In the 1990s, Camilla Parker Bowles was hated the length and breadth of Britain. Branded the “third person” in the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, she was yelled at in supermarkets. The tabloids poured buckets of vitriol onto her.
Now, as she turns 70 on July 17, Britain’s papers are heaping praise on Camilla, now Duchess of Cornwall. “She has performed a peerless service to her country,” declared Simon Heffer in the Telegraph. “In the goldfish bowl that is royal life and work, Camilla has undertaken her many and varied tasks perfectly. She does a huge amount of charity work and has not put a foot wrong,” Andrew Roberts wrote in the Sunday Mail. “A characteristic sense of pragmatism and good humour,” explained Camilla Tominey of the Express, of her attitude towards working at an age when most are retired.
The remarkable transformation is largely because of three reasons: familiarity, silence and time.
From Camilla Parker Bowles to HRH the Duchess of Cornwall
Since her marriage at age 57, she’s ramped up her royal duties, now undertaking more than 200 engagements a year. The public has gotten to know her, rather than the stereotype. As Heffer explains, “Tirelessly accompanying the Prince on public engagements, but also in her own right as patron of charities covering a range of issues from cancer care to animal welfare, she seems universally regarded by those who meet her as charming, engaging, sincere and fun: which is exactly how she is.”
They also see that Charles is obviously happy with his second wife. “At the end of his marriage, after Diana died, he was a very morose, depressed man who seemed to be always on edge,” said Penny Junor, who’s just written a new biography of Charles, to Valentine Low of the Times. “He was not a happy man at all. Today he is happy, fundamentally happy. He is relaxed. He has got his sense of humour back. He is fun to be around. And he is having a good time. And that makes him a much better prince, and a much more popular figure. I think the only thing that has brought him back to life is her.”
Yet for all that Camilla can be chatty with the public and media, there is silence when it comes to Diana and those fraught years when her marriage to Andrew Parker Bowles was collapsing as was that of Charles and Diana. She’s never defended herself, never explained. That “Keep calm and carry on” attitude has garnered grudging admiration, even from some Diana stalwarts.
Also, as the years passed, once-raw feelings dulled. The prevalent Diana mania has been replaced with more nuanced views of her marriage to Charles. Revelations in recent royal biographies have replaced that black-and-white views of those involved with shades of grey.
From HRH the Duchess of Cornwall to Queen Camilla?
Now accepted as Charles’s wife, Camilla’s new challenge is whether the public will accept her one day as his queen consort. Before their marriage, the couple headed off any talk that Camilla was taking Diana’s place as future queen with the following announcement: “It is intended that Mrs Parker Bowles should use the title HRH The Princess Consort when The Prince of Wales accedes to The Throne.”
It’s likely that title downgrade won’t come to pass. “I have very little doubt that she will be queen,” says Sally Bedell Smith, author of Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life. “First of all, I think she’s earned it. Her public approval ratings are not through the roof, but she has improved. She took on this role [as HRH Duchess of Cornwall] at age 57, she has carried it out impeccably. She has her original patronages – osteoporosis, dogs and cats – but has added battered women, moved into edgy territory, to her credit, and taking it very seriously.”
When she married Charles, only seven per cent of Britons thought she should be queen, according to a Mirror poll. Now, that number is 39 per cent (though 40 per cent don’t countenance that title upgrade.)
“Also, I think he has every right to name her queen. They tried to finesse it when she got married, saying she would be princess consort because they didn’t want to upset everybody, but there are a lot of constitutional experts at the time who said we would actually need legislation to create the role of princess consort,” Sally Bedell Smith explains.
The author believes that Queen Elizabeth II has given discreet signals that she would like Camilla to be queen consort one day. Not only has Elizabeth made Camilla a dame grand cross of the Royal Victorian Order, the monarch’s personal order, but she also named her to the Privy Council last year. On the sovereign’s death, that council becomes the Accession Council for the new King.
So watch what the Queen does. If Camilla is given a major new honour—perhaps being named to the Order of the Garter—then that’s the equivalent of a regal shout from the palace parapets: the idea of princess consort is dead, long live the future Queen Camilla.