Camilla and Queen Elizabeth
One of the Queen Consort’s greatest challenges was getting Queen Elizabeth to accept her both as a member of the Royal Family and her daughter-in-law. Her Majesty had found her eldest son rather irritating as a child and his refusal to move on and abandon Camilla meant he was still not doing as he was told.
Queen Elizabeth was also influenced by her mother, who had wanted the then Prince Charles to marry Diana Spencer and enjoyed a warm relationship with Camilla’s first husband Andrew Parker Bowles. Royal author Robert Jobson once wrote: “It was a fact that Camilla’s name was not allowed to be spoken in the presence of the Queen Mother.”
Prince Charles’s 50th birthday in 1998 could have been a dignified opportunity for Queen Elizabeth to lift her long-term snub of Camilla. Princes William and Harry sent handwritten invitations but at the time she turned down going anywhere Camilla might be present. Prince Philip also declined.
Camilla’s close friend Lucia Santa Cruz believes that Queen Elizabeth’s strong rebuff was less about Camilla as a person and more about her concern that her son and heir wanted to marry below his rank: “When Camilla was married to Andrew Parker Bowles, she used to go to Balmoral with him and join the Royal family. They got on marvellously well with her… But when the marriage failed and she was with Prince Charles, she was rejected and got all the blame, which was so unfair.”
By 1999, despite the feeling that the public might at last be softening towards her, Camilla continued to be ostracised by the Royal family. She wasn’t invited to the wedding of Prince Charles’s youngest brother Prince Edward that June. But an historic meeting between the two women finally took place in June 2000 at Highgrove, at the 60th birthday of the exiled King Constantine of Greece.
Queen Elizabeth knew Camilla would be there and it seemed to be a dignified opportunity for her to acknowledge Charles’s companion. Although the two women did not sit at the same table, it was a highly significant public moment. Queen Elizabeth had finally agreed to follow the recommendations of her advisers and end her long-running personal boycott of Camilla.
It would have been a welcoming gesture to invite Camilla to the Royal family’s Dance of the Decades at Windsor Castle two weeks later but no invitation was proffered. A souvenir booklet from the party listed Prince Andrew’s “special guests”. Included were Ghislaine Maxwell, daughter of Robert Maxwell, and Jeffrey Epstein, who, at the time, was simply known as a man who enjoyed the company of beautiful women. Queen Elizabeth didn’t block Andrew’s “special guests” but felt Camilla shouldn’t be seen at the family gathering. Andrew Parker Bowles was invited as a guest of Princess Anne.
This public humiliation was demeaning enough that it wouldn’t have been a surprise if Camilla had walked away. But she is made of sterner stuff.
In the years that followed, their relationship warmed. A turning point came after Charles and Camilla’s engagement announcement. This was carefully timed to coincide with the couple attending a glitzy gala dinner at Windsor Castle. Camilla looked stunning in a fiery red v-necked dress but the main interest focused on her engagement ring, a 1930s Art Deco design worth about £100,000. It had belonged to the Queen Mother and was passed down to Queen Elizabeth, who in turn gave it to Camilla, proof that she had finally accepted Charles’s determination to marry her.
The Queen Consort was always deferential to Queen Elizabeth, despite her early efforts to block her relationship with Charles. Once Queen Elizabeth had softened to her, she, in turn, handed over many patronages, when they became too much to manage.
During the pandemic, Queen Elizabeth is said to have further recognised the Duchess of Corwall’s worth. So much so Her Majesty was shown how Zoom worked so the two women could chat and discuss what the future might bring.
Soon after Prince Philip died, Camilla was chosen as one of the four women – along with Catherine, Princess of Wales, Princess Anne and Sophie, Countess of Wessex – who would try to help the newly widowed Queen feel less alone. They were called by some the “gang of four”.
Bringing Camilla on board – a woman Queen Elizabeth had refused to see or speak to for years – was a sign that the Queen Consort had survived the brickbats, obstacles and insults, and that finally Queen Elizabeth had accepted her for who she was.
