When Camilla Parker Bowles married Prince Charles on April 9 2005, it was announced that when the time came, she would be called Princess Consort. It sounded bizarre because surely if you marry a king, you automatically become a queen. It seems the strange decision was made largely because royal aides were concerned about public reaction, especially among Diana fans, and didn’t want to create a huge reaction.
The dispute limped on for years and was thought of as a punishment that she was unworthy of a proper royal title because she had divorced her first husband Andrew Parker Bowles, a gregarious army officer, and had an affair with a married man.
It didn’t change until Queen Elizabeth, who originally made sure she didn’t go anywhere if she knew Camilla would be there too, surprised everyone when, on the first day of her Platinum Jubilee year, she said: “When in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.”
Has her personal endorsement settled the matter? Not quite. The role of consort, whether male or female, has always been a key factor for the stability of the British monarchy as their role is to help the monarch on their way. But for Camilla a very small but hard core of persistent hostility remains from some older members of the Church of England who, because of their civil marriage, (followed by a service of blessing in St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle) consider their wedding to be illegitimate.
Lord Carey, former archbishop of Canterbury disagrees. “It is important to remember that sexual morality has changed and, as a society, we are much more open on how people live. I think people have accepted Camilla, believing she will be a very good queen consort.”
Historian Andrew Roberts, who talked to me before the Jubilee year, was quite annoyed. “Even considering that the Duchess of Cornwall should not be known as the Queen of England when that very sad day dawns, is wrong. It is axiomatic in British legal history that wives take the rank, title and status of their husband. The idea that over two millennia of the British monarchy would make an exception for the Duchess of Cornwall as if she was a uniquely evil and sinister figure would have been a disgrace.”
I have been out and about with Camilla and talked to many who knew her for over a year while writing my biography: Camilla: From Outcast to Queen Consort to find out how Camilla turned things around. And it is a fascinating journey.
Camilla Shand was born on 17 July 1947. Her sister Annabel was born two years later and her now deceased brother two years after that. She had a happy and stable life which she describes as “perfect in every way”. Something she has benefitted from enormously and will help make her an excellent consort. Her mother Rosalind was very easy going and combined freedom with lots of love, except for manners and self-discipline. She made Camilla from a young age join their dinner parties, despite Camilla telling her mother that she found them very boring.
Rosalind stood firm and insisted it was a good opportunity for her to practise making conversation. Camilla said her mother told her: “The minute there is silence, talk! I don’t care what you talk about, (whether it’s) about your budgie or your pony, but keep the conversation going.” Camilla has admitted that what she learnt from her mother has been a valuable asset as a royal: “I’ve never been able not to talk. It’s in the psyche not to leave a silence.” She was also brought up “to believe you stuck at things and didn’t give up”.
Camilla had never set out to capture a prince. She was 24 when became a friend of Charles, then 22. They had a lot in common and an understanding of each other. Charles felt he could trust her, was comfortable in her company and said she was “the only woman who really understands me”.
They parted after 18 months for several reasons including the fact that wives for an heir needed to be virgins and Camilla had “history”.
Yet it was Camilla he always turned to for support, including after Diana, Princess of Wales’s death: in his darkest hours he could rely on her to be there for him.
Mark Bolland, who at the time was Prince Charles’s Deputy Private Secretary, recalls: “He was extremely upset and distressed. [When] I spoke to Camilla, her first and principal reaction was to ask how the boys were and she was obviously very, very upset for William and Harry. At this stage she hadn’t even met them. She was, of course, worried about Prince Charles but her reaction first and foremost was that of a mother.”
Over the years, Charles’s image gradually improved but many people continued to believe that if Charles hadn’t had his on/off affair with Camilla, or made more effort, his and Diana’s marriage would not have broken down.
An insider said: “At times during those early days it was a lonely battle to try to normalise the situation and bring Camilla into an area that wasn’t controversial. The Palace institution was against it and a lot of people would have been very happy if she had just disappeared. The fact that the Prince of Wales made it very clear that she was non-negotiable sometimes brought them into conflict with other members of the Royal family. It was a time when there was a lot of division.”
Despite everything, Camilla has always supported Charles. He comes first and she will always walk a step behind him when they are at an engagement. It’s not because she is shy although she doesn’t like being the centre of attention, and is strong and powerful at engagements on her own.
Her occasional fit of giggles at engagements is engaging rather than inappropriate. As a consort she will subtly help Charles when needed with suggestions that might save him getting into trouble. The fact she had a relatively normal life until her 50s helps her know more about how the public think than protected Charles. All of this is just what Charles needs.
Gavin Barker, a talent agent and equestrian who knows Camilla, believes there are advantages for Charles to have married a mature woman, but that it has been a more difficult change for her.
“I think the reason she doesn’t like to be in the spotlight is a combination of just her and the residue of being unpopular before her marriage to Prince Charles. It’s difficult when you get a profile like she has late in life. It’s not like the Queen or Princess Anne who were born into it and haven’t known anything different. Camilla was thrust into it and very unpleasantly.
“Being a normal person until 57 she knows a lot more about the realities of life than other royals. She used to, for example, go to the supermarket, take her children to school, use public transport. It’s very helpful for the royal family. I think she will be a fantastic Queen. She is devoted to both the future king and the country.”
Camilla was very familiar with Charles’s private life but less informed about his working days.
