November 16 1998


November 16 1998

Will she ever be queen?



Turning 50, Charles faces calls to decide on Camilla

On Nov. 14, Prince Charles will mark his half century with a glittering birthday bash attended by many of the world’s most senior royals and

dignitaries. On his arm will be his longtime mistress and companion Camilla Parker Bowles, playing hostess at the high-profile gala. It is the closest she has ever come to stepping out of the shadows and into public view as Charles’s first lady. But his mother, the Queen, will not be there. She has made it clear she will not attend the same function as “that woman,” as she reportedly refers to his 51-year-old de facto consort. The Queen has organized a separate celebration at Buckingham Palace the evening beforehand to which Camilla, of course, has not been invited.

The royal soap opera is rarely far from farce, but it has begun to take on a pathetic, almost tragic guise now that the key participants are all past—or passing—the age of 50. After all, the whole world

Charles and Camilla have been in love for most of the past 25 years, ever since their first passionate encounter in their early 20s. They each have a divorce under their belts, and their children are on their way to adulthood. Their supporters contend that surely, more than a year after the horrific death of Charles’s ex-wife Diana, Princess of Wales, they could be allowed to find some kind of happiness together. Perhaps, but serious matters of state hang on the outcome—not least whether Britain might one day have a Queen Camilla helping to pore over the daily boxes of documents that arrive from the corridors of power for the scrutiny of the sovereign.

Amid intense media speculation, pressure is mounting on Prince Charles to stop dithering and make clear his intentions. The alternative, royal experts fear, is that the issue will plague the Royal Family for the rest of the Queen’s reign, and well into the prince’s. “For now, however skeptically, we must take

the prince at his word that he will put duty first and not inflict the divorced Mrs. Parker Bowles upon a hostile nation as its future queen,” says Anthony Holden, royal biographer and author of a new book, Charles at Fifty. “But Charles in turn must also understand that the British people will not long tolerate, as he hopes, the present impasse.”

It is a complex dilemma. On the one hand, the mood for change is in Prince Charles’s favor. The Royal Family is in the throes of modernization, with the Queen driving moves to restore the monarchy’s relevance for the 21st century. There are also strong signs that the Church of England will soon relax its stance on the remarriage of divorcées, unions not recognized under existing rules. Crucially, some senior members of the Church of England have recently defended his relationship with Camilla. “Her friendship is very important to him, that’s quite obvious, and I am not one of those people who thinks he should give her up,” said the Bishop of Southwark, the Right Rev. Tom Butler.

Furthermore, Prince Charles has begun to claw back some of his reputation so damaged by Diana’s accusations that he was unfaithful, cold and the cause of much of her marital misery. Several glowing biographies timed for his 50th birthday have depicted him as a caring family man whose devotion to his motherless sons, Prince William, 16, and Prince Harry, 13, is winning him new public respect and sympathy. As a result, he and Camilla have been taking tentative steps

to bring their relationship into the open. In recent months, they have both attended a number of private functions hosted by mutual friends. As always, however, they discreetly make their exits and entrances separately, in the event a paparazzo is lurking outside.

It is equally clear why the couple, for the moment at least, are choosing to maintain the status quo of weeknights alone but long weekends together behind the closed doors of the country houses of loyal chums. Following Prince Charles’s televised confession of adultery with her in 1994, Camilla became one of the most hated women in Britain. Opinion polls consistently show the public will not countenance her as queen, although lately they have shown a softening on the idea of marriage. But a new book by prominent journalist Penny Junor, Charles: Victim or Villain ?, which vilifies Diana and is claimed to have been sourced from Prince Charles’s friends, has done little for the couple’s cause.

If Prince Charles were determined to marry her in defiance of public opinion, countless problems would have to be solved. Would the cleric asked to perform the ceremony be able to overcome the discomforting fact the couple had lived in sin? Could Camilla be an uncrowned consort, and if so, what would her royal status and duties be? Most importantly, could Prince Charles win the blessing of his mother, whose permission he needs to remarry under the 1772 Royal Marriages Act?

According to Holden, Prince Charles is now “fed up to the back teeth” with the continued need for deception in his relationship with Camilla. “Charles desperately wants to be able to take Camilla in her own right to Balmoral, to Klosters [ski resort], even to Windsor,” says Holden. “He wants her to win his sons’ acceptance, which is, of course, the key to eventual public approval.” Gaining the favor of the two boys, with whom Camilla has had only a couple of brief meetings, will be no easy task. “Camilla is the one woman who can make their father happy, but she is also the woman who made their beloved mother so unhappy,” Holden says. “It seems probable, as they grow older, that they will find it in their hearts to forgive, if not forget.”

Holden is among a growing group of royal watchers in Britain who believes Prince Charles has only two options: to marry Camilla or renounce her. He points out that the situation may not be completely bleak. At 72, the Queen may have another 25 years to reign if she lives as long as her mother, now 98. In that case Prince Charles would be 75 before he took the throne. If he married soon, the public would have years to accept his new wife before he was crowned. And it is entirely possible that the younger generation will wonder what all the friss over Camilla was about as they eagerly await the reign of the dashing young King William V.