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The 34-Year Courtship

16 minute read
J.F.O Mcallister | London

When Camilla Shand first met prince Charles in 1971 — she was 23 and he was 22 — she reportedly said to him, “My great-grandmother was the mistress of your great-great-grandfather, so how about it?” They fell for each other as if the match had been genetically programmed. But he was young and indecisive — and as his family saw it, this ardent girl with a louche ancestor was not a suitable future Queen of England. And so Charles failed to propose, Camilla soon married his philandering friend Andrew Parker Bowles, and the prince later wed his virgin princess Diana. But Charles and Camilla could not let each other go. Trauma, tragedy and miles of tabloid headlines would follow.

So when the news was announced last week that Charles and Camilla were finally to wed on April 8, it almost came as a relief. Prince Hamlet had made up his mind to do what he should have done in the first place. Two middle-aged people seared by their own mistakes may now find in each other the happiness and comfort they long squandered. The British establishment rallied around them: the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, the Leader of the Opposition, the Archbishop of Canterbury and, crucially, the Queen herself (who until the 1970s was not even permitted to be in the presence of a divorced person) all bestowed their blessing. Reporters were summoned Thursday night to Windsor Castle to watch the happy couple shifting awkwardly in front of the cameras, and catch a glimpse of the heirloom rock now ensconced on the bride-to-be’s finger. Camilla said Charles got down on bended knee to propose; a semi-sweet tale of romance and redemption carefully packaged for Valentine’s Day.

The Windsors, however, are not a normal family. Their family business is staying in business, which in a democratic age means convincing taxpayers that a hereditary monarchy is worth having. The sales pitch has changed with the times. On her 21st birthday, the future Queen Elizabeth pledged to her people that “My whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.” And so it has been. For more than 50 years, she has opened hospitals, presided at state dinners and endured endless small talk without appearing to want another job. The Queen’s children and grandchildren devised a different job description. In an age obsessed with celebrity, the royals’ many public scandals — affairs, bulimia, drugs, Nazi armbands — have offered all the meretricious thrills of a reality-TV soap opera. People, and photographers with long lenses, have lapped it up, relishing the chance to feel better than their betters. The saturation coverage of the engagement last week, with royal experts rushed to the TV studios to discuss fine points of ecclesiastical law over archive footage of Charles and Camilla, was the latest spasm of indulgence. But the reaction of most people verged on the blasé. Frank, 48, a London cab driver encountered outside the Prince of Wales Feathers pub in central London, summed up the mood: “It doesn’t bother me that they aren’t married, and it doesn’t bother me that they’re going to get married. No one interferes in my life, so why should we interfere in theirs?” The Camilla era may be offering the prospect of a new compact between monarch and subject: live and let live.

That could turn out well for the Windsors, or very badly. In the short run, tolerance toward the flaws of an aging couple lets Charles get to the altar. But tolerance is not far from indifference, and for an institution with no real power except the power to impress, indifference is the unkindest cut of all. The Windsors need not be icons, and they should not be hell-raisers, but for their own survival they cannot afford to leave their subjects — and the world — bored.

Last week there were a few signs of apathy in the sea of schmaltz about enduring love. (A good chunk of the public is predisposed that way already: in a June 2004 poll, 38% of Britons said they just didn’t care whether or not Charles and Camilla wed.) TV schedules quickly returned to normal. The Independent newspaper made fun of the orgy of royal coverage with a front page that mentioned the wedding in a tiny box, along with 11 other stories under the headline here is the news you may have missed. Of course, public opinion can be fickle; Diana’s death triggered a flood of emotion only seven years ago. Radio call-in shows and Internet polls showed that there’s plenty of sting left in that collective wound, with venom being directed at the betrothed couple from those who still consider Diana their Queen of Hearts, or just don’t like Camilla, or think Charles is terminally self-indulgent. But the first large-scale opinion poll carried out after the announcement, conducted over the Internet by YouGov, found the public calm, with 65% backing the marriage.

As Charles and Camilla settle into their role as an old married couple, the memory of their tumultuous past will further fade away — and also seem less exceptional. Since Charles and Camilla first met in 1971, U.K. divorce rates have more than doubled. A MORI poll in December asked British people what new sins should be added to the seven deadly ones: 28% said cruelty; only 8% said adultery. Charles’ irregular love life captures the reality of the country he is one day to rule. It makes him hard to venerate, but veneration isn’t exactly a 21st century state of mind anyway. Certainly he wants no more scandal, and getting things square with Camilla is a step in that direction. So without veneration or scandal, how does he keep people interested? His marriage represents a gamble that with the help of the woman he loves, and without Diana’s genius for self-promotion, he can stimulate enough regard for the family firm to keep it in business.

