It is 3 June 2019 – the first day of president Donald Trump’s state visit to the UK. Despite public protest, the government has laid on a welcome guaranteed to stroke the ego of a man with a weakness for pomp and ceremony: a royal reception. As his helicopter Marine One touches down on the grounds of Buckingham Palace, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall stride out to greet the president and first lady with practised geniality. But it is later, when they move to Clarence House for a photo call, that Camilla, not Trump, steals the show. In footage that will later go viral, as Prince Charles ushers the Trumps through for tea, a grinning Duchess turns and gives a quick, conspiratorial wink.
If heavy is the head that wears the crown, then the woman Charles has loved for five decades should help lighten the load. On Saturday, in a ceremony following her husband’s coronation, the former Duchess of Cornwall will be crowned Queen Camilla, the silver Queen Mary crown (its controversial Koh-i-Noor diamond removed) placed on her head by the Archbishop of Canterbury. For a woman once so vilified, it seemed unthinkable that she would ever marry Charles, let alone become Queen. It’s an extraordinary turn in a partnership that now looks set to shape the future of the British monarchy.
Camilla’s story is not a rags-to-riches tale. Her upbringing was one of wealth and privilege as the daughter of Rosalind (formerly The Hon Rosalind Cubitt) and decorated war hero Major Bruce Shand. She grew up in The Laines, a rambling house in lovely East Sussex countryside, attended boarding and finishing school before moving to London in the Sixties to “come out” as a debutante. The only conventional job she had was a brief role as receptionist at upmarket interior designer Colefax & Fowler. Imogen Taylor, a Colefax employee for 50 years, tells in her book On the Fringe how Camilla was sacked one week in for turning up late after a night out (despite the fact that she was living a few minutes away in a suite at Claridge’s kept permanently by her wealthy grandmother Sonia Keppel).
Nor does Camilla seem to have been driven by great ambition – a word often used as a barb against most women who marry into the royal family. In Queen Consort, biographer Penny Junor writes that as a young woman Camilla – or “Milla” – wanted “nothing more than to be an upper-class country wife with children and horses and an enjoyable social life”. In a recent interview, her son Tom Parker Bowles also dismissed the notion that his mother ever had a master plan, “I don’t care what anyone says – there wasn’t any sort of end game. She married the person she loved and this is what happened”, refuting Prince Harry’s claims in Spare of Camilla’s “campaign aimed at marriage and eventually the crown”. (According to her friend the Marchioness of Lansdowne, the Queen Consort was hurt by her stepson’s allegations.)
But Camilla’s story is one of resilience and, whether or not she has played the long game, keeping her head down and adopting the “never complain, never explain” ethos of her late mother-in-law has paid off – even if at times she might have been tempted to tell her “truth”.
She was first introduced to Charles in 1970 by their mutual friend Lucia Santa Cruz, who joked to the pair about their antecedents – Camilla is the great-granddaughter of Alice Keppel, the vivacious and beautiful mistress of Charles’s great-great-grandfather King Edward VII or “Bertie”, who called Alice “La Favorita”. Most accounts suggest it was not love at first sight for Camilla – she had been in an on/off relationship for years with the dashing but serially unfaithful Andrew Parker Bowles – but she and Charles enjoyed a happy 18 months of dating before his naval deployment.
Perhaps because she knew she would be deemed an unsuitable wife for Charles (a royal bride was still expected to be a virgin), she did not wait around to see how the relationship might develop and married Parker Bowles. It is anyone’s guess how things might have turned out had The Firm not clung on to such antiquated double standards on female virtue. “In a case like yours,” Charles’s great-uncle Dickie Mountbatten wrote to him at the time, “the man should sow his wild oats and have as many affairs as he can before settling down, but I think for a wife he should choose a suitable, attractive and sweet-character girl before she has met anyone else she might fall for.” The 19-year-old Diana Spencer, 12 years Charles’s junior, was deemed the “right” girl.
Camilla has said very little about the breakdown of the Wales marriage, but perhaps her lowest point was Charles’s admission of infidelity in his disastrous 1994 interview with Jonathan Dimbleby, which left her exposed and besieged by the media. In 2017 she reflected on this period to the Daily Mail: “I wouldn’t want to put my worst enemy through it. I couldn’t have survived it without my family.” In times of crisis, her instinct has been to keep shtum, batten down the hatches and retreat into her loyal circle of family and friends.
In Queen Consort, Penny Junor partly attributes Camilla’s resilience to a self-knowledge and confidence that comes from a happy childhood with loving and (unusually for the time) hands-on parents. For all the upper-class parallels of their upbringings – they were even delivered by the same obstetrician Sir William Gilliatt – Charles did not have the same happy childhood as Camilla, with his parents often away on royal duties and his “Colditz in kilts” experience at Gordonstoun. It was reportedly Camilla’s adored late father Bruce, a man Charles had deep respect for, who urged the Prince to make their relationship official in 2004: “I want to meet my maker knowing she’s alright.” (Apparently, it was also Bruce who, years before, had pushed a philandering Andrew Parker Bowles to settle down with Camilla by announcing their engagement in The Times.)
On her royal wedding day in 2005, Camilla was so nervous that she initially hobbled out the door wearing odd shoes, which made the Queen laugh. Her official entrance into the royal family at the age of 57 marked a sort of reverse retirement. Lucia Santa Cruz, who is still good friends with the couple, told biographer Angela Levin that when she first met Camilla in the 1960s “she wasn’t a hard-working person by any means. She just read all the time, and if not, she was usually at a party. It makes it more amazing the amount of work she now does.” But even back then she had the raw materials for royal life – charm by the bucketload, an innate ability to connect with people and a good sense of humour (friends say another important survival tactic is her ability to see the funny side of most things).
