Prince Charles and Camilla: a history of their romance

They met and fell in love in their early twenties, enjoying a “blissful” 18-month romance in which the young Prince Charles pursued Camilla with elaborately worded love notes and late-night telephone chats. Why, then, did he end up marrying Lady Diana Spencer instead? As the third series of The Crown returns, royal expert Marlene Koenig explores the history of Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall’s love affair

Charles and Camilla, 1979

Thirty-four years after their first meeting, the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles were finally married on 9 April 2005. Their long-term relationship as friends and lovers was summed up in The Sunday Telegraph‘s headline: “Husband and wife – at last.”

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At the reception at Windsor Castle, Prince Charles’s mother, Queen Elizabeth II, in front of 800 guests, offered a toast to the newlyweds. “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.” Not surprisingly, the Queen, a lover of horses and horse racing, used racing references as she welcomed Camilla into the family: Becher’s Brook and The Chair are fences at the Aintree Racecourse, where the Grand National takes place.

Charles, Prince of Wales with his new bride, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall in the White Drawing Room at Windsor Castle after their wedding ceremony, 9 April 2005. (Photo by Hugo Burnand/Pool/Getty Images)
Charles, Prince of Wales with his new bride, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall in the White Drawing Room at Windsor Castle after their wedding ceremony, 9 April 2005. (Photo by Hugo Burnand/Pool/Getty Images)

It was in the summer of 1971, when Charles, then 22, first met Camilla Rosemary Shand. A legend has been fostered that the couple were introduced at a polo match at Smith’s Lawn in Windsor, but, according to Jonathan Dimbleby’s authorised biography, The Prince of Wales (1994), the introduction was in fact made by a mutual friend, Lucia Santa Cruz, daughter of the Chilean ambassador to the United Kingdom, whom Charles had met when he was a student at Cambridge.

“Instant attraction”

It was reportedly an “instant attraction” between Charles and Camilla. During an 18-month period their friendship blossomed into a love affair. They shared a lot in common, including an appreciation for the comedy of The Goon Show, a BBC radio series devised by Spike Milligan. Charles also liked that Camilla was very much at home in “the country with horses and hunting.”

Camilla had been involved in an on-and-off relationship with Andrew Parker Bowles, an officer in the Blues and Royals [a British Army regiment], that began when she was 19. But Andrew was said to have a roving eye and was involved with several women at the same time. In 1970 he dated Charles’s younger sister, Princess Anne, as they shared a common interest in horses, but marriage between the pair was out of the question as Andrew was Roman Catholic.

Andrew Parker Bowles, 1971
Andrew Parker Bowles playing polo in Kenya, 1971. (Photo by Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)

Charles pursued Camilla with “elaborately worded love notes” and late-night telephone chats. He thought about proposing marriage in November 1972 but was hesitant about taking the next step, according to Dimbleby. Charles, who played his cards close to his chest, realised that he was “too uncertain of his feelings” to ask Camilla to marry him. Their last weekend together was spent at the Hampsire estate Broadlands in mid-December 1972. His great-uncle, Lord Mountbatten, was the only family member in whom Charles had confided about Camilla.

Charles knew that his parents would not approve of the relationship. This view was supported by his godmother, Patricia, 2nd Countess Mountbatten of Burma, who later told biographer Gyles Brandreth that the marriage “wouldn’t have been possible, not then. Camilla had a ‘history’ – and you didn’t want a past that hung about.” Charles wrote to Lord Mountbatten lamenting that this was “the last time I shall see her for eight months”, after he and Camilla parted after their final weekend together.

Camilla and Andrew Parker Bowles

As a part of his naval service career, Charles joined the HMS Minerva in mid-January 1973 for a seven-month voyage in the Caribbean. He was in the West Indies when he received the news that Camilla had become engaged to Andrew Parker Bowles on 15 March. He wrote to his great-uncle of his disappointment that “such a blissful, peaceful and mutually happy relationship” would come to an end.

