‘She’s not the wicked stepmother’: How Queen Consort Camilla won over critics

It was a warm summer’s day in 1970 when a 22-year-old Prince Charles locked eyes with Camilla Shand at a polo match in Windsor Great Park. 

As the future King of England, many likely spoke to Charles with a quiet, awed deference – but 24-year-old Camilla, who friends described as ‘outgoing and cheerful’, with a ‘lust for life’, wasn’t afraid to crack a flirtatious gag at her own expense with a senior royal.

‘My great-grandmother was the mistress of your great-great-grandfather,’ she was said to have quipped. ‘So how about it?’

This was the beginning of Charles and Camilla’s royal romance: but what was initially described as a ‘blissful and peaceful’ match soon erupted into a lifelong love affair which scandalised the nation, rocked the house of Windsor, and left commentators wondering whether Charles could ever be a suitable King.

Now, in the wake of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, and with Charles ascending to the throne, Camilla – once reviled as ‘the most hated woman in Britain’ – will also be stepping up as his Queen Consort.

In the years following the exposure of her affair with the then-Prince Charles in 1992, Camilla has proven herself to be far more than the ‘third person’ in the marriage between Charles and Diana. 

Expected to perform new duties and become a ballast of support to the new King, Camilla – who has been described as a ‘feminist icon’ by one commentator, has given the antiquated and sometimes detached monarchy some grounding – with her ‘delightful’ and ‘approachable’ personality (alongside a savvy PR strategy) helping her pave her way to public acceptance as the UK’s new Queen.

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Camilla’s gregarious and outgoing nature was apparent even in her younger years. Born in 1947 to a well-to-do family (her father was an army major turned businessman, her mother a daughter of a Baron), she split her days between her two homes in Sussex and Kensington. Describing her childhood as ‘perfect’, she forged extremely tight-knit relationships with her younger siblings Annabel, now 73, and Mark (who died aged 62 in 2014), and her parents, spending her days horse riding and reading.

As a young woman on the fringes of the aristocracy, Camilla was less interested in pursuing a career. For most young women of her class, finding a wealthy and influential husband was the main goal, which may be why Camilla was sent to a Swiss finishing school aged 16, before concluding her education in Paris.

‘She wanted no more from life than to be happily married to an upper-class man and live a sociable life in the country with horses, dogs, children, and someone to look after them all and do the hard graft,’ Penny Junor explains in her book The Duchess: Camilla Parker Bowles and the Love Affair That Rocked the Crown.

Her chance meeting with Charles looked like a safe bet, with the pair dating briefly after they first met in the 70s, but this blossoming romance was quickly quashed by unfortunate circumstances: Charles was going away for eight months to serve in the Navy.

Senior royals were also thought to be somewhat scathing about Camilla’s suitability to be so closely tied to the heir to the throne.

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Charles’s godmother, Patricia, 2nd Countess Mountbatten of Burma, was particularly cutting about the now-Queen Consort.

‘[Marriage] wouldn’t have been possible, not then,’ she told her biographer Giles Brandreth. ‘Camilla had a “history” – and you didn’t want a past that hung about.’


While Charles was away, Camilla met and married Andrew Parker Bowles – an Army Cavalry Officer 12 years her senior, who had previously enjoyed a brief fling with Princess Anne, Charles’s younger sister.

The pair went on to have two children: food critic Tom Parker Bowles and art curator Laura Lopes, but things between them certainly weren’t rosy. Parker Bowles was a renowned womaniser, and was thought to have repeatedly cheated on Camilla.

In her biography, The Diana Chronicles, journalist Tina Brown wrote: ‘Andrew adored women. And, like his father, he was a royal groupie.’

Despite their relationship thought to be over, Camilla remained close to Charles. It was reported that Camilla was one of Charles’s inner-circle that first encouraged his relationship with Lady Diana Spencer. The new King was even made the godfather of Camilla’s son, Tom.

The pair, who shared a keen interest in Shakespeare, polo and sense of humour, managed to keep their bond strong even if their romance had cooled.

It was said that Charles’s desire to be treated just as a normal person, and not as a King, that made Camilla so appealing to the Prince.

‘She treated him like a normal person, as she had when they were together, and if ever he behaved badly, or was selfish or thoughtless, she wasn’t afraid to tell him so,’ Junor writes in The Duchess. ‘She was a proper friend.’

Their connection could be what drew them back together in 1986, which is when Charles claimed to his authorised biographer, Jonathan Dimbleby, that their long-standing affair restarted. 

It was thought at this time, Charles’s wife Diana, whom he married in 1981, had also embarked on an affair with army captain James Hewitt.

Charles was clearly struggling with his marriage fraying at the seams. ‘How awful incompatibility is, and how dreadfully destructive it can be for the players in this extraordinary drama,’ he wrote in a letter to a friend. ‘It has all the ingredients of a Greek tragedy…I never thought it would end up like this.’

Meanwhile, Camilla was similarly unhappy in her marriage to Parker Bowles. His lothario ways were so well-known, they were openly joked about: in her book, Junor alleges a friend of Camilla said to her husband: ‘I’m really hurt, Andrew. I’m the only one of Camilla’s friends you haven’t made a pass at. What’s wrong with me?’

