Aaron Barschak, who gatecrashed Prince William’s 21st birthday party last year, says the question he is most often asked is: ‘What was Camilla Parker Bowles like?’ He could do worse than refer the curious to Rebecca Tyrrel’s book. Born on 17 July 1947 (she is 16 months older than Prince Charles), Camilla is the daughter of an army major, Bruce Shand, and a society hostess, the Honourable Rosalind Shand (née Cubitt). Her paternal grandfather, P. Morton Shand, was an ‘insatiable Lothario’, who married four times. At the time of his third divorce, in 1931, the High Court described him as ‘a peculiarly shameless litigant’. On her mother’s side, Camilla’s relatives are racier still. Her great-aunt was Violet Trefusis, the lover of Vita Sackville-West. Even better, her great-grandmother, Alice Keppel, was Edward VII’s official mistress. It may be more than mere chance that the role of maîtresse-en-titre to the Prince of Wales runs in the family. Tyrrel says that, as a child, Camilla not only knew about her ancestor’s liaison but regarded the story as ‘talismanic’, and loved to brag about it to her schoolfriends.
Camilla’s education was expensive, ineffective and bizarre. She attended a prep school called Dumbrells, where a ‘large, crucified bat’ hung in the entrance hall. This appears to have set the tone of the establishment, which was by all accounts spartan in its accommodation and draconian in its discipline. ‘It was decreed,’ one contemporary of Camilla’s recalls, ‘that any possession found lying about must then be worn by the culprit for a whole day, including mealtimes. One older girl came to lunch wearing three hats; a younger one was sadly hampered by a large sewing basket tied to her waist.’
After Dumbrells came Queen’s Gate, an establishment that Camilla – armed with only one O level – left for finishing school in Switzerland. She is remembered by at least one Queen’s Gate contemporary (Lynn Ripley, who went on to become a pop singer called Twinkle and to marry the man from the Milk Tray adverts) as ‘the coolest girl in school’, despite never ditching her ‘twinsets and tweeds’.
An aspect of the 1960s that didn’t pass Camilla by was sex. She was known, according to Tyrrel, for being ‘raunchy and randy’. A nameless contemporary notes that Camilla – unlike her sister, Annabel – was very much the sort ‘to throw her knickers on the table’. In 1966, when she was 19, the knicker-throwing debutante met a 27-year-old lieutenant in the Guards, Andrew Parker Bowles. He was handsome, and his parents were ‘excellent in-law material’. His father, Derek, a steward at Newbury racecourse, was a great friend of the Queen Mother’s, while his mother, Ann (nicknamed ‘Rhino’), was the Chief Commissioner of the Girl Guides. The only drawback was that Andrew was a womaniser. Lady Caroline Percy, one of his other girlfriends at this time, says that ‘Andrew behaved abominably’, but Camilla was ‘desperate to marry him’. In 1970 Andrew took up with the 19-year-old Princess Anne: Tyrrel borrows from another royal biographer, Christopher Wilson, the speculation that ‘it was to Andrew’ that Anne ‘surrendered her virginity’. It wasn’t that Camilla was worried he might marry Anne (Andrew was Catholic and therefore out of the question) but that he had bagged the most high-profile catch available. Camilla had to do something spectacular to keep up. That summer, she chatted up Prince Charles at a polo match. ‘He was a bigger royal with bigger prospects than Andrew’s fling,’ Tyrrel says, and ‘he would have been looking pretty sweaty and macho post-chukka.’ Camilla soon started seeing Charles whenever he wasn’t off with the Navy, and Andrew whenever he wasn’t off with the Army.
Charles had been encouraged, by Mountbatten and others, to have relationships with what Tyrrel calls ‘sex-motherers’ – nice, experienced girls with whom he could have sex without having to worry about the consequences. Camilla was meant to be one of these. Meanwhile, Andrew continued to see Princess Anne until she took up with Mark Phillips, which finally prompted Andrew to propose to Camilla. They married in June 1973. The news distressed Charles, who was at sea. ‘I suppose the feeling of emptiness will pass eventually,’ he wrote to Mountbatten, ruminating on what had happened to his ‘blissful, peaceful and mutually happy relationship’ with Camilla. What made her so special? She was, he later told his official biographer, Jonathan Dimbleby, a ‘pretty’ and ‘bubbly’ girl, who ‘laughed easily and at the same sillinesses’ as Charles himself. Tyrrel is more blunt. Camilla was, she says, a ‘big-bosomed Goons fan’. But she clearly offered something more than this. Patty Palmer-Tomkinson is not the only friend of Charles and Camilla’s to have observed that Camilla loves the Prince ‘the way one loves a child’.
