Farrah Fawcett hair, a plummy ex-smoker's Jilly Cooper voice and an affair which made her the nation’s ‘Other Woman’ behind her: our new Queen Consort has not had the most traditional path to the throne. She has been openly mocked and vilified and yet, in recent years, quietly and often enthusiastically accepted – not least by the late Queen Elizabeth II who, months before she died, declared it to be her “sincere wish” that Camilla be known as Queen Consort “as she continues her own loyal service”.
It is a role one imagines a young Camilla Shand would never have dreamed of – nor probably ever really wanted for herself. Much as the late Queen, who was only in line for the throne once her uncle abdicated, initially dreamed of becoming a “farmer’s wife”, so Camilla also grew up with hopes for a laid-back rural life. She was born into undeniable privilege – her mother was the daughter of a baron and her father was a retired army officer who had made himself a sizeable fortune – but it was a far cry from the royal palaces and scrutiny which surrounded her now-husband, King Charles III.
Camilla was raised in what seems like a pastiche of the country set, setting her up to be a keen rider, and a lover of dogs, horticulture and gin and tonics. As a young woman in London, she was a member of Charles’ extended social set (cue nights at Annabel's and polo matches in Windsor) and worked as a receptionist, until she was allegedly fired for coming in late after a party. When she married the rakish army officer Andrew Parker Bowles (rumoured to be the inspiration for Jilly Cooper’s infamous Rupert Campbell-Black) she became a country wife, who famously did the weekly shop at Sainsbury’s. This all contributes to the image we have of Camilla as a down-to-earth, self-deprecating woman, who is always up for a good time (though she has, apparently, quit the ciggies).
Yet, of course, for many years, she was not a witty high-society darling with a penchant for dry gin and Labradors, but Public Enemy Number One: the woman blamed for the destruction of Charles and Diana’s marriage. She was the wicked witch who blew up a fairy tale. During this time, she was eviscerated in the press, had her appearance mocked, her dress sense decried and her private life exploded, as her intimate letters and phone calls to Charles were exposed to the public. She was not afforded much understanding. She was instead, a punchline. Despite the rehabilitation of her 2005 marriage to Charles, and later dedication to public life as the Duchess of Cornwall, it is a scandal she will never quite outrun. Though her approval ratings have risen in recent years (53 per cent as opposed to 21 per cent now think she will make a good Queen Consort) there are many who will never forgive her.
Yet Queen Consort is now where Camilla finds herself. It is likely to be a role, much like Duchess of Cornwall, which she will adapt to with stoic acceptance and her signature wit. She consistently makes jokes at her own expense – apologising to photographer Jamie Hawkesworth this year for “having to photograph this old bat” – and her famous affable eye rolls at her husband are now more under the spotlight than ever before. She makes light of her own role in this institution, yet she takes the work itself seriously. She has been a huge supporter and champion of women’s causes – from helping survivors of sexual and domestic abuse to shining a spotlight on osteoporosis, a health issue she fought for long before her royal marriage. As the Duchess of Cornwall, she also took on causes including animal welfare, homelessness and literacy, launching an online reading club and working as a patron of Silver Stories, which pairs young people with the elderly, to read to them and keep them company. One expects that her list of patronages and duties will only grow now.
Her greatest role is, however, as a balustrade for the new King. It’s a description that Camilla herself would find suitable, not reductive. She is, after all, only in this position – after years of public humiliation – because of him. Our new Queen Consort is still, ultimately, a woman who would rather be doing the weekly Sainsbury’s shop and probably wishes Charles was just another country boy she grew up with and not our new head of state. In this way, she might just be perfectly suited to a slowly shifting, more pragmatic monarchical era. Even now, we see her dry wit tempering his flashes of irritation, her eye rolls diffusing pomp and circumstance. She may be a Queen Consort who sits next to the King on a throne, but she is a woman who will undoubtedly be responsible for keeping him down to earth.
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