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How Camilla became Queen Charles's wife is now a mirror of her mother-in-law

Long may she reign over us. Credit: Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images

Long may she reign over us. Credit: Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images


August 29, 2022   6 mins

Twenty five years ago, Charles Philip Arthur George Windsor threw a party for 80 friends at Highgrove, his Gloucestershire kingdom within the kingdom. Tony Blair had declared weeks before that the Britain of the elite was over. Princess Diana, along with William and Harry, was a guest of Dodi Al-Fayed in St Tropez. Old structures tottered.

Charles’s guest of honour, on her birthday, was his long-suffering mistress. She was then the crossroads where all national snobberies meet: a tabloid had recently printed a picture of her next to a horse, then asked: “Which one would you rather go to bed with?” The party was widely interpreted as an insult, but it was more of an apology to Camilla Parker Bowles. No other Royal attended.

A quarter of a century on and Camilla’s 75th birthday presents are the guest editorship of Country Life magazine, and a television special on ITV. The documentary reveals that she has shared a fag with Jeremy Clarkson, and her approach to life is to “just get on with it”. Through the cameras, and on the pages, she appears unaffected. Is this Camilla an actual person? Or a spit-and-polish construct designed behind-the-scenes to fill a vacancy when the Queen dies? 

Suspicions about her have lasted. Only 13% of the public believe that Camilla should be Queen. (It will happen, regardless.) In the run up to her birthday next week, newspapers wonder how Camilla has “won everyone round”, but she remains, in tabloidese, a “controversial figure”. The public are persistent Diana partisans. They do not get on with it. Like some of our politicians, for them it is eternally 1997, and Diana’s car will always be heading towards a smash. Against this sentimental legend, Camilla has nothing to offer but her Jack Russell terriers, being “nice” to photographers, and that time she laughed at some Inuit throat singers. She becomes a mirror of her mother-in-law — a quiet enigma.

Still, the essentials are not at all mysterious. War hero father becomes a wine merchant, and a mildly amusing writer. Mother: knitting, wealthy, and deb of the year 1939. School friends remember Camilla’s ability to stand in the cold for longer than normal. (This will prove useful later in her life.) There is nothing to suggest the formation of an unusual character.

She passes fewer O-levels than Jeremy Corbyn. (Similarly, Diana Spencer’s most notable academic achievement is to win a school prize for best-tended guinea pig.) She likes hunting, and blowing cones of smoke between tokes of her Marlboros. Camilla Shand is of her class but slightly before her times. She is tomboyish and funny, consequently perfect for the men in the Polo scene, with their frighteningly monosexual educations.

Camilla was brought up to be a rose-pruning, novel-reading, fox-hunting county lady. Today Camilla, if the pages of Country Life are anything to go by, is a rose-pruning, novel-reading, fox-hunting county lady. What Virginia Woolf called “tweed-wearing, sterling dull
 with grim good sense”. Dog hairs deeply woven into clothes, the first G&T a little early; silly nicknames and beef on Sundays. Solid lives that have scarcely changed since the days of Pitt the Younger. In Country Life and Camilla’s vanishing England, it’s possible — even encouraged — to forget the passage of entire centuries.

The first marriage is described as a “major social event” by all the future biographies — because Princess Anne is there. Camilla Shand becomes a Parker Bowles. Her fast London days slow to a manor in Wiltshire, where she gardens and hunts. Her husband, known as Andrew “Poker Bowles”, is one of those libertine Catholics. He behaves badly, confesses, then throws his chips on the table again. He is prouder to be the inspiration for a character in a Jilly Cooper novel than of his marriage.

This might have gone on until the grave. Camilla might have planted peonies in her garden for decades, might never have had to give up her pack a day, might have read the Sunday Telegraph next to Andrew at breakfast last weekend. But for Charles.

When they first met, he was not exactly Bond. In front of a white pavilion, amid billowing elms, across from a vividly green grass pitch. It was a civilised, convivial, and slightly alarming scene — polo at Smith’s Lawn. Camilla in 1972 was at the height of her sensuousness. Young Charles was the most magnificent job-seeker in a land filling up with them. He slept with his teddy bear. He believed the way to a woman’s heart was to play practical jokes on them — his favoured aphrodisiacs were exploding envelopes packed with rubber bands. Suavity was distant.

