The Queen Mother and Princess Anne were sitting in the front pew at the Guards Chapel in London on July 4, 1973 to watch Prince Charles' one true love get married, in what was being described in the society pages as the wedding of the year.
Dressed in layers of tulle, diamonds sparkling in her hair, there was a triumphant glint in the bride's eye after finally landing her man. The only problem was that Camilla Shand wasn't getting married to Charles!
After a seven-year rollercoaster romance, Camilla shared I do's with dashing cavalry officer Andrew Parker-Bowles. The fact that their union would come to signify deceit above all else was little consolation to Charles at the time, as he sank into a miserable funk on board his Navy ship in the Caribbean. But while he was deeply disappointed at the turn of events, the Prince was also stubborn and used to getting his own way.
A marriage, he reasoned, may have been a bar for most men to continue courting the love of their life. But most men weren't born to be King.
For about 18 months, Camilla's marriage was allowed to maintain the appearance of decorum. But old habits die hard — for both Andrew and Camilla. By all accounts, he went back to the myriad casual affairs he'd been famous for as a single man about town in London. And Camilla went back to Charles.
For years, Parker-Bowles managed to pretend he knew nothing of the passionate affair between his wife and the man she called her 'darling little Prince.' But the proud military officer would later be ridiculed as the husband "who laid down his wife for his Prince."
In truth, Andrew didn't have much choice. It was his duty to keep a stiff British upper lip as his wife and Charles picked up where they left off. Camilla and Charles were practically thrown together. Andrew's parents were close personal friends of the Queen Mother. And when his parents died, it fell on Andrew and Camilla to host the Queen Mom at Bolehyde Manor, their country home in Wiltshire.
The couple were also regular visitors to Balmoral and Sandringham, the two royal residences outside London. They were frequent guests at the Queen's parties, where Charles was usually present. The Prince had started writing to Camilla about six months after she married Andrew and then gradually started attending weekend house parties at Bolehyde.
The Parker-Bowles' first child, Thomas, was born in December 1974 and any bridge between jilted Charles and Camilla had been mended sufficiently enough for him to agree to be the boy's godfather. Scurrilous gossips suggested the affair had already begun before Camilla gave birth and that Thomas could have been Charles' son.
But author Christopher Wilson, in his book The Windsor Knot, said the infidelity began when Thomas was a toddler and Charles was stationed at HMS Mercury, the Navy signals school in Portsmouth. Wilson quotes a butler who worked for Camilla's grandmother, Sonia Cubitt, who lived near the Navy base, as saying: "I well remember the first time the Prince came to Hall Place. He arrived at about 6 p.m. and after a few minutes talking to Mrs. Cubitt he vanished into thin air with Camilla.
"She had been wandering around all day wearing a pair of jeans with no zip — the fly was held together with a safety pin. 'I can even see your drawers, Camilla,' I heard Mrs. Cubitt bellow. Camilla's reply was: 'Oh, Charles won't mind about that.'"
On another occasion, said the butler, Charles' bodyguard was looking for his master. "I told him not to worry — that they were out in the garden taking a stroll. I persuaded him not to go looking. He'd have been very embarrassed if he had — they were up against a tree doing what Lady Chatterley enjoyed best. I saw it myself. As soon as they went into the garden, they headed straight for the avenue of beech trees and into the shadows. They were oblivious to everything around them."
Charles was hardly faithful to his mistress. He spent the late 1970s squiring a dizzying array of attractive and aristocratic girlfriends. But each of the relationships was short-lived. The problem, of course, was that Charles had already met his perfect match in Camilla. Wilson wrote that Charles took to visiting Bolehyde Manor without caring whether Parker-Bowles was there or not.
"Charles was eating there regularly," one friend told the writer. "He just wanted to hang around Camilla. Often he'd be there in the kitchen while she was cooking for a dinner party — then when the guests turned up, he'd disappear upstairs and have his supper on a tray. When they went, he'd come down again and carry on where he'd left off."
Parker-Bowles became used to finding Charles in the house and accepted the situation, to the dismay of his friends who felt he was allowing himself to be humiliated. Following the birth of Camilla's second child, Laura, in January 1978, Charles became increasingly careless about covering the tracks of his infidelity. In 1980, he invited Camilla as his "official escort" to Zimbabwe's independence celebrations.
Wilson wrote of another incident that highlighted just how indifferent the Prince had become to the opinion of his peers. Jane Ward, a former girlfriend of the Prince, described Charles' outrageous behavior at a Polo Club Ball in Cirencester, England. "Charles and Parker-Bowles shared the same table and Charles spent the whole evening dancing with Camilla," she recalled.
"They were kissing passionately as they danced — on and on they went, kissing each other, French kissing, dance after dance. Andrew Parker-Bowles wasn't quite sure how to react — he sat there smiling and saying to people: 'HRH is very fond of my wife. And she appears very fond of him.' He seemed not uncomfortable with what was going on, but other people were, especially the older ones. Some were embarrassed and shocked because the whole thing was so blatant."
On another occasion, Charles reportedly put his hands down the front of Camilla's plunging neckline in front of a group of stunned friends. In August 1980, the Prince spent a little over $1 million on a nine-bedroom Georgian house called Highgrove in the heart of England's picturesque Cotswolds. It wasn't an impulse buy — the 350-acre estate was just a few minutes drive from Camilla's country house.
In Andrew, the cheating couple had found a compliant, if uncomfortable, accomplice, the cuckolded playboy who was getting an ample dose of his own medicine. But with Charles under growing pressure to find himself a bride, the couple was determined to find a woman who would be similarly accepting of the By Royal Appointment affair.
Some of the more obvious candidates were quickly dismissed by Camilla as being too headstrong, jealous or demanding. The trap was being set for an innocent young Princess-in-waiting who wouldn't cause any waves to wreck what was a perfectly workable arrangement. Little did Charles and Camilla suspect that the shy and retiring Lady Diana Spencer would become their nemesis.