Charles certainly worked hard to mollify those who might take exception to Camilla as his wife. Opinion polls have shown growing acceptance of their relationship and possible marriage, but also strong opposition to her becoming Queen. In 2002, 62% of those surveyed objected to her taking that title; in the YouGov poll last week, it was 87%. The reason: Camilla is divorced and is considered Diana’s usurper. So Charles agreed that if he becomes King, she will become the Princess Consort, as Albert was Victoria’s Prince Consort. “They’ve done it very cleverly,” says Harold Brooks-Baker, publishing director of Burke’s Peerage. “They’ve made it look as if they’ve created a new title especially for Camilla Parker Bowles, whereas in reality, every person who is married to a monarch, King or Queen, is a consort.” Until Charles ascends to the throne, Camilla will abstain from using her title Princess of Wales (too upsetting to the Diana crowd), and be called the Duchess of Cornwall (Charles is Duke).

The knottiest problem has been with the Church of England. It generally prohibits remarriage for divorcés whose behavior contributed to the breakup of their previous relationship. One question the vicar is supposed to weigh in deciding whether to perform the ceremony is, “Would permitting the new marriage be tantamount to consecrating an old infidelity?” Charles and Camilla are thus both disqualified, though as a widower Charles is technically exempt.

Bishops were queasy about bending the rules, especially for someone who one day will become, as his mother now is, their Supreme Governor and Defender of the Faith. So the nuptials on April 8 will be civil, at home in Windsor Castle witnessed by a public registrar, rather than another fairy-tale extravaganza at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Afterward, the Archbishop of Canterbury will preside over a service of blessing. A few conservatives still cavil, but most are relieved that the heir is getting hitched before he gets to the throne. Robert Lacey, author of Royal, a biography of Queen Elizabeth II, says the after-marriage blessing “reminds me of the slightly disdainful way the church now recognizes same-sex unions” — one more postmodern incursion into ancient traditions courtesy of the Charles and Camilla saga.

To Charles, the idea of just continuing to live in sin with Mrs. Parker Bowles was excruciating. He calls her “the one non-negotiable fact” in his life. As the world heard to its amazement in the 1993 “Camillagate” tapes — recordings of late-night cell-phone intimacies in which he compared himself to a tampon — they have had a passionate affair. But more crucially, he clearly loves and relies on her, finding in her what his biographer Jonathan Dimbleby calls “the warmth, the understanding and the steadiness for which he had always longed and had never been able to find with any other person.”

Yet because the rules of protocol have not caught up with cohabitation, their mutual longing has often been thwarted. Last November Charles boycotted the wedding of his own godson when Camilla was assigned a seat several rows behind him. At a recent semi-official dinner the two attended, one of the organizers received stern instructions from palace aides that though Charles and Camilla would arrive together, they should never be together. At the reception, she went clockwise, he went counterclockwise around the room, having to ignore each other as if they were strangers. “People don’t realize that while you and I can go to a dinner party with our girlfriend, this guy can’t,” says Brooks-Baker. “The royals can get drunk, take narcotics, stand on their heads, but something as simple as this can’t be accomplished with any amount of dignity.”

Camilla has been living with Charles for years, but her public exposure has come in tiny doses skilfully measured out by Charles’ advisors. There was a brief public appearance together in 1999; she accompanied Charles on some semi-official engagements in 2000; there were reports of a 10-minute encounter with the Queen at a barbecue that summer. The first public kiss came in 2001, followed by an invitation to the Queen Mother’s funeral in 2002 (though Camilla didn’t sit with the royals) and reports of a private audience with the Queen, without pictures. Soon after, she sat behind the Queen at a public celebration. Camilla has the discipline never to say anything controversial in public, except for the tiny infraction of displaying a bumper sticker in favor of fox hunting — a view shared by virtually every member of her horsey set as well as Charles — last year when the government was preparing to ban the practice.

One crucial ingredient in her rehabilitation has been her acceptance by Princes William and Harry. Stories about their deepening relationship have been carefully dribbled out for years. Now, palace aides say, the boys like her and recognize her importance in their father’s life — and because they are nearly grown anyway, the sensitivities are less. They issued a statement last week saying, “We are both very happy for our father and Camilla and we wish them all the luck in the future.”

So what finally pushed Charles to take the plunge he has been aching to take since Diana’s death? “The stars aligned; the time was right,” says one of his aides. “There was no trigger, no event that meant we had to move now.” The opinion polls seemed to have stabilized in support of marriage. “Our feeling all along was that a majority of people would feel happy that two people in love are getting married.” Charles didn’t want to leave it too late. If his 78-year-old mother died, he knew his accession would be overwhelmed by questions about his girlfriend. As Lacey observes, “The popularity of the monarchy does not float on uncertainty.”

