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Inside Duchess Camilla's Childhood: She Was Into Boys 'Much Quicker' Than Others Her Age

Camilla Parker Bowles
Source: MEGA (2)

Dec. 12 2020, Published 3:01 a.m. ET

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The tomboy who climbed onto the roof of Queen's Gate boarding school for girls in London's tony South Kensington to smoke cigarettes with her friends in 1960 — now known as none other than Duchess Camilla — was never short of company.

While her pals gossiped about boys and horses, young Camilla Rosemary Shand, known as Milla, had some much more scandalous stories to tell. Who else could boast that her great grandmother, Alice Keppel, was official mistress of Britain's King Edward VII? And what irony it would prove to be that Alice met Edward VII at a dinner party in 1898 — when he was still the Prince of Wales before being crowned King.

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Society hostess Alice would entertain the King at her home called Pleasure House — outside London in the county of Kent — Milla would dish. And her great-grandfather, George, would conveniently leave the house during the royal visits. Her maternal ancestor was famous for saying, "My job is to curtsy first...and then jump into bed!"

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The other girls would feign shock, and Milla would revel in the reflected glory of her family's salacious past. The thought that she, too, would one day become a royal mistress would probably never have occurred to the teenage Camilla. But perhaps the seeds of her own later notoriety were sown in the retelling of what seemed to her to be thrilling escapades. But then, as one British royal commentator put it, the Shands were as famous for their sexual shenanigans as other dynasties were for breeding soldiers.

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Her great aunt, Violet Trefusis, was also at the center of a huge scandal as the lesbian lover of the Bloomsbury poet Vita Sackville-West. The affair became the basis for Virginia Woolf's celebrated novel Orlando. "Sex is something she has in her blood, just like her great-grandmother," says biographer Christopher Wilson.

Born at King's College Hospital in London on July 17, 1947 (making her 16 months older than ), Camilla was the eldest daughter of Major Bruce Shand, a former Army officer who became a partner in an exclusive wine store on the site of what is now Harry's Bar in Mayfair, one of London's most well-heeled neighborhoods.

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The perfect English gentleman, Bruce won the Military Cross for bravery after fighting at Dunkirk and in North Africa in World War Two and spending two years as a German prisoner of war. Her mother, the Honorable Rosalind Shand, was the daughter of Sonia (whose mother was the infamous Alice) and Lord Ashcombe, whose great grandfather had made a huge fortune in real estate.

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With her younger sister Annabel and brother Mark, Camilla grew up on the family's idyllic rural estate in Plumpton, East Sussex, about 50 miles south of London. Their home, The Laines, was a former rectory on many acres, and Camilla led a charmed childhood, owning her first pony at the age of five, riding on the green rolling hills nearby and going on family trips to the seaside about ten miles away at Brighton on weekends.

"There are these wonderful hills that go through Sussex that are called the South Downs," recalled William Shawcross, a historian and biographer who has been friends with Camilla since they were children. "It's now a national park. In those days it was just open, common land and very lovely, gentle hills rising out of the sea. Rosalind used to let Camilla and Annabel go on riding-and-camping nights. They slept on the downs in sleeping bags. Camilla and Annabel were mad keen on the ponies, as was my sister, Joanna, and they'd go off to Pony Club events together."

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Cloistered from the outside world, Camilla went to the private Dumbrells school, just three miles away, where she was remembered as a "nice, polite little girl."

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Most families in that social set had nannies, but not the Shands. "Rosalind would pick the girls up at the end of the day and, in summer, take them to the beach in Hove," said Shawcross.

"Rosalind was fully with the kids all the time. Fun was one of the main things I remember about the Shand household. There were ponies, dogs, picnics. There was no pomp, no snobbery, but a lot of fun for all ages. The Shands were a happy clan." It was, in short, the upbringing of a typical upper-class English country girl.

The Shands also owned a house in London, and when Camilla was 10, it was deemed time for her to get more serious about her education. She was enrolled at the Queen's Gate weekly boarding school.

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According to author Catherine Graham in her biography Camilla: Her True Story, the private school was known for "providing wives for half the foreign office and most of the nobility."

"At parties we used to have miniature dinner jackets and the girls had pretty dresses with satin bows...I remember Camilla vividly," said Broderick Munro-Wilson, a merchant banker and longtime friend of Camilla. "She was quite commanding and would always have other girls around her."

Milla was a regular tomboy with an extroverted personality. She was the focus of attention, not because she was dazzlingly beautiful but because she was so bright and bubbly. "She wasn't going to be a movie star, but she was always very smart and well turned out," said Munro-Wilson. "She was into boys much quicker than other girls of her age. There was this daredevil element in her. There is a certain boldness required to go riding, hunting and jumping, and that shone through."

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At weekends, Camilla would still get the train home to keep up with her riding and hunting, both lifelong favorite pursuits. Her father was master of the Southdown Fox Hunt in Sussex, and Camilla tagged on behind the adults on her pony. Camilla gradually settled into the busier social life the capital offered, even if she never excelled at academics. She left Queen's Gate at the age of 16 with only one 'O' level, the equivalent of a passing grade.

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It was hardly a problem as she didn't need to work; both her parents had private incomes and a $750,000 trust from her mother's family ensured she wouldn't want for money. Nevertheless, she was packed off to a Swiss finishing school near Geneva for a year before returning for her 'coming out party' in Knightsbridge in March 1965. She started hanging out with London's young moneyed set and despite her frumpy "twin sweater sets and pearls" fashion sense, she was much in demand by young suitors.

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Both her younger siblings also quickly meshed with London society. Sister Annabel Elliot, two years younger than Camilla, became an accomplished interior designer, and her brother Mark, born in 1951, cut an exciting figure as an explorer and author, dating famous beauties like Bianca Jagger and Princess Lee Radziwill in the '70s, before settling down and marrying actress Clio Goldsmith, niece of billionaire financier Sir James Goldsmith.

With her own apartment — shared with Jane Wyndham — who would later become Lady Spencer-Churchill through her marriage to the great-grandnephew of Winston Churchill, Camilla was an independent woman of considerable means in the late 1960s. The stage was set for Keppel's great-granddaughter to meet her own Prince of Wales.

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