Rumpled jacket, windswept hair, smoking and drinking with aplomb and a love of bawdy jokes… The day I first met Camilla she was no one’s idea of a Queen. But now I think she’ll help save the monarchy, writes PETRONELLA WYATT
All Coronations are notable for different reasons. My father, the politician and author Woodrow Wyatt, attended the Coronation of the late Queen in 1953.
It was an occasion the like of which will never be seen again. Its solemn pomp and grandiosity reflected the status of a nation that still retained the remnants of an empire, and in which deference to the titled was as natural as breathing.
The Coronation of Charles and Camilla is a conscious reflection of a very different world and will bear their own imprimatur.
Not least in the attendance of the Queen’s ex-husband, Andrew Parker Bowles, who has been invited to Westminster Abbey in contrast to senior members of the peerage who’ve been relegated to a social Outer Hebrides.
His friends would say he certainly deserves the honour of a seat in the Abbey. It could even be argued that without Andrew Parker Bowles and his weakness for women, which drove his wife back into the arms of the then Prince of Wales, there would be no Coronation — at least not for Camilla.
One of the most laudable and lovable characteristics of our new Queen Camilla (pictured) is her loyalty and lack of stiff-backed formality, writes Petronella Wyatt
As it is, far from being envious of his former spouse’s position, the 82-year-old former cavalry officer enjoys an unusually warm friendship with both Camilla and the King. A man without jealousy is as rare as a diamond devoid of imperfections, and in this sense Andrew is flawless.
According to a close friend, ‘He will always support Camilla, and she him. They talk all the time, and he finds the whole thing vastly amusing.’
While every peer in England was invited to Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation, no more than 20-odd will attend that of her son and his wife.
Indeed, May 6 promises to be much more of an intimate affair, particularly for Camilla. One of the most laudable and lovable characteristics of our new Queen is her loyalty and lack of stiff-backed formality, qualities I have experienced first hand.
I first met Camilla and her then husband Andrew at a race meeting in the late 1980s when I was 18. It will be strange watching her crowned, for it is the last thing anyone who knew her then would ever have predicted.
It was a breezy day and the air was barely warmed by the March sun. Camilla and Andrew were late, but when they arrived it was to a murmur of pleasure. Camilla Parker Bowles, born Camilla Shand, was not an aristocrat like Diana Spencer, but the daughter of country gentry.
Her unfashionable clothes reflected an uncomplicated nature with a love of the outdoors. Her jacket was rumpled and her hair windswept. Her skin reacted to the elements but she had arresting blue eyes and her only make-up, a slash of pink lipstick, made her incongruously exciting.
She drank and smoked with aplomb. Her humour was dry and bawdy and it was impossible not to feel her puissance.
Charles, Prince of Wales and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall are pictured attending the State Opening of Parliament in the House of Lords, at the Palace of Westminster
She was nobody’s idea of a future queen, however. But perhaps it is that informal quality that makes her the perfect consort for the 21st century.
Relatable, calm and easy-going, she is more likely to shriek with laughter if her dress doesn’t fit than retreat into a cold Windsor huff.
And when the history of our age is written, when scholars look back with the dispassionate gaze that is the gift of Time, Queen Camilla may well be remembered for one thing. Though a person of past controversy, she will, in my view, be adjudged not as the woman who nearly destroyed the Monarchy, but as the woman who helped to save it.
For here is a figure who plays with a straight bat and has a basic fineness about her. I knew the Queen Mother, whom Prince Charles adored, and often thought that Camilla and she were very similar, and that was part of her attraction.
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Both women could be defined as a certain British type: very game, with a perennial twinkle in the eye and a healthy enjoyment of a stiff drink.
The Queen Mother had married a weak man who became king, and by her charm and the strength of her personality shored and ballasted him. Charles had myriad weaknesses, the worst of which were self-pity and gloomy introspection.
In light of this, Camilla was no socially ambitious Wallis Simpson sort, flattered by the attentions of a future king, but a down-to-earth woman who was, in any case, used to mixing with members of the Royal Family. (Andrew had had a youthful affair with Princess Anne and they remained friends.)
The Crown and its titles held no lustre for her. It was Charles she loved, despite his complexities, or perhaps because of them. He needed her in a way that the buccaneering Andrew Parker Bowles never had.
The monarchy is no more than the sum of the individuals who make it up, and Charles, in those days, was problematic. His Eeyore-ish tendencies, his combination of entitlement and occasional petulance were alarming. ‘If he didn’t like his boiled egg,’ one acquaintance who stayed at Highgrove, Charles’s Gloucestershire home, told me, ‘he would order literally 20 more in rows, all cooked one minute more than the other. Nor could you contradict him. If he pointed to a picture and said it was a vase, you had to agree.’
Camilla picked up a damaged soul, and patiently put him back together again. It was not an enviable job, but it was one the Queen Mother had performed with her darling ‘Bertie’, (King George VI).
‘Camilla was maternal, jolly, calm, and a complete antidote to the hysterics of Diana. Without her, he might have had a real breakdown,’ confides a mutual friend, who added, ‘the other thing he loves is that she is completely free of snobbery and has the common touch.’
I knew the Queen Mother, whom Prince Charles adored, and often thought that Camilla and she were very similar, and that was part of her attraction, writes Petronella Wyatt (pictured)
But like the Queen Mother, she has a backbone forged of steel and a quiet determination. Camilla’s fittings for the Coronation, and her choice of jewels for the occasion, reflect a woman increasingly conscious of the image she wants to portray and her growing confidence in her role.
