It was a tragic twist of fate that would change the lives of Charles, Camilla, and the entire Royal Family.
Charles was spending some precious days with his sons at the family’s summer getaway in Balmoral, Scotland, over the 1997 summer break. Princess Diana was supposed to be heading home from France to pick them up the following day.
Then came the news that shocked the world. Leaving the Ritz Hotel with boyfriend Dodi Al-Fayed, Diana was fatally injured in a car crash in the Pont de L’Alma road tunnel in Paris. Dodi and the driver Henri Paul – who was later found to have been drunk – also died in the horrific accident.
The first message alerting Charles to Diana’s accident came through to Balmoral in the early morning hours of Sunday, August 31, 1997. According to biographer Penny Junor, the Queen urged her son not to wake William and Harry when their mother’s death was confirmed.
Consumed with grief after hearing that Diana was dead, there was only one person Charles could call for consolation as the enormity of the tragedy became clear — that was Camilla. As ever, her words were “a great comfort” to Charles as the world woke up to the horrific news.
There was no love lost between the two women in Charles’ life. But Camilla understood as well as anyone the devastating effect Diana’s death would have on her sons and on the way Charles would be under the microscope. Privately, she suspected that the outpouring of grief over the death of the popular Princess would jeopardize her growing hopes of enjoying a public life with Charles after years of skulking in the shadows.
Just the previous month, on July 18, Charles had taken the huge step of organizing a 50th birthday party for Camilla at his Highgrove home. Through his friends, he’d even tipped off photographers to record her arrival – and her departure the following morning. The Prince had quietly begun paying Camilla a yearly allowance so she could live in a style befitting a royal mistress. He even sent his staff to do her supermarket shopping.
The newspapers in Britain, which in the past had routinely favored Diana and reviled her rival, had begun to warm to the idea of Charles and Camilla, even if few doubted they would ever be allowed to marry. But that all ended with Diana’s death. The Queen drew the wrath of her people by her refusal to break with tradition and fly the flags at half-mast at Buckingham Palace. What chance did Camilla stand of breaking an even more ingrained taboo: the Prince marrying a divorcee?
The more immediate problem was whether or not Camilla should be present at Diana’s funeral as Charles would have wished her to be. In the days after the tragedy, Camilla remained inside her country home, the curtains firmly drawn. She spoke on the phone with Charles every day, but they didn’t meet, nor could they. On the day of the funeral at Westminster Abbey on Sept. 6 1997, Charles walked with his sons, their uncle, Earl Spencer, and his father, the Duke of Edinburgh, behind Diana’s coffin.
Camilla may have been at Diana’s wedding but she was not welcome at her funeral, which was watched by an estimated 2.5 billion people around the world.
Still, to many her absence echoed around the ancient hall. The Queen made it clear to Charles that he could not take his paramour to the service. This time, even the stubborn heir understood it wasn’t possible. While Diana was remembered as a saint, Camilla was facing the full wrath of a public that had never really taken to her or understood the smitten prince’s fascination with her. In the days and weeks that followed, the resurrection of every last detail of Diana’s doomed marriage sent Camilla back underground. For a while at least it seemed that Charles was faced with the choice of either giving her up or relinquishing his claim to the throne as his great-uncle, the Duke of Windsor had done for Wallis Simpson.
Royal commentators largely spoke for an indignant public when they warned Camilla to stay in hiding. The Prince must keep a safe distance from Camilla, said royal correspondent Judy Wade. “If Camilla Parker-Bowles is seen anywhere near his home in the next six months, he’ll be toast,” Wade said. “He’s got to keep a low profile with her.”
“There’s absolutely no chance of Charles marrying Camilla now,” Bob Houston, editor of Royalty magazine said at the time. “He would have to be the most thoughtless cad in the world to consider it.”
Camilla wasn’t seen publicly for eight months and even then it was only to attend the May 1998 wedding of her godson Henry Dent Brocklehurst. But, as we know, Charles and Camilla’s relationship was nothing if not resilient.