Camilla is our first Queen who used to do a weekly shop in Sainsbury’s – and that very ordinariness may be her greatest asset, writes RICHARD KAY
She wasn’t born to be a queen, yet she will be one. She had no desire for a crown, yet she will now wear one. She felt no need for a life embroidered with titles yet, she is now Her Majesty, with all the pomp and pageantry that involves.
The journey that has taken the former Mrs Camilla Parker Bowles from mistress to Queen Consort at the side of King Charles has been both remarkable and, at times, brutal. It has meant acquiring a resilience and a sense of purpose that few believed she could possess.
Along the way, since her marriage to the Prince of Wales in 2005, she has managed to display a bold and imaginative jauntiness that has been warm, well-received and unthreatening.
Now comes an even bigger test. As wife to the monarch where her words and deeds will receive even greater attention, these accomplishments will be ever more necessary. But to be a success in this role she will need more.
So how will she approach this daunting new stage in her life, and is she, at the relatively advanced age of 75, equipped for all that it entails?
Those who know her best, her family, are confident that she is. One key attribute, they say, is that she brims with common sense — a quality that is sadly in short supply in the current Royal Family.
Camilla Parker Bowles is the only queen to have once done her shopping in Sainsbury’s, as seen in this 1992 photograph of her in the supermarket car park in Gloucestershire
Today she is the Queen Consort to King Charles III. Pictured: Camilla arrives at The State Opening of Parliament on May 18, 2016
They also point to her unfussy ordinariness. Indeed that very ordinariness may turn out to be her greatest asset.
She will, after all, be the first crowned Queen Consort who used to do the weekly family shop at Sainsbury’s and who once upon a time only had one smart dress (from Monsoon) in her wardrobe.
‘She gets the mystique of royalty but she also has this approachable side which means she knows about the economies of running a home,’ says a close friend. It is this emotional intelligence which has been vital at shoring up Charles at times of personal crisis.
Some things must and will change. Can she, for example, continue to retreat as she has as Duchess of Cornwall to the reassuring familiarity of Raymill House, the Wiltshire bolthole she refused to part with after marrying Charles?
This, remember, is where she kicks back and where her children and grandchildren are spared the formalities of royal residences and where no one frets if the washing up is piled too high.
But as the Sovereign’s wife there will be fewer opportunities for such escapes — and many more demands on her time. There will also be other homes, including Buckingham Palace, where it has been years since a monarch and consort have lived together. (Prince Philip moved out on his retirement from royal duty in 2017 and the Queen chose to spend most of her remaining time at Windsor Castle.)
Camilla is responsible for transforming Charles from the angry and bitter figure that emerged from the ruins of his marriage to Diana to the confidence he exudes today
For Charles, the time it took for him to come to the Throne was known by those around him as the ‘eternal wait’.
But it did mean he was the most well-prepared monarch in British history. In Camilla, meanwhile, there has been a subtle difference during her 17 years as Charles’s wife.
As one friend put it: ‘She is prepared but she has not been preparing: there is a difference. It means she has been aware of the future but not planning for it.’
It is more than 70 years since Britain last had a Queen Consort and it is tempting to wonder if Camilla will model herself on the late Queen Mother, who earned the undying gratitude of the nation supporting her hesitant husband King George VI during the dark days of World War II.
Certainly she will want to cushion Charles as indeed Queen Elizabeth did for Bertie — and Philip for his Lilibet — at times of trouble, which are certain to come.
But because she is a relative newcomer in royal terms, she will be a more supportive figure than those previous icons, happier in the background.
Her brilliance, say fans, is that she has ‘very good radar’. These friends say that she always knows what is going on, is good at picking up palace gossip and can sift fact from fiction. She also has good judgment.
It was Camilla’s ear, attuned to potential danger, that persuaded Charles last November finally to part with long-standing aide and former valet Michael Fawcett following the cash-for-honours scandal. It also revealed a little of her ruthlessness — for it was Fawcett who did much to help smooth her path from pariah to partner in the years after Princess Diana’s death.
King Charles III and Queen Consort Camilla arrived yesterday at Buckingham Palace
Camilla waved for the cameras and showed them a smile and she and the king left Buckingham Palace for the first time as King and Queen Consort
That has always been her strength, though conducted out of public view. If there is hesitancy — and there was certainly a little when she accompanied the King to greet mourners and well-wishers outside the Palace yesterday — it is only to be expected.