The relationship began. From the start, disdain wrapped itself around Camilla like a bag over a head. The Queen praised her for her lack of guile and ambition, without realising she was praising Camilla for what she most admired about herself. The sinister Lord Mountbatten (Charles’ male mentors are always sinister) called her a “good learning experience”. At this height, in this society, people and ponies are easily confused. Senior figures in Charles’s life believed, archaically, that she was not “pure” enough for him. He did nothing to challenge them.

Though he knew as early as 1972 that he loved Camilla, Charles married Diana. A binary emerged; one day the country would be invited to take sides. Where Camilla was unoriginal and unimaginative, Diana was theatrical and neurotic. Camilla was stage scenery, Diana was Othello. Camilla didn’t feel things; Diana would weep at the sight of a bracelet. Charles literally had one job: marry well. He blew it. “Is it possible to love two women at the same time,” he asked, the night before his blockbuster marriage. The answer, unhappily enough, will forever be: yes and no. By the late Eighties, pictures of the prince show smoke signals wafting from his eyes. His hours of happiness seemed burned through.

Raised by a coterie of what Prince Philip delicately called “nannies, nurses, and poofs”, the Prince of Wales was not prepared for a constitutional position that demanded epic stoicism. He was dimly aware of this mismatch between role and temperament. Battered by alternating gusts of public hatred and public reverence, he forgot himself. Once asked by a boy in Malaysia, “Who are you?” He replied: “I wish I knew”.

His solution was Camilla. When the public discovered this, and his first marriage ended, Charles’s mistress became as fascinating to the world as a goat with four heads. Typically, the world then asked the wrong questions about the relationship. Philip had told Diana that he could not imagine anyone in “their right mind” leaving her for Camilla.

The Duke’s words echoed throughout the Nineties, and they still echo today. Camilla was called an old boiler and a trout, fat and gaunt, a witch and a vampire. Mohammed Al-Fayed nastily said she looked “like something from a Dracula film”. Against this, the press compared Diana’s generational beauty. Camilla became the most hated woman in England. Like Anne Boleyn, she was considered a schemer, an opportunist, and a sexual predator. If there were still chopping blocks, Camilla would have graced them as Boleyn did. Instead she faced the stocks. In an eccentric (and rather late) attempt to regulate the nation’s extinct moral verities, women pelted her with rolls in a supermarket car park. Camilla went into hiding and did what Elizabeth II would have done. She said nothing. Charles’s approval rating was lower than Prince Andrew’s is today.

The supposed mystery of Charles and Camilla invited speculation. What exactly did Charles see in her, demanded the British public. A backwards question. The better one was: what did Camilla see in Charles? He might have been heir to the throne, but the throne wasn’t what it had been a century before. That is the real enigma. The answer is the one word the British flee from fastest. Love.

Admittedly, it was not the most straightforward kind. Camilla’s love for him has been compared to a mother’s — a love smothered by fear. Nicky Haslam told the New Yorker: “It’s like a rope attached to her. There’s something very, very strong from her to him — almost umbilical.” When Diana left Highgrove, Charles purged his estate of all traces of his wife. Gone were the pink sofas and soft toys in favour of red curtains and tapestry covers. The interior designer Dudley Poplak saw the new rooms, and said Charles was withdrawing into the womb. He was going back to Camilla.

​​Charles is technically related to a divinity. He is said to be descended, via Alfred the Great, from the Saxon god Woden. But being Prince of Wales invites stasis, and semi-permanent adolescence. The woman he ended up with was always going to be a mother, not a whirlwind. This is what the public has never understood, and why they are wrong about Camilla becoming Queen consort. The closest replacement available for Elizabeth II — sane, steady, consistent — is Camilla. It might be a bit unconventional on Charles’ part. But it is good for the country.

