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2020

Camilla at 70: a woman transformed

In the small Women’s Aid office in a faded Bristol square, the Duchess of Cornwall sat at a crowded table, her eyes welling.

The experiences being recounted by the women she was sitting with were harrowing; violent assaults, threats to kill, relentless and remorseless bullying by former partners.

One woman looked her in the eye and described how she lost her sons, aged 12 and nine, when they were unlawfully killed by her vengeful ex-husband in a house fire in which he also died.

The duchess leant toward her. “They would be very, very proud of you for what you are doing now,” she said, as the woman nodded quietly. “It must be such a difficult thing to do to sit up and talk about it,” added the royal. Coercive control was “such a taboo subject that hasn’t always been talked about. But now, thank goodness, it’s out in the open.”

For two hours she had been listening and learning from survivors of domestic abuse. Not that many outside this room would be aware of this. Newspaper headlines the following day were of the Duchess of Cambridge’s “flyaway hair” during a windy visit to RAF Wittering.

For those there, however, her presence had a meaningful impact, they said. “She’s amazing for taking this on because it’s not a glamorous cause,” said one. “She brings the message to a completely different audience, middle-to-upper class, when the usual is a young single mother on benefits,” another enthused. “She was just in disbelief over the number of women’s refuges closing, you could see that,” said a third.

Her own life experiences, her manner, the fact “she hasn’t lived her whole life in the royal family” make her empathetic, said Polly Neate, then CEO of the charity. “And I think it is really brave of her to take on something like this.” It’s not easy, Neate added, to get celebrity endorsement for such an “unglamorous” cause.

As the Duchess of Cornwall celebrates her 70th birthday on 17 July, her public image is worlds away from “the Rottweiler” and vilified royal mistress of two decades ago, following the shocking death of Diana Princess of Wales.

She is now the most senior female royal after the Queen – a state of affairs that would once have been unthinkable. Those working closely with her say she had sought to use this profile to embrace causes close to her heart; literacy, cancer care, credit unions, osteoporosis, the military, rescue dogs – and donkeys.

Many have been surprised that she has chosen to engage so passionately with the issue of domestic violence and sexual abuse, determined, as she sees is, to pull back the shroud of “corrosive” silence.

“Well, I am not sure what I am able to bring,” she explained in a quiet corner of the Women’s Aid office after meeting survivors. “It’s what all these very brave ladies tell me. It’s seeing is believing. Hearing is believing. Like many other people in this country, I didn’t know much about domestic abuse, in fact I knew nothing at all.”

She added: “It was a taboo subject. But I think we can talk about it now. And if I can talk about it, and bang the drum a bit, so can a lot of other people. So, that’s what I try to do to help.”

For charities, having her as champion is all the more important because one day she will be Queen – or Princess Consort.

The latter is, of course, a fudge, dreamed up by the last Labour government and embraced by Clarence House as a way to pacify detractors outraged when, following a brilliantly executed PR campaign by Charles’s aides, she finally made it to the altar with her prince, albeit for a church blessing of their civil wedding.

Queendom remains a thorny issue, even 12 years on. She can call herself what she likes, but come the time, constitutional experts argue, she will be queen when Charles is king.

“I think she has no great longing to be anything, actually,” said Penny Junor, whose biography, The Duchess: The Untold Story, has just been published by William Collins. ”But he [Charles], I think he is so proud of her, I think he would want her to be his queen, and anything else might be a bit second best. That’s my instinctive view.”

Junor added: “Anyone who thinks she was a schemer who wanted to be Queen, or Princess of Wales, or anything, absolutely has her completely wrong. I think that has been the hardest bit for her, being in the limelight. She is a private woman, who enjoys her privacy, and enjoys normality, and she likes nothing more than going home and seeing her children and grandchildren.”

“I’d say she is very warm and easy, unselfconscious and doesn’t stand on dignity,” said Gyles Brandreth, author of Charles & Camilla. Her transformation from marriage wrecker to part of the establishment has been “rapid and remarkable”.

Camilla, known as “Milla” to friends, joined the royal family in middle-age without the forgiving filter of youth. Yet that has been her strength, say those who know her. There can be no comparison with the impossible and eternal glamour of Diana. Diana danced with John Travolta at the White House; Camilla can be found dancing with the Sun’s royal photographer at a tea dance in Bristol.

One of three children to Maj Bruce Shand, who had a distinguished military career, winning the Military Cross before becoming a wine merchant, and Rosalind Cubitt, her childhood was spent in Kensington and Sussex with dogs and ponies and prep and private school. She left school with one O-level. A stint at a Swiss finishing school equipped her with the skills required to marry well, keep a house, and “find your way around a menu and the ski slopes of Gstaad”, as Brandreth put it. She first met Andrew Parker Bowles at her “coming out” party as a debutant in 1965.

Her relationship with the Guards officer, whose family were close to the Queen Mother, would eventually result in marriage, two children, and a country manor house. Her relationship with Charles, which began before her marriage, then was rekindled afterwards and during his own marriage to Diana, led to her becoming a prisoner in her own home, fearful of public hostility and press hounding, especially after Diana’s death.

“It was horrid. It was a deeply unpleasant time and I wouldn’t want to put my worst enemy through it,” she said recently.

Twenty years on, this period of her life is something she has been able to make light-hearted self-deprecating reference to. Brandreth highlighted an occasion when, as president of the Oscar Wilde Society, he invited her to make the toast at the annual meeting. She plunged in: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about,” quoting Wilde, before adding , to laughter, “one of the few maxims of the great 19th century writer, Oscar Wilde, that I’m not sure I would entirely agree with”.

Now her outlook is brighter. “She has utterly, utterly transformed not just herself, but actually the Prince of Wales,” said Junor. “It has been a complete and utter turnaround, of the most dramatic proportions.”

Part of her undoubted success is down to her confidence, say those who know her. She plunges into conversations with strangers with enthusiasm. Royal photographers, used to their presence in far-flung corners being treated with casual indifference, find her an obliging, easy and chatty subject. She sometimes mothers them, warning them not to forget to put on sun cream.

She has the hard-won support of the Queen, and is surrounded by loyal old friends – Amanda McManus and Joy Camm are key advisers in her private office. With growing confidence and experience, she has taken on more patronages with each year: she is now patron of 90 organisations, and in the process, say acquaintances, has found her public voice.

And, in the main, she has also found public acceptance. Of her relationship with Charles, Brandreth said: “It makes a broader point about the royal family. One of the reasons for its survival is, somehow, it seems to adapt to the times in which it exists. The set-up of Prince Charles with her children, and her with his children, the having a second family, is not unusual in modern British society And they are part and parcel of it.”

“I think everyone understands it, and is relaxed with it.”