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Inside the Queen’s ring of steel: How Camilla is coping without the King

Camilla
Camilla

It was an intimate Valentine’s Day gathering of some of the Queen’s close confidantes.

Organised by her friend Gyles Brandreth, the evening saw Camilla finally let her hair down after what has been a fraught fortnight behind palace walls.

Joined by her sister Annabel Elliot and pals including Dame Judi Dench, Dame Joanna Lumley and Sir Stephen Fry, the ‘Celebration of Shakespeare’ event was designed to bring some welcome cheer following the King’s cancer diagnosis.

Although the monarch, 75, was originally expected to attend, after another round of treatment in London on Wednesday, he left his wife to enjoy an evening of performances by stars of stage and screen.

Ever the King’s “rock”, Camilla once again put best foot forward to honour the commitment, in the interests of crown and country.

If the shock news of her husband’s condition has been taking its toll on the Queen, then she certainly hasn’t been showing it as she continues to live up to her reputation as someone who “gets on with it”. Even a whistlestop visit by Prince Harry, who described her as his “wicked” stepmother in his autobiography Spare, wasn’t enough to put her off her stride.

As one source close to the couple pointed out: “It has been pretty phenomenal how the Queen has kept the show on the road.”

Queen Camilla (front row third left) smiles as she poses with Dames (L-R back row) Joanna Lumley, Floella Benjamin, Twiggy Lawson, Harriet Walter, Penelope Wilton, Maureen Lipman (L-R front row) Virginia McKenna, Siân Phillips, Vanessa Redgrave, Penelope Keith and Patricia Routledge
Queen Camilla (front row third left) smiles as she poses with Dames (L-R back row) Joanna Lumley, Floella Benjamin, Twiggy Lawson, Harriet Walter, Penelope Wilton, Maureen Lipman (L-R front row) Virginia McKenna, Siân Phillips, Vanessa Redgrave, Penelope Keith and Patricia Routledge - Chris Jackson/Pool via REUTERS

Referencing the royal engagements she has carried out since Buckingham Palace announced the news on Feb 5 – including a six-hour journey to Salisbury after a storm grounded the royal flight, the insider added: “She has undertaken a range of duties, both big and small, including a visit to the Maggie’s Centre at the end of last month when she knew the King’s condition but couldn’t share it. What a trouper she is at 76 with a poorly husband.”

Ailsa Anderson, the former press secretary to the late Queen Elizabeth II said perhaps not enough credit is given to Camilla for being front and centre of the King’s “slimmed down” monarchy.

“People forget that she hasn’t been brought up to do this role. The King and Prince William know their destiny but she’s relatively a newcomer to the Royal family.

“She’s a grandmother, but she’s a wife as well – she’s got to support her husband. Anyone who knows someone who has had cancer knows how hard it is for the spouse.”

Everybody needs a friend in a time of crisis and the Brandreth organised evening of entertainment proved the perfect pick-me-up. Celebrating the work of the English playwright, the event in Grosvenor House, Mayfair featured recitals by Dame Judi, Gary Oldman, and Robert Lindsay.

Camilla makes small talk with Gyles Brandreth at the event
Camilla makes small talk with Gyles Brandreth at the event - Chris Jackson/Pool Photo via AP

Among the 300 guests were “a dozen dames” including Dame Vanessa Redgrave, Dame Eileen Atkins and Dame Penelope Keith. Summing up the mood, Sir Stephen said: “Whatever you think of the monarchy, their role is to bind the nation together, and they are doing that. It was terrific to hear the support for the King tonight, every taxi driver and barista I talk to wants to wish him well.  He is genuinely so self-questioning, it is one of his most endearing qualities, I don’t think he would believe it – all the support.”

Yet while the King is undoubtedly in the thoughts and prayers of many, who exactly is Camilla turning to as the going gets tough?

Conspicuous by their presence at the Shakespearian gathering were some less well-known names upon whom the Queen has increasingly come to rely in the wake of her husband’s health problems.

Foremost among them is undoubtedly Mrs Annabel Elliot, who was by her elder sister’s side at Westminster Abbey for the Coronation last May, later joining the King and Queen on the Buckingham Palace balcony with her grandson Arthur Elliot, then 11, acting as one of eight pages of honour.

The sisters have always been incredibly close, with the interior designer Annabel involved in the renovation of many Duchy of Cornwall estates.

Camilla talking with her sister, Annabel Elliot, in 2011 on a visit to Cornwall
Camilla talking with her sister, Annabel Elliot, in 2011 on a visit to Cornwall - Ben Birchall/PA Wire

But the death of Simon Elliot, 82, Annabel’s husband of 50 years, just months before the Coronation has brought them even closer – as did the sudden death of their brother Mark Shand in 2014, aged 62.

