Camilla Parker Bowles: Lady in waiting

The newly dusted-off debate, asking should he or shouldn't he, makes a very large assumption: namely, that she wants to get married. But if the heir to the throne should ever propose to his mistress, would she accept?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

So that's that. To judge by this week's papers, there's nothing now to prevent the Prince of Wales from making an "honest woman", as George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, put it, of Camilla Parker Bowles. The Times assured its readers on Friday that "the Church says Charles can marry". It explained that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has approved the marriage after "secret talks" with the Prince last year - a claim which Lambeth Palace has denied.

So that's that. To judge by this week's papers, there's nothing now to prevent the Prince of Wales from making an "honest woman", as George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, put it, of Camilla Parker Bowles. The Times assured its readers on Friday that "the Church says Charles can marry". It explained that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has approved the marriage after "secret talks" with the Prince last year - a claim which Lambeth Palace has denied.

The question of whether the Prince of Wales should marry his mistress surfaces every few months. The occasion for rehearsing the arguments now is the publication of the memoirs of George Carey, who revealed this week that he is in favour; although all such debates are premised on one entirely unproven assumption: that Camilla Parker Bowles actually wants to become Queen.

There is no good reason for thinking she does. The best-known fact about Camilla's family is that she is the great granddaughter of Alice Keppel, mistress of Edward V11. There is no indication that she feels that being the Prince's companion and mistress is in the slightest bit ignoble.

The facts of Charles's and Camilla's relationship are well known. It began, apparently, at a polo match in 1970 when the young Camilla Shand, 16 months older than the Prince, was already seeing her future husband, Andrew Parker Bowles. Their acquaintance seems to have begun with the cheerful invitation: "My great-grandmother and your great-grandfather were lovers. How about it?"

Camilla was a product of solid county stock - the family home was opposite Plumpton Racecourse. Her father was a decorated major with the Royal Lancers and a member of the Queen's household, who went on to work for Block, Grey & Block, a Mayfair wine merchant. She had a brother, Mark, and a sister, Annabel with whom she went to Queens Gate School in South Kensington, where she got a single O-level - a bit like Diana in that respect. Then she did a brief stint in Mon Fertile, a suggestively named finishing school in Switzerland, before coming out in 1965 - and in those days it didn't mean identifying yourself as gay.

The consensus about Camilla, then as now, is that she was by no means the prettiest girl on the circuit but she was good fun, self- confident and sexually easy-going. Charles was besotted. As Jonathan Dimbleby, his biographer, put it: "She smiled with her eyes as well as her mouth." Even now, she's much more attractive in the flesh than in photographs.

This was the time when Charles and Cami-lla could have married honourably if he had really wanted to. She would not have been a virgin bride, but the papers 30 years ago would not have dwelt on the matter. Instead, in 1973, Camilla married Andrew Parker Bowles, whose family had had a longstanding association with the Royal Family. Indeed, he had been a boyfriend of Princess Anne's. But marriage was not an impediment to Charles's and Camilla's boisterously physical affair, which her husband regarded phlegmatically.

The Parker Bowles's marriage was open but it was also affectionate, with two children, Tom and Laura. Tom (Charles's godson), writes about food for Tatler, with cheerful recollections about his parents' relaxed home life. Laura works for an art dealer and recently told New York's W magazine that she was completely unembarrassed by her mother's association with Prince Charles.

The creepiest aspect of Charles and Cami-lla's continuing liaison was that Mrs Parker Bowles scrutinised Charles' prospective brides, including the young Diana Spencer. The affair continued right up to the week before the wedding and, according to Diana, it never ceased. Paul Burrell, Diana's enterprising butler, revealed a letter from the Princess to the Duke of Edinburgh declaring that Charles was "never emotionally divorced from [Camilla]". She also wrote that "Charles told me that you said that if the marriage was not working well after five years, he could essentially return to Camilla." Long before five years were out, he did so.

There is no getting round the fact, then, that Camilla was a powerful contributory factor in the disintegration of the Wales's marriage, which, given the shared responsibility with Charles, meant that remarriage in Church was not an option.

Forcing the issue by insisting that the two marry would reignite the public debate about Camilla. And the reality is that this convivial hunter, drinker and - until bossed out of it by Charles - smoker, arouses quite extraordinary hatred among people who normally have a reflexive loyalty to the Crown. To this day, the letters newspapers receive about Mrs Parker Bowles are remarkable for their number and vitriolic nature. And the more overt her status, the more formal her public engagements, the greater the sense of indignant alienation on the part of this vociferous lobby. A telling opinion poll for a BBC Panorama programme on Camilla two years ago - which was remarkable for the unwillingness of her circle of friends to break ranks and talk - suggested that while 57 per cent of the public could accept Camilla as Charles's mistress when he becomes king, more than half would be opposed to a Queen Camilla, and 40 per cent would like the law changed to make sure she never is.

And what is so unacceptable about Camilla remaining simply Charles's mistress and companion? The present situation, whereby she functions as his de facto consort hosting semi-official events, may be messy but it seems to work. Last week, for instance, she and Charles held a garden party for NHS workers in the gardens at Holyrood, with Camilla chatting to guests as well as Charles.

It may be tiresome not to be able to accompany the Prince to family as well as public engagements, such as the marriage of the crown prince of Spain last month, but the alternative, to marry Charles, would mean that Camilla's life would become a matter of legitimate, rather than nosy, public interest.

Richard Kay, the Daily Mail's most astute royal correspondent, says simply that she would like her status to be "enhanced". Her situation has been less comfortable since Sir Michael Peat took over the running of the Prince of Wales from Mark Bolland, and excluded her from the Prince's diary planning and subjected the Prince's spending on Camilla to unwelcome scrutiny.

Indeed, the Prince of Wales's circle have simply let it be known that marriage has been "discussed" between the two of them and emphasised that it would be out of the question before Prince Harry turns 21. Certainly, the Prince's hangers-on would love to formalise their adulation of Mrs Parker Bowles. But the impetus for this step comes from the pundits rather than from any constitutional imperative, and certainly not from the machinations of the woman concerned.

It would be an extraordinary irony if Camilla, by being bounced into marriage with the future King of England, contributed to undermining the institution of monarchy. But to do this pragmatic woman justice, she is unlikely to want to do anything of the sort.

Comments