In silence she awaits her Prince

PROFILE: Camilla Parker-Bowles: Charles may never remarry, but that does not make his mistress a loser, argues Mary Braid

Mary Braid
Saturday 23 December 1995 00:02 GMT

Once again Camilla Parker- Bowles proved something of a nightmare assignment for the paparazzi yesterday. In the media scramble following the Queen's plea this week to her son and daughter-in-law to seek a divorce, the Princess of Wales at least rewarded photographers by turning up outside her west London gym with Prince Harry and Prince William in tow. The future king's mistress, by contrast, seemed to have gone to ground.

Once again the contrast between the two women was stark. Beautiful, saintly Di, never more alive than in front of a camera, was still battling it out in the media glare. Camilla, the witch with the lived-in face who shattered a national fairy-tale without even having the decency to be beautiful, remained resolutely publicity-shy - even when her Prince revealed to the world that, after a relationship spanning 20 years, he has no plans to marry her.

But then silence and discretion are Camilla's trademarks. This is a woman who has endured without a whisper an avalanche of public insults, even a pelting with bread rolls by a customer in her local supermarket after Prince Charles told millions about their affair on television (she no longer does her own shopping). This is a woman who once encountered a journalist breaking into her downstairs loo; and who had the contents of a family album, taken without her consent, splashed all over a newspaper. There was a photograph of her in a bikini and another of the Prince of Wales with Camilla's baby son Tom, now 20 and the Prince's godchild, in his arms.

Perhaps the difference in approach between the wife and the mistress - they are 14 years apart in age - marks an abandonment by young aristocrats of the upper-class code that sanctioned discreet affairs as an integral part of the business of marriage, and frowned on the public airing of scandal. It was this code that allowed Queen Alexandra to invite Camilla's great-grandmother, Alice Kepple, mistress to Edward VII, to join the family around her husband's deathbed.

Times have clearly changed. But in Camilla we have a blue-blood who still plays the game by great-grandmother's rules. In the three years since her affair with the future monarch became public she has said nothing. Neither has she licensed friends to have a quiet word with the media on her behalf.

With so little from the horse's mouth, the question of whether she is weeping her way through this weekend - a lonely, washed-up, middle-aged woman who forfeited marriage and social standing for love - is largely speculation. It is just as likely that the woman Prince Charles describes as his "touchstone" is looking forward to Christmas, optimistic that at last her relationship with Charles is being manoeuvred into calmer waters.

There are two contrasting public views of Camilla Parker-Bowles. One has her as a Barbour-wearing, fox-hunting, country-loving good sort, fun but rather unintellectual. The other is more Machiavellian. It rests to some extent on a photograph of Mrs Parker-Bowles and the young Princess Diana during her courtship with Prince Charles. Given what we now know, the image of the mistress perhaps offering a little friendly prenuptial advice is a touch chilling.

In fact Camilla Parker-Bowles has a conventional aristocratic background. She was the first of three children to be born to Major Bruce Shand, wine merchant, charabanc owner and vice lord-lieutenant of east Sussex, and his wife, Rosalind Cubitt, whose family which made a fortune building London's Belgravia. A life of leisured luxury was ensured for Camilla when one of her Cubitt grandparents left her a pounds 500,000 inheritance. Her family had well-established connections with the Royal Household.

She had the usual British upper-class education, failing to take any A-levels but managing a year at Swiss finishing school. She came out in 1964. It was the swinging and socially fluent Sixties, but for girls like Camilla society had not really changed. More than 300 well-bred girls were presented at court that year, amid a round of parties which allowed the richest families in the land to introduce their offspring to each other. Peter Townend, society correspondent for Tatler for 40 years, remembers Camilla, but only vaguely. "She was not particularly beautiful or outstanding in any way, but she was nice."

The debs' ambition was to snare a rich and eligible man by the end of the season. Marriage was what they had been raised for. Camillawas an almost spinsterly 26 by the time she married Andrew Parker-Bowles, a young adjutant in the Blues and Royals.

Camilla first met Prince Charles at a polo match in 1970. He became smitten with her bubbly personality and the first phase of their long relationship began. But Charles dithered about proposing, and while he was away at a long tour at sea she accepted the proposal of the rival suitor, Parker-Bowles.

Her affair with the Prince apparently resumed in the late Seventies, by which time her husband was a polo-playing friend of the Prince, and Silver Stick in Waiting at the Court. It seems that Brigadier Parker- Bowles, who apparently exercised some latitude with his own marriage vows, did not object as long as the affair was discreet. It remained that way until the Princess of Wales chose to make it public through Andrew Morton's first book. Says one newsman who has frequently doorstepped her: "She is one of the old school and her ex-husband is cut from the same cloth." He adds: "She and Prince Charles seem devoted to each other. You can't help thinking that's quite sweet after all these years."

Townend disputes the notion that Camilla is a woman who has lost it all. "I doubt if she wants to be Queen and go around opening bazaars. I think she is quite happy with her horses and she has her children, Tom and Laura." In other words, she may be content to be among a time-honoured tradition of royal mistresses, joining the Prince on the Beaufort hunt and sharing his love of the countryside and painting. The new home she is waiting to move into, as a divorcee, is almost as luxurious as the one she shared with her husband. The difficult business of "royalising" Camilla may never be necessary.

Nigel Evans, editor of Majesty magazine, suggests that Camilla's silence, rather than Diana's openness, may yet prove the saving of the monarchy. It is a rather shaky theory, after years of intense public scrutiny of the Royal Family and at a time when public deference has all but disappeared.

Charles, Mr Evans argues, is simply reverting to royal type. "Having a mistress is more of a job requirement that anything else. Nearly every king before him has had one. The problem is that the Royal Family has portrayed itself as the ideal family and made itself middle-class. It is then expected to abide by middle-class values. The fact is that Charles and Diana were the fairy-tale. Camilla is the reality."

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