Saturday 10 December 2016

'How about it?' When Camilla met Charles

She's been a mistress, a duchess and may one day be Queen. Scandal and controversy marked Camilla Parker Bowles' entree into public life. But in the ten years of her marriage to Prince Charles, she has steadily charmed the watching world. Julia Molony profiles the Duchess of Cornwall.

Published 11/05/2015 | 02:30

Newly wed: Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall leave St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, finally united as man and wife
Newly wed: Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall leave St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, finally united as man and wife
Diana and Camilla
Deb days: A young Camilla Shand (left) at her debutante party in March 1965

It is ten years since Prince Charles married Camilla Parker Bowles, stepping down the aisle in the midst of a tabloid fire-storm.

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In the aftermath of the tragic death of the beloved Princess Diana in a dark Parisian underpass early one summer morning, the Royal family were immediately recast in the popular imagination as pantomime villains. Charles became the evil prince at the centre of the tale who was believed to have (directly or indirectly) brought about the death of the People's Princess. The Queen was a frosty, cold-hearted monarch whose belligerent refusal to fly the palace flags at half-mast was in direct contradiction to the mood of her mourning subjects. But perhaps there was no more convenient scapegoat for the "War of the Waleses" that had played out in tabloid headlines and culminated in the death of an icon, than the Other Woman herself, Camilla Parker Bowles.

When the current Duchess of Cornwall first came to the attention of an aggrieved and angry nation, she was nicknamed "the rottweiller" and "the wicked witch of Wiltshire." It was rumoured that a furious shopper once threw a bread roll at her in a supermarket.

She seemed, in many ways, the opposite to Diana, and the comparison was not a flattering one. Where Diana was statuesque, glamorous and young, Camilla, a year older than Charles, appeared matronly in her riding tweeds. While Diana was dressed by the world's most famous couturiers, Camilla, we learned from one of her friends, was someone who was "quite happy to jump off her horse and into an evening dress without having a bath."

Camilla Parker Bowles was regarded as having been an instrument of a very private kind of torture, a symbol of Charles' betrayal of his vulnerable, doe-eyed wife.

Despite the wrath of his public, however, Charles' loyalty to Camilla has been unwavering. From the moment they were free to appear together in public, Prince Charles made it absolutely clear that her role in his life was "non-negotiable", even though in doing so he risked plenty. In some people's minds his behaviour even cast doubt on his suitability to claim the throne. The idea that Camilla might one day be Queen was met with outright consternation, not just from the public, but from senior members of the Church of England too. Among the staunchest opponents to the idea was, it has been reported, her Majesty the Queen Mother.

But the Queen Mother is now 13 years in the grave, and look how far the Prince of Wales and his duchess have come. A recent poll conducted to coincide with the couple's ten-year wedding anniversary revealed that a record number of respondents - almost 50pc of those asked, now support the idea of Camilla becoming Queen. Ten years previously, that figure was just 7pc.

Perhaps it's fitting that this year - something of a watershed in letting bygones be bygones - is also the year that Charles and Camilla will make their first official visit to Ireland together. Last month, the Royal household announced that the heir to the throne will make his first trip to this country in 20 years, from the 19th to the 22nd of this month. For Camilla, it's a trip she is likely to have been looking forward to for some time. At a public engagement in 2014, she was overhead saying to a guest "oh, I love Ireland."

It is believed that a visit to Mullaghmore will likely be on the Royal couple's itinerary. It was there that Prince Charles' beloved great-uncle and mentor, Lord Mountbatten, used to spend his summer holidays. And it was there too, in 1979, that Mountbatten was killed when his boat was blown up by an IRA bomb.

The last time Charles came to Ireland, in 1995, was the first official visit by a member of the Royal family since independence, and the occasion was greeted by protests in Dublin city centre led by Sinn Fein. This year, Gerry Adams' reaction to the news of the visit was to express his hopes that it will be "an occasion to promote reconciliation, respect and understanding".

Reconciliation and respect are two words that could be said to describe the prevailing mood regarding the Royal couple in more ways than one. In 2013, after more than a decade vehemently devoted to castigating her, the Daily Mail described Camilla as "the dazzling Duchess." In an interview with CNN's Max Foster recently to celebrate their ten years together, the reporter who sat with Charles purred about his wife's "charm and charisma" and praised her for having "defined her own public role."