Charles’s grandmother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and Princess Anne attended Camilla and Andrew’s wedding at Guards’ Chapel, Wellington Barracks on 4 July 1973. Charles sent his regrets as he was still serving on the Minerva. Arrangements could have been made to fly back to London for the wedding, but it would probably have been difficult for Charles to watch Camilla walk down the aisle and marry Andrew.

The wedding of Andrew Parker Bowles and Camilla Shand at the Guard's Chapel, London, with members of the Horseguards present, 4 July 1973. (Photo by Frank Barratt/Keystone/Getty Images)
The wedding of Andrew Parker Bowles and Camilla Shand at the Guard’s Chapel, London, with members of the Horseguards present, 4 July 1973. (Photo by Frank Barratt/Keystone/Getty Images)

As Camilla settled into her new life as Mrs Parker Bowles, raising their two children, Tom and Laura, in the country, her friendship with Charles remained platonic for some time. The years that followed, which Charles would later refer to as his “footloose” years, were a time when he was linked with numerous women, most notably Davina Sheffield, Amanda Knatchbull, Anna Wallace and Lady Sarah Spencer – Diana’s sister. Many believed that Davina Sheffield had a real chance to marry Charles, but this was scuppered when a former boyfriend spoke to the press about their relationship.

A second affair

Charles was in Iceland when he learned that Lord Mountbatten had been assassinated by the IRA in August 1979. It was with Camilla Parker Bowles that he sought consolation for his grief. Indeed, Camilla was the only person to whom he could talk about anything. She was his best friend, his soul mate, and, and after the death of his great-uncle, lover. This second affair lasted until Charles’s marriage to Diana in 1981.

In 1980, the duchy of Cornwall (Charles, as the eldest son of the sovereign, is the Duke of Cornwall), purchased Highgrove House, near Tetbury in Gloucestershire, as a country home for the Prince of Wales. The estate was only 11 miles away from Bolehyde Manor, Camilla and Andrew’s home in Wiltshire. The purchase of the estate was an investment in his future, as Charles wanted nothing more than a “normal family life,” according to Lady Mountbatten.

Charles and Camilla, c1975
Prince Charles chats to Camilla Parker Bowles at a polo match, c1975. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)

How did Prince Charles and Diana meet?

Charles first took notice of Lady Diana Spencer in 1977 – he thought her “jolly” when he visited Althorp, the Spencer estate, in 1977, when he was dating her older sister, Lady Sarah. This relationship came to an end in early 1978: Lady Sarah and Charles were skiing at the Swiss resort Klosters when Sarah decided to have lunch with two British journalists. There she talked about her drinking and her battles with anorexia, but perhaps most damaging of the “kamikaze remarks”, as the journalist Tina Brown described her interviews, was her discussion of the Prince of Wales. “He is a fabulous person but I am not in love with him,” she said. “And I wouldn’t marry anyone I didn’t love, whether he were a dustman or the King of England.”

Prince Charles talking to Lady Sarah Spencer at Windsor Castle after playing a polo match for Young England against France, 25 July 1977. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
Prince Charles talking to Lady Sarah Spencer at Windsor Castle after playing a polo match for Young England against France, 25 July 1977. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Shortly before one of the interviews was published in Woman’s Own, Lady Sarah told Charles she had spoken to the press. Charles’s response was cold and right to the point: “You’ve just done something extremely stupid.” Lady Sarah did not realise it at the time, but she had inadvertently made it possible for Charles to pursue her younger sister, Diana.

Later that year, both Lady Sarah (who was by now Charles’s ex-girlfriend) and Lady Diana received invitations to Charles’s 30th birthday party at Buckingham Palace. The Parker Bowles were also guests at the party. The following summer, in 1979, Philip de Pass, a friend of Diana’s, invited her to a house party that his parents were hosting at their home, New Grove, near Petworth. He added that the Prince of Wales was the guest of honour.