It’s been said that the first time she was asked to do some charity work, she replied that she had a hair appointment on one day and was having tea with a friend another day so could it be postponed for a week or so.
No wonder her friend Lucia Santa Cruz was concerned about how she would adapt. “When she married Prince Charles, I think she thought she wouldn’t have to change her life very much and assumed she would take on one or two charities but would be able to relax and read in a happy and comfortable place,” she says.
“But getting involved with various different charities has really motivated her and she really cared about what she has been doing. It has stimulated her to do more and more and more.” She learnt the ropes by being with him and watching other senior royals.
She has since become a hard worker. Amanda MacManus, who worked for Camilla for more than 20 years, explained: “Her Royal Highness has taken on so much. She’s usually quite careful not to push herself forward but she seems to do more and more with Prince Charles and in a sort of non-stop way like him as he never stops working. I think the more she continues to work with causes where she’s making a difference and that she really cares about, the more satisfaction the job will give her. And the more respect she will command.”
What surprised many of the people who know her well was how astounded and full of admiration they were that at 57, she could completely change her life. Some put it down to her love of the King.
Camilla’s long-time friend, actress Dame Judi Dench, told me: “I always think it is such a tribute to her who didn’t have a career or do much work suddenly has to do all these engagements. Her work level is extraordinary. She even keeps up with Prince Charles and he’s a non-stop worker. It’s her marriage that carries her through and gives her fantastic energy which adds strength to both of them. There can be people you are in awe of and feel great respect for, but you generally feel restrained when you talk to them. But with her there is no kind of reticence and you can treat her as a friend.”
Another of Camilla’s attributes that make her a role model is her sense of loyalty to the monarchy, the country and the Commonwealth. Friends and courtiers admire “her hardworking ethic” believe “she is fun” and enjoy her “real sense of humour”.
Camilla’s relationship with the Duke of Edinburgh started coldly and became worse. But over the years it gradually blossomed as he got to know her better and saw the positive transformation in Prince Charles that she brought about.
Despite his initial sharp criticism of her, Camilla never tried to retaliate or complain. Instead she believed, as she does about most difficulties that time would heal things. She was right, and in his later years she and Prince Philip enjoyed their improved relationship and shared their many common interests, particularly a love of horticulture and reading. They also shared a self-deprecating sense of humour. More importantly, after she married Charles he could see her own dedication to duty and how loyal she was to her husband.
Prince Philip’s priority was to always be there for the Queen and he correctly had come to believe that Camilla felt the same about Charles. He could also see how stable, confident and happy Charles was with the woman he had always loved. It was an enormous relief for him during the last months of his life to know that Camilla understood the huge pressure Charles would be under once he was King.
She never bore Prince Philip a grudge or felt resentment for his early negative behaviour towards her.
A friend who has known Camilla for more than 30 years told me that she was “a real grown-up. She likes to be positive. She accepts what is difficult and enjoys it when it turns positive”.
The new Queen admitted in a documentary after Prince Philip’s death that he had influenced her own behaviour. “It’s something I’ve learnt by watching him,” she said.
“I saw the way he supported the Queen. Not in a flashy sort of way, but just by doing it quietly, you know, following along behind.” Camilla also always showed enormous deference towards Her Majesty and, like with Charles, took a step back when they were on a royal engagement together.
The Queen in turn handed over many patronages to her when they became too much for her to manage.
Broadcaster Dame Esther Rantzen hugely admires Camilla: “I think she has done a brilliant job of finding things that she really cares about and that really matter without treading on Prince Charles’s feet. She is a strong woman but there is also softness there… Hers is not an easy job, it can be very intense and draining when people talk to her because they trust her to know about their suffering.
“It’s a good thing that she and Prince Charles support each other.”
Camilla has also proved that ageing, especially for a woman, is not the most important facet of her being. Novelist Dame Susan Hill thinks Camilla is a wonderful role model for older women and show what they can do. “The more so because she hasn’t been someone who had a family when she was very young and gone into business, became head of a company and worked 24/7.
“She was an Army wife whose husband was away a lot and had two children.
“She hunted, rode horses and had her friends, but she wasn’t that kind of glass ceiling breaker. So once she’d married [Prince Charles] a lot of people expected her to not do any more but just carry on as she was. Or think ‘here I am I have a position as a wife and have a voice’. She didn’t just charge in and try and take over. Instead, she’s done everything carefully and always let [Prince Charles] be first of course.”
When Queen Elizabeth issued her wish that Camilla should become Queen Consort she was out and about on royal duties. It was typical Camilla that she responded while she was in an ordinary community kitchen rather than the normal official channels of Clarence House. “I feel, very honoured, and very touched,” she said.
It was the sort of comment expected but her location gave the impression that she had another point to make.
It was that although she was “honoured” and “touched” she already had what she wanted – the opportunity to help a wide array of people who were suffering in one way or another; to be alongside Prince Charles, the man she loved so much, and have the opportunity to do her absolute best for her immediate family.
The Queen’s major preoccupation during her 70-year reign has always been to ensure that the monarchy survives and thrives. With Charles at the helm and Camilla one step behind him, she has got her wish.
Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall: From Outcast to Queen Consort by Angela Levin is out in October (Simon & Schuster, £20); preorder a copy at books.telegraph.co.uk