Last week the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons started poking around in Charles’ finances, and appears ready to investigate next how much he spends on Camilla. The iniquiry isn’t expected to amount to much, but with the tabloids now permanently gunning for Harry after he shoved a photographer outside a nightclub and wore a Nazi armband to a costume party, Charles couldn’t count on ever finding a perfect moment. “He wants to get on with it before it gets to be more trouble,” says Sarah Bradford, another biographer of the Queen. Over Christmas, Charles talked the idea over with Camilla and the boys, found a date everyone could make, and then started jumping the necessary hurdles.

By law his mother had to approve. In the past, she has not thought much of Camilla, “but she has reconciled herself,” says Bradford. “She disapproves of divorce as a Christian, though it has happened to three of her children. Then again, she is very pragmatic, and Camilla wasn’t going to go away. She would rather fall in with Charles’ plans and do it as well as they can rather than leaving it.” Prince Philip also wants his son to have the stability Camilla provides.

By law, the Queen must consult the Prime Minister about the marriage of her heir. On Feb. 2, at their normal weekly audience, she raised the subject. Blair checked with the Attorney General to see if there were any legal barriers and found none. The original plan was for the wedding announcement to come this week, but — perhaps inevitably for the royals — the story leaked. “We had a contingency plan for that,” says the aide to Charles. To make sure the palace could unfold the story the way the prince wanted, TV reporters were called on their cell phones while they were commuting to work. The startling news knocked everything else off the airwaves.

Opinion polls have lately been showing a trend toward wanting to skip over Charles and go right to William as King — a fresh and gorgeous face, unencumbered with Charles’ failures and uncertainties, more obviously at ease in the world. The YouGov poll found that 41% of respondents were in favor of such a move. But marrying Camilla shows Charles has no plans to toddle off to retirement. He is clearing away the biggest impediment to getting the top job.

Charles used to be derided for his somewhat esoteric enthusiasms — attacks on modern architecture, support for organic farming and alternative medicine — but they now seem more prescient than eccentric. He has carefully built up an impressive portfolio of causes. Since 1976, his Prince’s Trust has helped more than 500,000 young people in bad circumstances get training, mentoring and help starting their own businesses. His Duchy Originals line of gourmet and organic foods has energized the organic farming sector, sells more than 125 products and made profits of nearly $2 million last year, all donated to charity. A thriving model village at Poundbury in Dorset is designed to minimize the use of cars and encourage a sense of community. “He has a very long view into the future,” says Fiona Gateley, who used to be marketing manager at Duchy Originals. “He is the opposite of a politician who must look at the next election. He’s in a position where he can say, in 20 years these things can fall into place if we work at it.”

Though he can be petulant and has his toothpaste squeezed for him by a valet, Charles has also had his skin thickened from decades of riding the roller coaster of public opinion. In 1981, 81% of the public thought he would do a good job as King; after Diana died 41% thought so. Last year, the number was back up to 61%. “When one is bringing a new idea into the public light,” says Gateley, “he expects there’s always going to be criticism.”

Viewed in that light, the idea that someday there will be a Queen Camilla, awarded the title by a Parliament not just inured to Charles and his consort but grateful to them, may not be quite so quixotic. Right now her role has been sculpted to avoid bumping up against Diana’s memory. “She cannot have Diana’s title and she cannot marry Charles fully in the church as Diana did,” says Lacey. “In that way, the wedding is a kind of homage to Diana.” But over time, Camilla will come into her own. She is good at the duties she has undertaken in her quasi-royal role, friendly and down to earth.

Camilla will not melt lenses the way Diana did, but there are other routes to the country’s heart — simply standing by her man may do it. If Charles wants to move opinion toward her becoming Queen, he is likely to have time to try. If his mother lives as long as her mother did and keeps her promise not to abdicate, he will not ascend to the throne until he’s 79, in 2027.For a thousand-year monarchy, the long view is the only one that counts. It is a remarkably resilient institution. Even during the nastiest battles between Charles and Diana, more than 70% of Britons said they wanted to retain it, a number that barely budges from decade to decade.

The marriage of a slightly shopworn middle-aged couple is not the ideal spectacle to keep the royals afloat for another generation. But indifference can be punctured, enthusiasm built, from small and peculiar foundations. Last Thursday, the day the wedding was announced, a dozen people were waiting in the cold and drizzle outside Clarence House, Prince Charles’ London residence — but they were all photographers and reporters thinking the whole thing was a bust. Then a woman showed up in a taxi bearing a helium balloon emblazoned with congrats! “I sat on the floor outside Westminster Abbey for Princess Anne’s wedding and I slept on the pavement for Charles’ wedding to Diana,” announced Pauline Young, a 58-year-old p.r. consultant, to the throng of jaded hacks. “I’m a public relations consultant, but that’s not why I’m here today. I came today because I’m a royalist.” That makes at least one. There is life in the Windsor family business yet.

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