Editor's Note: In Part 1 of a five-part excerpt from "Behind Palace Doors: Marriage and Divorce in the House of Windsor," by Nigel Dempster and Peter Evans, Prince Charles is attacked from all sides after his intimate conversation with Camilla Parker Bowles is splashed across newspapers around the world.
Whose side are you on, Mummy? Charles demanded plaintively at one stage of the harrowing and at times acrimonious debate on Sunday, January 17, 1993, at Sandringham, the royal retreat in Norfolk. He probably had cause to wonder. His mother's devotion to the institution of the Crown was consummate. Even as a mother, she found it hard to find any ameliorating words for the harm Charles had clearly done to the monarchy by his now horrifyingly public relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles, whose husband, Andrew, had been the colonel in charge of her own Household Cavalry. Inevitably, this caused friction and misunderstanding. "When Charles talked about the future, he was essentially talking about his own future," says a close friend of the family, who had heard accounts of the family summit at Sandringham from both Charles and his father. "When the queen talked about the future, she was talking about the monarchy itself."
If the queen was at times inscrutable ("Even when she tells you what she thinks, you never know what she feels," says a friend), Prince Philip was the opposite. The man who by virtue of his experience should calmly have taken charge simply lost his temper with everybody, his voice becoming more angry and adenoidal with every syllable he uttered. To be fair, the notion that his son's intimate, mildly dirty, and decidedly unprincely telephone conversations with a married woman would not only be taped but splashed across newspapers around the world was good reason for ire. Yet, perhaps part of that anger, suggests a royal staffer who understands him well, was the realization of just how far both he and the queen had gone wrong as parents. "I think they both felt guilty. In that, at least, they share the same conscience."
But for a royal father it must have been especially painful. For it meant that his very raison d'etre had been destroyed. "When you strip it right down, his prime duty to the family had been to produce a viable male heir to the throne -- and at that moment even that achievement seemed to be in the balance."
Faced with the awesome reserve of his mother and the fury of his father, not to mention the disgusting mix of ridicule and condemnation emanating from the press, the prince of Wales arrived at Sandringham, according to one source, in a mood of pessimism and despair. According to another source, his desperation was palpable as the family grimly gathered to see what, if anything, could be done. "A man far more confident of himself than Prince Charles has ever been would have been shaken by the events of that week. He was under attack from so many sides, and for so many reasons," says one of his friends, putting in yet another interpretation of his mood that weekend. ,, "But he was resolute, realistic, and thoughtful."
When criticized by his mother, the prince's mood turned to anger. Attacked by his father, it turned remarkably to defiance. "Defiance was something the queen mother could build on," said one of her own equerries, who had made a private study of the way she operates.
And so for the first time in that long and difficult Sunday, old Queen Mother Elizabeth spoke up. Perhaps it had taken her time to overcome her own anger and disappointment in her favorite grandson. Like the queen, she had not read the excerpts of her grandson's outpourings to Mrs. Parker Bowles and said she never would. But it was an article of faith in the British creed, she said, that if a man is born a prince, he must be credited with a kind of moral stature. Charles had made serious mistakes in the conduct of his private life. Women particularly did not like the way he had behaved. But he was fundamentally a good man, and the British people knew that. They knew he was sincere and dedicated. Now he must prove to the people that he had courage, too. His final problem had been brought out in the open. Now he must work for the people's forgiveness -- then he would be forgiven, and more popular than he had ever been. They were words of consolation, but words of warning, too.
The crisis that threatened the backbone of the monarchy itself had begun shortly before 6:15 a.m. on Wednesday, January 13, "Black Wednesday," as the royal family came to call it. A junior currency dealer in the City of London, the United Kingdom's financial hub, paid 25 pounds to a man on the Australian desk for the first unexpurgated transcript of the private bedtime conversation between the prince of Wales and the 45-year-old wife of his friend Andrew Parker Bowles. By 6:45, people were lining up to fax the transcripts to friends and colleagues around the world.
"I knew that whether the British press had the will to publish them or not, the transcripts had become the biggest samizdat operation outside of Russia," the junior trader would say later. "I thought, This is the conversation that will stop Prince Charles becoming king. I knew that all hell was going to break loose." By the time "Black Wednesday" arrived with all its horrors, the New Year was already beginning to feel far worse than anything that had happened to the royal family before. This scandal, soon to be dubbed Camillagate by the tabloid press, directly involved the prince of Wales, the queen's son and heir to the throne.
At that stage the queen had no notion of what the tape might contain, but she had clearly gathered from Sir Robert's bleak expression that it would not be any more agreeable to her than the content of the embarrassing Squidgy tape [Princess Diana's recorded conversation with a male friend], the transcripts of which she still refused to read. She asked whether Commander Richard Aylard knew about the activity in the City, and whether he had informed the prince. When Sir Robert told her that he had discussed the situation with Commander Aylard and that the prince would be told that morning, she thanked him and said that he was to do nothing more. The matter was not to be referred to until the prince of Wales chose to bring it up with her personally.
"How can it all have gone so wrong so quickly?" Prince Charles asked again and again after Richard Aylard had broken the news to him on that January day. Although he had been expecting it for months, when it came it proved more shocking than he had ever imagined.
