Authors: Eleanor Herman
The customs of earlier centuriesâwhich could have quickly dispatched the problemâwere no longer acceptable in 1936. The royal family could not order courtiers to stab Wallis to death, as poor Inez de Castro had been six hundred years earlier, though perhaps they would have liked to. Nor was Edward in a position to hang and burn all who spoke against his marriage, as his ancestor Henry VIII had done four hundred years earlier. And so the lovelorn king abdicated, concealing his ineptitude with a legend of chivalrous romance and honorable sacrifice.
Edward and Wallis were married in France on June 3, 1937, a little more than a month after her second divorce was final. As part of his wedding gift to his bride, Edward gave Wallis a diamond coronet, a poor substitute for a crown. Edward's brother, now King George VI, gave them the honorary titles of duke and duchess of Windsor. But the royal family would snub Wallis until the end of her days, never receiving her into the family and never allowing her to be called a Royal Highness. It is likely that the bitterness of the royal family toward Wallis was intensified by their knowledge of her philandering with the car salesman. But the duke insisted that until his wife was received and allowed the title, he would stay clear of Great Britain.
Though the marriage caused a constitutional crisis for the British monarchy, Edward's abdication saved Britain from having
a supporter of Nazi Germany on the throne during World War II. Edward, a fan of all things German and fluent in the language, was frequently seen to give a limp Nazi salute on the streets of London throughout the 1930s. When Hitler heard of the abdication he groaned, “I've lost a friend to my cause!”
In 1937 the newly minted duke and duchess of Windsor visited the FÃ¼hrer for fourteen days, greeting the crowds with “Heil Hitler!” and scandalizing George VI and the British people. There is indeed some documentation that indicates Hitler was planning, once he conquered Britain, to install Edward and Wallis as puppet king and queen, dancing to Nazi commands.
After a stint as governor of the Bahamas during World War IIâwhere Edward had been placed to keep him as far away as possible from his Nazi friendsâthe duke and duchess set off on a lifetime of meaningless wandering: shopping in Paris, fashion shows in New York, August in the south of France, winters in Palm Beach. Wallis's famed charm congealed behind a hard mask of disappointment, and the duke became more doddering than ever, playing the bagpipes drunk in the middle of the night, or speaking only German for hours at a party where no one could understand him. The desiccated pair seemed glued to each other at the hip, each holding a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Like cracked and peeling portraits of their former selves, they became yellowed by tobacco, dried up by alcohol.
In Ernest Simpson, Wallis had given up a highly intelligent, hardworking husband and replaced him with a thickheaded man with nothing to do, a millstone of a mate she could only divorce to shrieks of laughter echoing across the world. At one party when the duke had left the room, his wife informed her guests, “No one will ever know how hard I work to try to make the little man feel busy!”
At social events she would often remind him, “Don't forget, darling, you're not king anymore!”
In 1972 the duke died in Paris. The duchess soon slipped into senility, drank even more heavily to calm the phantoms of the past, and was down to eighty-five pounds by 1977. And yet she lived until 1986, stubbornly clinging to life, even as her body
shriveled and her mind wandered. As she lay there, immobile, was she haunted by visions of crowns and scepters? Of thrones and coronation robes and the glory that might have been?
Nearly seventy years after Edward VIII's decision to marry his mistress, the same weighty question hangs over the head of a controversial prince.
As a girl, Camilla Shand, the great-granddaughter of Edward VII's last mistress, Alice Keppel, loved to hear Granny Alice stories and always laughed at her famous statement, “My job is to curtsy firstâ¦and then jump into bed!”
Little did Camilla know that she would have her own chance to curtsy and jump.
She met Prince Charles in 1970, as a pouring rain lashed the Windsor polo fields. Wearing a pair of muddy Wellington boots, twenty-three-year-old Camilla marched up to the twenty-two-year-old prince and introduced herself. “My great-grandmother was your great-great-grandfather's mistress,” she said. “How about it?”