Camilla and Prince Andrew
It was obvious that other senior royals, notably Prince Andrew, did not want Camilla around either back then. Prince Charles and Andrew have rarely got on well together, except for a short time while they were both married. This is partly because there is usually contention between the first and second in line of the succession; he was, after all, the “spare” until Prince William’s birth. Most of all King Charles and Prince Andrew have very different personalities, values and approaches to life.
Queen Elizabeth asked several people for advice on the matter of Prince Charles marrying Camilla, including Prince Andrew. She had always had a soft spot for Andrew, who seems to have had a way of persuading her to do what he wanted. This time, a senior insider told me, he had a treacherous request. “He tried to persuade the Queen to block Charles marrying Camilla by being quite poisonous, mean, unhelpful and very nasty about Camilla.” His claims included that she was insufficiently aristocratic and that she was not to be trusted.
The same individual went on to say that “when Diana was alive, through her friendship with Andrew’s wife Sarah, [Duchess of York] she plotted with Andrew to try to push Prince Charles aside so Prince Andrew could become Regent to Prince William, who was then a teenager.
“They were dark and strange times, where paranoia became reality, and this was a worry. Andrew lobbied very hard with the hope that Charles would not become king when his mother died, and that William would wear the crown.
“His behaviour was very, very negative and extremely unpleasant to Queen [Elizabeth], who disagreed. I was told it was one of the rare occasions he didn’t get his way.
“Nonetheless, he was apparently very angry that he couldn’t rule the country in some way. He remained so hostile to Camilla’s emergence and acceptance that it’s doubtful it has ever been forgiven.”
Camilla and Princess Anne
Princess Anne reportedly gave Camilla the cold shoulder too. It was little consolation that Anne had also had a frosty relationship with Diana, Princess of Wales, who she had no time for before she married Charles nor for Sarah, Duchess of York. Her relationship with Camilla was particularly awkward as they had both been involved with Andrew Parker Bowles.
Like many people who didn’t know Anne well, Camilla found her demeanour difficult and somewhat unnerving to cope with [at first]. Anne was, for many years, opposed to the idea of Camilla being granted the title of Queen Consort. She once claimed: “Camilla will never be a true queen.”
For years Anne kept away from Camilla as much as possible. However, time has proven to be a healer and Anne has seen for herself how hard Camilla has worked for the monarchy and her sense of duty. She has appreciated this and, as one of the hardest-working royals herself, gradually became more amenable.
Camilla and Prince Philip
Camilla’s relationship with the Duke of Edinburgh started coldly. In 1992, the Duke expressed his feelings about Camilla in several letters he wrote to Diana, of whom he was very fond. Rosa Monckton and Lucia Flecha de Lima told Gyles Brandreth that they read the letters with Diana.
He wrote that Prince Charles “was silly to risk everything with Camilla’, and ‘We [he and Queen Elizabeth] never dreamed he might feel like leaving you for her. I cannot imagine anyone in their right mind leaving you for Camilla.”
It must have been painful for Camilla to know what her father-in-law thought about her. But over the years their relationship gradually blossomed as he got to know her better and saw the positive transformation she had brought about in his eldest son.
Prince Philip also found that he and Camilla also had much in common, particularly a love of horticulture and reading. They also shared a self-deprecating sense of humour. More importantly, after she married King Charles, he could see her own dedication to duty and how loyal she was to her husband.
Camilla and Princes William and Harry
When Camilla’s divorce from Andrew Parker Bowles went through in 1995, King Charles gradually began introducing her to the public, something that was done with the utmost care. However it took a long time to find an opportunity to introduce her to his sons. He made sure that Camilla was never at Highgrove when the princes came to stay. He tried suggesting the boys meet her a couple of months before Diana, Princess of Wales’s death in 1997, but both went very quiet, and he immediately dropped the subject.
Wisely he waited a year after Diana’s death before once again approaching his objective of getting Camilla accepted by his sons. This time he invited Camilla’s children, Tom and Laura, to stay at Birkhall, his Aberdeenshire estate. King Charles was enormously relieved that, despite Tom and Laura being older than Princes William and Harry, all four seemed to get on well.
