From Charles’ lover to mistress to queen consort, the fascinating life of Camilla

That the 75-year-old Camilla will be given the title, with none of the sovereign’s powers, is mind-boggling to those who recall recent history. Besides, Camilla has never really won over the British public, which remains enamoured by Charles' first wife Diana

FP Explainers September 10, 2022 10:26:40 IST
From Charles’ lover to mistress to queen consort, the fascinating life of Camilla

Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, will be known as Queen Consort, a title that came with Queen Elizabeth II’s blessing after many years of contention, dating back to the years before she even married Prince Charles. AP

The United Kingdom will have a new queen after seven decades – a Queen Consort, that is.

That will be the title accorded to Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall and second wife of King Charles, news confirmed by Queen Elizabeth II herself in February prior to the 70th anniversary of her accession.

“As we have sought together to serve and support Her Majesty and the people of our communities, my darling wife has been my own steadfast support throughout,” Charles said at the time.

That the 75-year-old Camilla will be given the title, with none of the sovereign’s powers, is mind-boggling to those who recall recent history.

After all, Camilla was once dubbed a “rottweiler” by the woman she replaced and has never really won over the British public, which remain fascinated by Diana.

Let’s take a look at Camilla’s journey from Charles’ mistress to Queen Consort:

Affluent early beginnings

Born Camilla Rosemary Shand on 17 July, 1947, into an affluent family – her father was an army major and wine merchant who married an aristocrat – she grew up on a country estate and was educated in London before going to the Mon Fertile finishing school in Switzerland and then the Institut Britannique in France.

She moved in social circles that brought her into contact with Charles, who she met on a windswept polo field in the early 1970s.

At the time, she was 23 and he was considered to be the most eligible bachelor in Britain. The two immediately became close, and by the end of 1972, Charles was smitten. But the romance was interrupted by his eight months of naval duty.

“His world turned upside down and I don’t think he ever really recovered from it,” said Christopher Wilson, author of a book on the couple’s relationship.

Legend has it that in the early days, Camilla flirtatiously reminded Charles that her great-grandmother, Alice Keppel, was long-standing mistress to a previous Prince of Wales who became King Edward VII.

She then apparently said: “So how about it?”

The pair dated for a time and biographer Jonathan Dimbleby said Charles had contemplated marriage at the time, but felt too young to take such a major step.

As he dedicated himself to his naval career, Camilla went on to marry a cavalry officer, Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles. The couple had two children, Tom and Laura. They divorced in 1995 shortly after Charles gave an explosive television interview admitting an affair with Camilla.

Meanwhile, Charles and Diana had a whirlwind marriage in 1981 that enchanted not just Britain but the world. However, despite having two children, William and Harry, the relationship turned sour a few years later and the prince rekindled his romance with his former lover.

From Charles lover to mistress to queen consort the fascinating life of Camilla

Charles and his wife Camilla Parker Bowles in the garden of Clarence House. AP

Charles and Diana separated in 1992.

The depth of Charles and Camilla’s relationship was exposed to a shocked public in 1993 when a transcript of a secretly recorded private conversation was published in newspapers, with intimate details such as the Prince declaring a wish to live inside Parker Bowles’ trousers and be reincarnated as a tampon.

“I’d suffer anything for you. That’s love. That’s the strength of love,” Camilla told Charles.

“Your great achievement is to love me,” he said. “

Oh darling, easier than falling off a chair,” she replied.

In a famous TV interview the following year, Charles admitted he had resumed their affair less than six years after marrying Diana, but said it was only after their marriage had irretrievably broken down.

Diana blames Camilla

Diana laid the blame of her marriage falling apart at the feet of Camilla.

Portrayed as staid and dowdy, Camilla has perennially and unfavourably been compared with Charles’s photogenic first wife.

Diana dubbed Camilla “the Rottweiler” and blamed her for the break-up. As her relationship with Charles collapsed, she remarked in a 1995 TV interview: “There were three of us in this marriage – so it was a bit crowded.”