Camilla, indeed, possessed many of the qualities that had made her great-grandmother a successful royal mistress. Though neither was classically beautiful, both had a colorful personality, dry wit, kindness, and intelligence that attracted more than high cheekbones or full lips. Both were fiercely loyal to their royal lovers, reassuring, calm, capable, andârare in a world of scepters and crownsâunpretentious. Both were described by their contemporaries as exuding a raw sex appeal that cannot be captured in photographs.
Charles was immediately intrigued. Camilla was already an experienced woman of the world with the reputation of being a sizzling sex partner; the prince was comparatively inexperienced. The two of them dated for nearly three years, Charles wanting desperately to marry her. But the royal family was not amusedâthough from a proper English family, Camilla was no virgin. Nor was Camilla herself very interested in living in the fishbowl of Buckingham Palace. While Charles was in the Royal Navy,
Camilla married her old flame Andrew Parker-Bowles. Hearing the news, the prince locked himself in his cabin for hours and emerged red-eyed.
They remained friends, however, and became lovers once again in 1980 as Camilla's marriage gracefully deteriorated. Camilla, always on the lookout for a potential royal bride, pushed Charles into the arms of Diana, Lady Spencer. Camilla felt Diana was young and pliable enough to mold herself to Charles and palace life. She was from a noble family and boasted that most vital prerequisite of a princess bride: an unpenetrated hymen. Charles, deeply in love with Camilla, had serious doubts; his wooing of Diana was halfhearted and lackluster. He had been raised, however, to do his duty for his country and so allowed himself to be pushed down the path to the altar.
According to the prince's valet at the time, Stephen Barry, just before his engagement to Diana was announced Charles said, “I'm making an awful bloody mistake.”
Days before the wedding, Barry said, “He told myself and Lord Romsey that Camilla was the only woman he had ever loved. He told us: I could never feel the same way about Diana as I do about Camilla.”
In the eighteenth-century tradition, family friend Lord Romsey assured Charles that in time his feelings would change and he would grow to love Diana.
Diana, though only nineteen, quickly picked up on Charles's love for Camilla and began to detest her. Though Camilla was invited to the wedding, Diana struck her name from the guest list for the wedding breakfast and the reception. A few days before the wedding, Diana found a wrapped gift from Charles to Camilla on the desk of his assistant. She opened it and found a bracelet. Diana felt it was highly inappropriate for Charles to give an old girlfriend such a gift days before his wedding. She almost canceled the wedding of the century.
Diana certainly would have canceled had she known that the night before the wedding, while she was keeping a virginal vigil, her prince was rolling in bed with Camilla. He intended to be faithful to his wife, but wanted to get in one last night with his mistress as a single man.
Charles was caught between the pincers of Baroque traditions and modern values. His marriage for dynastic purposes to a woman he did not loveâno matter how beautifulâwas just as much a sacrifice as Louis XIV's to the dwarflike infanta of Spain. Diana, on the other hand, was living in the late twentieth centuryânot the seventeenthâfully believing Charles was marrying her for love. She had not been raised at a court where royal mistresses were an accepted convention that unloved royal wives were expected to endure with dignity. Worst of all, she had hoped that Charles was the solution to her life of aimless uncertainty and bruising loneliness.
On her honeymoon cruise Diana found photos of Camilla in her husband's calendar book and flew into a rage. “Why don't you just face up to the truth and tell me it's her you love and not me?” she cried, stricken with the awful knowledge.
Suffering from bulimia, Diana raced to the toilet to vomit.
After the birth of Prince Harry in 1984 and three years of marital fidelity, Charles, frazzled by Diana's violent temper tantrums, ran back into the arms of Camilla. Dianaâconvulsed at the realization that her husband had never loved herâsought comfort in affairs of her own, but never found a long-lasting relationship. Her venom-spitting hatred of Camilla as the individual responsible for all her sufferings never faded with time. Perhaps Diana, looking in the mirror at her glamorous beauty, knew it couldn't be Camilla's looks that had seduced Charles away from the marriage bed; worse than that, it was something that Diana lacked
and the bitter knowledge rubbed salt in her aching wound.
