50 years on: How Camilla Parker Bowles finally won our hearts

Home » Health & Wellness » 50 years on: How Camilla Parker Bowles finally won our hearts

11 September 2021

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Since Prince Charles first met Camilla Shand, they’ve weathered tragedy and scandal, and she has become his rock, winning over the nation. But will the Duchess of Cornwall ever be queen? Camilla Tominey reports.

According to The Crown, the Duchess of Cornwall delivered arguably one of the best chat-up lines in history when she first met Prince Charles, 50 years ago.

It was in 1971 that the star-crossed lovers are thought to have initially clapped eyes on each other during a polo match on Smith’s Lawn in Windsor Great Park. After introducing herself as Camilla Shand, the then 24-year-old allegedly said to the future king: “You know, sir, my great-grandmother was the mistress of your great-great-grandfather, so, how about it?” Charles, who was 23, was reportedly left speechless.

But it didn’t quite happen like that. While they did frequently meet on the fringes of polo matches in the early 1970s, as their biographer Gyles Brandreth discovered, they were actually first introduced by Lucia Santa Cruz, the glamorous daughter of the former Chilean ambassador.

Regardless of what Camilla may or may not have said, as Gyles wrote in his 2005 book Charles & Camilla: Portrait of a Love Affair, “The attraction between Charles and Camilla was immediate and mutual, and passionate.”

Charles and Camilla in the 1970s, the early years of their relationship. IMAGE: SHUTTERSTOCK

Half a century on, having softened her look and got on with the job uncomplainingly, the 74-year-old duchess has slowly won over the British public and is now the 10th most popular member of the royal family, with a higher approval rating than Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.

Camilla also won over hearts in her most recent tour of New Zealand in 2019. The dark days of being the “third person” in the Prince and Princess of Wales’ marriage are well behind her.

So how has she managed such a remarkable royal rehabilitation? It has certainly helped that Charles, 72, has had Camilla’s back throughout their covert courtship and beyond their 2005 wedding in Windsor.

Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall on their wedding day. IMAGE: GETTY

The prince was instantly captivated by the former debutante, with her unaffected dress sense and similarly down-to-earth manner. Despite her aristocratic heritage, the daughter of Major Bruce Shand and his wife Rosalind appeared refreshingly unstuffy and game for a laugh.

As Charles later told Gyles, he loved the fact that Camilla “wasn’t brittle or pseudo-sophisticated”, but uncomplicated and fun. They quickly bonded over their love of The Goon Show, as well as their passions for polo, painting and the great outdoors.

In many ways, it was the perfect match, and yet Camilla ended up marrying army officer Andrew Parker Bowles in 1973, after a lengthy on-off relationship with him. Some blamed the fact that Charles had to travel overseas with the Royal Navy. Others said it was because many behind palace gates felt that Camilla was an unsuitable match for the future king.

In 2005, Charles’ godmother Patricia Mountbatten (Prince Philip’s first cousin) revealed, “With hindsight, you can say that Charles should have married Camilla when he first had the chance. They were ideally suited, we know that now. But it wasn’t possible. It wouldn’t have been possible, not then.”

Nevertheless, Charles and Camilla remained friends and rekindled their romance – apparently with her husband’s blessing – and she was in the congregation at St Paul’s Cathedral when Charles married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.

In a 1994 interview with Jonathan Dimbleby, the prince insisted he and Camilla only embarked on an affair after his marriage with Diana had “irretrievably broken down”, but it is now widely believed that they had relit the fires before Diana walked down the aisle.

It was not until 1992 that their affair became public knowledge, with the publication of Andrew Morton’s Diana: Her True Story, followed by the “Camillagate” tape scandal in 1993, when the transcript of an earlier intimate telephone conversation between Camilla and Charles was published in the tabloid newspapers.

While the prince’s reputation was badly damaged, Camilla bore the brunt of the vilification. Her marriage to Andrew ended in 1995, while Charles and Diana’s divorce was finalised the following year. But the animosity reached fever pitch after Diana died in a car crash in Paris in 1997.

In an interview to mark her 70th birthday in 2017, Camilla admitted: “It was horrid. It was a deeply unpleasant time, and I wouldn’t want to put my worst enemy through it.”

The duchess could not have survived that time without the support of her son Tom, now 46, daughter Laura, 43, her sister Annabel Elliot and her brother Mark Shand (who died in 2014 after a fall in New York).

Despite the scrutiny they have faced over the years, Camilla’s family have not put a foot wrong (bar Tom’s admission that he has taken cocaine) and have remained unwaveringly loyal and discreet.

Intriguingly, those who know the duchess best agree that while she was sometimes “hurt” by the negative headlines, she never really let them get to her. As one source puts it, “She didn’t really complain about how she was treated. She would get upset sometimes and wonder how long it would go on for, but she always adopted a very English, Home Counties sort of approach to life.”

A former employee who first met Camilla in 2004 reveals, “She wasn’t fearful of the press, which was quite unanticipated. She understands the media well… she loves a gossip, she loves a good story. Everyone in her family has got opinions that they freely express and she loves that.

“I’ve always thought if you want to chart the journey, how she has got to where she is now, it starts off with her personality and her character. She’s a brave, strong person.”

Recalling an incident in April 2012, when the royal couple were caught up in a protest on London’s Regent Street, the source adds, “Thugs shoved a stick through the window of their Rolls-Royce and poked the duchess… It was pretty terrifying. But when they finally arrived at their destination, she was terribly British about it. She said, ‘Well, that was eventful’. She just cracks on.”

The laid-back duchess enjoys an ice-cream. IMAGE: VIA GETTY

Her laid-back manner has sometimes been interpreted as laziness, although as one friend points out, “She is working well beyond retirement age.”

And despite being six years shy of 80, she will play a central role at the helm of Charles’ slimmed-down monarchy. It is a daunting prospect.

As the duchess herself once admitted, “Sometimes you get up in the morning and think you can’t do it, and you just have to. The minute you stop it’s like a balloon, you run out of puff – you sort of collapse in a heap.”

Yet her life experience has proved an asset to the Royal Family, and to a prince who has, at times, been accused of rather prissy and entitled behaviour.

“The prince trusts her judgement,” says a source. “So while she may not be in the driving seat, she is very much the support act.”

Described as someone who would “not shy away from expressing what she thinks about a situation” and “with very good instincts”, the value of Camilla’s emotional backing should not be underestimated either.

Friends say that throughout the fallout from Megxit, which has affected Charles “very deeply”, his wife has been his crutch.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say she has been his rock throughout this crisis,” insists one insider. “She has been the one who has kept him on track. It was really hard for him.”

Afternoon tea with Charles during a recent outing. IMAGE: GETTY

There is a clear sense – although Clarence House would not care to admit to it – that they feel terribly let down by Harry and Meghan’s decision to unleash their interview with Oprah Winfrey on the royal family. One source goes so far as to suggest, “I don’t think the duchess will ever forgive Meghan for what she’s done to the Prince of Wales”, although as per various statements from Buckingham Palace, the Sussexes remain “much-loved members of the family”.

“When Charles becomes king, she’ll understand the need to be by his side – as the Duke of Edinburgh was for the Queen – and I don’t think she’s daunted by that,” says a friend.

Gyles Brandreth agrees. “It’s clear seeing them together that it’s a perfect fit. She’s playful with him, and ultimately she makes him happy. She has no desire to be in the limelight at all. There’s no competition. All she wants is for him to do well.”

She’s playful with him, and ultimately she makes him happy.


And it works both ways. “He has seen the price she pays,” Gyles adds. “She hates flying, but he’s up there, holding her hand on the aeroplane, playing Scrabble with her… it just works.”

The Queen also likes Camilla and appreciates how supportive she has been of her son and heir. As Penny Junor wrote in her 2017 book The Duchess: The Untold Story, Camilla felt fully accepted by Her Majesty when she gave a touching speech at their wedding, likening them to horses in the Grand National who had made it to the winners’ enclosure.

“They have overcome Becher’s Brook and The Chair and all kinds of other terrible obstacles,” said the Queen. “They have come through and I’m very proud and wish them well. My son is home and dry with the woman he loves.”

Camilla shares a laugh with Kate and the Queen in Cornwall. IMAGE: GETTY

Yet will Camilla inherit her mother-in-law’s title? Clarence House insisted on their wedding day that she will be known as “Princess Consort” when the time comes, even though the title has no historical precedent – under English common law, the wives of kings automatically become queens.

Sixteen years on, there is growing evidence to suggest that she will take the title “Queen Consort” instead.

In 2018, Clarence House removed all references to “Princess Consort” from its website. “He will 100 percent insist on her being queen,” says a former courtier. “The references to Princess Consort infuriated the prince.”

But will the public accept it? Having committed herself to charitable endeavours, including supporting children’s literacy and women suffering from domestic abuse and sexual violence, she has arguably earned her public-service stripes. Her closest allies certainly believe that time has proved a great healer.

After initially being advised by PR guru Mark Bolland in the lead-up to their marriage, Camilla has slowly reconstructed her reputation with the help of a string of communications experts, including Paddy Harverson, who used to advise Manchester United, and ex-BBC and Burberry executive Julian Payne.

The prince recently took on Simon Enright – formerly of NHS England and NHS Improvement – as his communications director, who will handle the “transition” when the time comes.

According to one former adviser, who remembers how nervous Camilla was when she made her first official appearance as Charles’ girlfriend at her sister’s birthday party in 1999, “She was not only anxious about the whole coming-out process, but whether she would have the stamina to deal with it.

“Over the past 20 years, she’s adapted. She still has a smile on her face. It’s extraordinary how confident she is, how popular she’s become. There’s still some lingering negativity, but it was only ever a question of time. People have got to know her. Now people think we probably owe it to her for her to be Queen Consort.”

Another aide points out that a turning point came when Princes William and Harry happily appeared at the couple’s side on their wedding day. “There was a sense that if Diana’s sons had accepted her, so should we.”

According to another source, “It’s been difficult, but I think they both now accept that Camilla makes Charles a better man. She’s very jolly and always makes an effort with them and their wives… Camilla would never have dreamed of trying to replace Diana, but she is naturally quite mumsy.

“The public does get the Royals and over time, you can’t fool anyone,” continues the aide. “Princess Anne is universally respected because she is who she is – and I think it’s the same with Camilla; what you see is what you get. She’s unselfconscious, unpushy and on message, and she gets on with the job. She’s respected and admired and liked a lot – some people may now even love her.”

What you see is what you get. She’s unselfconscious, unpushy and on message, and she gets on with the job.

All the Duchess of Cornwall has ever needed is the love of her husband, and it seems the public is finally understanding what Charles saw in her 50 years ago.

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