As Prince Philip’s biographer, and as the chairman of one of his favourite charities, I got to know the late Queen’s husband quite well over more than 40 years, and I thought the Duke of Edinburgh was irreplaceable. I was wrong.
Observing King Charles III and his Queen Consort travelling to the four corners of the United Kingdom this week, watching them together every step of the way through the difficult, tense and crowded ten days since the Queen died, I see my old boss (and hero) reborn — in Camilla.
If we regard the remarkable reign of Elizabeth II as a success — and most of us do — the joint author of that success was Prince Philip. And if Charles III’s reign proves to work out as sure-footedly as it has begun, the co-author of that success will be Camilla.
Observing King Charles III and his Queen Consort travelling to the four corners of the United Kingdom this week, watching them together every step of the way through the difficult, tense and crowded ten days since the Queen died, I see my old boss (and hero) reborn — in Camilla
The King’s wife of 17 years, Camilla is his ‘non-negotiable’ partner, whose value to him and whose worth as a person were so clearly recognised by Elizabeth II. In her Platinum Jubilee message earlier this year, the Queen declared her ‘sincere wish’ that her daughter-in-law become Queen Consort.
Elizabeth II was a wise woman. She knew what she was doing and, as ever, she got it right.
Famously, the Queen described Prince Philip as her ‘strength and stay’. That’s exactly what Camilla is to Charles. She is fundamental to the architecture of his life.
She is his good companion and best friend and, now that his children have left home (one has even left the country), she is the only person with whom he can be completely free and open.
He could confide in his grandmother (and absolutely did) and in his mother (the soul of discretion), but they are both gone now. Camilla is the ally who knows him better than anyone and, now that he’s King, the only person who can still treat him as an equal.
And if Charles III’s reign proves to work out as sure-footedly as it has begun, the co-author of that success will be Camilla.
I have watched them at close quarters, before they were married and since, at Highgrove, Clarence House and Buckingham Palace. He adores her, clearly. In small talk, he mentions ‘my darling wife’ in almost every sentence. She looks at him with a kindly eye, amused and aware of his foibles.
When he gets tetchy (as displayed this week to fountain pens and their holders) she soothes him, occasionally kneading him gently in the small of his back. When he is running late or talking too much, she tugs at the back of his jacket — sometimes quite vigorously.
Like Prince Philip, Camilla has accepted her destiny. She did not seek it. She has never wanted to be centre stage. Prince Philip always knew he was the support act, not the star attraction, too. In more than 60 years as the Queen’s consort, he never over-reached himself. He always made sure he walked one step behind Her Majesty. Watch closely and you’ll see that Camilla does the same.
Back in July, along with the actress Dame Joanna Lumley, I hosted a happy lunch to mark Camilla’s 75th birthday.
The guests were all friends and admirers, theatrical knights and dames, sports personalities and Chelsea Pensioners, Twiggy, Michael Palin and Andrew Lloyd Webber — the usual suspects.
The Duchess of Cornwall (as she was then) made a speech worthy of the Duke of Edinburgh. She talked about the year she was born, 1947, adding: ‘By the way, a vintage year for claret.’
She is Price Charles’s good companion and best friend and, now that his children have left home (one has even left the country), she is the only person with whom he can be completely free and open
It was also, she told us: ‘The year when the first of the Ealing Comedies was released, the school leaving age was raised to 15, Gardeners’ Question Time was first broadcast, the University of Cambridge admitted women to full membership and soft loo paper went on sale for the first time, in Harrods — much to the nation’s relief.’
We laughed and then a hush fell as, deliberately, she paused before saying: ‘It was also in 1947 that the then Princess Elizabeth married Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten — two of the most remarkable people in our country’s history.’
Looking over her glasses, she nailed her colours to the mast: ‘The Duke of Edinburgh’s philosophy was clear,’ she declared. ‘“Look up and look out, say less, do more — and get on with the job.” And that is just what I intend to do.’
That is exactly what she has been doing this week, and will continue to do in the months and years ahead.