"How can it all have gone so wrong so quickly?" he repeated hopelessly to no one in particular.
"He had great need of reassurance. Wouldn't anyone in that kind of situation?" asked one of the friends he summoned to the royal retreat in Norfolk, bought by his great-great-grandfather, King Edward VII, while he himself was prince of Wales in the 1870s.
Charles' nerves were already frayed by the stress and bitterness of his endless battles with his wife -- and the haggling which had started since their separation. Now to have this final humiliation of every word of the Camillagate tape made public was too great for him to bear, although it would not be until the following weeks, when he found himself back in his office at Buckingham Palace, that the full reality would strike him and he would actually break down in tears.
Not just a family problem
Charles was in trouble with the media, the public, and most of all with his own family. No royal marriage in modern times had been so dramatic in its course and riveting in its consequence as his marriage to Diana. "If I had been Charles, none of this would have happened," Princess Anne said, clean forgetting her own recent marital difficulties.
But by Sunday, January 17, this was not simply a family problem anymore. The queen mother dared to say what the others only thought: It was nothing less than a crisis of monarchical existence.
Over Sunday morning coffee, surely the whole country was reading the story in the Sunday Mirror and The People.
Here it was at last. A lovers' conversation, intensely private, embarrassing to read. And the public read all 1,574 words of it. Recorded on December 18, 1989, and purchased by Mirror Group Newspapers for 30,000 pounds, the tape removed finally forever the faded line between movie stars and monarchy: It was clear that the public was finally to be honored with the same delectable details about the love affairs of the royal family that formerly they read only about Hollywood movie queens.
As revealed in the world, the six-minute conversation was full of private jokes, non sequiturs, and intimate remarks. "I want to feel my way along you, all over you and up and down you, and in and out . . ." he says. "Oh," she says. "Particularly in and out," he says. "Oh, that's just what I need at the moment," she tells him. In addition, there were awful schoolboy puns, and the infamous aside from Charles that he might be reincarnated as her tampon. To even the most obtuse readers in the land, it was quite clear that an adulterous affair had been going on between the prince and Mrs. Parker Bowles for a considerable while.
According to a poll on January 16, the day before the publication of the tapes, one-third of the British people thought Camillagate had damaged him "very badly," another third thought "fairly badly." More than two in five thought that the monarchy should skip a generation and Prince William should accede to the throne after the queen.
The foxiest member of the family by far was turning out to be the queen mother. She had been a major force in engineering Charles' marriage to Diana, and now she would step forward as the most savvy and sage voice in this maelstrom of woes. It was not the first time that the queen mother, almost 93 years old, had proved that she was still the best royal to have around in a crisis. Her career indeed had been to an uncommon degree shaped by royal crises of one kind or another. Her voice, gentle but authoritative, seemed to exist for the sole purpose of conveying calm and good sense.
The queen mother's warmth
If the ability to show warmth was a missing ingredient in her daughter, it was at the very heart of the queen mother's strength. And when she told her grandson that if he heeded her advice things could only get better, he trusted her. During the following days her opinions -- "order of battle," she called them -- became the basis of what "informed sources" told the press was the prince's thinking as he contemplated the future, or life after Camillagate.
The queen mother talked to her grandson almost every day in the following weeks, encouraging him, calming him. Whenever his resolve faltered and he threatened to come apart, she told him again and again, "You must show the people that you have a moral courage," assuring him that the worst was over. "You must never belie your name," she said, quietly reminding him of his destiny, after he had told friends he was afraid he was not worthy of what was expected of him.
But even when his depression seemed irrecoverably deep, the queen mother always had faith in him. "He has to rehabilitate himself -- by himself," she told an old friend. "And he will. People underrate his strength, just as they underrated Bertie's."
"Perhaps she was right, but she gave him tremendous encouragement. And Charles, he kept his nerve, he did as he was told, . . . just as King George always had," one of the queen mother's friends would say later with amusement and satisfaction. "She is a wonderful restorer of crumbling backbones."
But he was not out of the wood yet. That same week he received a call from Camilla Parker Bowles' father, Maj. Bruce Shand, demanding a meeting. "He knew it was going to be the most difficult and embarrassing meeting of the whole Camillagate affair," said one of his friends. "But he refused to duck it."
The meeting lasted 90 minutes. According to the Shand family, the major told the prince that he had sullied their name and that he was never to see or contact his daughter again. A doughty figure and former war hero who had won the Military Cross twice, Major Shand spelled out the great harm that had already been done, not least to Camilla's children, Laura and Tom (who had heard boys at Eton calling his mother a tart). He sought an assurance from the prince that there would be an end to it. Nobody had ever talked to the prince in such a forthright manner in his life (except his father), and he was appalled. According to one source close to the Shand family, the prince broke down in tears of shame. He promised to "consider" the major's pleas.
NEXT: A royal conspiracy
From the book "Behind Palace Doors: Marriage and Divorce in the House of Windsor" by Nigel Dempster and Peter Evans. Copyright 1993, by Welcome Productions Inc. and Peter Evans. Reprinted by arrangement with the publisher, G. P. Putnam's Sons. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.