But Charles would endure far worse than his wife's tantrums. On January 13, 1993, the British press reported a cell phone conversation between Charles and Camilla. The sexually explicit conversation made clear that Camilla had been his mistress for some time. The “Camillagate” tape was played over and over on television and radio around the world. The public was outraged; public opinion of the royal family dropped to an all-time low.
It didn't help that Charles had expressed the desire to be reincarnated as Camilla's Tampax. Foreign press called him the
Tampax Prince, and British women began calling tampons “Charlies.” Humiliated and reviled, Charles seriously thought of relinquishing his position as heir to the throne and leaving the country.
The prince's blackest moment came when Camilla's elderly father, Major Shand, demanded a meeting with his daughter's seducer, whom he harangued for ninety minutes. “My daughter's life has been ruined, her children are the subject of ridicule and contempt,” the major roared. “You have brought disgrace on my whole family.”
It was a far cry from the father of Madame de Montespan, who, upon hearing that his daughter had become Louis XIV's mistress in 1667, cried, “Praise be to God! Here is a stroke of great good fortune for our house!”
What had happened in the intervening three centuries? A great deal. For one thing, the financial rewards of a royal mistress today are severely limited, nor does she have an accepted position at court. Before the French Revolution, Diana would have found herself and Camilla, having been created a duchess, stuffed into a carriage with Charles between them. Camilla would have officially welcomed foreign ambassadors, while an unruly Diana may well have been locked in a tower. Camilla would have far outstripped Diana in jewels and gowns, in the number of rooms she possessed in their joint palace, in her power and influence.
Second, the modern royal mistress has no political power whatsoeverâas her prince has none himself and therefore nothing to share. The Camillas of the world no longer stride down palace corridors to attend council meetings, make laws, and appoint generals, ministers, and ambassadors. Nor do they have influence over literature and the arts. Their position is much the same as that of a nineteenth-century mistress, kept discreetly in the background, the illicit sex acceptable as long as no one finds out about it.
Third, the modern royal mistress and her prince have a new enemy. More intently following the trail of royal indiscretions than the most jealous wife, the press does battle with telephoto
lenses and secret recording devices, capturing the most intimate moments, then waving their war trophies about for all the world to see. History offers us not a single recorded cell phone conversation between Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan in which His Most Christian Majesty wishes he were a tampon, or photos of Nell Gwynn sunbathing topless in her walled garden near Whitehall Palace. It is most certainly our loss.
No wonder the reactions of Major Shand and Madame de Montespan's father were so different. But if Camilla suffers the nuisances of the modern royal mistress, she has dispensed with a different set of inconveniences that beset her predecessors. She is not expected to hunt boar in the rain and suffer interminable carriage rides with no chamber pot in sight. She has not caught smallpox in the palace or syphilis from Prince Charles, nor has she died birthing a royal bastard. Though if she had a choice between the intrusions of the press and the horrors of former centuries, Camilla might prefer to take her chances with smallpox.
After his bruising confrontation with Major Shand, Charles seemed to be giving up Camilla to appease public opinion and regain his honor. But he soon found, once again, that he simply couldn't do without her. Camilla swept back like an inevitable returning tide, only to ebb out to sea once more after Diana's tragic death in a car accident in 1997. However, Charles and Diana's eldest son, Prince William, soon invited Camilla to tea. William and his brother Harry asked her to accompany them and their father on a Mediterranean cruise in 1999.
Recently Charles has said that his relationship with her is nonnegotiable. Periodically, they attend public events together, during which it is quite noticeable that her appearance has been professionally resculpted. Hairdressers have tamed her frizzy horse's-mane hair. Makeup artists have taught her the most flattering secrets of their trade. Couturiers have suggested sleek dresses, which she adorns with tasteful jewelry. The remodeling work has turned Camilla from frumpy to elegant.
Camilla and Charles's relationship has now lasted an astounding thirty-four yearsâlonger than that of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria and Katharina Schratt. Camilla, like Katharina,
is winning points through her sheer endurance. We might all envy such a long-lasting relationship still sizzling with sexual passion. Her position is greatly aided by the acceptance of the young princes, who love their father deeply and want him to be happy. Even Queen Elizabeth II is warming to her.