Unhappiness drew the pair back to each other, but royal commentators assert that the couple genuinely cared for and had deep feelings for one another.


‘That they loved each other was not in any doubt: in Camilla Parker Bowles, the prince found the warmth, the understanding and the steadiness for which he had always longed and had never been able to find with any other person,’ Dimbleby wrote in his biography of Charles.

The release of the book Diana: Her True Story in June of 1992 by Andrew Morton, also shed light on the affair, and the couple were forced to steel themselves for a wave of bad press after a highly suggestive transcript, secretly recorded between Charles and Camilla, was leaked to the public.

Diana, who had amassed a huge popularity thanks to her warm demeanor as the Princess of Wales, was widely supported throughout the endeavour – particularly after her emotional interview with BBC’s Martin Bashir in 1995, where she infamously claimed there had been ‘three of us in this marriage.’

Public praise of Diana naturally led to widespread revile for Camilla, who at the time was still a relatively little-known figure to wider society. Quickly, she became newspaper fodder, being described ‘as the most hated woman in Britain’. Diana herself likened Camilla to ‘a Rottweiler.’ 

Such a cruel commentary, particularly next to Diana who was revered to saint-like levels by the public, is likely to have weighed heavily on Camilla – but she persevered for the sake of her relationship with Charles. ‘It’s wonderful to be loved,’ she reportedly told friends.


With Charles making their relationship official public knowledge in 1999, the future King was keen for Camilla to be welcomed into ‘The Firm’, a tall order, considering her largely negative press and the Queen’s reportedly glacial relationship towards her.

However, it was down to palace aides to help rehabilitate Camilla’s image, and after their first photo opportunity together at the Ritz to celebrate Camilla’s sister’s 50th birthday in 1999, the Queen seemingly gave her seal of approval a year later, when the late monarch attended another birthday party with Camilla in tow.


With Charles receiving his mother’s blessing for the pair to marry in 2005, Camilla treated the ceremony with trepidation. Having faced such an onslaught of abuse at the hands of the press and the public, she feared she was going to be booed at their wedding in Windsor Castle.

‘Camilla had been public enemy number one for much of the 1990s,’ Junor writes. ‘But by the time she and Charles married, I think some people’s attitudes were beginning to soften, and the reception they had from the crowds in Windsor on the day of the wedding was almost entirely positive.’

It may have taken nearly two decades, but over time there has been a general revision on how Camilla is to be perceived.

Junor explains it’s down to Camilla’s personality that has seen public opinion on the maligned royal change, with certain anecdotes seeing the true Camilla shine through.

A close friend told biographer Sally Bedell Smith: ‘[Camilla] is an intensely warm, maternal, laughing creature.’

‘Camilla has a twinkle in her eye and is a terrible giggler,’ Junor adds. ‘She often reduces Charles to fits of giggles too.’


The approval of Prince Harry and Prince William is also thought to help Camilla’s image.

‘To be honest with you, she’s always been very close to me and William,’ Prince Harry said in a 2005 interview. ‘She’s not the wicked stepmother.’

In more recent years, Camilla has not been afraid to get stuck in and get her hands dirty when it comes to royal duties: a patron of over 90 charities, she has been outspoken on topics that can affect women no matter their social standing.

Speaking at the Women Of the World Foundation’s Shameless! Festival in 2021, Camilla gave a powerful speech about sexual assault.

‘Rapists are not born, they are constructed,’ she said. ‘And it takes an entire community – male and female – to dismantle the lies, words, and actions that foster a culture in which sexual assault is seen as normal, and in which it shames the victim.

‘So let us all leave here today and try and get the men in our lives to participate in building a shameless society.’

Her championing such topics have seen some commentators describe Camilla as a ‘feminist icon’.



‘Camilla… is a person of great kindness and compassion,’ author Kathy Lette said in an interview. ‘Camilla is a feminist, she is the head of the Women of the World and campaigns for women’s right’s and educational rights for girls.

‘Even though she is in a decorative role as the consort, she is a strong feminist and a bit of a female icon in some way.’

But Camilla’s most valuable asset is her ordinariness, despite her hugely privileged upbringing and background. Joan Rivers described the new Queen Consort as ‘rough around the edges… in a good way,’ with her down to earth rambunctiousness sorely needed in an institution which regularly labelled as out of touch.

A well-publicised fan of both Strictly Come Dancing and The Great British Bake Off, Camilla has previously been papped doing her weekly shop in Sainsbury’s and once only claimed to own ‘one smart dress from Monsoon’ – providing more of a relatability when compared to the Queen that previously dripped in jewels and lived a life of pomp and pageantry.

‘She gets the mystique of royalty but she also has this approachable side which means she knows about the economies of running a home,’ one friend claimed. ‘She brims with common sense.’

But while she is ‘prepared… but has not been preparing’ for life as Queen Consort, it is her strong relationship and support she provides King Charles III with that will be vital, as he steps up to the role he has spent 70 years waiting for.

‘Camilla has always treated everything as an adventure,’ says a friend. ‘And if she adopts the same strategy to being consort, it might all be less of an ordeal than she fears.’

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