While Diana brought glamour to the stuffy House of Windsor with her glittering gowns, many Britons could not understand why Charles would prefer the country-loving Camilla, usually pictured wearing a scarf and green waterproof riding coat.

“Charles was silly to risk everything with Camilla for a man in his position,” Prince Philip, Elizabeth’s husband, said in a letter to Diana. “I cannot imagine anyone in their right mind leaving you for Camilla.”

However, those close to Charles say Camilla provided him with an escape from his strict royal duties and palace upbringing, like no one else did.

Charles and Camilla reconcile

After the breakdown of his marriage to Diana, he was said to have bought her a diamond ring and a horse and sent her daily bunches of red roses.

“That they loved each other was not in any doubt: in Camilla Parker Bowles, the Prince found the warmth, the understanding and the steadiness for which he had always longed and had never been able to find with any other person,” Dimbleby wrote in his authorised biography.

“Their relationship… was later to be portrayed merely as a tawdry affair. For Charles, however, it was a vital source of strength to a man who had been saddened beyond words by a failure for which he invariably blamed himself.”

Following Diana’s death, royal aides, tasked with rebuilding the tarnished reputation of the royal family battered by years of negative media stories about infidelities, also slowly began the task of integrating Camilla into a more public role.

The couple’s first public appearance together came at a birthday party for Camilla’s sister at London’s Ritz hotel in 1999. By 2005, they were able to get married.

From Charles lover to mistress to queen consort the fascinating life of Camilla

Charles and Camilla acknowledge the crowd following a Service of Prayer and Dedication at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. AP

Since then she has come to be recognised, albeit grudgingly by some, as a key member of the royal family, whose calming effect on her husband has helped him deal with his role.

Since then, Camilla has taken up dozens of royal duties. She is patron or president of more than 90 charities, and has shown particular interest in work on animals, promoting literacy and empowering women. She also has found her voice as a public speaker, earning respect by campaigning about difficult issues such as sexual violence against women and domestic abuse.

In 2021, she delivered what many called her landmark speech, urging “the men in our lives” to get involved in women’s rights and expressing sympathy for the families of women who are murdered.

The same year, Buckingham Palace underlined Camilla’s role as a senior royal by making her a Royal Lady of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, the most senior order of chivalry in Britain.

The question lingers

While the wife of a king is traditionally crowned queen, the question of what title Camilla would hold when Charles became king had been a tricky one for many years. That was due to sensitivity about her status as his second wife — and the wave of grief that washed over Britain following the death of his former wife, Princess Diana, in a car crash in 1997.

Charles and the royal household moved carefully on the matter, mindful of lingering public perceptions of Camilla as the “third person” that ruined the marriage between Charles and the beloved princess.

But over the decades, Camilla has won over large parts of the British public with her discretion, down-to-earth personality and loyalty to her husband.

From Charles lover to mistress to queen consort the fascinating life of Camilla

Camilla receives a hongi from a maori elder as she and Charles visit the Wesley Community Centre in Auckland, New Zealand. AP

When Camilla and Charles married in a low-key civil ceremony in 2005, she was in fact the new Princess of Wales — Diana’s title — but she styled herself the Duchess of Cornwall instead.

Palace officials said for years that Camilla “intended” to be known as “Princess Consort” — instead of the traditional “Queen Consort” — when Charles acceded to the throne.

There is no precedent for the title Princess Consort, which was reportedly suggested by royal officials. The similar title of Prince Consort has only been used once — for Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901.

In a 2010 interview with NBC, Charles was asked if Camilla would become “Queen of England, if and when you become the monarch.” He hesitated as he replied, “That’s, well … We’ll see, won’t we? That could be.”

The question was resolved when Queen Elizabeth II declared she wanted Camilla to be known as Queen Consort after her son became king. It was an endorsement that formally signified the royal family’s acceptance of Camilla as a respected senior member and was widely seen as a move by Elizabeth to pave a smooth transition to Charles’ reign.

