How the Queen finally grew close to an ‘infuriating’ Charles, while he came to accept she wasn’t a distant mother… and the key to it all was Camilla, write GEOFFREY LEVY and RICHARD KAY
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For millions of people of a certain age, one of the abiding memories of the Queen and her son and heir Charles was the look of maternal pleasure, pride and affection on her face as she placed a coronet on his head confirming him as Prince of Wales.
No one could have imagined — at that magical moment at Caernarvon Castle marking the Prince’s 21st birthday in 1969 — that 25 years later he would be describing his mother as cold and distant.
The world read those painful words in Jonathan Dimbleby’s authorised biography of the Prince and this apparent unfeeling attitude became, for many, their perception of the Queen — despite the fact she was a devoted mother who had breastfed all four of her children.
Lord Mountbatten, the man Charles considered to be his ‘honorary grandfather’, once told the historian Robert Lacey that ‘nanny’s night off’ was the Queen’s favourite of the week.
‘When Nanny Mabel [Anderson] was off duty, Elizabeth could kneel beside the bath, bathe her babies, read to them and put them to bed,’ he said.
No one could have imagined — at that magical moment at Caernarvon Castle marking the Prince’s 21st birthday in 1969 — that 25 years later he would be describing his mother as cold and distant. The Queen and Charles are pictured together in September 1950, when he was three
So was the Queen really so cold and distant? Or might Charles’s childhood memories have been clouded by the uncertainty and unhappiness that dogged him for so much of his early life?
As Dimbleby wrote in his book, the Prince bitterly recalled a childhood during which the nursery staff, not his emotionally reserved parents, were the people who taught him to play, who witnessed his first steps, who punished and rewarded him and who helped him put his first thoughts into words.
He was almost 46 at the time and, ironically, had himself been accused of displaying a somewhat careless attitude to what his own two sons were getting up to.
According to the Queen’s intimate friend and cousin, Margaret Rhodes, these recollections deeply wounded his mother.
‘She always talks quite a lot about her children and she worries about them like any other mother,’ declared Mrs Rhodes. She believed the criticism was a misinterpretation of what was simply her ‘undemonstrative’ style as a mother.
There is, of course, another famous picture of mother and son. It shows Charles, aged five, appearing to formally shake his mother’s hand in greeting at a London railway station as the Queen and Prince Philip returned from a six-month Commonwealth tour.
Here was a mother separated from her children — Anne was three — by duty and continuing to observe the traditional formalities in which she had been trained since the age of ten. In later years, the question was asked, why didn’t she take Charles and Anne with her?
So was the Queen really so cold and distant? Or might Charles’s childhood memories have been clouded by the uncertainty and unhappiness that dogged him for so much of his early life? Picture: Charles kisses the Queen’s hand in 2012
After all, Charles was being taught by a governess at Buckingham Palace and she could have travelled with them.
But as Mrs Rhodes (who died in 2016) explained: ‘People simply don’t understand — it’s much better for small children to be at home in a familiar environment rather than drag them halfway round the world.’
She added: ‘In my opinion, Charles has been rather naïve. I remember when he and Anne were quite small and the Queen would take them away to Balmoral. She would get them to make their own beds and help with the washing up. She cooked the supper, they loved bangers and hot spuds.
‘These were magical times full of fun and love. She was much closer to the children than Charles gives her credit for.
‘True, she didn’t sweep them up [in an embrace] as Princess Diana did with her children but they were different times.
The Queen deeply loves Charles —it’s just that they have a different outlook and sometimes they don’t agree. He is a glass-half-empty person while she is a half-full one.’
Indeed, for much of the Queen’s reign she feared Charles could imperil the stability of a throne that she had worked hard for all her life. ‘Infuriating’ was the word she frequently used to describe him.
It took until he was well into his 60s and the monarch in her 80s for them to grow close and for Charles to admire his mother’s judgment and understand her caring concern about the happiness of all her children. Key to all of this, as we shall explain, was the Queen’s eventual welcoming of Camilla into the Royal Family.
Certainly, the wisdom of years made Charles realise that his public complaints about being distant when he was young were probably unfair. She was, after all, a working mother whose unique role took her on journeys to all parts of the world, especially when she was a new young Queen anxious to be seen.
As Lord Charteris, her long-time private secretary, once pointed out: ‘At the beginning [of her reign], she was learning and simply had too much on her plate to enjoy Charles, and then Anne.’