Charles is a master at meeting crowds and it has often been the case that as Prince it was he who was putting his wife at ease at such events, rather than the other way round — as it so often was with Philip and the Queen.
In the early days of her royal life Camilla’s stamina could not keep up with the demands on her time. Now those physical demands are going to be even greater. The next ten days are going to be the most gruelling she has ever faced, at an age when most of her friends are comfortably retired and facing nothing more demanding than babysitting grandchildren.
She will also need to come to terms with her fear of flying as for five years at least Charles will want to make his mark in the Commonwealth.
Camilla will be more in the public eye now than at any previous time, including those dark days when she was outed as the ‘third person’ in Diana’s marriage.
And yet when she has the chance to sparkle she does so with style.
While lacking the intellectual range of Prince Philip, Camilla does, however, also have an erudite outlook that complements her husband. Her passion for books —she is patron of the National Literacy Trust and the Book Trust — means we will have perhaps the most cultured monarch and consort ever, encompassing literature, art and architecture. One area where she can undoubtedly perform a public service will be in soothing her husband’s often-worried brow. As Prince he has frequently crossed swords with politicians: as King he will be risking his crown if he does so.
She understands that and she has been instrumental in recent years in persuading him to moderate his opinions.
Camilla Parker Bowles arrives at The Ritz in London Thursday, October 29, 1998, just one year after the tragic death of Diana Princess of Wales
Camilla, then, is responsible for transforming Charles from the angry and bitter figure that emerged from the ruins of his marriage to Diana to the confidence he exudes today. Yet her evolution is even more extraordinary.
So much has changed. This time exactly 25 years ago Camilla was living in virtual hiding as she was scapegoated for death of the Princess of Wales.
When Charles later went to see his mother to try to win her support for his relationship with the then Mrs Parker Bowles, he was firmly rebuffed. The Queen, ever conscious of the fragility of the Throne, wouldn’t hear of it.
For the next few years the relationship was conducted privately and off-limits, except to a handful of close and trusted friends. When it did finally emerge into the spotlight, the woman once seen as the problem for the monarchy was being hailed as the solution.
Camilla adjusted to her ever-changing life with remarkable sangfroid. It is hard to believe she didn’t allow herself a small smile when the Queen’s reported view was related to her as: ‘Since Camilla isn’t going anywhere, she may as well be welcomed.’
The Queen knew that being monarch required teamwork.
She and Philip had been a team: and the fears she’d had about Charles and his obsessions stemmed from a concern that he had no one with whom to share the burden of responsibility.
‘Camilla has always treated everything as an adventure,’ says a friend. ‘And if she adopts the same strategy to being consort, it might all be less of an ordeal than she fears.’
There will be adjustments. She will have to accept being less accessible in public than she has become accustomed to — possibly a little cooler, too. ‘Don’t forget the word ‘majesty’ means dignity. Both she and Charles will have to make themselves a little more remote in their encounters with the public,’ says a long-time royal adviser.
For now the novelty of her new position will take priority for Camilla. If it is in danger of overwhelming her — as well it might — she can rely on the two people who will ensure her feet remain on the ground . . . her children Tom and Laura.
Camilla, the Queen Consort, arrived by carriage in the parade ring, on the second day of the Royal Ascot horse racing meeting near Windsor, England, Wednesday, June, 17, 2009
They had ringside seats when their mother was being vilified by critics at the height of the Wales’s marriage crisis. Unencumbered by titles, they are also critical in giving their mother those real-life experiences from which the Royal Family remain detached.
‘She has always been part of their lives, knows and likes their friends and this has been a healthy distraction from her other existence as a royal,’ says a close figure.
The coming days will be a time of great change for the former duchess. There will be planning for the move into the Queen’s apartments at Buckingham Palace — rooms barely altered since the 1950s. And who to keep and who to let go among the staff.
The passing of the crown is always abrupt — and for Camilla, who never expected to be Queen, the change is likely to be profound.
At 73, the reign of King Charles III is unlikely to be marked by any jubilees as his mother’s was. Indeed his task would seem to be to secure the monarchy for William and Kate.
Once that is safely negotiated, it seems certain that the next phase of his kingship will be to present him as a grandfather figure, in the same way King Edward VII was styled after the long reign of Queen Victoria.
This will offer Camilla the appealing prospect of emulating the Queen Mother as grandmother of the nation. It’s a role she seems ready made for.
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