Inside Prince Charles and Camilla's Epic Love Story

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Just weeks before their anniversary, England’s charming prince waxed poetic about his bride. “It’s always nice to have somebody on your side,” opined the royal, calling his wife “an enormous support” who’s never afraid to offer a gentle ribbing. “It’s always marvelous to have somebody who, you know, you feel understands and wants to encourage. Although she certainly pokes fun if I get too serious about things. And all that helps.”

But really, Duchess Camilla‘s most valuable trait may be her enduring spirit. As the other woman in Prince Charles‘ marriage to the beloved Princess Diana, the 72-year-old spent years being vilified by the public—and her own mother-in-law—emerging out the other side with her romance and dignity still intact.

In his 2018 book, Rebel Prince: The Power, Passion and Defiance of Prince Charles, author Tom Bower details how Queen Elizabeth II denounced the relationship, labeling Camilla as “that wicked woman.” And yet despite the vitriol, Camilla has remained devoted to Charles for the better part of five decades—and throughout most of her own 21-year marriage to British army officer Andrew Parker Bowles.

“You can imagine it is a real, real challenge,” Charles, marking his 71st birthday today, acknowledged in a 2015 interview with CNN International. “But she’s, I think, been brilliant in the way she’s tackled these things.”

She certainly dazzled at their initial meeting. Introduced by mutual friend Lucia Santa Cruz at a 1970 polo match, a 23-year-old Camilla Shand was said to have walked up to the royal and hit him with a bold opening line. Referencing Alice Keppel‘s affair with King Edward VII, “She says to him: ‘Oh you know your great grandfather and my great grandmother were lovers,” childhood pal Broderick Munro Wilson recalled in a 2005 Dateline NBC report. “‘How about it?'” 

While biographer Penny Junor insists it was actually Santa Cruz coming through with the brazenness, introducing the pair by saying, “Now you two be very careful, you’ve got genetic antecedents—careful, careful!”, either way the move worked. 

“He loved the fact that she smiled with her eyes as well as her mouth, and laughed at the same silly things as he did,” Junor revealed in her book, The Duchess: The Untold Story. “He also liked that she was so natural and easy and friendly, not in any way overawed by him, not fawning or sycophantic. In short, he was very taken with her, and after that first meeting he began ringing her up.”

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Though intense, their initial romance was short-lived. Charles’ decision to join the Royal Navy strained their union as did the public’s perception that the onetime receptionist lacked several necessary attributes. She had no royal lineage in her blood and, “She wasn’t a virgin,” royal biographer Chris Wilson told Dateline, “and back in the early 1970s, weird as it seems, we wanted to have a Princess of Wales who’d never been to bed with anyone else.”

Author and Camilla pal William Shawcross argued their main issue, however, was that she simply fell for Parker Bowles: “I know that she loved Andrew very much.”

While she may have been enamored, Charles, serving in the Caribbean at the time, felt crushed when he learned his former paramour was set to wed. Detailed Junor, “It seemed to him particularly cruel, he wrote in one letter, that after ‘such a blissful, peaceful and mutually happy relationship,’ fate had decreed that it should last a mere six months.”

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The duo remained close as Camilla welcomed son Tom (fun fact: Charles was named his godfather) and then daughter Laura, and eventually in the late 1970s, according to reports, resumed their romance. Wilson even claims the union had the blessing of Camilla’s spouse. “The English aristocracy like to serve their royal family,” he told Dateline, “and Andrew Parker Bowles was prepared to lay down his wife for his country. It was perfectly okay.”

But the arrangement didn’t suit everyone. As Charles courted—and quite quickly wed—Lady Diana Spencer, the former kindergarten teacher became suspicious of her man’s close friend, even requesting Camilla not attend their 3,500-guest 1981 affair at St. Paul’s Cathedral. And though the late princess has described the time that followed their vows—including the arrival of Prince William and Prince Harry—as “some of the happiest years,” by 1989 she knew she had to address the so-called Camilla problem. 