Whenever he was in England, Charles was a frequent visitor at Camilla’s house, even when Andrew was at home. It was not unusual for guests at Parker Bowles dinner parties to spot the Prince waiting patiently for Camilla in the kitchen ‘like a child’. He was, Tyrrel writes, ‘like the Winslow Boy, arriving home unexpectedly out of the rain, wanting nanny to give him a hot bath, a milky drink and, in the Prince’s case, a quick dip into her cleavage’.
Press speculation at the time about the women in Charles’s life focused on ‘leggy Sloanes’ such as Sabrina Guinness and Lady Sarah Spencer. Had the papers only thought to look in Camilla’s direction, they might have witnessed what one anonymous butler described seeing in her grandmother’s garden – Charles and Camilla doing ‘what Lady Chatterley enjoyed best’. Andrew did not object to the royal liaison: it kept the heat off his own affairs. Diana, however, was different: a virgin bride with no experience of the casually adulterous world in which her husband had lived as a bachelor, she naively expected monogamy.
Tyrrel questions whether Charles ever meant to give up Camilla when he married. For one thing, Camilla vetted Diana as she had done all Charles’s would-be-wives. (Her vetting criteria are unclear. ‘Was it their potential as a royal bride she was assessing,’ Tyrrel asks, ‘or was she gauging how much of a threat they might be to her own arrangement with Charles?’) Then there was Highgrove. The house in Gloucestershire which Charles bought the year before his marriage was only 11 miles from the Parker Bowles’s. In Diana’s eyes it was ‘bricks-and-mortar evidence of the colluding, of the fact that she had been duped’. But for all that Diana raged at Charles for his barely concealed relationship with Camilla, nothing changed. The collusion extended to the Prince’s close circle of friends, who could be relied on for their discretion and their willingness to put their homes at Charles and Camilla’s disposal. As Tyrrel has it, these large country houses were ‘Charles and Camilla’s very own Travelodges’. They were not as secure as they seemed, however: servants occasionally broke ranks. One miffed housekeeper told the Daily Mirror: ‘After she’s been staying, I find knickers all over the place.’ That Camilla’s knicker-throwing days were far from over was confirmed by a phone call Charles made to Camilla from one of these houses in 1989. Recorded by an anonymous snoop, the Camillagate tape came to light in 1993 (the year after the Queen’s annus horribilis, which had seen, among other things, Charles and Diana’s separation). The transcript was published all over the world. Fiji immediately announced that it would never again celebrate the Prince’s birthday; the Italians called him ‘Prince Tampaccino’.
The fall-out for Camilla was closer to home. Her husband wasn’t happy about being the nation’s best-known cuckold; her children were teased. Her son, Tom, the Prince’s godson, ‘was forced to listen to other boys at school reading the creepiest sections of the transcript out loud’. Camilla herself received hate-mail and crank calls. According to a friend, ‘for a time she thought she was the most hated woman in the country.’ She won sympathy in unexpected quarters, however. At the end of 1993, Spode produced a porcelain figurine called Camilla. It cost £165 and came with a ‘heart-rending little story’: ‘She had a secret admirer, but strict social etiquette forbids her talking to him, or even acknowledging him.’ Tyrrel doesn’t tell us how well the figurines sold.
The Parker Bowles marriage survived the humiliation of Camillagate. But in June 1994 – against Camilla’s wishes – Charles gave an interview to Jonathan Dimbleby. In response to the suggestion that his relationship with Camilla had caused the breakdown of his marriage, Charles said: ‘all I can say is there’s been so much speculation and feeding on every other kind of speculation so it all becomes bigger and bigger; but all I can say is, um . . . that, I mean, there is no truth in so much of this speculation, and Mrs Parker Bowles is a great friend of mine and I have a large number of friends.’
Although it upset the Scout Association, which has the Prince of Wales’s feathers on its crest, and will have to pledge allegiance to him when he’s king (it said that Charles did not represent the virtues the Association extolled of ‘honesty, integrity and the sanctity of marriage’), the interview – against all press predictions other than Dimbleby’s own – boosted Charles’s popularity with the public. It signalled the end of the Parker Bowles marriage, however. Camilla was forced reluctantly back into the spotlight, and Andrew was ‘galled and upset’. In January 1995, he and Camilla announced their divorce. Camilla moved to a new house in Wiltshire, only twenty minutes from Highgrove. One visitor described Ray Mill as ‘just what Charles wants a home to be – comfortable, chintzy and a place to squidge about in’. It’s a description that, in the light of the Camillagate tape, might apply to his mistress too.