Contemplate a day in her life. Hours of public ceremonial. A voice in your ear telling you who you are meeting and what to say. Half a dozen fixed smiles in every freshly painted room. Speeches and remarks heavily rehearsed. You can’t even smoke anymore. Next Tuesday you will open a new hospital ward in Northampton. Prince Harry calls your husband a “tit” in a podcast interview. This trends on Twitter. He is suing another newspaper. It rains.

But like her mother-in-law she goes on. Old structures are resilient. It is hard to conceive that anyone as publicly wounded as Camilla could also retain a sense of humour. Even in the artificial world of guest editorships and documentaries, though, you can see it. She is the only Royal who doesn’t seem fantastically annoyed by The Crown — she’s had so much worse.

Wrapped in royal tinsel, Camilla might be the last hard kernel of an Englishwoman left. History would have made most people in her position a fool, or sent them mad. Instead it has given her a gift, albeit a rather tainted one: being our Queen. It’s the least she deserves.


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Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 year ago

Oh good grief. All this writing and pontificating and philosophising when really all you need to know is that Charles loves Camilla, Camilla loves Charles – they seem to have a solid marriage and he will become King, with her as Queen Consort.
The ongoing devotion and sentimentality about Diana is absurd for anyone who isn’t directly related to her in which case you have an excuse to go a bit weepy on certain days (but not every day and all the time – Harry, I’m looking at YOU).
In that sense, I think Camilla’s attitude of “just getting on with it” – far from being a leftover from another time – is bang up to date and we should take our lead from her.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Applause and a hearty hear, hear!

Laurie Hunter
Laurie Hunter
1 year ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Totally agree.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
1 year ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

She is an adulteress and unworthy because of that fact.
It doesn’t have to have anything to do with sentimentality over the Princess of Wales.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Christian Moon

Charles was pretty certainly an adulterer, but you don’t seem to hold that against him! But that would hardly a first for the Royals after all. Your antiquated sexist attitudes were exactly the reason why Charles was married off to Diana and not Camilla in the first place – the former being a virgin – and the whole ensuing tragi-comedy. They now love each other, and I hope and expect both will be dedicated monarchs, not a position I’d wish for anyone.

Sally Owen
Sally Owen
1 year ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Absolutely spot on Katharine!


Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Top bird who loves a fag, a drink, a laugh and Hunting… and her ex is an excellent man. Of course 99 pc of those making comments will not only have, obviously, ever met Camilla, but never met anyone like her or her ex, or indeed anyone like them.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

A very fine essay. I admire Will Lloyd’s work.
Raised by a coterie of what Prince Philip delicately called “nannies, nurses, and poofs”,
LOL. I miss Phil the Greek.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

It’s always a pleasure to read Will’s columns, but I’m not sure about this: “Charles’s wife is now a mirror of her mother-in-law”
The big difference is that all the Queens any of us can remember could be presented to us as almost perfect. The perfection was part of the mystique of monarchy, why their waving to us from gold carriages, wearing tiaras, just added to the rareness of the myth.

Given the times, given the media, the mystique was evaporating, but Camilla as Queen will pretty much shatter the myth. The Queen will be much more of an ordinary person, much more incongruous in a gold carriage. It’s going to be quite a redefining of what promises to be a downsized royalty.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
1 year ago

Until Catherine is queen and it will return to spotless (madonna-like?) purity.

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
1 year ago

Camilla will do the job well and she clearly makes him happy. He should have married her in the first place.
That’s it.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago

Wasn’t she already married?

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago

Yes, that ws the issue, and why he was married off to Diana Spencer.

Dawn McD
Dawn McD
1 year ago

That’s the saddest and most frustrating part of the whole story. Both of them were single, he waited too long, she gave up and married someone else. Bad decisions all around, too much procrastinating. Like father, like son, William came very close to making the same mistake with Kate Middleton.

