Why Camilla Will Be Key to Prince Charles's Reign
The atmosphere was buzzing in a large, bright room at the top of London’s Science Museum, where 300 people gathered for the official launch of the Royal Osteoporosis Society. Formerly the National Osteoporosis Society, the charity was given rare approval from the Queen to use a royal title. It was a big day for the organization and also for its president, the Duchess of Cornwall, whose passion for helping people with the disease stems from a very personal tragedy.
Tugging at a piece of cloth to unveil a screen with the new name, Camilla clasped her hands and declared, to laughter, "I’m going to say a few brief words but I haven’t got any notes, so I could go anywhere." She went on to speak movingly about her family’s devastation at the death of her mother, Rosalind Shand, who died of osteoporosis 25 years ago.
Standing at the back of the crowd that day in mid-February, I felt very much that this was the Duchess of Cornwall in her element—and an example of royal endorsement at its most effective. Her desire to find a cure for this illness had spurred a level of interest and understanding that meant she was able to bring much more than just her royal status to the cause.
It was also clear that many of the people in the audience counted her, not just as a royal ambassador, but as an active colleague, and a friend. "I think she’s fabulous. I’ve met her many times and she’s great at bringing this to people’s attention," says Lynn Faulds Wood, a British television personality and journalist who is an ambassador for the Royal Osteoporosis Society. "The very first time I met her she said to me 'Oh I’m having trouble with my builders.' She’s very natural."
The Duchess has also earned praise for being as effective outside the spotlight as she is when everyone is paying attention. "She does secret visits. She does things that get no publicity," says Faulds Wood. Claire Severgnini, chief executive of the ROS, has had the same experience. Camilla goes "to meet the health professionals and the scientists and the academics behind the scenes" and "briefs herself," she says.
This is a side to the Duchess's work that the public does not get to see and one that many might find surprising. She did not, after all, see royal life as a calling. When she married Charles in 2005, as one person put it to me, she "married the man not the institution." Initially, according to one source, Camilla was "very careful about the issues that she wanted to put her name to" and made a lot of behind the scenes visits. Yet, throughout her 14 years in the royal family, these relationships—and the way she can make a difference with them—have formed an increasingly important part of her life.
Camilla was 57 at the time of her marriage to the Prince of Wales, and had never really worked outside the home. Now 71, the Duchess is patron or president of more than 90 charities and carried out 219 engagements in 2018, including 70 during overseas tours. She and Charles have just returned from a 13-day tour taking in 50 engagements across 10 islands, including an historic visit to Cuba.
Camilla is not as often on the front page as Charles's sons and their wives, but her role is one day destined to become more prominent. The royal apparatus has begun to prepare for the inevitable moment when the Queen's reign ends. Prince Charles increasingly represents his mother, providing a steady reminder that Camilla's position will one day be by his side when he becomes king.
Not only has the Duchess had to adapt to royal life, she had to do so against a headwind of withering criticism. Camilla married Charles after years of being the "other woman," perceived as the wedge in Charles and Diana's 'fairytale' marriage.
"When she joined the royal family it was a very different situation to the one we see now," says Rebecca English, the Daily Mail’s royal correspondent of 15 years. Pointing out that their team had to decide how to approach Camilla's public image in her new role, English says, "They decided the way to do it wasn't to ‘sell her’. They concluded that the best way to move things forward was to just let her be herself and let people see for themselves what she is actually really like."
She adds, "In just going out there and being herself she has turned her public image around from being one of the least popular royals to one of the most accepted."
Those who work closely with the Duchess today say she maintains the same attitude, keen to meet people and let them make up their own minds.
Camilla's obvious loyalty, and how happy she clearly makes Charles, have undoubtedly played a big part in the palpable shift in public perception. "They are a partnership. Her husband comes first and foremost in everything she does," says English.
But Camilla's impact on Charles is more than just companionship. "I think what she brings him is balance," says Robert Jobson, the author of Charles at Seventy: Thoughts, Hopes & Dreams. "She has a great sense of humor. As a result he’s smiley and laughing."
English agrees. "He's definitely a more relaxed person since she's been on the scene. I think we're starting to see a bit more of what he's like in private as well and she's responsible for bringing that out in him," she says. "It’s a side to him that everyone really likes."
Once described to me as a "glass-half-full" personality, the Duchess of Cornwall has a strong sense of fun. Her staff seem comfortable around her and happy in their jobs, with everyone staying pretty relaxed during moments when engagements become hectic or it looks like the itinerary might go out of the window.
During a visit to Liverpool’s Central Library for a literacy event, she shot an amused look at a senior aide when a child she was supposed to be reading with became distracted. At another engagement in Clarence House ahead of International Women’s Day, Camilla stifled laughter as Jude Kelly, founder of charity Women of the World, spoke of the "divine right of kings" perhaps not being useful any more. Happy to poke fun at herself, the Duchess even recently told an anecdote at Buckingham Palace about the moment several years ago when a taxi driver, not recognizing her, asked her what she thought of Camilla Parker Bowles.
