Prince Charles and Camilla, duchess of Cornwall, are on a Canadian tour this week, with stops in the Maritime provinces and Winnipeg. This article was first published in Maclean’s in November 2009, as Charles brought Camilla to Canada for the first time.
Happy endings are for storybooks, not real life. But when Prince Charles arrives in Canada on Nov. 2 with his wife, Camilla, duchess of Cornwall, few Canadians can doubt that something like this has happened to their future king. Not long ago, Charles and the woman dubbed “the Rottweiler” by his then-wife incurred such global disapproval that even his mother had to keep him at arms’-length. Now their first visit as a couple puts the seal of approval on a union that has changed his life.
What a difference a death makes. Able to make an honest woman of his beloved mistress, Charles has been doggedly rebuilding his public image and persuading the world to accept Camilla as his future queen. Hence the importance of Canada, a country he has known and loved all his life. While his last visit was in 2001, it didn’t have the wattage of his 1991 tour with Diana. That’s one of the reasons why, insiders say, he has been pressing to return for a while. Only by bringing Camilla will he put aside the shade of that fragile ghost.
Whatever the reluctance of the Canadian government, Camilla should feel at home. While Charles can only boast a Canadian niece-in-law—the low-profile Autumn, wife of Peter Phillips, son of Charles’s sister Princess Anne—Camilla’s family tree includes 17th-century immigrants to Quebec, and her great-great-grandmother was a Sophia Mary MacNab of Hamilton, Ont.
But Charles has an emotional connection with Canada inherited from the Queen. From George V, who visited as heir to the throne in 1901, onward, British royals have always preferred Canada to their flashier neighbour south of the border, and not only through atavistic loyalty to the Commonwealth. Royal aversion only deepened with the advent of Baltimore’s finest, Wallis Simpson, in 1933, a U.S. heat-seeking missile on a mission, it seemed, to destroy England’s golden boy, the future Edward VIII. Only the pathologically needy Diana and trash queen Sarah Ferguson, the beyond-parody ex of the duke of York, were truly at home in the Land of the Free.
The family got over all that, and they got over Camilla, too. Royal mistresses usually get a rougher deal. Legend has it that Henry II hid his fair Rosamund in a bower before she ended up in a nunnery in around 1176. In 1533 Henry VIII made Anne Boleyn his queen, but Londoners howled, “Death to the goggle-eyed whore!”, an opinion Henry soon came to share. Wallis Simpson might have looked like a winner when the abdicated duke of Windsor married her in 1937. But for a woman who dreamt of a throne, what greater punishment than drifting round the world as pioneer Eurotrash, forced to live with a loser for the rest of her life?
Camilla had no problem with the role. “My great-grandmother was your great-grandfather’s mistress,” she is reported to have said to Charles in the early 1970s, “so how about it?” The future King Edward VII had indeed begun a long affair with the luscious Alice Keppel in 1898. Camilla had done her homework, Charles was bowled over, and they began dating.
Years later, after they began their extramarital affair, the cost to Camilla came as decades of ducking and diving, till Diana revealed the secret in a kamikaze attempt to shatter the marriage if she could not break that bond. Camilla bore the brunt of the fury that ensued. Alone and hung out to dry, she endured torrents of abuse that her royal lover was powerless to prevent.
Now Canada will see her rebranded and reborn, HRH the duchess of Cornwall and Rothesay and lady of the Isles, no longer Charles’s dirty secret and the wicked witch poisoning Diana’s life. Guided by Charles and some of the best PR expertise the royal family ever had the wit to employ, Camilla has won over the great British public, and with them, the strongly conservative Queen Elizabeth II and duke of Edinburgh.
The scale of her achievement can be seen in Charles. Nothing in his past indicated the happily married man he has become. As a couple, they are as deeply comfortable as a pair of old sofas, and the affection between them is palpable and sincere. Resolutely uncool, they don’t pretend to be anything other than a couple in their sixties, yet the physical attraction between them is plain: when Camilla recently patted Charles’s backside at a military base, it was a reminder that he has a good sex life with her.