She’s very warm. She said ‘join us for a drink’ – it was sweltering hot, and we proceeded to do a lot of wine tasting and not a lot of spitting
“I’m not really a royalist and I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t think she’d be such a laugh,” says one charity worker who met her recently. “You notice when she greets people she shakes hands and puts a second hand on top – there’s just a warmth to her,” says headmistress Alice Phillips, of whose school, St Catherine’s, Bramley, Camilla is patron. “When she visited us in 2013, we were the last of four engagements that day. We were told three-quarters of an hour, no speeches, but the itinerary went straight out of the window – she gave lots of time to everyone to whom she was introduced, did an off-the-cuff speech in the sports hall, made a beeline for the grounds staff who were standing in the background. She basically gave enormously from the moment she arrived to the moment she left.”
“She’s very warm,” agrees journalist and biographer Robert Jobson, author of Our King: Charles III, who has followed the royal couple for years. On one tour he recalls stopping at a vineyard with Camilla, who was there with her lady-in-waiting: “She said ‘join us for a drink’ – it was sweltering hot, and we proceeded to do a lot of wine tasting and not a lot of spitting.” Camilla loves wine and used to enjoy smoking until she reportedly kicked the habit – apparently motivated by Charles, who would boot her onto the terrace of Highgrove when she wanted a cigarette. In an ITV documentary marking her 75th birthday, Jeremy Clarkson says they snuck off for a few “crafty fags” together when they met. She is also a devoted fan of The Archers (former aides say she is most difficult to get hold of at 7pm) and plays Wordle every day with her granddaughter.
But though she is fun, she is also no pushover – as Charles’s old friends the Van Cutsems discovered when she was relegated to a seat far back in the congregation at the wedding of their son, away from the Prince of Wales. Both Charles and Camilla, who were not married at the time, snubbed the wedding and the Van Cutsems were reportedly struck off the Christmas card list. She will also bring Charles back down to earth when she needs to: “Camilla stops the pompous thing with Charles,” a family friend of the late Queen told Tina Brown in The Palace Papers. “She won’t let him get away with telling his man to get his gin and tonic. She says, ‘Oh, don’t be so ridiculous. Let me pour the gin and tonic’.”
It was assumed at the beginning of her time as a working royal that dogs and horses would feature in Camilla’s list of causes (and they do – including the Ebony Horse Club in Brixton and Battersea Dogs Home, where she got her two rescue terriers) but less expected was her decision to take on domestic violence and sexual assault. She was galvanised by a meeting at the charity Safelives in 2016 when stories from a circle of survivors reduced her to tears.
“She could have picked any number of important issues that are far less controversial and difficult to deal with,” says CEO of Refuge Ruth Davison. “Visits have to be planned carefully and she’s very thoughtful. When she came to one of our refuges last year she brought an entirely female security team – not many of our significant visitors think it through like that.” Davison adds that Refuge locations often have to be kept under wraps for safety reasons so “much of her work in this area is under the radar”. Now, wherever she is in the world, she tries to find a group of survivors she can visit. Ursula Lindenberg, a domestic violence survivor and co-founder of the Bath-based charity Voices, says Camilla and her office were also meticulous in preparing for a visit to their HQ – “it was all about making the women feel comfortable and safe”. Camilla has pledged to continue banging the drum for domestic abuse charities as Queen: “If I start something I’m not going to give it up mid-channel,” she told Emma Barnett on Woman’s Hour last year.
She is, according to Penny Junor, loyal “to her bootstraps” – this extends to her ex-husband Andrew Parker Bowles. The retired British army officer was initially painted as the wronged party when Charles and Camilla’s infidelities were confirmed, but he was unfaithful during their marriage and was aware of Camilla’s affair with Charles long before it came out – following their divorce he went on to marry his mistress Rosemary Pitman, who died in 2010.
Described by friends as “a bit of a rogue”, Andrew was rumoured to be an inspiration for Jilly Cooper’s equally roguish character Rupert Campbell-Black. He and Camilla remain very close, and Andrew, now 83, will be seated in a prime spot at Westminster Abbey when she is crowned on 6 May, joined by their daughter Laura Lopes, a former art curator, and son Tom Parker Bowles, an award-winning food critic. In a break with tradition, Camilla and Andrew’s grandsons Louis and Gus Lopes, Freddy Parker Bowles and her great-nephew Arthur Elliot will act as pages of honour at the ceremony, though Tom has laughed off the “appalling” suggestion that titles will be dished out to the clan: “You’re not going to find us with great estates and being called the duke of whatever. No. That would be appalling.”
After 18 years of marriage and many more as close friends and lovers, Robert Jobson believes the success of Charles and Camilla’s union is actually in their separate interests. “They’re not in each other’s pockets,” he says, “they’re so important to each other but they don’t spend every waking hour together.” For Camilla, an important part of this is Ray Mill, the house in Wiltshire she bought following her divorce that she has hung onto. It is here where she retreats to recharge, enjoying a bit of domesticity with her children and grandchildren – including raucous kitchen suppers. Locals in the tiny Wiltshire hamlet hear her helicopter landing in the garden and say her presence is otherwise low-key and very friendly. But it’s also close enough so she can nip over to Highgrove.
If the difficult beginnings of the Charles-Camilla relationship once showed how much the royal family needed to evolve, then where it stands now shows how much it has done. And while there may be many questions over the future of the British royal family, as the King begins what could be a challenging reign, the question of whether Charles has the right woman by his side is not one of them.