Camilla won her prince - and the public
Once seen as the villain, Camilla is now a cherished queen-in-waiting, says Sarah Caden, who recalls how 'the other woman' finally found acceptance and mended her reputation
'Diana sadly dies in a road accident and then what happens? The Prince of Wales did marry Camilla Parker Bowles. Now, if only Diana had been around, she would have said to me, 'You see, Ken? I wasn't wrong, was I?'"
This is how Ken Wharfe, former bodyguard of Princess Diana, concluded the recent Channel 4 programme, Diana: In Her Own Words. The flimsy film comprised 1992 sessions with voice coach Peter Settelen, as well as Diana's version of the end of her marriage. It conveyed the anger of the woman, her refusal to be quiet, her desire to wound those who had hurt her - primarily her estranged husband, Prince Charles.
Diana was up against a machine, one that she perceived as designed to break her spirit in marriage, and determined to destroy her post-divorce. But Diana was equally determined that she would not be their collateral damage. "She will not go quietly," Diana said of herself in the third person to Settelen.
Charles could have his divorce. Charles could have Camilla. But his ex-wife was not going to hand over the affection of the people. That was her trump card. The public loved her, and post-separation, she wooed the world more skilfully than ever. Charles's popularity plummeted and polls showed that the British people would never accept that frumpy Parker Bowles woman as their queen. Diana seemed like the winner. But then Diana died, and that, as Ken Wharfe paints it, is what set in motion her predictions of Charles's ultimate triumph. And, by association, Camilla's.
Back in 1992, when Charles and Diana separated, Camilla Parker Bowles could never have imagined the popularity she enjoys today. Yet now, 20 years after Diana's death, and 12 years after Camilla's marriage to Charles, she is not only accepted, but loved. This 70-year-old woman, matronly even in her youth, has impressed with her warmth, her easy laugh, her ability to reveal the human side of stuffy Charles. Camilla has won over the royal-watchers - something perhaps only possible with Diana out of the picture.
In 1971, when Lucia Santa Cruz, daughter of the then-Chilean ambassador to the UK, introduced Charles to Camilla Shand, she reportedly warned them to be careful. There was a chance, the South American historian told them, that they were related, as Camilla's great-grandmother, Alice Keppel, had been a mistress of Charles's great-grandfather, George VII.
Camilla, at that stage, was 24, and already involved romantically with Andrew Parker Bowles, whom she had met as a debutante. He was about her level, aristocratically; a cavalry guard who had been an attendant at Elizabeth II's coronation; of good stock, but not upper echelon. He was also, even in the early years of their relationship, notoriously unfaithful to Camilla, who was never a beauty, but always popular for the reasons that stick with her today. She was warm and funny. One of first things Charles took to was the way her face lit up when she laughed.
Though it is hard to believe now, Charles at the time was one of the world's most eligible bachelors and was making the most of this status. He had lots of casual girlfriends, lots of fun and, it seemed, his choice of women to make his wife.
Ultimately, however, Camilla broke Charles's heart. Andrew Parker Bowles proposed and she accepted. She wrote to Charles and delivered this news, and left him heartbroken.Within this small world of horses and race meetings and polo and weddings of friends in common, Charles and Camilla remained friends. He even became godfather to her first-born, Tom, and visitors to Camilla's house would often find Charles on the floor watching television with the boy.
Meanwhile, pressure grew on Charles, now in his 30s, to settle down to marriage. In the summer of 1980, having previously been involved with her older sister Sarah, the then-teenage Diana Spencer caught Charles's eye. They began a relationship and so began a sort of fairytale. Sort of.
In the psychoanalysis of Diana since her death, she has been assessed as having a borderline personality disorder, probably born out of her childhood of parental neglect, lack of stability, desperation for love and sense of herself as an outsider looking in at life. The relationship with Charles, particularly in its infancy, must have seemed like a salve to this. The narcissistic element of that disorder would have responded to the status that came with the role of lover of the prince, while the desperate hole in her soul would have felt filled by the public attention.
And, it has often been said, Diana loved the attention from the get-go. She became whatever she thought Charles wanted her to be, she needed him to fall in love with her and, some friends of his have said, she desperately wanted to be a princess.
By the time their wedding came around in 1981, Charles had come to realise that Diana was not the girl for him. She didn't like books or the outdoors, she wasn't robust or jolly. She was brittle and needy and in love with the idea of being in love. Diana, in short, was nothing like Camilla. Camilla, it is said, was kind to Diana during her betrothal to Charles. Diana accepted that friendship, only to later discover that Camilla was a former lover.
There is a famous story about how, shortly before her wedding, she found a bracelet from Charles for Camilla, inscribed with "G" and "F", for Gladys and Fred, their reported pet names for one another. Diana took this as a sign that the affair was ongoing, though Charles's side has said that he had bracelets made at that time for all the girls he'd loved during his bachelor days. This, however, was a signal of strife to come.