‘Charles wants her to have everything she desires,’ one of her closest friends told me. ‘It’s not a Meghan and Harry situation. There are no upsets or strops, but she is increasingly in control, particularly when it comes to the Coronation and how she should appear.’
Indeed, in recent months there has been what the same source refers to as ‘The War of the Crowns.’
‘It’s really very funny,’ I’m told. ‘The trouble is Camilla has a very large head. It’s much larger than the late Queen’s, and it’s been a rather comical struggle getting the crown she wants on it.’
Not that there is a scarcity of choice in the Royal Collection. There are seven fit for a Queen. The Queen Mother’s crown, though an obvious choice, was discounted because it contains the problematic Koh-i-Noor diamond.
An initial alternative was Queen Victoria’s small diamond crown, which was not designed to cover the entire head of its wearer. The crown was commissioned in 1870, and is made from silver, set with 1,187 diamonds. It was designed for versatility and following the death of Prince Albert, Victoria wore it above her widow’s cap for State Occasions.
The arch could be removed and the crown worn as a tiara. An exquisite piece, it was also favoured by King Edward VII’s wife, Queen Alexandra. ‘This idea didn’t sit well with Camilla,’ I am told. ‘She thought it would look silly on her, like an ornamental birdcage.’
Camilla’s fittings for the Coronation, and her choice of jewels for the occasion, reflect a woman increasingly conscious of the image she wants to portray and her growing confidence in her role
A more magnificent item was chosen in the form of Queen Mary’s Crown, made in 1911. It has, however, required extensive modification. Some of its stones have been replaced with sizeable diamonds from Elizabeth II’s personal collection of jewellery. But the major problem, I hear, ‘has been getting it on Camilla’s head. There were a series of fittings which made it quite apparent it wouldn’t go on. Camilla was very game as they tried to bash it on her head and hooted with laughter, but in the end they gave up.’
The crown was taken away to be enlarged, and now fits almost to perfection.
‘Not everyone was amused, however. Some of the late Queen’s ladies in waiting have baulked at the Queen’s personal jewellery collection being broken up so soon.
It is instructive to note that such is Queen Camilla’s self assurance that she brushes aside such concerns.
So far has she come from the pariah she once was at the height of Diana’s media campaign against her rival, that there will be no ghosts at her Coronation. Neither Diana’s brother Earl Spencer, or her two sisters, Sarah and Jane, are thought to have been asked to Camilla’s big day.
It is as if an invisible line has been drawn under the past. May 6 will mark the dawn of a shiny new age, and leftovers from a bygone era have no place in it. This also applies to the peerage.
Much aristocratic umbrage has been taken at the Palace’s refusal to invite more than a handful of hereditary peers. There is more anger and frustration that peers who have received an invitation will not be allowed to wear their coronation robes or coronets. Once again, this shows social nous from the new Queen.
‘The coronation robes have real fur and it was decided this would not be a good look,’ I am told. ‘Parliamentary robes have artificial fur, so peers will wear those instead. This has caused sneers about a Woke Coronation, but it’s what Camilla and Charles want.’
Ede & Ravenscroft, the London company that has made and stored coronation robes for centuries, is similarly dismayed.
Camilla has also reconciled her husband to the media and its attentions. While Charles was once fractious, now he is emollient as Camilla ensures that photographers are always given the picture they want
Storing fur-lined velvet robes in temperature-controlled environments is a costly business, running into ten of thousands per year. One peer tells me: ‘They’re so angry that they may sell all their coronation robes and coronets to rich Americans. Which opens up the prospect of a bunch of Texans wearing our ancient and historic robes to fancy dress parties. One shudders at the thought.’
Yet it would be churlish to denounce such breaks with tradition. Camilla, like Charles, is conscious of the expense to the taxpayer of events such as the Coronation and she grounds her husband, who is not averse to overspending when it comes to his comforts.
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Before his marriage to Camilla, he insisted on sending his own bed linen and pillows ahead of him when staying in the houses of friends, much to their frustration.
Despite Harry’s snide canards in his book Spare and on American talk shows, Camilla is no scheming manipulator playing a long game for the throne.
The love of her two children, Tom and Laura, who will attend their mother next week, and the loyalty of her former husband is a testimony to her sound character and her good nature. Andrew Parker Bowles lost his second wife, Rosemary, to cancer and is now a widower.
‘Camilla worries about him a lot,’ says a mutual friend. ‘Perhaps she hopes he’ll meet a nice new wife at the Coronation. I wouldn’t put it past her. She wants those she loves to be happy.’
I would call that a very welcome trait in a Queen and one that will likewise serve the nation. With her innate understanding that the monarchy’s survival in the 21st century is dependent on rectitude, hard work, and a degree of modesty, Camilla has an understanding of the challenges that lie ahead.
She has also reconciled her husband to the media and its attentions. While Charles was once fractious, now he is emollient as Camilla ensures that photographers are always given the picture they want.
‘There is a feeling that with her at his side he could be a remarkably good king, and one cannot think of a better queen,’ says a courtier.
Indeed, it should be with a feeling of gratitude towards Camilla that the nation looks forward to the coming celebrations. Here is a woman who has pulled a man back from the abyss.
Before she died, the Queen Mother was fondly known as the nation’s favourite granny. I would not be surprised if one day that title goes to her grandson’s wife.
My only worry for her day in the spotlight is that her crown stays on. But if Camilla’s head is too big, thank goodness it is not in the figurative sense.
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