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The Woman Who Won’t Be Queen

3 minute read
Helen Gibson | London

Though Camilla Parker Bowles has been intimately involved with Prince Charles for more than three decades, she has managed to keep a remarkably low profile. That was partly a public relations necessity, especially during her affair with the Prince of Wales while both were married to other people. And in the aftermath of Diana’s death in 1997, Camilla practically disappeared from view. Rocked by the outpouring of emotion the tragedy evoked, the royal family was careful to keep an official distance from the person many blamed — rightly or wrongly — for breaking up Charles and Diana’s marriage. But by 1999, as the memory of Diana’s death became less raw, Camilla gradually emerged from the shadows. When she gave her first public speech, to huge curiosity, in 2002 on behalf of the National Osteoporosis Society — her mother died of the disease — it was seen as another crucial phase in the effort to transform her from the “other woman” into the future King’s royal consort.

Beyond the royal spin, friends say Camilla is a straightforward, cheerful, down-to-earth woman without guile and with plenty of common sense. She favors country pursuits like fox hunting (now illegal), gardening and cycling, and she shares Charles’ zany sense of humor — they both love the Goon Show, the wacky British radio comedy favorite of the 1950s. “Camilla is very English, understated and she has charm,” says Charles Mosley, editor in chief of Debrett’s, which publishes the definitive British guides to etiquette and the aristocracy. “After all, she did ensnare the prince over a 30-year period and one must be frank, she’s no oil painting — certainly not as beautiful as Diana. Yet Camilla is socially and emotionally assured in a way that poor Diana was not.” Charles is said to suffer bouts of self-doubt and during his first marriage often seemed at a loss as to how to deal with Diana. But with Camilla, friends say the prince relaxes and is able to be himself.

Camilla was born in London in 1947, the eldest child of Major Bruce Shand, an army officer turned wine merchant, and Rosalind Cubitt, whose ancestor Thomas Cubitt built much of London’s Mayfair and Belgravia districts in the early 19th century. She grew up in a country house in Sussex surrounded by nannies, horses and dogs. Like most young women of her social class, she “came out” as a debutante just before turning 18. In 1971, she met Charles on the polo field at Windsor. A romance blossomed, but Charles left for an eight-month tour of duty in the Caribbean with the Royal Navy without proposing. By the time he returned in 1973, Camilla had married Charles’ friend, army officer Andrew Parker Bowles. The couple had a son and a daughter, but the marriage, an open, unconventional one, ended in divorce in 1995.

Charles has always regarded Camilla as his “touchstone” and “sounding board,” as he told his biographer, Jonathan Dimbleby. As Diana’s memory has faded and Camilla has been seen quietly at Charles’ side at official functions, the public have softened toward her. It has helped that princes Harry and William appear to accept Camilla, too. Dimbleby told the BBC that the couple are “soul mates.” On April 8, she’ll complete a transformation that has been 30 years in the making. In an age of disposable relationships, she has won a romantic marathon.

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