Undoubtedly, Camilla's rehabilitation in the public eye has been a high-wire walk, but it's fair to say she has pulled it off with impressive dexterity and grace. Ultimately, the strength of their union, and the clear, easy and palpable affection between Charles and Camilla has softened the hearts of Britain and beyond.

Camilla Shand first met the young Prince Charles in the 1960s, while he was still just a student in Cambridge University. Despite being considered the most eligible man in the world, he was an introverted and shy young man, who even then was struggling to reconcile the weight of the duty of his role with his emerging identity. According to rumour, it was Camilla who approached the young Prince, with some reports suggesting that as her opening gambit, she said; "My great-grandmother and your great-great-grandfather were lovers. So how about it?".

While his upbringing was famously Victorian in character - the Queen and Prince Philip are said to have been detached and both physically and emotionally remote as parents - Camilla had been raised in the warm, close, and glamorous Shand clan. Her royal and literary associations go back generations. Her great-grandmother, Alice Keppel, was, after all, the adored mistress and great love of King Edward VII, who famously said, "My job is to curtsy first and then jump into bed." Her great aunt Violet - older sister of her grandmother Sonia -was the notorious lover of Bloomsbury writer Vita-Sackville West, who later had a long affair with Virginia Woolf.

Camilla's father was a devoted family man who fought in World War II in Dunkirk and Africa. He was twice awarded the Military Cross for bravery, and was a German prisoner of war for two years.

According to a ground-breaking Vanity Fair profile of Camilla in 2005, her childhood in bucolic Sussex in the 1950s was loving and happy, and full of both freedom and attention. It was much warmer and more fun than one might expect from an aristocratic family. In a 2005 article in Vanity Fair, a family friend was quoted as saying, "Fun was one of the main things I remember about the Shand household. There were ponies, dogs, picnics. There was no pomp, no snobbery, but a lot of fun for all ages."

After leaving boarding school, the young Camilla attended finishing school in Geneva before moving to Chelsea where she shared a flat with a friend and accepted her first and only employment post - as a receptionist for interior designers Colefax and Fowler.

It was while she was in London that she and Charles first struck up a romance. This was very much encouraged by Lord Mountbatten - who at this point was already Prince Charles' closest confident and de facto father figure. Mountbatten encouraged the young Prince to sow his wild oats, and even provided his own Hampshire estate as a safe place for him to bring his lover. However, the older man did not regard Camilla as a suitable wife - he was adamant that the prince should ultimately marry a virgin.

In any case, whatever Charles's early ambitions for his burgeoning relationship with Camilla Shand, they were soon thwarted when, in 1978, duty called and the young naval officer was summoned on an eight-month expedition on the HMS Minerva to the Caribbean.

While he was away, Camilla became engaged to Andrew Parker Bowles. At the time, Charles wrote regretfully of the end of the "blissful, peaceful and mutually happy relationship," of just six months standing that he had lost. "I suppose the feeling of emptiness will pass eventually," he said.

But though he had lost Camilla, at the same time he could not escape her. She and Andrew Parker Bowles moved in royal circles and were regular guests at Windsor, Sandringham and Balmoral. Camilla always seemed comfortable with the continuation of her warm association with Charles, despite the divergence of their paths romantically. When her first child was born in 1974, she and Andrew asked Prince Charles to be godfather. Meanwhile, Charles was active on the social circuit, dating a string of eligible women and society beauties, including the glamorous brewing heiress Sabrina Guinness.

But his attachment to his first love remained strong. In 1979, after the death of his beloved Mountbatten, some reports have suggested that Charles felt the first real stirrings of tension between what was expected of him and what he really desired. It has been said that at this time he asked Camilla to leave her marriage to be with him, but she, ever the pragmatist, demurred, reminding him that, were that to happen he would be forced to renounce the throne.

Meanwhile, pressure on the prince to marry was mounting, but with Camilla no longer an option, his heart remained rudderless. His union with Diana in 1981, has been described by Vanity Fair journalist Bob Colacello as "the closest thing to an arranged marriage in our time."