Only recently, we have seen footage from Charles and Diana's wedding in which he seems to glance over at Camilla in the congregation, with what has been described as a "slightly plaintive, sad look".
That wedding was invested with such significance by the world at large. We wanted princes and princesses, the happy-ever-after. But they were only people. And it would seem that they tried. Charles and Camilla had less contact in the early years of his marriage. Diana was furiously suspicious of the friendship, and it wasn't until their marriage was horribly fractured and fractious, when she was bulimic and threatening suicide and he was perceived by friends to be on the brink of a breakdown, that something was done.
Emilie van Cutsem, wife of one of Charles's closest friends, reportedly appealed to Camilla to resume proper contact with him. The timing could not have been better. Though ever-cheerful, the state of Camilla's marriage had taken its toll. Persistent infidelity wears away at one's self-worth, no matter how you look at it, and to then feel needed and even indispensable to someone must have been a boost to Camilla.
Within a short time, Charles and Camilla were lovers again, and at the start of the 1990s, Diana was aware of this. She confronted Camilla at a party, telling her to back off, and was shocked to find that order refused. Diana knew her marriage was over then. She wasn't going to win the battle for Charles, but she was determined to win the war for the public's affection, and boy, did she go for it. Behind the scenes, apparently, she made death threats against Camilla - but publicly Diana was a saint.
That's how it continued while Diana was alive. To the public, Charles was a heartless dysfunctional bully; Camilla an unworthy rival; and Diana the fairytale princess.
When she and Charles officially separated in 1992, public sympathy lay solely with her. Later, Andrew Morton's book, written with her cooperation, cast her as the victim, and leaks of phone calls between Charles and Camilla in which he longed to be her tampon, did them no favours. In 1994, in his interview with Jonathan Dimbleby, Charles claimed Camilla was no more than a "great friend", but no one believed it. No more than anyone could believe that he'd reject doe-eyed Diana in favour of horsey Mrs Parker Bowles.
It played on for five years. Charles and Diana divorced in 1996 - the Parker Bowles divorced the previous year. By the time Diana died, Charles and Camilla were an open secret.
It was a dirty secret, though. Diana had done a good job of discrediting Camilla - with her own Panorama interview in which she characterised her marriage as overcrowded and her winsome PR campaign.
Part of her refusal to go quietly was a repeated suggestion that Charles was not fit for the throne, subtly shoving William forward as the heir to his grandmother. That way, Camilla would get no status, while Diana, although not queen, would have the lofty position of mother to the king.
Diana's death changed everything. Immediately in its aftermath, Camilla was high on the list of villains. Though Charles was divorced and Diana was now gone, Camilla was not gone at all. In a strange way, she was even more present, more dramatically dictating the narrative. Charles was an evil villain. Camilla had broken another woman's heart. But Diana was a saint.
Funny how things can change.
It wasn't until 1999 that Charles and Camilla made their first public outing together. It was an awkward show of togetherness, lacking in laughter or any physical contact. She clearly felt under scrutiny and on the back foot. He was solicitous, but not affectionate per se.
It was Queen Elizabeth, apparently, who decided that the relationship should finally come out into the open. Aware of her own mortality and informed by Charles that his relationship with Camilla was "non-negotiable", she decided that efforts must be made to recast the pair as a legitimate coupling. Not illicit, not damaging to Diana or the royal family, but accepted. This decision came good, but not necessarily because of the queen's stamp of approval.
This served to put Camilla into the spotlight, but she then earned her position there. It was, perhaps, the same features that first attracted Charles in 1971, that won the public over to Camilla. She has a warmth, a smile that fills her whole face, eyes that light up when she laughs, which is often. In her company, Charles is softer, breezier, more given to humour. It was obvious, within a short time of that first awkward public appearance, that she makes him happy and the public chose to allow that.
When Charles and Camilla married in 2005, the general reaction was one of benign happiness for them. Good luck to them, was the mood, with a more mature emotionally detached perspective than we had when he married Diana. We've grown up, he's a man in the autumn of his years, and if Diana's boys can embrace Camilla, then so should we.
It is possibly true that Diana was right all along and the royals wanted her out of the picture so they could paint it afresh. Charles got his Camilla and, in a horsey, fuddy-duddy, bafflingly toff fashion, they're living happily ever after.
We had the fairy tale. It was false and it was damaging to those at the heart of it and, we can't discount, a lot of people who care about the royals felt betrayed by it. This relationship, a second chance for two people in middle-age, was a more realistic proposition, and with the princess on a pedestal out of the picture, there is nothing and no one to put a dent in it.