Prince Charles went to sea in 1973 and Camilla married someone else and so, eventually, did he. But their emotional and sexual bonds never broke, writes Stefanie Marsh
IT is an affair that has spanned three decades, produced several of the most creepily intimate phone conversations to have been printed in a national newspaper and, arguably, destroyed two marriages.
Camilla Parker Bowles, nee Shand, first met the heir to the throne at a polo match in 1970.
Notwithstanding a 17-month age gap and her disapproved-of smoking habit, the couple discovered they had much in common.
They shared a passion for watercolour painting and hunting. Their favourite radio programme was The Goon Show . . . and their subsequent love affair had a precedent.
Her maternal great-grandmother, Alice Keppel, had been the mistress of the Prince's great-grandfather, Edward VII.
Her first - with hindsight only semi-comical - words to Charles were: "My great-grandmother and your great-grandfather were lovers. How about it?"
Fascinated by her provocative gauntlet-throwing, the Prince soon became her lover. Then, characteristically, he dithered. His uncle, Earl Mountbatten of Burma, has been blamed for having persuaded his nephew that the "bedded-can't-be-wedded" rule still applied to the royal family.
While the Prince was at sea with the Royal Navy in 1973, Miss Shand married her philandering boyfriend, Andrew Parker Bowles. The Prince wrote dolefully in his diary of "such a blissful, peaceful and mutually happy relationship . . . I suppose the feeling of emptiness will pass eventually".
But over the next 35 years, their emotional and sexual bond was ruptured only temporarily - for five years - when in 1981 the Prince finally married an 18-year-old nursery school teacher, Lady Diana Spencer; and seemingly not at all by Camilla's own marriage. Her husband was so loyal to the royal family that, so the joke went, he laid down his wife for his country.
Even in the weeks leading up to the Prince's wedding, Mrs Parker Bowles had the future king's ear. In the week before his marriage, she received from him a bracelet engraved with the initials G F - "Girl Friday" or "Gladys and Fred", Camilla and Charles's pet names for each other (the two female rivals gave each other less affectionate nicknames: Camilla was "the Rottweiler", Diana "gormless" and "bonkers").
It was Camilla, in an almost maternal role, who advised the Prince to marry the mousey Diana, having scrutinised all his other prospective brides. And she, indirectly, ensured the royal couple would eventually divorce.
The Prince vowed to be faithful but letters made public by her butler Paul Burrell make clear that Diana felt he was "never emotionally divorced from (Camilla)".
During the first year of their marriage she overheard a muttered phone call in which the Prince told Mrs Parker Bowles: "You know I'll always love you."
In a letter to the Duke of Edinburgh, Diana wrote: "Charles told me that you said that if the marriage was not working well after five years, he could essentially return to Camilla."
The couple drifted further and further apart after the birth of Prince Harry in 1984. It was Diana who first succumbed to extramarital affairs and Charles eventually returned to his old flame.
The turning point came at a dinner party celebrating the 40th birthday party in 1989 of Camilla's sister, Annabel Elliot, at which Diana unexpectedly showed up.
Diana recalled on tape: "I said to the two men: 'Okay boys, I'm just going to have a quick word with Camilla and I'll be up in a minute.
"I was terrified of her (Camilla). I said: 'I know what's going on between you and Charles and I just want you to know that'."
She said Mrs Parker Bowles told her: "You've got everything you ever wanted. You've got all the men in the world fall in love with you and you've got two beautiful children, what more do you want?"
Diana replied: "I want my husband." She said to Camilla: 'I'm sorry I'm in the way . . . and it must be hell for both of you. But I do know what's going on. Don't treat me like an idiot."
But speculation about the royal marriage was only made dramatically and uncomfortably public in 1992 with the publication of "Squidgy" tape which gave details of an intimate telephone conversation between Diana and a man later identified as James Gilbey.
A year later, a taped conversation between the Prince and Mrs Parker Bowles made clear to the world that the heir to the throne would like nothing better than to live inside her trousers, possibly as a tampon.
Camilla and Andrew Parker Bowles divorced in 1995, the year Diana gave an interview to Panorama. "There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded," she memorably said. Charles and Diana divorced in 1996.
The path to remarriage was never guaranteed, however. The Queen Mother reportedly fiercely disapproved of the liaison and, fearing it would undermine the royal family's credibility, banned Mrs Parker Bowles from the royal residences in 1995.
The public also had its qualms, particularly after the death of Diana. Having made a tentative step into public life as patron for the National Osteoporosis Society in April 1997, Mrs Parker Bowles was swiftly blotted out from the public gaze after the car crash in August of that year.
A charity function planned for September, at which the couple might have appeared together, was cancelled.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, staff at St James's Palace reportedly began to curtsey to Mrs Parker Bowles on her visits. (© The Times, London)