It was around this time that Princes William and Harry decided to throw a surprise party for their father’s 50th birthday. They knew he would want Camilla to be invited and that it would be best all round for them to meet her privately first. William told his father he would be coming to London and asked him to arrange a meeting on 12 June 1998.
Prince William turned up unexpectedly early. Camilla offered to disappear, but her aide Amanda MacManus suggested it would be a good idea if they met earlier. William agreed. They talked for about half an hour and their meeting apparently went as well as could be hoped for. The prince was friendly and Camilla was sensitive enough to let the relationship progress at William’s pace and not ask difficult questions. When it was over Camilla announced: “I need a gin and tonic!”
She and Prince William met again for lunch soon afterwards. She had tea with Prince Harry a few weeks later, which also seemed to go well.
The princes went full steam ahead for the party to be held at Highgrove. Greek statues were placed in the walled garden and entertainment was a Blackadder-style comedy starring Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry. King Charles was enormously touched by the trouble his sons had taken and particularly that they had invited Camilla and sat her in a prominent place.
In the years that followed it became a high priority to continue to build a strong rapport between Camilla and Princes William and Harry – something her close friend Gyles Brandreth had no concerns about. “I remember going to a fundraising charity event at Highgrove in the late 1990s. I was so impressed by how at ease she was with Harry and William and how relaxed Prince Charles was too. The boys had taken a table with their friends for the event and, just before Charles and Camilla were going off to bed, she squatted down by their table and chatted to them. I watched the body language and thought, ‘this is no wicked stepmother or trying to be what she isn’t’. She was perfectly normal and so were they, and I thought this is clearly going to work for the family.”
Although Camilla had met and talked to Prince William, it was only a couple of face-to-face meetings – over tea and for lunch – and could never have been enough to build any sort of relationship.
A rather nervous King Charles told his sons early in 2005 that he wanted to marry Camilla. It wasn’t a surprise, but nor was it going to be easy for the princes to accept the woman their much-loved mother had blamed for the break-up of her marriage. You could tell Prince William was glad his father was happy just by looking at his face while Prince Harry was more effusive. At the time, he was quoted as saying: “She’s a wonderful woman and she’s made our father very, very happy… William and I love her to bits.”
But after the wedding it became clear that his sons weren’t as keen on their stepmother as it appeared but were just being polite before and at the wedding. Instead, both William and Harry had arguments with their father that I’ve been told were “hardly respectful”.
It is always difficult to take on the role of stepmother and William and Harry presented the then-Duchess of Cornwall with an almost impossible challenge.
One insider felt that being Prince Harry’s stepmother in particular wasn’t easy. “The Duchess always felt quite wary of Harry and used to see him out of the corner of her eye looking at her in a long and cold way. She found it rather unnerving. Otherwise, they got on quite well.”
The insider adds: “She never interfered directly or tried to be a surrogate mother. Instead, she was a supportive figure in the background.”
Today, the Queen Consort gets on well with the new Prince of Wales and Catherine, Princess of Wales. An insider might call it “a very grown-up rapport”, which basically means their relationship works, but they are not in each other’s pockets. Her relationship with Prince Harry, however, developed somewhat differently.
Camilla and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex
The Queen Consort knows more than anyone how difficult it is to become accepted into the Royal family and wanted to help any newcomer. This worked well with Catherine. Camilla helped her familiarise herself with some of the customs, antiquated protocols and restrictions of royal life. She also took her out for a girls-only lunch some weeks before her wedding, and on another occasion Catherine and her sister Pippa, plus Camilla’s daughter Laura, to the Berkeley Hotel restaurant in Knightsbridge. One of Catherine’s friends said, “Camilla’s exceptional warmth has really touched Catherine.”
Similarly, Camilla warmly greeted Meghan when she came to London. Prince Charles enjoyed talking to her, especially about the theatre and arts. Camilla felt the experience she had from coping with public abuse, press insults and frostiness from the Royal family put her in a good place to help Meghan adjust to the restrictions of royal life and was equally keen to help Meghan find her feet.