This showed another of Camilla’s great strengths: her pleasure in meeting people and her ability to act naturally in public. Horsey to the core, she likes horsing around, and recently took the floor to cha-cha with a TV dance-show pro, a supremely unselfconscious move with clips of Diana’s dancing with John Travolta and others still about.
But, though Camilla enjoys having fun, she never seeks it. Genuinely unassuming, her readiness to play second fiddle to Charles is key to making the partnership work. Where Diana craved the limelight, Camilla avoids it like the plague. While Diana’s distresses led her to babble like a brook, Camilla would never blab about anything. Like the Queen Mother, she knows how to keep her mouth shut, and Charles loves her for that.
Best of all, Camilla is ever ready to take a joke against herself, as she did on a recent visit to a supermarket when presented with a reusable shopping bag reading, “I’m An Old Bag from Deptford.” Refusing to stand on her dignity, she has shown Charles his own pompous side. Helping him to mature into a warmer adult masculinity, she has largely cured the childish petulance that marked his behaviour before he married her.
Both Camilla’s virtues and her shortcomings could have been designed to appeal to the royal family and to Brits at large. Physically brave, as anyone who has ridden with the demanding Beaufort hunting party has to be, in 2007 she soldiered on through a hysterectomy without fuss. Her battle to give up smoking has won widespread sympathy, and her habit of swearing is not regarded as unladylike in a country where Elizabeth I had a string of favourite cuss words, beginning with “By God’s body, blood and bones!”
Camilla’s lack of style also proved a plus. Aristocratic Brits don’t give a fig about appearance, and distrust the Carla Brunis of the world. Camilla’s unstylishness made her accessible, and sits well with a nation whose ruler has spent 50 years raising frumpiness to the level of an art.
Camilla has now evolved a style of her own, with a judicious repertoire of shapes and colours, a heavy reliance on hats, and a look that never changes. In this, as in her discretion and public self-control, she is increasingly taking on the feel-good mantle of the late Queen Mother, still admired for her unvarying image and rock-solid reliability.
As in the way of all happily married couples, a lot of this fairy dust has brushed off onto Charles. It normalizes him to be a happily married man, not least because close and contented marriages are not the norm in Britain’s upper crust. From the 18th century onward, public schools, military service and gentlemen’s clubs all served to separate men from women, with predictable results.
Charles suffered all this and more in his search for a bride who had to be a royal partner too. Like all monarchies, England dealt for centuries in arranged marriages, when love was the last thing on anyone’s mind. His dilemma was acute. As a modern prince, he was expected to marry for love, but as a future king, he was trapped within the narrowest bounds.
When they met in 1970, Camilla was a prisoner too. Like any Jane Austen heroine, she had no future but marriage, no education, no training, and no prospect of a job. Upper-class girls simply “came out,” and were expected to find a husband in their first season, or at least their second. After that, they would be left on the shelf. For Camilla at 23, that danger was real. Too many parties and balls, too many hot nights in cold conservatories snogging chinless wonders among the calceolarias had left her with no clear prospects. A brief romance with the immature, confused Charles, then also in his early 20s, intent on an isolating naval career, only made things worse.
Was it panic or pique? Either way, Camilla married a man who did propose, Andrew Parker Bowles. The news cast Charles into a depression that never lifted till he got her back again. The long trek they both took through the arctic wastes of each of their unhappy marriages until they found each other again has struck many as romantic, epic even, in its strength and scope. Every culture has fairy tales of love triumphing over fate, human weakness and long, aching years apart. Charles was given a new respect when, with a steely resolve few thought he possessed, he won back his princess, fought off assorted dragons including the disapproval of his own mother, and finally made everything right. The magnitude of the reversal can hardly be exaggerated. Who did that?
Some credit must be given to Charles himself. He has grown in stature as time has vindicated ideas and attitudes for which he was once cruelly mocked. Lampooned as a fatuous tree hugger in the 1980s, he has now emerged as a pioneer on ecology and climate change. He also set up the Prince’s Trust to focus on youth unemployment and enterprise, a move that looks similarly prophetic today. His trenchant attacks on modern architecture enrage Britain’s chattering classes, but he speaks for the nation, widely supported by the majority of Brits. All this is part of his wider vision for Britain and the world. Never a modest man despite his raging insecurities, Charles wants to go down in history as the first modern monarch to Make A Difference, and he may well succeed.