Cheryl Benard
Cheryl Benard
1 year ago

As an American I am not that invested in this topic, but what fantastic writing. Some of the sentences are so enjoyable I had to read them twice. Go Will!
As an outside observer btw my only bafflement is that others can’t seem to clearly see the method here. If you have offended the British public, you have to eat crow for an extended period of time without complaint, and eventually you will be received back, even if previously your disgrace seemed permanent. You just can’t appear resentful, unrepentant or sulky. Harry pay attention.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 year ago
Reply to  Cheryl Benard

I think the crucial thing in (re-)gaining the affection of the British public (especially if you are a royal) is to “just get on” with your appointed job without drawing attention to yourself unnecessarily or whinging over a long enough period of time that at some point you are considered a part of the furniture and people can’t imagine life without you. Soldiering on is what it’s called and Camilla has shown herself to be epically good at it, which is why she has won people over.
I’d say that the process is similar to the Marines and what they go through in training before they can claim the glory. You have to go through a protracted period of hardship and psychological onslaught, with people yelling unpleasant things at you very loudly at intervals…but if you get through it, you get to be part and parcel of a great national institution.

Last edited 1 year ago by Katharine Eyre
JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 year ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

So Harry should have been in the Marines?

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 year ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

The primary aim for Harry before we think about anything else is to stop whinging and being bitter.

Kayla Marx
Kayla Marx
1 year ago

Charles and Camilla have the same background — the same friends, and sorts of friends, when they were young (like William and Kate). Imagine the life of a monarch, or a future monarch — the travel, the endless parade of faces, the endless searching for the right thing to say at each event. It could be fun. If you get to do it with your best friend, if the two of you can talk and laugh about it at the end of each day. If you have to do it all alone, or with someone who simply doesn’t laugh at the things you laugh at, it could be torture. Imagine 2 people on a royal progress, under all that pressure, who, when they are alone, are tense with each other. So, just be glad, and relieved, that Charles and Camilla seem to have that ease with each other. The country will benefit. We know we’ll all like Charles better with Camilla.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Of course 99 pc of Britons, not least Daily Mail reading bourgeois intra M25 Pooter snobs, have never ever met anyone like Camilla, or indeed anyone from her background, but have the great privelige of the free speech to express their views and opinions: those of us who do can assure them over their shaking schooners of Bristol Creme and ‘ Hearl Grey tea that she is an unquestionably ” Top Bird” and that we are unbelieveable fortunate to have her in public life.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

ps.. Just love to see those disapproving Pooters have one of Camilla’s fag butts dropped in the aforementioned sherry or tea!

Marianne Vigreux
Marianne Vigreux
1 year ago

Thankyou
“At this height, in this society, people and ponies are easily confused” – how damaged are the upper classes!

Dr. G Marzanna
Dr. G Marzanna
1 year ago

I think Camilla is fantastic and admirable of course he should have married her and not the too young callow Diana.
She really couldn’t handle the glare of Fame particularly in the tacky, glitzy 1980s.
I’m very happy for Charles that he married camilla the way they always should have been and I like her calm sense of humour
I think she’s really quite a role model for midlife women. I look forward to her being queen

Last edited 1 year ago by Dr. G Marzanna
Kathy Moll
Kathy Moll
1 year ago
Reply to  Dr. G Marzanna

i think more Americans like me prefer the late Princess Diana to Camilla
part of it is the cruelty which Charles and Camilla deliberately flaunted their tacky affair. I’ll never forget that Charles told Camilla he wished he was a tampon inside her. I don’t really give a shit about Camilla. CPB loves fox hunting. Ugh. That kind of sadism tells me a lot about people, none of it good.

Nill Wollis
Nill Wollis
11 months ago
Reply to  Dr. G Marzanna

The question of how Camilla became Queen is a rather intriguing one, isn’t it? It brings to light the intricacies and nuances of succession within the royal hierarchy. I must say that delving into the historical and cultural aspects of this topic is quite captivating. It reminds me of the importance of accurate translation in conveying these complex matters to a wider audience, allowing people from different backgrounds to grasp and appreciate the intricacies of royal traditions, click here to read more. It’s fascinating to see how translation plays a crucial role in sharing these discussions and preserving the legacy of the monarchy.

Last edited 11 months ago by Nill Wollis