. And this has affected her image much more than admitting that she committed adultery with James Hewitt. She seemed to weather that, but this is very, very nasty.” (For all of that, Di seemed relaxed and friendly at an off-the-record luncheon for American journalists at Brown’s Hotel in London last week—telling them that she hoped to visit British troops in Bosnia at some point.)

At the least, the story of the skirmish shed new light on recent installments in the Windsor family melodrama. Shortly after the party, it seems, the tale reached the Queen, who talked with Legge-Bourke—a favorite, whose mother, Shan, is a lady-in-waiting to Princess Anne. Tiggy vigorously denied that Di’s accusation had any basis in fact—as did Charles, 47, when his mother consulted him. Some of the Queen’s courtiers, at least, concluded that the troubled Diana had fabricated the story to besmirch Tiggy—apparently because some are promoting her as a more popular companion for Charles, and a more acceptable would-be queen, than his longtime mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, 48 (see story, page 171). Says one knowledgeable source: “The Queen was absolutely furious and totally in sympathy with Tiggy.”

After sparking the Queen’s anger, Di made an apparent plea for public sympathy on Dec. 18, when the Palace announced that she would spend Christmas alone rather than accept an invitation to join the Windsors at Sandringham. On Dec. 20 it became known that the Queen had asked the Waleses to consider “an early divorce”—a gesture some now suspect was prompted, in part, by her exasperation over Di’s rumormongering.

As for Tiggy, she has proved far from defenseless. With the Queen’s blessing, she asked prominent libel lawyer Peter Carter-Ruck to write Di’s solicitors on Dec. 18, asking that she apologize and that the abortion accusation be “recognized to be totally untrue.” On Dec. 20, Carter-Ruck warned journalists not to print “malicious lies” about his client. That apparently was intended as a warning to any newspaper that might consider repeating Diana’s allegation. (Still, Carter-Ruck lodged no complaint against the Sun or the Daily Mirror when they broke the story on Jan. 24. Sources close to the Palace say Tiggy is reluctant to prolong the scandal—or upset her young charges—by going to court.)

Nonetheless, Tiggy is said to be devastated by the publicity generated by Diana’s attack. Not that she hasn’t grappled with rumors in the past: Since 1993, when the buoyant young aristocrat joined Charles’s staff, there has been speculation about a romance. “There’s definitely a frisson,” says one Palace watcher. Tiggy herself has admitted that she—like Di—had a schoolgirl crush on Charles, who frequently visited her family’s estate in Wales. When paparazzi snapped the prince pecking her cheek on the playing field at Harry’s school, Ludgrove, last June, the press homed in; gossips duly noted Tiggy’s 28-pound weight loss last spring and her switch from frumpy pullovers to sleeker suits.

For months, it seems, Diana has been increasingly hostile toward Legge-Bourke, whom she terms “a servant.” She allegedly asks that Tiggy not be present when she speaks to her sons on the phone, and last week British papers published a letter to Charles in which Di demanded that “Miss Legge-Bourke not spend unnecessary time in the children’s rooms … read to them at night, nor supervise their…bathtime.”

Still, most of the small army of commentators who make their living interpreting the Windsor Wars dismiss the notion that Tiggy has captured Charles’s heart. “Charles is only interested in her as an uncle is interested in a younger niece,” asserts Di biographer Lady Colin Campbell. Though the prince’s mistress, too, has occasionally taken a potshot at Tiggy (reportedly referring to her as “the hired help”), Legge-Bourke saves most of her own scorn for Diana. According to London’s Sunday Times, Tiggy, who, like Charles, has an affinity for traditional blood sport, told a friend, “I give [the princes] what they need…fresh air, a rifle and a horse. [Diana] gives them a tennis racket and a bucket of popcorn at the movies.”

At the moment, the Palace is treading carefully—reportedly holding off a divorce announcement for fear of casting Diana as a victim. As of last week, the princess had refused to retract her remark about Tiggy. Without a major adviser, she was doubling as her own social secretary—helping her depleted staff reply to invitations, send faxes and arrange her calendar for what could be-come the most difficult year of her life.