In what she labeled “one of the bravest moments” of her marriage in Andrew Morton’s 1992 biography, Diana: Her True Story, the princess confronted Camilla as she was celebrating the 40th birthday of her sister Annabel.

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Still, her cold front didn’t thaw completely. The Queen and husband Prince Phillip skipped out on the pair’s 2005 civil ceremony at Windsor Guildhall—”Charles was inconsolable,” Bower writes in his book—but did make an appearance at the Service of Prayer and Dedication at St. George Chapel at Windsor Castle (the same place Harry and Meghan Markle would eventually wed) and the reception that followed.

In toasting the newlyweds, the Queen famously referenced the steeplechase that was delayed 25 minutes so the BBC could televise the prayer service. “I have two important announcements to make. The first is that Hedgehunter has won the Grand National,” she announced. Following the metaphor to its conclusion, she continued, “They have overcome Becher’s Brook and The Chair and all kinds of other terrible obstacles. They have come through, and I’m very proud and wish them well. My son is home and dry with the woman he loves.”

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“It’s now 21 years since the death of Diana in 1997 and public attitudes have changed, and continues to do so, with a greater acceptance of Camilla today than there was say 13 years ago…,” Dickie Arbiter, the Queen’s former press spokesman, opined to Hello! last year. “The Duchess through her work has shown herself to be a good support to her husband and to the Queen thus making her not only an asset to the country but to the institution of monarchy.” 

That’s become an increasingly popular assessment. Speaking to Vanity Fair‘s James Reginato last year for his profile on Charles, a self-described London man-about-town, known to socialize with the royal set, outlined the reasons Camilla is particularly suited for the role. “She never complains, she never explains,” noted the source. “She’s not an intellectual, but there’s nothing lightweight about her. She’s not a bulls–tter and she doesn’t take any bulls–t.” 

Highlighting the more than 90 charities she supports (among them are those that focus on health, literacy and supporting victims of rape, sexual abuse and domestic violence) was key in flipping public opinion of the duchess, but it likely wouldn’t have worked if Camilla wasn’t so darn likable. 

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Even the more jaded participants of the royal rota, the press corps members tasked to cover the goings on of the royal family on a daily basis, have a soft spot for Duchess Camilla. “We think the world of her, we adore her. She’s an amazing woman,” Sun photographer Arthur Edwards, who famously snapped Diana on a bench in front of the Taj Mahal during his 41 years cataloging the royals, told Reginato. “She always shows up with a great smile and is never, ever grumpy.”

Another correspondent calls her “my favorite royal, by a country mile. She knows all our names, she fosters a sense that we’re all in this together. She gives you a little gleam in her eye and will find a moment to look at our cameras.”

And then there’s the effect she’s had on her groom. “She’s made a massive difference in him,” one longtime correspondent told Reginato. “He’s much more relaxed now. They are always laughing and chatting, they have a great affection and humor between them.” 

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It’s a magnetism even a casual observer can sense with Charles regularly referring to his bride as “my darling wife”. When photographer Alexi Lubomirski, the same man tapped to shoot Harry and Meghan’s wedding, arrived at Clarence House to take portraits of the pair for Vanity Fair, “As soon as they looked at each other, there was a sparkle in their eyes—that’s when the magic happened,” he noted. “You feel like they are a young couple in love.”  

A fun match, according to pal Shawcross, “They are a cozy couple. They laugh at each other’s jokes, they support each other they have fun together. They sort of wink across the table.”

Their playfulness just works, says writer Kathy Lette, who’s met the “rye and dry” duchess. Noting to Dateline that their love story isn’t a fairytale, she called it “a reality tale,” explaining “that’s what makes it so good. They’re old enough, they’re experienced enough to know that this is what they really, really want. And I think that this one will absolutely last.”

(This story was originally published on March 28, 2018 at 8 a.m. PT.)

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