I first met Camilla when we were both teenagers in the 1960s. I was at a boarding school in Hampshire and visited her grandparents at their rather grand manor house, Hall Place, nearby.
Gyles Brandreth first met Camilla when they were both teenagers and they have been thick as thieves ever since
About ten years ago, on the BBC radio comedy programme Just A Minute, out of the blue I was given the subject ‘My Secret Crush’ to talk about. Suddenly, spontaneously, for 60 seconds, I found myself talking about Camilla and that first teenage encounter in 1964.
I conjured up a picture of the future Queen Consort wearing riding jodhpurs and hiding in the shrubbery of her grandparents’ garden smoking Woodbines.
Of course, it never occurred to me that Her Majesty (as she now is) might be listening.
It turns out that Just A Minute is one of her favourite programmes, and a few days after the broadcast she bumped into my wife at a flower show for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee at our local church.
Camilla said: ‘Tell Gyles I don’t deny I was smoking, but it definitely wasn’t Woodbines. I deny the Woodbines absolutely!’
She doesn’t deny that she was a naughty girl at times. She remembers her (quite strict) grandmother with affection, and happy holidays at Hall Place with her much-loved younger sister, Annabel, rolling down the Hampshire hills, catching butterflies, making mischief.
Annabel remembers that her beloved teddy bear was once buried in the garden by Camilla, who only owned up to it years later. Says Camilla: ‘Yes, Tiddy Bar — he had a very happy resting ground.’
The King’s wife of 17 years, Camilla is his ‘non-negotiable’ partner, whose value to him and whose worth as a person were so clearly recognised by Elizabeth II
‘I’ve not forgiven her,’ insists Annabel. ‘It still rankles!’
The new King listens to Just A Minute, too. In fact, he told me he used to leave voicemail messages for William and Harry in the style of Just A Minute, doing his best to say what he had to say in 60 seconds without hesitation, deviation or repetition.
Charles and Camilla share a sense of humour, and they share a love of poetry, literature and theatre, too. And a love of gardening and the countryside.
In some ways, they have more in common than the Queen and Prince Philip did. Prince Philip found his wife’s corgis infuriating and did not share her passion for horse racing.
At Royal Ascot he would do his duty, accompanying the Queen in her open carriage, but once they were there, he would race back to Windsor Castle by car or disappear into a room at the back of the Royal Box to watch the cricket.
Camilla endeared herself to the Queen by sharing her love of dogs and racing.
Much of a royal consort’s life is mundane and repetitive — unveiling plaques, shaking hands, looking interested. It’s relentless. It could drive you mad.
Prince Philip kept himself sane, he told me, by ‘consciously always living in the moment, focusing on what’s in front of you’, and, alongside all the mumbo jumbo and flummery of royal life, getting stuck in to his own projects.
Camilla has followed his example. She performs the necessary duties in support of her husband, but also has interests that are wholly hers and far from superficial. Her commitment to research into the causes of osteoporosis was born out of her mother’s battle with the condition. She told me that at times it was so bad for her mother that if you touched her or tried to move her, ‘she literally screamed’.
Camilla cares about literacy, too. Prince Philip’s legacy is the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. I have a hunch that the Queen Consort’s might be her Reading Room.
Charles and Camilla share a sense of humour, and they share a love of poetry, literature and theatre, too
It began as a kind of online book club where Camilla recommended books she had enjoyed, and is now a literary hub, with events and festival collaborations — 150,000 people have signed up.
Camilla has known loneliness — there were dark days for her in the 1990s — and has found solace and companionship in books. She wants everyone, especially the young, to discover the power and pleasure of reading.
Like Prince Philip, the Queen Consort runs a busy diary with a lean team. She has a handful of younger women running her office and a group of girlfriends her age who can now serve her as ladies-in-waiting. She brought three of them to her birthday lunch and they were fun and funny like her.
Her son, Tom Parker Bowles, and his daughter Lola, came to the party, too, as a surprise — they brought in the birthday cake.
