Has Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, finally emerged from Diana's shadow?
OPINION: Today the House of Windsor will mark two anniversaries: its centenary, and the 70th birthday of the Duchess of Cornwall.
George V changed his family's surname from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha owing to anti-German feeling during the Great War. A hundred years on, the Windsors are enjoying a period of high public esteem: and that is not least down to how the Prince of Wales appears to have been rehabilitated in the hearts and minds of the British people, many of whom disdained him and blamed him after the death of his first wife, Diana, Princess of Wales, almost 20 years ago.
The Duchess has been central to that rehabilitation - not by any scheme, plot or stratagem, but simply by being herself. Told at one recent event that the organisers were "humbled" she had come, she looked aghast and replied it was she, by contrast, who felt humbled by the work they did.
She is more than simply a consort. "She looks after him," says one who has worked closely with the Prince, "but it's more than that - she knows how to manage him."
The Duchess is nothing like the "scarlet woman" caricature manufactured by those angry at what they consider to have been her part in ending the Prince's first marriage. Her friends and staff know that the Prince of Wales's transformation from national pariah to someone whose eventual Kingship is now viewed with equanimity is largely down to her.
This was not the result of a public-relations campaign: it was thanks to the Prince being married to someone who makes him happy. "When I'm in the back of the car with him," says a former courtier, "he is constantly referring to 'my darling wife'." The talk - always ridiculous - of the throne passing directly to the Duke of Cambridge was commonplace, but is rarer now. She has made her husband a more relaxed, genial figure who more easily disarms all but his most fervent critics.
"You must never forget it is a real love match," one of the Prince's friends told me. "He has changed hugely because he is at ease with himself. And he is at ease entirely because of her."
The Prince remains demanding - when he wants something done it angers him that it was not done yesterday, and he shares his father's salty vocabulary in expressing his displeasure - but the atmosphere around him and his household is nothing like the walking-on-eggshells grimness of the Nineties, at the memory of which some veterans roll their eyes in horror.
"I think there were some days in the Nineties when he found it hard to go on," a former courtier says. "The newspapers would be full of Diana's latest revelations about their marriage, and he had to do yet another visit to some Prince's Trust scheme.
It is said they were attracted to each other in the Seventies because they laughed at the same things. A picture earlier this month of them both chortling while listening to a performance of Inuit throat-singing during a visit to Canada showed they retain that bond. "She is entirely genuine. She likes a drink and a smoke," says an old friend.
"The Prince has become much more human because of her," a courtier told me. "He's always been able to see the absurd in any situation, and she shares that. What they both rather like is humour that verges on the crude."
The Duchess had one piece of good fortune that her husband seems to have been denied - being nurtured by a down-to-earth and loving family. Her parents, Bruce and Rosalind Shand, put no distance between themselves and their children, and let them develop naturally in a way that a boy destined to be King of England could not. Although well-to-do, her parents were not grand, and snobbery was not part of their outlook. The immediacy with which the Duchess engages with people, whether on duty or socially, comes from her complete lack of side. "She is completely un-grand," a friend notes, "and treats everyone as an equal."
Her friends remark on her loyalty. "You only have to see how she stuck by the Prince all those years to understand that," one says. "Towards the end of his marriage, and after it, he was the friend in need. Not only was she there, she was entirely discreet." Her friends are quick to point out that she remains on good terms with her former husband, Brigadier Andrew Parker-Bowles.
The former Camilla Parker-Bowles also had the benefit of coming into the Royal Family in her late fifties, with a maturity and worldly wisdom denied most brides of an heir to the throne. She had been used to being harried and pursued by the tabloid press, and had the mental resources to deal with it. She is without self-pity. When, after Diana's death, she joined the Prince as an Aunt Sally for an angry section of the public, she never lost her cool or her sense of perspective. She has never felt the need to explain anything, not least because she regards so many other things as being more important than herself. As those who work for her or her husband testify, she just wants to do her job, supporting him.
Her acceptance into the Royal Family - the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh are said to have good relations with her - was not least down to the superlative and sensitive efforts of one of the Prince's former private secretaries, Mark Bolland, who masterminded her detoxification after the calumnies of the Diana years. Among her husband's future subjects are some who feel that her, and his, extra-marital conduct was unforgivable. The Prince will one day be Supreme Governor of the Church of England, which shocks some hard-line Anglicans: but they forget that the Church itself was founded in 1534 to accommodate a King who wished to marry his mistress.
When the Prince's marriage failed - and it seems that he and his first wife were gravely mismatched - he was treated in a way unlike that of the other tens of thousands who find themselves each year in his position. A sense of perspective is long overdue.
The Duchess is believed to be unconcerned about what she is called after her husband's accession to the throne. His friends believe he, by contrast, minds very much that she should not be discriminated against for no logical reason by being denied the title of Queen. They feel the Prince believes it is essential that his wife should share his rank as she shares his duties, and that she should be recognised properly for the part she plays in his life and in the monarchy.
It is certainly hard to find anyone in the Prince's circle who disagrees with that view. Former "Camillasceptics", of whom there were many, are also among those who, even if not lobbying for this, would no longer have any objection to it, given how well the Duchess has fitted in to royal life, and what a good relationship she has built with the public. The decision about whether the Duchess becomes Princess Consort when he is King, or Queen Camilla, will be the Prince's.
One or two older ex-courtiers who recall the Diana years remain nervous about forcing the issue of the Duchess's title, but accept that it is within the power of the next King to do as he wishes. They concede that there is no reason other than sentiment to deny her the title of Queen.
Sentiment, though, is what still drives the hostility of a section of the public on this question. The memory of the days after Diana's death, and of the excoriating speech her brother, Earl Spencer, made about the Windsors at her funeral, remains potent. But its potency will decline with the years, as it already has. For King Charles to decree a Queen Camilla would not trigger a constitutional or political crisis; it would, those advocating it believe, aggrieve a small minority who would, in time, get used to the idea.
- The Telegraph, London