The call that changed Camilla Parker-Bowles’ life forever — and caused one of the biggest royal scandals in history — came just before 1 a.m. on December 18, 1989.
Camilla lay alone in bed and smiled happily when the bedside phone rang. She immediately recognized the clipped upper-class accent of her lover — Prince Charles. Earlier she had said goodbye to Major Andrew Parker-Bowles, her army officer husband, who was spending the night with friends in London, 90 miles from the family home in the village of Laycock, Wiltshire.
Charles was staying with an old friend, Anne, the Duchess of Westminster. He was calling Camilla on his personal mobile. For almost seven minutes, they spoke with the frankness of longtime lovers, confident that the intimate details of their raunchy conversation would not be overheard by anyone.
As they begin speaking, Camilla is heard telling the Prince that she can’t stand Sunday nights without him, and Charles moans: “Oh God.” Then, referring to a London television show, she adds: “It’s like that program, Start the Week. I can’t start the week without you.”
Charles: I fill your tank!
Camilla: Yes, you do.
Charles: Then you can cope?
Camilla: Then I’m alright.
Charles: What about me? The trouble is I need you several times a week.
Camilla: Mmmm. So do I … I need you all the week, all the time.
Not in their worst nightmares could Charles and Camilla have imagined that every sigh and every murmured remark of their illicit phone tryst was bugged.
Indeed, the passage of time may have dulled the couple’s memory of that titillating call, but three years later they got a chilling reminder when a sensational 1,574-word transcript of their sexy pillow talk was leaked to newspapers and caused uproar at the palace — and throughout Britain. The scandal became known as Camillagate.
Royal sources believe the Camillagate tapes were picked up by a ham radio operator who was casually scanning the air waves. When he realized he had recorded Prince Charles and Camilla, he contacted a news service in the North of England. Eventually, they were sold to an Australian magazine New Idea for six figures. The tapes confirmed for the first time what London society circles had long suspected: That Charles was cheating on his wife, Princess Diana, and Camilla had been his mistress for many years.
As the conversation continues, Charles bemoans the fact that Camilla must stay in the shadows and needs reassurance from her that she still loves him. “Your great achievement is to love me,” the future British King is heard telling his mistress.
“Oh darling, easier than falling off a chair,” she replies. “You suffer all these indignities and tortures and calumnies,” Charles gently tells her.
“Oh darling, don’t be so silly,” she soothes. “I’d suffer anything for you. That’s love. It’s the strength of love.”
Just a month after the Camillagate scandal broke, on December 9, 1992, British Prime Minister John Major stunned the nation when he announced that Charles and Diana were separating after 11 years of marriage. It was dubbed “annus horriblis” (horrible year) by the Queen. Charles and Camilla were made aware that tape recordings proving that they’d both been unfaithful existed. But they were reasonably confident that they would never be made public. But, on November 13, 1992, a day that is still referred to at the palace as “Black Wednesday,” the scandal broke.
Camilla was besieged at her home by press and TV crews and went into hiding for weeks. Charles repeatedly consulted his private secretary Richard Aylard as they struggled to minimize the damage. But the scandal was out of control and the nation was stunned by the earthy language on the tapes.
Camilla: Mmmm … you’re awfully good at feeling your way along…
Charles: Oh stop! I want to feel my way along you, all over you, up and down and in and out.
Charles: Particularly in and out…
Camilla: Oh, that’s just what I need at the moment.
Charles: Is it?
Camilla: I know it would revive me. I can’t bear a Sunday night without you.
Charles goes on to tell his mistress that he needs her several times a week and adds: “Oh God. I’d just live inside your trousers or something. It would be much easier.” Laughing Camilla saucily asks him if he wants to come back as a pair of her knickers and Charles replies: “Or, God forbid, a Tampax! Just my luck.”
Camilla: You’re a complete idiot! Oh what a wonderful idea.
Charles: My luck to be chucked down the lavatory and go on and on forever, swirling round at the top and never going down.
Camilla: Oh darling…
Charles: …until the next one comes through.
Camilla: Perhaps you’d come back as a box.
Charles: What sort of box?
Camilla: A box of Tampax so you could just keep going. Oh darling, I just want you now … desperately, desperately, desperately.
“The fall-out was explosive,” says royal historian Christopher Lee. “A woman of weaker character than Camilla could have been destroyed by the sheer weight of vitriol she had to face. She was forced into hiding for months, and she feared that she had lost Charles once and for all. Her health suffered, but she rallied and never gave up her love for him.”
Camilla became a prisoner in her own home and received a deluge of hate mail from Diana fans accusing her of destroying the royal marriage.
Charles had his apartments swept for bugging devices, was prescribed strong sleeping pills and considered renouncing the throne to live in Italy.
In her book, Charles: Victim or Villain, author Penny Junor, a friend of the Prince, wrote: “The Camillagate Tapes effectively brought an end to her (Camilla’s) marriage to Parker-Bowles by making his position untenable.
“Having the explicit nature of her relationship with the Prince of Wales all over every newspaper made life extremely unpleasant for her children and elderly parents. Camilla became the butt of jokes up and down the country. She suffered horrific abuse. She scarcely went out and when she did she was always protected by friends.”
One morning she was spotted in a parking lot by a group of angry women. Camilla was pelted with bread rolls and her phone was disconnected to avoid a barrage of poisonous calls.
Breaking with the royal family tradition of staying mum about their personal business, Prince Charles later admitted that he did cheat on Diana in a TV interview with British journalist Jonathan Dimbleby. In the warts-and-all documentary, the Prince of Wales was asked bluntly if he had tried to remain faithful to Diana during their stormy marriage. He replied: “Yes, absolutely.” He paused for a few seconds and added: “Until it became clear that the marriage had irretrievably broken down.”
Then, as if to excuse his affair with married Camilla, he said: “Look, come on. It happens to half the country and it happened to me. It is not something I wanted to happen.” The only time he mentioned Camilla, it was as “a great friend” whose support he valued — not once admitting that she was his illicit lover. But it was clear to most viewers that the other woman was indeed Camilla.
The one-and-a-half-hour documentary — Charles: The Private Man, The Public Role — was supposed to paint a more human portrait of the Prince, but it blew up in his face. Britain’s Daily Mirror ran a commentary on its front page that blasted: “He is not the first Royal to be unfaithful. Far from it. But he is the first to appear before 25 million of his subjects to confess.”
Many believed he was unfit to be King and his mother, the Queen, was furious over his public admission. Charles had confessed to Dimbleby, that his father, Prince Philip, had “bullied” him into marrying Diana and that his parents had shown him little love as a child. By then, Camilla’s wronged husband Andrew had suffered long enough. Their marriage was over. But the final blow came the week before Christmas.
Camilla called the prince’s personal hotline number. For the first time a stranger answered and told her: “Sorry madam, His Royal Highness is unavailable.” With those few curt words Camilla knew it was over.
Charles phoned her from Sandringham on Christmas Day. He told her he loved her but his decision to end their affair was final. Rocked by the tapes scandal, he was putting duty to the Crown before love. The call lasted less than two minutes. Then he left for a January tour of Australia.
Camilla’s dream was shattered but in her heart she knew she was like a drug to him — and one day he’d come back to feed his addiction.