Camilla: From 'marriage wrecker' to the respected Duchess of Cornwall

Camilla has been a part of the royal family for more than 15 years — after marrying Prince Charles in 2005 — but she didn’t always have a respectable reputation.

A new documentary tells the epic story of Camilla before Charles — a tale of love, betrayal and redemption

The documentary Camilla Before Charles takes a close look at the Duchess of Cornwall Before the royal marriage. (Getty Images)

The new documentary Camilla Before Charles asks, before Meghan Markle, was Camilla Shand the original unsuitable Royal bride? 

Camilla has been a part of the Royal Family for more than 15 years — since marrying Prince Charles in 2005 — but she wasn't always accepted.

From party girl to "marriage wrecker," Camilla has taken on her share of negative public personas. At one point, she was the most-hated woman in Britain, Vanity Fair's Royal correspondent Katie Nicholl said in the documentary. 

While Charles and Camilla's relationship has been long and fraught, the Duchess of Cornwall has since won over many hearts.

Camilla's early years

Camilla was raised in a village in Sussex about 60 kilometres south of London. She comes from a wealthy family; her dad was a military hero, and her mother was from the Cubitt family, which built much of central London. 

She lived a privileged life, but was also known to be fun and a tomboy. She was "happier on a horse than in the classroom," Nicholl said.

And as a teen, Camilla didn't follow the rules either. "She shared a room with my second wife, and of course, smoking was a forbidden thing," said childhood friend Broderick Munro-Wilson in the documentary. "But anyway, she was definitely smoking as a teenager."

When Camilla met Charles

Camilla made a memorable first impression when she first met Charles at a polo match in 1970. It's been widely reported she broke the ice by mentioning her great-grandmother's affair with King Edward VII, Charles's great-great-grandfather.

Royal biographer Penny Junor agreed. "I think what attracted Charles to Camilla was the fact that she was not overawed by him at all," she said. "The fact that she was going out with the Prince of Wales, you know, he could've been Joe Bloggs. She didn't care."

The documentary Camilla Before Charles takes a close look at her life leading up to their wedding in 2005. (Alamy Stock Photo)

Camilla and Charles started to spend more time together, and their relationship developed over the course of six months. But senior members of the Royal Family were not supportive and thought her carefree nature wasn't suitable. They were "terrified that she had a past, she had too many pasts," said Tom Quinn, author of Kensington Palace: An Intimate Memoir from Queen Mary to Meghan Markle. 

Camilla and Charles's first marriages

Without the Royal Family's approval, Camilla and Charles's relationship couldn't blossom. Charles was sent on a long tour of the Caribbean and months later, he heard of Camilla's engagement to Andrew Parker Bowles, a British army officer.

"[Charles] realized, quite literally, that he had missed the boat with Camilla," Nicholl said. "He wrote to say how regretful and how sorry he was at the demise of what he called a peaceful and happy relationship — which I think indicates quite clearly that he did have something special with Camilla."

Britain's Prince Charles and Parker Bowles are seen as they make their first public appearance together since they announced their wedding engagement at Windsor Castle. (Alamy Stock Photo)

Charles and Lady Diana Spencer began a friendship when they reconnected in 1980. And they were married on July 29, 1981. The wedding was grand, watched by more than 750 million viewers around the world. But by the mid-'80s, their relationship was unravelling. 

"He couldn't make his wife happy — they fought terribly," said Richard Kay, editor-at-large at the Daily Mail. "On the surface, all seemed well, of course, and in public they were a great double act."

Meanwhile, Camilla was dealing with an unfaithful husband. "You're at home with two gorgeous children and he's in London all week, and you know perfectly well what he's doing," said Ingrid Seward, editor-in-chief of Majesty Magazine.

It's reported that Camilla and Charles got together again in 1986.

Camilla labelled a 'marriage breaker, a temptress and worse'

With the Royal marriage on the rocks, Camilla was thrust into the spotlight — and she was taking the blame. "Camilla was suddenly famous and she was famous for all the wrong reasons," Nicholl said. 

"Camilla's poll ratings were abysmal," a reporter said in a news clip from the time. "She was labelled a marriage breaker, a temptress and worse."

In 1996, Charles and Diana finally divorced. At that point, Charles's relationship with Camilla might have been accepted by the public. But the following year, Diana died in a car crash. 

In her youth, Camilla was known as a fun tomboy who loved to ride horses, according to the documentary Camilla Before Charles. (Alamy Stock Photo)

"Both Camilla and Charles would have completely understood that they had to keep their relationship on the down-low," relationship psychologist Anjula Mutanda said. "At this point now, Diana has passed into legendary status. Going public with [a relationship] would've been the worst possible thing to do. But [Camilla] was there for him in this most difficult, darkest moment in his life." 

The public responded to Diana's death with harsh criticism: some said if it weren't for Camilla and the divorce, Diana would still be alive. 

It wasn't until 1999 that Charles and Camilla first appeared in public together.

"Very gradually, she was brought out, and it was a supreme strategy," Seward said. "And people started to see her in a slightly different life. And everyone that met her said, 'God, she's wonderful. She's so funny; she's so magical.' Word sort of started and spread."

A long-awaited Royal wedding in 2005

On April 9, 2005, thousands lined the streets of Windsor to catch a glimpse of Charles and Camilla on their wedding day. It was a civil ceremony, and afterward they rode to Windsor Castle in the Queen's black Rolls-Royce. 

Charles and Camilla pose for cameras on their wedding day at the Windsor Guildhall outside of London. (REUTERS/Alamy Stock Photo)

On the surface, Charles and Camilla's journey is like a Hollywood drama, but their relationship is a testament to how much they care for each other. "When the Queen gave that speech at their wedding party, where she said, 'My son is home and dry with the woman he loves,' that really was the welcoming of Camilla into the Royal Family," said Nicholl. "And if the Queen was able to forgive and forget, then the rest of the British public could do that too. We could give Camilla a chance." 

Watch Camilla Before Charles on CBC Gem.

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