As the press-orchestrated fairytale wedding distracted the public, the enduring love between Charles and Camilla was put on ice. According to Diana's biographer Andrew Morton, the soon-to-be princess discovered a bracelet that Charles had bought for Camilla as a gift inscribed with the initials GF, which stood for Girl Friday. It was to be a goodbye present to his first love.

According to Vanity Fair, the Charles camp "have always maintained that he was faithful to Diana for the first five years," after which the total breakdown of any relationship between them, in the face of her emotional instability, "bulimia, and repeated suicide attempts," led him back into the arms of Camilla. Charles himself once insisted in an interview with Jonathan Dimbleby that he was faithful in his marriage "until it became irretrievably broken down."

The confirmation of the relationship between Charles and Camilla, when it came, was in the form of an embarrassing leak of private phone conversations which took place in 1989 and were released to the press in 1992. The conversations, though intimate, exposed their closeness and mutual support, with Camilla overheard saying, "I'd suffer anything for you. That's love. It's the strength of love."

After Princess Diana died in 1997, Camilla was possibly the most hated woman in Britain, and responded by going to ground for some months. Before the year was out, however, William had agreed to meet her.

The following year, Charles and Camilla began tentatively stepping out together as a couple in full view of the world.

But progress was slow. Gradually, Camilla started to overhaul her image, choosing clothes by Chelsea couturier Antony Price. She began a long-standing collaboration with Irish milliner Philip Treacy, whose ostrich-feather design for her wedding outfit managed, rather ingeniously, to lend her both a sense of daring and decorum.

"I expected her to have highly conservative taste," Treacy has said, "and I was astonished that she actually wanted a very glamorous hat. I had a very difficult Jack Russell terrier called Mr. Pig. He only liked me and a very few other people, but over a 12-year period of having him, I totally trusted his opinion. When I got to the shop, she was already there, and he was kneeling adoringly at her feet. I thought, I like her already, and I hadn't even met her."

In 2001, Prince William and Camilla were photographed together for the first time, suggesting that the young Prince had granted his father's relationship his tacit blessing.

Meanwhile, the essence of Camilla's appeal, her particular kind of social sparkle, her admirable common sense and her down-to-earth sense of humour, started to make an impression on the public. She's always seemed admirably sensible and pragmatic - refusing, for example, to relinquish the home she bought after her divorce when she married Charles, keeping it as refuge for when the press scrutiny became too much, and as a place where she could devote herself to spending time with her grandchildren. But most importantly, the clear message of Charles and Camilla's unwavering devotion to each other became their most endearing quality. Their mutual loyalty came to be seen as deserving of respect. Charles remained unapologetically steadfast, despite the demands of public relations and convention. For example, he turned down an invitation to the wedding of his godson Edward van Cutsem because Camilla, not yet his wife, would be required to sit at the back of the church.

The next year, the Prince of Wales and his love of over three decades married. "The first steps as wife to the heir to the throne were hesitant: early on we learned that the newly-minted duchess suffered fatigue on long-haul engagements, was prone to seasickness, and was reluctant to undertake solo engagements," Christopher Wilson wrote in the Telegraph. Still, the public remained rather ambivalent. There was speculation about how the glaring light of legitimacy would rustle a relationship that had thrived in the dark and intensely private space of royal life. After all, as James Goldsmith said,"When a man marries his mistress he creates a vacancy."

But her endorsement from within the Royal family rang clear. The Queen may not have attended the civil ceremony, but she was there at the Church of England blessing, and her warm speech at the wedding reception made her feelings clear. In 2012, Camilla sat beside the Queen as she drove through London in an open carriage to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee.

But perhaps the most important final step in the remaking of Camilla in the public eye, was the clear stabilising and positive influence her presence in the Royal family had on the lives of the two young princes in the palace, who after a traumatic childhood, were starting to take their first steps into public life. When Harry turned 21 he said in an interview with Sky News, "She's a wonderful woman and she's made our father very, very happy, which is the most important thing. William and I love her to bits."

Sunday Independent

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