But the fact was, this (between Charles and Camilla) was a marriage that had the Queen’s reluctant acceptance, not her enthusiasm. Pictured: Charles and Camilla walk away from St George’s Chapel in Windsor after their marriage blessing
But was the division between motherhood and national duty shared as wisely as it might have been? Charles thought not.
Many agreed with him, ascribing his self-absorption and appalling self-pity to the fact that the Queen, while a flawless monarch, was, according to one courtier, somewhat ‘detached from the lives of her children’ — which inevitably most affected her firstborn.
The consequence, according to family friends, was a child already lacking in confidence who felt deprived of motherly love.
As the Dimbleby revelations proved, Charles was to bear this sadness over the Queen’s apparent maternal indifference through to his mature years. It was in the spin-off ITV interview with the broadcaster that Charles admitted his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles and, initially, Camilla came to embody the uneasy differences between mother and son.
The Queen was not among guests in 1998 when her grandsons William and Harry hosted a 50th birthday party for their father at Highgrove. She didn’t go because she knew Camilla would be there.
At that delicate time — just a year after Princess Diana’s death — her attendance was out of the question. Some saw this as the Prince of Wales putting his mistress before his mother, so it is hardly surprising that more years of mutual misunderstanding and distrust were to follow.
In other words, if he was staying with her, he had to marry her. In fact, it was the Queen who pressured him into making a decision. The Queen, Charles and Camilla are pictured in 2006
The Queen emerged as a critic of her son’s extravagance, for example. A courtier reported her saying she felt the ‘amount of kit and servants he takes around is grotesque’.
In the dark days after Charles’s 1996 divorce from Diana, one of the Queen’s aides wondered if it might not be better if he were to ‘retire’ to the country, marry Camilla and pass over the succession to Prince William.
This view was reported to the Queen who, said the aide, ‘did not react violently against it’ and even appeared to wonder if it might offer a possible solution.
This was perhaps the nadir of the many years of acute worry the Queen had endured about Charles and his public image which were largely concentrated on his relationships with Diana and Camilla.
Not that the Queen was unsophisticated to the ways of men. Indeed, when she was first told that her then bachelor son was sleeping with the wife of a brother officer in the Brigade of Guards — Andrew Parker Bowles’s wife Camilla — she made no comment.
‘The news wouldn’t have surprised the Queen at all,’ said the Rev Michael Mann, the late Dean of Windsor. ‘Her reaction would have been that this was a natural thing for an eager young man to be doing.’
In her long reign, however, the Queen had grown to understand the value of pragmatism. More than anyone, she recognised that her son would make a better monarch with someone he loved at his side, just as she had. King Charles and Queen consort Camilla are pictured today outside Buckingham Palace
The Queen recognised that Camilla had worked assiduously for the Crown behind the scenes, never once upstaging Charles, an accusation regularly hurled at Diana. Pictured: Charles and Camilla leaving Buckingham Palace today
Later, however, the fact that a man with a beautiful young wife was finding extramarital pleasure with an older woman plainly perplexed the Queen as much as it did Prince Philip. Her woman’s-eye view of Mrs Parker Bowles was that she looked ‘rather used’.
She knew, of course, how difficult Diana was to live with and, in private, sometimes described the Princess as that ‘impossible girl’.But the way she said it also suggested she knew what the Princess was going through being married to the fussy Prince of Wales.
For his part, Charles was always unsettled by his view that the Queen accepted Diana’s version of how he treated her during their marriage. It was a version also accepted by the majority of the public.
In the months after Diana’s death, huge efforts were made to rehabilitate Charles and he was widely praised for his efforts as a single parent doing his best to bring up two sons who had lost their mother.
Emboldened by this changing public attitude, barely a year after Diana’s death, he cautiously raised the issue of Camilla with the Queen one evening at Balmoral.
He was seeking her approval of his relationship because he wanted to be able to take her out publicly, and for them to be seen together.
Instantly, he realised his mistake. His mother’s snappy response shocked him, but also made him angry.
‘He simply couldn’t see it,’ recalls a former courtier. ‘He couldn’t see that this request to the Queen so soon after Diana’s death was much too premature.’
The Queen’s response was to tell her son that she didn’t want to talk about ‘that wicked woman’ and wanted nothing to do with her, said a highly placed confidant of the Prince.