“When, in the fullness of time, my son Charles becomes king, I know you will give him and his wife, Camilla, the same support that you have given me; and it is my sincere wish that, when that time comes, Camilla will be known as Queen Consort as she continues her own loyal service,” Elizabeth said in February 2022, when she marked the 70th anniversary of her rule.

From Charles lover to mistress to queen consort the fascinating life of Camilla

Camilla accompanied the Queen at a number of public engagements. AFP

Charles said he and Camilla were “deeply conscious of the honour.”

“As we have sought together to serve and support Her Majesty and the people of our communities, my darling wife has been my own steadfast support throughout,” he said.

The most recent Queen Consort in British history was George VI’s wife Queen Elizabeth, known in later years as the Queen Mother after her daughter became monarch in 1952.

By custom, Camilla will be anointed at Charles’ coronation, although that could be omitted.

Camilla wins over royals

In the years since, criticism in the press has all but dried up as she became a firmly established member of the family, and royal watchers say her mischievous sense of humour has helped win over those who meet her.

“They seem to be a couple very happy in each other’s company,” Simon Lewis, the queen’s communications secretary from 1998 to 2001, told Reuters.

“That period when I was at the palace, there was all the speculation about their relationship, what was going to happen – that’s all been dealt with, that’s all finished and I think (they are) actually a couple very happy in their own skins.”

When the royal car carrying the couple was caught up in violence in London in 2010 following protests by students and Camilla was reportedly poked with a stick through an open window, papers praised her stoicism when she later joked: “There’s a first time for everything.”

In 2013, she joined her husband for the state opening of parliament, an occasion of great pomp, sitting next to Charles, the queen and Prince Philip and wearing the tiara belonging to the Queen Mother.

Public relations experts say it was the result of much hard and careful work by the prince’s publicity team, although aides said it was mainly due to Camilla’s own personality.

“I think in the case of the duchess it’s been simply people have got to know her better and they’ve liked what they’ve seen and heard about her,” a former senior palace aide told Reuters.

“It is not an overt PR campaign to make her look good. It is her doing her job really well.”

Asked how Camilla had coped with carving out a role, Charles himself told CNN in 2015: “You can imagine it is a real challenge, but I think she’s been brilliant in the way she’s tackled these things.”

From Charles lover to mistress to queen consort the fascinating life of Camilla

Britain’s King Charles III, left, and Camilla, the Queen Consort, walk across the forecourt of Buckingham Palace, as he enters the palace for the first time as king. AP

Tabloid newspapers that were once highly critical now lavish praise on her.

“No one pretends it was easy for the Duchess of Cornwall to follow Diana. But with quiet dignity, easy humour and visible compassion, she has risen to the challenge. She is, quite simply, Charles’s rock,” the Daily Mail wrote in its editorial in February 2022.

The same paper, almost 17 years to the day earlier when Charles and Camilla announced their engagement, had said: “So is the public now in a mood to forgive the shabby way Diana was treated? … Where they are wrong, however, is in allowing Camilla to be known as Her Royal Highness – the very title so ruthlessly stripped from Diana after her divorce.”

However Camilla has never fully won widespread public affection.

According to a regular YouGov poll tracker, in May 2022, just 20 per cent of respondents thought she should be queen while 39 per cent thought she should receive the title of princess consort. However, a poll for the Daily Mail after the queen backed her becoming Queen Consort suggested that 55 per cent supported that move compared to 28 per cent who were opposed.

While many Britons have been unforgiving about any role she played in the break-up of Charles and Diana’s marriage, Prince Harry indicated this was not the case with him and his older brother.

“To be honest with you, she’s always been very close to me and William,” Harry said in an interview to mark his 21st birthday in 2005.

“She’s not the wicked stepmother.”

With inputs from agencies

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