It was all going so well. Earlier this year, polls showed that 12 years after her marriage to Prince Charles, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, had become increasingly popular, and more and more people were warming to the idea of her one day becoming queen.
But according to a more recent survey, two-thirds of British people now no longer think Camilla should be queen – and more than half would prefer Prince William to become king ahead of his father.
Camilla has kept a low profile of late, but in the last couple of weeks, she’s appeared at a flurry of official engagements, including meeting inspirational women at the Women of the Year lunch and celebrities at the Man Booker Awards. Royal commentators are suggesting there may be a charm offensive in place to try to revive her waning popularity.
So what went wrong? All fingers are being pointed at the multitude of documentaries and articles run to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana in August.
Unfortunately, the anniversary programmes reminded the public that the long-lasting affair between Camilla and Charles was largely responsible for much of Diana’s deep unhappiness. Criticism turned the month into an “August horribilis” for the pair, according to one friend.
The pair retreated to their summer holiday home, Birkhall – a grand hunting lodge in the grounds of Balmoral, where they traditionally spend August – and maintained their silence while talk raged about Diana and her tragic, untimely death in 1997.
The first time Charles was seen in weeks was at the Braemar Gathering in Aberdeenshire, where he joined his parents, the Queen and Prince Philip, as they viewed traditional Scottish events. There was no sign of Camilla.
Apart from one busy day at the beginning of September, when she and Charles visited a community garden and held a garden party in Scotland, and another outing to a Battle of Britain Thanksgiving service later that month, Camilla has stayed well below the radar while her popularity has been slipping.
“I think the Diana coverage inflicted some real damage on Charles and Camilla, as poll numbers have shown,” says Sally Bedell-Smith, author of the book Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life.
The change in opinion was rapid. Even in July, when Camilla celebrated her 70th birthday, a poll showed that 22% of Britons had a better opinion of Camilla than they did when she married Charles in 2005.
“The celebrations around the duchess’ 70th birthday were largely generous to a woman who should be enjoying retirement but has instead rolled up her sleeves and committed herself to the family firm,”
points out one royal observer.
But that feeling has changed in the wake of the material released for the anniversary.
Among the most damaging were the video tapes Diana recorded with voice coach Peter Settlelen in 1992. In one, she disclosed how she once walked in on Charles in the bathroom engaging in “dirty talk” over
the phone with Camilla.
The fact that Princes William and Harry publicly spoke in glowing terms about their mother didn’t help Charles’ cause, says another royal watcher.
“In championing her legacy, they are in danger of undoing their father’s hard work. It seems unfair that only Diana appears to get the credit for the men William and Harry have become, when it was Charles who steered them out of their grief-stricken teenage years and into adulthood. Clearly Diana was a fantastic mother, but that doesn’t make Charles a bad father.”
While Charles and Camilla’s popularity has waned, William and Harry are the royals everyone wants to see. Charles (68) may be picking up some of the workload now that his father Prince Philip has retired and his mother is cutting back on her duties, but many people would rather see his sons featuring more in royal life.
With William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, expecting their third child, and Harry rumoured to be about to get engaged to his actress girlfriend Meghan Markle, there’s a huge amount of interest in them, and that could further turn the tide against Charles and Camilla.
The duchess has been the perfect partner to Charles, never trying to upstage her husband or criticise the royal family, points out a royal observer, so maybe it is time to judge her by “her works and deeds, rather than pulling the skeletons out of the closet”.
Another friend says while the last few months have been tricky, Camilla and Charles will recover. “They’ve weathered the storm before and they’ll weather it again.”