So close were the Elliots to the King and Queen that when Charles and Camilla celebrated their honeymoon in Balmoral in 2005, Annabel and Simon joined them. Reports suggested that royal staff were instructed to lay “the wedding night table for four instead of two”.

It came years after the couple had allowed a much younger Charles and Camilla to meet secretly at their country house in the Dorset village of Stourpaine. Annabel continued to support her sister throughout the difficulties of the relationship, driving Camilla away and out of public view when John Major announced in the Commons the separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1992. It was at Annabel’s 40th birthday party when Diana confronted Camilla over her relationship with Charles.

A decade later, at Annabel’s 50th birthday celebrations at the Ritz, Camilla came out as Charles’s partner, using the occasion to pose for their first public pictures together on the hotel steps.

Charles and Camilla in 1999. appearing as a couple for the first time
Charles and Camilla in 1999. appearing as a couple for the first time - Neil Munns /PA

Renowned for her loyalty to those who helped her through the trials and tribulations of the War of the Wales’s, another of Camilla’s rocks is her best friend and “companion” Lady Lansdowne, who also appeared on the Buckingham Palace balcony as the Queen’s other attendant on Coronation Day. An interior designer known professionally as Fiona Shelburne, Lady Lansdowne said of her role in the historic ceremony: “She [Queen Camilla] is fiercely loyal to friends and that will be reflected in who goes to the big day. She wants to be loyal to the people who’ve stood by her.” The pair have been friends since Camilla married her first husband Andrew Parker Bowles in 1973 and set up home at Middlewick House in Corsham, Wiltshire.

Lady Lansdowne has spoken of giving Camilla a place of refuge at the Bowood Estate, the Lansdownes’ family home in Wiltshire, when media interest in her private life reached fever pitch in the mid-1990s. “She was out on her own without any protection,” she revealed. “That was where we could help — she would come and stay with us with the children. I went and got her out of Middlewick one day, there were cameras up against all her windows. But she is resilient.” The pair are so close that Lady Lansdowne is godmother to Camilla’s daughter Laura Lopes.

In appointing six “companions” rather than ladies in waiting, Camilla has cannily ensured that her royal life is supported by a close knit group of girlfriends she has known for years. Also providing wise counsel are Jane von Westenholz, Lady Katharine Brooke, Sarah Troughton, Lady Sarah Keswick and Baroness Chisholm.

Lady Katherine is the daughter of Lady Susan Hussey, who served as the late Queen’s lady-in-waiting for more than 60 years while Troughton also has royal pedigree as the King’s second cousin via her maternal grandfather, who was the brother of Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. She was a lady-in-waiting to the Duchess of Kent from 1990 to 2000. On Good Morning Britain, in 2022, she sang Camilla’s praises, saying she is “the nicest, kindest, most amusing friend one could possibly have”. Her grandson, Nicholas Barclay, was one of the King’s four pages at the coronation.

Life peer Baroness Chisholm gave up her job as a Tory whip to join Camilla as a Queen’s companion. The trained nurse is, like the Queen, a horse racing fan and was spotted at Royal Ascot with Charles and Camilla in 2021. She used to go fox hunting with the couple before it became illegal.

Lady Sarah, who is married to the former chairman of Arsenal Football Club, Sir John Chippendale “Chips” Lindley Keswick, is another close friend and was photographed with Camilla in the royal box at Wimbledon in 2011. She accompanied the King and Queen to Royal Ascot last year.

Beyond these women, Camilla is of course supported by her art curator daughter Laura, 46, and her food writer son, Tom Parker Bowles, 49, with whom she remains incredibly close. One of the reasons the Queen retained Raymill, her post-marital Wilshire home, was to spend time with her children and grandchildren away from the trappings of royal life.

But there is one more person in her life upon whom she is increasingly reliant – her ex-husband Andrew Parker Bowles. Some were surprised to see the former Army officer, 84, at the Coronation but they remain in “regular contact”, according to someone who knows them both well.

Andrew Parker Bowles is still close with Camilla (pictured together at The Cheltenham Festival in 2014)
Andrew Parker Bowles is still close with Camilla (pictured together at The Cheltenham Festival in 2014) - Danny E. Martindale/Getty Images

As one friend previously explained: “He arranges so much for her. They have lunch together the whole time. He’s right in there. He was always, and still is, Camilla’s co-conspirator.”

Known as “The Bridgadier”, Andrew is thought to have become closer to Camilla, who he divorced in 1995, following the death of his second wife Rosemary Pitman, in 2010 – although they were never on bad terms, as evidenced by Parker Bowles’s invitation to the royal wedding in 2005.

The former military man is bringing up the rear of a formidable army of supporters ensuring that Camilla can keep calm and carry on while the King fights his cancer battle.