They had lunches together and Camilla spent a lot of time offering advice on how to handle the pressure. She tried to be supportive, was happy to be her mentor and took her out for private lunches. A source at the time told me: “She doesn’t want to see anyone struggling and she is fond of Meghan.”
Meghan, however, seemed bored, was unresponsive and preferred to go her own way, with the result that the Queen Consort’s advice landed on stony ground.
Meghan had a reputation for being a hard worker. Her first solo project since joining the Royal family was contributing to Together: Our Community Cookbook, showcasing more than 50 recipes from women from the Grenfell community, published a year after the Grenfell Tower fire of 2017. The Queen Consort and King Charles wanted to show their support and invited the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, plus their friend Lucia Santa Cruz, to lunch at Highgrove. Lucia recalls: “As a surprise, Camilla went out of her way to make sure the lunch consisted only of recipes from Meghan’s cookbook, and that included a very hot salsa. It was a really nice gesture.” One that made no impact.
It was a shock when, in January 2020, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex stepped away from their senior positions in the Royal family. The Queen Consort behaved as she did when she was verbally attacked in the 1990s. This was to avoid talking about it and concentrate on supporting her husband.
The only hint of a response came on 19 January when she visited Prospect Hospice in Wiltshire and a reporter unexpectedly asked her whether she was missing the couple. The Queen Consort looked as if she had been taken by surprise. She smiled enigmatically, paused, said “hmmm”, followed by the word “course”, then walked smartly away.
A reliable source has told me that Prince Harry has recently been very negative about Camilla, but believes it, “could be part of his therapy process to relive certain things and he may want to blame someone else for his own mistakes. As I understand it his father and stepmother have become hateful in his mind. I’ve also been told that Meghan has been horrible about her too.”
Another source added: “What has happened and how [Prince Harry] has behaved has been very upsetting for her. There have been a lot of hurt feelings all round, but like all families you have to embrace it all and hope it will improve.”
Their relationships today
Fortunately, time has helped improve Camilla’s relationship with senior royals, including William, largely thanks to Catherine, who is a peacemaker and wants to strengthen the family rather than tear it apart. Camilla is also a conciliator and doesn’t nurse grievances. They both believe that supporting their husbands is a priority. Catherine has a love of the arts, which Prince William doesn’t particularly share, and often goes both privately and publicly with the Queen Consort and King Charles to see art and crafts exhibitions. Or she goes with the Queen Consort as a twosome.
In February 2022, Catherine joined the King and Queen Consort on a visit to the Prince’s Foundation, which all three enjoyed. In fact, the rift that Prince Harry left seems to have brought William, Catherine, Charles and Camilla closer together. Prince William was not part of the decision-making process for Camilla to be Queen Consort but respected Queen Elizabeth’s judgement.
Even the Queen Consort’s relationship with Princess Anne keeps improving. Royal expert Robert Hardman says: “Camilla and Anne see each other at horse racing events… Anne has her own circle and life, but I’m sure when they meet there is a lot of animated discussion about horses.”
As to the future relationship with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, I was told that there are several options. One is to hope that “interest in what the couple say fades away”. My source said, “Indeed, it already looks as if they have written themselves out of the script.” Other options suggested were to “shrug off” any harmful comments Prince Harry might make or “try to privately negotiate some kind of ceasefire. But that is unlikely to work if Meghan just wants to win.”
An important alternative is to keep America close. My source added, “The Sussexes are more liked in America than in the UK, which can damage not only Charles and Camilla but the whole monarchy. The American issue has to be dealt with. The Cambridges have to go to the US to show who the real stars are. As will the Queen Consort and King Charles.”
Abridged extract from ‘Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall: From Outcast to Queen Consort’ by Angela Levin, which is out later this month (Simon & Schuster, £20); pre-order a copy at books.telegraph.co.uk
Read the first exclusive extracts from Angela Levin’s biography of Camilla here: