Camilla Parker Bowles has come a long way. Once perceived as the greatest threat to the British monarchy’s future because of her affair with Charles during his marriage to his first wife Princess Diana, Camilla will take on the title of Queen when her husband, now King Charles III, is crowned before millions of people around the world on May 6.
It’s a stunning transformation and one that took place gradually over decades. Diana, dubbed the “People’s Princess,” publicly blamed Charles and Camilla’s affair for the dissolution of the royal marriage. In an interview with Martin Bashir on the BBC, Diana told him, “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”
Even after Charles married Camilla, it was unclear whether his wife would ever hold the title of queen given her early public relations woes. But Camilla seemed to win over the royal family and much of the public, and Queen Elizabeth II declared last year that it was her “sincere wish” that Camilla take on the mantle of “queen consort” after Elizabeth’s death. In the official royal invitation for coronation day, Camilla is called “Queen Camilla,” not “Queen Consort Camilla,” a promotion of sorts and a surprise to some royal watchers.
Here’s what you need to know about Camilla’s long and winding journey to become Queen of England.
Charles’ first love
How much easier royal life would have been for Charles if he had simply married Camilla Shand before he ever met Diana Spencer. Charles and Camilla met in the summer of 1971 and dated. But the royal family saw Diana as a preferable match for Charles, according to Tina Brown’s 2011 book The Diana Chronicles. As retrograde as it sounds, Camilla’s family didn’t have a title, and Camilla didn’t have a virginal reputation. Diana had both.
Camilla had dated the man who would become her first husband, Andrew Parker Bowles, before she met Charles. Charles’ uncle, Lord Mountbatten, reportedly wrote in a letter to his nephew, “I think it is disturbing for women to have experiences if they have to remain on a pedestal after marriage.” Diana by contrast was just 19 years old when 32-year-old Charles proposed.
With Charles essentially barred from marrying Camilla, Camilla agreed to marry Andrew Parker Bowles in 1973. But Camilla and Charles stayed in touch, phoning one another constantly and seeing each other at parties thrown by mutual friends. Sally Bedell Smith’s biography, Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, wrote that Charles and Camilla rekindled their affair in 1979, hit pause after Charles married Diana in 1980, and then resumed their romance again probably around 1986.
In 1989, Charles and Camilla had an intimate phone conversation that years later would be published by the press. During the call, the prince said that he wished he could “live inside [her] trousers,” and joked about being reincarnated as a “tampax.” In 1992, Charles and Diana separated, and in 1993, the British press published a full transcript of the private conversation between Charles and Camilla.
The nation was scandalized, though if you read the transcript the whole conversation is more embarrassing than lewd. In 1992, the Andrew Morton biography Diana: In Her Own Words accused Charles of infidelity, and in 1994, the prince admitted to cheating on his wife. Diana herself admitted to having an affair in a 1995 Panorama interview. Diana and Charles divorced in 1996.
By the time Diana passed away in a car crash in 1997, the public seemed to have turned against Charles and Camilla. A BBC poll conducted that year found two-thirds of Brits were against the idea of Charles ever becoming king if he married Camilla. The public did not approve of the affair or what was perceived as poor treatment of Diana by the entire royal family. (Notoriously, Queen Elizabeth II took five days to publicly address Princess Diana’s death.)
But by 2004, more Brits supported Prince Charles marrying Camilla than opposed it. Charles and Camilla became engaged in February of 2005. They married in April of that year, though Charles’ two sons, Harry and William, begged him not to do so—or so Harry writes in his memoir Spare. “Despite Willy and me urging him not to, Pa was going ahead. We pumped his hand, wished him well. No hard feelings,” Harry wrote. “We recognized that he was finally going to be with the woman he loved, the woman he’d always loved.”
Charles and Camilla reportedly tapped PR guru Mark Bolland to help rehabilitate her image. Bolland reportedly built relationships with the British press to supply information that would cast Charles and Camilla in a favorable light. Crucially, Camilla helped Charles seem more human and empathetic, bolstering both of their reputations.
According to Harry, the efforts to salvage Camilla’s reputation came at the expense of others in the royal family. Even before Spare hit shelves, others close to the royal family had accused Bolland of trading information about other royals to help Charles and Camilla. “I see someone who married into this institution and has done everything that she can to improve her own reputation, and her own image, for her own sake,” Harry said on Good Morning America this year.
“She was the villain, she was a third person in the marriage, she needed to rehabilitate her image,” Harry also said during an interview with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes while promoting his memoir. “The need for her to rehabilitate her image… that made her dangerous because of the connections that she was forging within the British press. And there was open willingness on both sides to trade information and with a family built on hierarchy, and with her on the way to being Queen Consort, there was going to be people or bodies left in the street because of that.”
Whether or not Camilla’s rise in popularity came at the expense of other royals’ reputations, it is true that over the course of decades, Camilla’s popularity slowly increased. Her charity work promoting literacy proved particularly favorable during the COVID-19 pandemic when she launched two reading lists and then a public book club.
Choosing Camilla’s title
The question of Camilla’s title has long been a point of controversy. When Charles and Camilla married, instead of naming her Princess of Wales, the palace granted her the less prestigious title Duchess of Cornwall. It also said that once Charles became king, she would be known as “princess consort,” not “queen” or “queen consort.”
But Queen Elizabeth’s late support for Camilla being called “queen consort” paved the way for the change. The “queen consort” title is typical of royal marriage, with Queen Elizabeth II’s mother known as that when her husband, King George VI, was king. (Queen Elizabeth II’s husband Philip was known as Prince Philip rather than “king consort” because “kings” are still seen as taking precedence over queens, so he retained the title of “prince” to make Elizabeth’s role as head of state clear.)
Many have come to see Camilla taking on the title of “Queen” after the coronation as a symbolic bid to finally and truly legitimize Camilla in the eyes of Brits after she suffered decades of being stigmatized.
Camilla’s popularity is not exactly rock solid. She currently ranks ninth among the royals, according to a YouGov poll earlier this year, below Charles, William, and others. (Queen Elizabeth II, despite passing away in September of 2022, remains the most popular family member.) Netflix’s The Crown hasn’t helped. In the last season, the show rehashed the drama between Charles and Diana, and the royal family received a flood of criticism from a new generation of royal watchers. The official social media accounts for Charles and Camilla had to turn off commenting shortly after the season’s debut.
Still, given that in the late 1990s few Brits wanted to see Camilla by Charles’ side, let alone taking on the mantle of queen, Camilla will celebrate a singular achievement on coronation day.
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