The story of the Queen and Charles could have been one of the most tragic mother-son relationships in royal history. Pictured: The Duchess of Cambridge, Camilla Queen consort and the Queen in 2021
‘He was devastated. He couldn’t understand why she had taken so bitterly against the woman he loved.’
To the Queen, her son’s shock at her response was the clearest indication of the self-absorption that had always exasperated her. How could the Queen indicate even the smallest element of approval for a woman perceived by millions to have been the wrecker of a fairytale marriage?
For his part, Charles felt that neither his mother nor his father understood him and that they gave him no encouragement.
In his craving for maternal approval, he was especially frustrated that his mother had never offered much in the way of praise for the way in which he had founded and built up the Prince’s Trust, the mainstay of his charity work. Her attitude was always ‘don’t talk about it, get on with it’, recalls a lady-in-waiting.
Charles, quietly advised by wiser heads, was forced to take a step back and wait. And this policy paid off when it eventually became clear that, for the good of the monarchy, the Prince of Wales had to ‘regularise’ his relationship with Camilla.
In other words, if he was staying with her, he had to marry her. In fact, it was the Queen who pressured him into making a decision.
Jubilantly, Charles announced the impending marriage. His then private secretary, Sir Michael Peat, insisted with a lofty air of intimate knowledge that the relationship between the Prince and his mother had ‘never been better’.
But the fact was, this was a marriage that had the Queen’s reluctant acceptance, not her enthusiasm.
In her long reign, however, the Queen had grown to understand the value of pragmatism. More than anyone, she recognised that her son would make a better monarch with someone he loved at his side, just as she had.
She and Prince Philip did not attend their son’s second marriage ceremony at Windsor’s Guildhall, but she did host a party for 700 afterwards in Windsor Castle, at which she proposed a toast to the bride and groom, congratulating them in racing parlance by welcoming them ‘into the winners’ enclosure’.
The Queen’s deep and abiding Christian faith, which meant she was never fully comfortable with the idea of the former Mrs Parker Bowles becoming King Charles’s queen (Charles and Camilla pictured talking in July 1975)
That was the defining moment — one that moved Charles almost to tears — that began the change in the nature of this uniquely troubled relationship between a Queen and her heir.
All his life, Charles had been desperate for his mother’s approval, yearning to hear her describe him as a winner and how ironic that the moment arrived only after he’d put a ring on ‘that wicked woman’s’ finger.
As time passed and the Queen was experiencing those first signs of frailty even as Prince Philip, then in his 90s, was slowly withdrawing from public life, she began to see the son she had perceived as too needy, vulnerable, emotional and self-centred in something of a new light.
He was gradually taking over many of her responsibilities, and doing so with confidence and even a little panache.
This new mutual respect led rapidly to full co-operation between what had in effect become rival royal households. Courtiers who were used to pursuing competing agendas at Buckingham Palace and Clarence House were astonished by this rapprochement, and relieved.
For a long time the Queen’s aides perceived Charles’s household to be committed solely to polishing his own image at the expense of other Royal Family members. What ended the rivalry was Charles effectively becoming ‘co-head’ of the ‘Firm’ as the Queen’s physical powers declined.
She was largely happy with the new arrangement — although not entirely in agreement with Charles’s ambitions to slim down the monarchy if this meant pushing Edward and possibly even Princess Anne to the margins of the royal show.
But the Camilla factor remained an issue. Part of this was due to the Queen’s deep and abiding Christian faith, which meant she was never fully comfortable with the idea of the former Mrs Parker Bowles becoming King Charles’s queen.
And then, on the 70th anniversary of her own accession in February this year, it was announced by Buckingham Palace that it was her ‘sincere wish’ that her daughter-in-law should be known as Queen Consort alongside King Charles when the time came.
There was not just her famous pragmatism: the Queen recognised that Camilla had worked assiduously for the Crown behind the scenes, never once upstaging Charles, an accusation regularly hurled at Diana. What is more, her son’s happiness and contentment with his second wife was plain for all to see.
The story of the Queen and Charles could have been one of the most tragic mother-son relationships in royal history. After all, throughout the ages, monarchs and their heirs have failed to see eye-to-eye. And yet, by the time of her death, mother and son were reconciled and their philosophies joined.
She had changed her mind about him. She believed, at last, that he could be a fine king. Charles, significantly, had also changed his mind about his mother.
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