The Queen Consort is close to Tom and his sister, Laura, and to her five grandchildren but, very much like Prince Philip, she knows she has to leave the next generation to do their own thing. As the Duke of Edinburgh said to me of his offspring, ‘You’ve just got to let them get on with it. I try to keep out of these things.’
I have seen the Queen Consort’s grandchildren with Charles at Clarence House, jumping up and ragging him. He obviously adores them. I have also seen the lovely photograph of Harry and Meghan that has pride of place in the Clarence House drawing room.
Like Prince Philip, Camilla also has her own bolthole. The Duke of Edinburgh would escape to his own cottage, Wood Farm, an unpretentious farmhouse close to the sea on the Sandringham Estate, two miles from the ‘big house’.
Similarly, Camilla still has her own home, Ray Mill House in Wiltshire. She can disappear there and simply be herself.
Like Prince Philip, she is very familiar with court life, but far from wedded to it. Philip was an outsider (a prince of Greece) when he married Princess Elizabeth in 1947, but he had royal blood in his veins stretching back generations.
Camilla was also an outsider with her own royal connections. She’s descended from, among others, Arnold Joost van Keppel, 1st Earl of Albemarle, a favourite (and possibly a lover) of William III.
Charles Lennox, 1st Duke of Richmond, is in her family tree, too. He was the illegitimate son of Charles II by his French mistress, Louise, who became the Duchess of Portsmouth.
Camilla was also an outsider with her own royal connections. She’s descended from, among others, Arnold Joost van Keppel, 1st Earl of Albemarle, a favourite (and possibly a lover) of William III
Camilla is also the great-granddaughter of Alice Keppel, the last love of our new King’s great-great-grandfather, Edward VII.
‘A lively crowd, eh?’ she said to me of her family once, laughing. It was at one of the drinks parties I give to mark the birthday of the Victorian playwright, Oscar Wilde. Camilla’s great-grandfather, Alec Shand, was once engaged to a girl called Constance Lloyd, who went on to marry Wilde.
At that party I introduced Camilla to Baga Chipz, one of the stars of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and to April Ashley, one of the first British people known to have gender reassignment surgery at the beginning of the 1960s. They got on like a house on fire. Camilla is brilliant with people. It’s always all about them. It’s never about her.
The Queen Consort’s great-great-great-grandfather was Thomas Cubitt, a builder who reconstructed Buckingham Palace. Queen Victoria loved him. When he died, she said, ‘A better, kinder-hearted or more simple, unassuming man never breathed.’
Elizabeth II called Camilla ‘a very special lady’. I think she is special, as you can tell. She is totally normal and unspoilt. She is like Prince Philip in that she is outward-looking, optimistic and not remotely self-centred.
Philip boosted the Queen’s morale by telling her how lovely she looked and how well she was doing. He also threw in what he called his ‘two penny-worth’ from time to time.
Camilla does this with Charles, offering praise, encouragement and common sense as required. According to my wife, men need this a lot more than women do.
But there are differences between the last royal consort and this new one. Prince Philip loved flying. Camilla hates it, squeezing her husband’s hand on take-off and distracting herself with Travel Scrabble through the turbulence.
Camilla is easy company always — which Prince Philip wasn’t. He could be cantankerous, and frankly quite frightening. While he came to loathe the Press, Camilla (who has had a pretty rough ride in the media over the years) does not appear to hold any grudges.
Camilla (who has had a pretty rough ride in the media over the years) does not appear to hold any grudges
The Duke of Edinburgh was impatient with photographers — ‘Just take the f****** picture!’
Camilla as Duchess of Cornwall was happy to do selfies — to the dismay of her protection officer. As Queen Consort that may change. If it does, it won’t be her doing.
She is going to be the least stuffy Queen in history, and exactly the consort the new King needs: as charming as the Queen Mother, as committed as Queen Mary, and as kind as Queen Alexandra.
With her immediate predecessor, Prince Philip, as her role model, she will be looking up, looking out, saying less, doing more, and getting on with the job. God save the King. Long live the Queen Consort. (I still think they were Woodbines.)