Prince Charles 30th birthday portrait
Prince Charles wearing his summer naval uniform poses on his 30th birthday in the Ivory Coast. (Photo by Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)

It was at de Pass’s house party where Charles and Diana had their first real conversation, sitting next to each on a bale of hay at a post-polo barbeque. Diana broached the topic of Lord Mountbatten’s funeral and told Charles that “it was the most tragic thing I’ve ever seen. My heart bled for you when I watched, I thought, ‘It’s wrong, you’re lonely – you should be with somebody to look after you’”.

It was Diana’s innocence and her sympathetic nature that first caught Charles’s attention. They saw each other, on and off, for the next few months. In the first week of August 1980, Charles invited her to join his party on the royal yacht, Britannia, for the sailboat races at Cowes on the Isle of Wight. One month later, Diana was invited to Balmoral, where she stayed with her sister, Jane (Lady Jane Fellowes) who was married to the queen’s assistant private secretary, Robert Fellowes, as they had a grace-and-favour home on the Balmoral estate. This invitation came from the Queen at Charles’s request. Diana later recalled: “I was frightened because I had never stayed at Balmoral, and I wanted to get it right.”

Lady Diana Spencer, 1980
Lady Diana Spencer leaves the Ritz Hotel in London after attending Princess Margaret’s 50th birthday party, November 1980. This is thought to be one of the early pictures taken of her as rumours began of her romance with Prince Charles. (Photo by Jayne Fincher/Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images)

Others at Balmoral included the Parker Bowles and other friends of the Prince of Wales. Charles sought out Camilla’s advice as he weighed the pros and cons of a marriage with Diana. On paper, Diana had all the right attributes: daughter of an earl with royal connections, and she did not have ‘a past’ – i.e. there were no worries about former boyfriends flogging their stories to the tabloids.

Yet, Charles had his doubts but as the media frenzy grew, his father, Prince Philip, took matters into his own hands. He sent his son a letter advising him that it was time to make a decision: propose to Diana or let her go. Charles wanted to do the right thing for “this Country and for  my family”. He proposed to Diana at Windsor Castle on 6 February 1981. She accepted without hesitation, although she had already suspected that Camilla Parker Bowles was more than Charles’s best friend.

Lady Diana Spencer and Camilla Parker Bowles, 1980
Lady Diana Spencer and Camilla Parker Bowles at Ludlow Races where Prince Charles was competing, 1980. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Archive Photos)

One of Camilla’s friends told biographer Gyles Brandreth that Camilla “had encouraged Charles to marry Diana,” yet Diana was suspicious of Camilla’s guidance. But Charles, according to Dimbleby, tried to reassure Diana that Camilla had once been an intimate friend but now, as he was going to marry her, “there was, and there would be, no other woman in his life”. Both Charles and Camilla accepted that their affair had come to an end, yet they remained close friends as Camilla remained a touchstone and confidant.

Wedding of the century

In what many describe as the wedding of the century, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer were married on 29 July 1981 at St Paul’s Cathedral. The couple had two sons, William (born in 1982) and Harry (born in 1984), before the first fissures in their marriage began to appear. Apart from their children, Charles and Diana had few shared interests. By 1986 the marriage had collapsed and Charles sought out friends in whom he could confide. One of those friends was Camilla Parker Bowles. Some years later Charles would later confirm that Mrs Parker Bowles was a good friend, but insisted he had been faithful to Diana until their marriage had “irretrievably broken down.”

Wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer
The wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, 29 July 1981. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Charles’s marriage to Diana was dissolved in 1996. A year later, Diana was killed in a car accident in Paris. It was not until January 1999 that Charles and Camilla made their first public appearance together. Their engagement was announced on 10 February 2005, followed by the civil wedding and Service of Blessing at Windsor on 9 April, where they acknowledged their “manifold sins and wickedness”.

More than three decades after they had first met, Charles and Camilla were finally together in the “winner’s circle”.

Marlene A Eilers Koenig is an internationally recognised expert on British and European royalty. She is an academic librarian and author of Queen Victoria’s Descendants (Rosvall Royal Books, 1997 & 2004). To find out more, visit royalmusingsblogspotcom.blogspot.com or follow Marlene on Twitter @royalmusing.

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This article was first published on HistoryExtra in November 2019