Update, Sept. 8, 2022: Queen Elizabeth passed away Thursday, leaving her son Charles as king and his wife, Camilla, as queen consort. But that title was not always a guarantee—Camilla’s place in the royal family has long been fraught. Given the occasion, we are revisiting this 2005 story by Laura Barton, which looks at Charles and Camilla’s relationship and how it beat the odds.
This Saturday afternoon—blizzards, horse-racing, and papal funerals permitting—will see the blissful union of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles—or Fred and Gladys, as they apparently delight in calling one another. The length and breadth of Britain, the bunting will surely flutter and the commemorative mugs will be raised in damp-eyed toasts to the happy couple. For the story of Charles and Camilla is a tale of true love; a love, indeed, that has stretched across decades, marriages, and, at times, the white-knuckled wrath of the British public.
Their eyes first met at a Windsor polo match in that heady summer of 1971. The weather was damp, and “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” was No. 1 on the charts. Legend holds that it was Camilla—then Camilla Shand, a debutante with aristocratic lineage and an equestrian bent—who made the opening gambit, telling the mildly dashing young prince that one of her ancestors, Alice Keppel, had been the mistress of Edward VII. “My great-grandmother and your great-great-grandfather were lovers,” she is said to have purred. “So how about it?”
Truly, what man could resist? And so commenced a courtship cemented by those old relationship stalwarts, a shared sense of humor and a passion for blood sports. Alas, their sapling romance was cruelly thwarted when Charles, then an officer in the Royal Navy, sailed for the Caribbean. By the time he returned, eight months later, she was engaged to a young cavalry officer named Andrew Parker Bowles, who wasn’t a prince, but looked good in riding pants.
So, a forlorn and dejected Charles set about finding a princess, dating a succession of pretty young damsels, but with one eye forever resting wistfully on the vision that was Mrs. Parker Bowles. The story goes that in the end it was Camilla who helped Charles find a suitable wife in the shape of Lady Diana Spencer, and furthermore that he proposed to her in the Parker Bowles’ cabbage patch. However, in private, CPB is said to have referred to Diana as “that ridiculous creature.” In years to come, Diana would retaliate by labeling Camilla “the Rottweiler.”
Despite Charles’ involvement with Diana, and the fact that Camilla was now married with two children, the relationship did not appear to wane. At one point, a British newspaper reported that the 19-year-old had spent several hours with the prince aboard the royal train as it stood in a siding one evening. Alas, it seems the female passenger was not Diana at all, but Mrs. Parker Bowles. And, not long before the wedding, Diana happened upon a bracelet Charles had bought for Camilla, engraved with the letters “GF”—assumed to stand for “Girl Friday” or Gladys and Fred—nicknames plucked from Charles’ beloved Goon Show.
The tapes of Diana’s conversations with her biographer Andrew Morton revealed further salacious insights into Charles and Camilla’s affair; for example, how the newlyweds argued on their honeymoon when he persisted in wearing a pair of cufflinks that had been a gift from his former—and future—mistress. And how Diana claimed to have finally confronted Camilla at a party in 1989: “She said to me, ‘You’ve got everything you ever wanted. You’ve got all the men in the world in love with you and you’ve got two beautiful children, what more do you want?’ So I said, ‘I want my husband.’ “
Not long after the publication of Morton’s book in 1992 came “Camillagate”—perhaps one of the proudest moments in the history of Britain’s monarchy, nay, of the nation. Camillagate revealed alleged recordings of intimate telephone calls between Charles and Camilla made in 1989: “Oh God,” says the prince at one point, “I’ll just live inside your trousers or something. It would be so much easier.” “What are you going to turn into?” Camilla darts back. “A pair of knickers or something?” “Or, God forbid, a Tampax,” replies Charles. It is for this reason, if no other, that 59 percent of the British public believes that Charles deserves to be crowned king.
In 1994, Charles confessed to adultery on national television, and, the following year, by which time Camilla and her husband had divorced, Diana herself referred to Charles’ long-running affair in an interview on the BBC. “There were three of us in the marriage,” she famously whispered, as the nation’s hearts filled with bilious rage, “so it was a bit crowded.” The prince and princess of Wales divorced the following year. A year later, Diana was dead.
In the aftermath of Diana’s death, the idea of Queen Camilla seemed frankly incomprehensible to a nation awash in grief. At one point, she was even pelted with bread rolls in the supermarket. However, in the years since then, Camilla has earned the begrudging acceptance of much of the British public through a carefully marshaled campaign of public appearances and Valentino gowns. Come Saturday, even the bah-humbuggers will have to agree that there is at least one reason to celebrate their union: The heir to our throne will no longer have to contemplate being reincarnated as a tampon. And that has to be good news for all of us.