"He was incredibly charming and I gave him a huge tip," she said afterwards to laughter.
Camilla is also well-liked by reporters and photographers. She is accommodating and often friendly, stopping to say hello when there is an opportunity and remembering things about the personal lives of journalists she sees regularly.
"She actually likes journalists; she likes the company of journalists; she likes the gossip and the fun and the sense of humor," English says. "She respects that you have a job to do and that sometimes you might write things that aren’t entirely comfortable for her or the family. But she doesn’t let that affect her day to day working relationship with you, which is professional and refreshing."
Jobson recalls one official visit to a vineyard in Crete where, he says, "she invited me to sit down and join in with the cheese and wine."
Her increased acceptance has come with the appreciation that loving Diana does not mean having to hate Camilla.
No one exemplifies this attitude more than Diana’s sons, William and Harry, who both greeted their stepmother with warm kisses on the cheek when they saw her at Westminster Abbey last month for the Commonwealth Day Service. When Harry was just 21 and still struggling to come to terms with his mother’s death, he said of Camilla, "She's not the wicked stepmother... she's a wonderful woman and she's made my father very, very happy." One of her granddaughters, Eliza Lopez, was a bridesmaid at William and Kate’s 2011 wedding.
Behind the scenes, Camilla is a driving force for keeping the family connected, spending time with Meghan and Kate when they first joined the royal family. She is also known to be the only person who might persuade Prince Charles to do something if all other avenues have failed. Just don’t criticize her husband. "She's fiercely loyal to him," Rebecca English says.
Yet, Camilla’s light touch belies the seriousness with which she now takes much of her work. Like the younger royals, she has realized that her position and influence can have a huge impact on a cause or organization.
One of Camilla’s big charitable focusses has been helping the victims of sexual violence, putting this topic, which has not always been discussed openly, on the agenda. She came up with the idea to distribute bags filled with toiletries to victims of sexual assault in 2013 after speaking directly to survivors. The Duchess has also raised awareness of domestic violence, including quietly visiting a women’s refuge during a day trip to Liverpool last month, where she turned up with books as well as jams and biscuits from the Highgrove shop for children living there.
Describing Camilla as "informal," one project worker says of her visit, "She seemed to have an understanding of what faces them and wanted clarification on how schooling effects the children that come in here, can the clients come back once they have left the refuge ... She definitely did seem to understand the issues that are faced."
English recalls a particularly moving visit with the Duchess to hear about the work of charity SafeLives, a group dedicated to ending domestic abuse, in 2016.
"All these people stood up, women who had been beaten up and abused by their husband over the years, mothers and fathers who had lost daughters to domestic violence and coercive control. She just sat there with tears trickling down her face, as did pretty much everybody who was in the room, because these stories were so powerful," English says. "I remember her turning to someone in the room and saying 'I will do everything I can to help you.'"
Her royal role has clearly given her a new purpose, but Camilla still holds on to many aspects of the "ordinary" life she had before she married into the "firm." She still maintains her own home, Ray Mill House, in Wiltshire, and often spends weekends there with her two children Tom Parker Bowles and Laura Lopes and her five grandchildren. She and Charles will often go their separate ways before reuniting to enjoy each other’s company.
And while the Duchess is committed to her work, she does not quite have the stamina of her husband, who carries out more than 500 engagements each year and works late behind the scenes. She has, on occasion, traveled separately from Charles on royal tours so she can create itineraries better suited to her. In 2012, she visited a retreat in India before their Diamond Jubilee tour started, and in 2018, she returned from Australia ahead of her husband. "When he has to carry on his relentless pace, he goes off and does his thing, she will slow up and do her thing,” says Robert Jobson, Charles's biographer. Camilla is also not a fan of flying but has not let that get in the way of her duties.
In 2016, the Queen made Camilla a member of her most senior advisory body, the Privy Council. This move not only demonstrates the regard in which she holds her daughter in law but also, as Jobson points out, means that "she will be in the room" when he is proclaimed king
What her title will become in that moment has been the topic of much discussion. Clarence House announced when they married that the intention was for her to be called Princess Consort. Experts have since pointed out that she will legally become Queen Consort however she is styled.
The general consensus is that she's not hung up on these things but many believe that it matters to Charles. "When the time comes, I believe Prince Charles will want Queen Camilla by his side," says Joe Little, managing editor of Majesty Magazine. Jobson agrees. "She will most definitely be Queen Consort, there’s absolutely no question about that," he says.
Either way, there can be no doubt she will be key to his reign. As Little says, "The Prince of Wales that we see today would not be the man that he is, the future king that he is, without the woman that he clearly loves."
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.