But he’s still the One-in-Waiting. A major element in his rehabilitation has been the attitude of the Queen. Through all this, Her Maj has had to tread a canny path. As supreme governor of the Church of England, she cannot sanction flagrant out-of-wedlock activity, nor accept a quickie civil marriage as the answer to it all. Nor, in her quasi-mystical role as the sovereignty of the land and keeper of the nation’s conscience, could she simply bury it, as her generation was schooled to do. Her concern is the preservation of the monarchy at all costs. So when the Charles/Diana/Camilla triangle was at its most toxic in the ’90s, she distanced herself entirely from the affair.
Yet marriage in any form struck her as posing more problems than it would solve. A keen constitutionalist, she was determined to prevent Charles from doing anything that would weaken the monarchy and also her deeply cherished Commonwealth, one of the jewels in her metaphorical crown. A morganatic marriage (that would get her a wedding ring but no royal rights or titles) was raised only to be dismissed. It was no solution to the situation of Edward VIII and his love Wallis Simpson, and it wouldn’t wash now. Happily, Camilla was past child-bearing age: no future offspring would detract from William’s pre-eminence, and Harry’s as “the spare.” Finally persuaded that the couple’s marriage, even a civil one, would do more good than harm, the Queen gave a reluctant consent. Now, essentially pragmatic, she has accepted the reality and is happy for them both.
The Queen was also persuaded, as was the nation, by Camilla’s success in winning over Diana’s sons, possibly less of a challenge than it appeared. After the split with Charles, Diana figured less and less in her boys’ daily lives. With William and Harry carefully secured at boarding school, she had to settle for splitting the remaining time with her ex. The result was that she saw her boys on average for only about 85 days a year, a figure that Charles and the Queen were careful to keep at that level so as to limit the damage Diana could inflict by exposing them to Disney theme parks and Krispy Kremes.
And despite the maternal rhetoric, the damaged Diana never hesitated to use her sons for her own emotional purposes in the War of the Wales, not to mention for photo ops and feel-good PR. Camilla is only interested in their father, not in any stardom of her own. They like that, and they like her. Can we be surprised?
No, but Charles was. After all the friction with Diana, not least her attempts to turn the boys against him in her vengeful fantasy that William would somehow overstep Charles and prevent his father’s accession to the throne, Camilla felt to him like coming home. She feels the same about him. Day by day she helps him to do what he thinks he has to do, and seeing him through her eyes is making it possible for the British public to accept him as their future king.
Indeed, it’s already happening. At 83, the Queen is well past retiring age, and without fanfare, her overseas visits, investitures and public appearances are increasingly carried out by Charles. Through all these duties, Camilla will be at his side.
When will she be queen consort? Never, according to a proclamation when her engagement to Charles was announced. Just as it was decreed that she would never be princess of Wales for fear of provoking the bad fairies still hovering over Diana’s unquiet grave, so Camilla would be “the Princess Consort” when the time came. But as all Britain knows, from the lords in Parliament to the infant singing nursery rhymes in its crib, the wife of the king is the queen, and no words of Charles could ever alter that.
He knows this, of course. He knows too that it will need some stage managing, hence his careful smoothing of the way. Charles is utterly determined to succeed as the future king. To do anything else would be to accept the verdict of the dwindling band of Diana-lovers that he had done wrong and was not fit to rule. He is also resolved not to betray the trust his mother will hand down to him, her role in the Commonwealth and her special responsibility as Canada’s sovereign.
Day by day, then, he is earning public esteem. If he survives his mother, he will come to the throne on a wave of hard-won acceptance, after a lifetime on the subs’ bench, hoping for the call. It’s a rotten job, waiting for your mother to die. Camilla has eased that strain and helped him to live his life better by simply being himself. Has she done a good job? Canada will soon be the judge.