LONDON >> When 1,900 invited guests take their coveted places in Westminster Abbey next week for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, one of the most uneasy seats in the 13th-century Gothic church may be the one occupied by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, the longtime lover of Prince Charles, and since her marriage to the heir to the throne in 2005, the stepmother to William, Charles’ older son.
One of the most compelling themes of the April 29 wedding will be Britain’s odd-couple pair of “queens-in-waiting,” Middleton and Camilla. Although more than 30 years apart in age, both have come to their marriages as what are known in Britain as commoners, and stand, on their husbands’ ascent to the throne — Camilla first, and later Kate — to take their places as the highest-placed women in the land.
There, mostly, the similarities end.
Kate, glamorous and young — 29, five months older than Prince William — is seen by many in Britain, along with her future husband, as the potential saviors of a monarchy whose luster has been tarnished in the past 30 years.
For all the public acclaim for Queen Elizabeth II, who turns 85 this week and celebrates her 60th anniversary as monarch next year, the story of the other members of the royal family has been one of serial divorces, personal indiscretions, extravagance at taxpayers’ expense and suspicious financial dealings that have made lurid copy for Britain’s tabloid media.
Camilla, once cast by the tabloids as the most hated woman in the country for her role in dooming Prince Charles’ marriage to Diana, Princess of Wales, has gone some distance toward redeeming herself in recent years, to judge by polls that show sharply reduced levels of personal antipathy toward her.
She has been embraced by Diana’s two sons, William and Harry, who have said publicly that they love her, not least for the happiness she had brought their father.
The sense of her having achieved insider status in the family, at least with the younger generation, was enhanced when she was photographed this year emerging from a tete-a-tete lunch with Kate in a London restaurant, where she was overheard amid peals of laughter urging the bride-to-be to follow royal tradition — and Diana’s precedent — by wearing a jeweled tiara at the wedding, something Middleton apparently thought was too fusty for her taste.
But the process of rehabilitation appears to have advanced nowhere near enough — at least not yet — for Camilla, 63, to overcome the widespread opposition polls have shown to her ever being formally proclaimed queen if, and when, Charles, 62, becomes king.
For years, the polls have shown 50 percent to 60 percent of those surveyed in favor of skipping a generation in the succession, relegating Charles and Camilla to a leisured country retirement and jumping straight to William and Kate while they are still relatively young.
Partly, the polls reflect a concern that Charles may be too old to become king — in his 70s, perhaps even his 80s — if his mother lives as long as her mother, the Queen Mother, who died at age 101 in 2002. Already, he is seen as a fogy, with his passion for double-breasted suits on occasions that cry out for something more casual, and an awkward personal manner that can incline to the pompous and patronizing.
But the problem is not Charles’ alone. The polls that show a majority favoring his stepping aside in William’s favor after Queen Elizabeth dies have captured only anemic levels of support — 14 percent in a Harris poll in November — for Camilla’s becoming queen even if Charles does succeed his mother.
Against this background — and the hints of a possible constitutional crisis that it carries — the wedding has emerged partly as a story of reconciliation, a stage for the royal family to showcase how far they have progressed in healing the wounds of the past.
What more striking demonstration of that could there be than the sight of Camilla seated in the abbey only a few places from the queen, who is said to have described her at the height of the turmoil over Charles and Diana as “that wicked woman”?
Friends of Camilla’s interviewed for this article say the public resistance is unfair to a woman who has put barely a foot wrong since marrying Charles.
From the start, they say, she and Charles understood that winning public acceptance would be a lengthy process — “the pursuit of a gradual acquiescence,” as one friend put it. One acknowledgment of that came with Camilla taking her titles, Duchess of Cornwall in England and Duchess of Rothesay in Scotland, from Charles’ lesser entitlements, instead of Princess of Wales, the normal title for the wife of the next-in-line to the throne.
Another was Buckingham Palace’s announcement on the occasion of the couple’s marriage in 2005 that Camilla would take the title of princess consort, not queen, when Charles takes the throne.
Friends say that one of Camilla’s strengths has been the stoicism with which she has borne the wounding barbs thrown at her by an unfriendly media that, like much of the public, remain wedded to an iconic image of Diana despite some of the unflattering revelations that have emerged about her since her death in a Paris car crash in 1997.
The newspaper The Observer once described Camilla as “an older woman with no dress sense and bird’s nest hair,” while other newspaper critics have said she “packs the stylistic punch of a Yorkshire pudding” and have described her variously as an “old boiler,” “old trout,” “hatchet face,” and “frump.”
Her resilience has been leavened with self-deprecating humor. She has made fun of Diana’s embittered nickname for her, answering the telephone at her country home west of London, “Rottweiler here!” She has never disguised her fondness for a drink, although she gave up a 30-cigarette-a-day smoking habit at the insistence of Charles. After her first, long-delayed meeting with Prince William, in 1998, she is said to have turned to a friend in relief, saying, “I really need a gin and tonic.”
Friends note that while she has a reputation for holding strong and often unfashionable views, and an impatience with pomposity or pretension, she has been unusually successful in this generation of royals in not bleeding those views into the public domain.
Above all, friends say, she has resisted the temptation to offer a public riposte or even the mildest self-defense against her detractors, as Charles and Diana did by confiding in biographers and television interviewers as their marriage disintegrated.
In a country that holds a special contempt for whingers — those inclined to incessant complaint, a shortcoming many have discerned in Prince Charles — she has won praise for what one of her biographers, Rebecca Tyrrel, describes as an attitude of, “You just bloody well get on with it.”
That view finds wide support.
“She’s done a lot in a quiet way,” said William Shawcross, an author and journalist who was a childhood friend of Camilla’s in the rolling hills of West Sussex. “She has grown into her role in a steady and wise manner.”
In practice, the potential situations that favor Charles’ giving way to his son, or taking the throne as king without Camilla as his queen, seem likely to collide with political and constitutional reality.
For one thing, the royal family has an established aversion to the idea of abdication. King Edward VIII’s decision to quit the throne in 1936 to marry Wallis Simpson remains a grim shadow in the royal memory, especially for Queen Elizabeth, who is said to remain haunted by the trauma her father, King George VI, suffered when he was forced to take the throne.
In an interview for this article, Richard Drayton, a professor of history at King’s College, London, said that bypassing Charles would face forbidding obstacles, including “an act of Parliament, and probably a decision by Charles himself to abdicate.”
Constitutional experts have said that nothing in Britain’s constitutional tradition or common law provides for the wife of the king’s not becoming queen, and that Camilla would, in practice, be Britain’s queen, whatever title she carried.
How much Camilla cares is a matter of debate. Some of her friends believe her concern is mostly for Charles, who has always said that he sees it as his destiny to become king and has worked restlessly to that end, with a schedule of public duties that far outstrip any other royal family member, including his mother. Others say Camilla herself is not as come-what-may about the issue as she has sometimes suggested to friends and would like one day to be back in the abbey, seated beside Charles, as crowns are placed on their heads.
Twice in recent months, the couple has hinted that they remain hopeful of turning the tide of public favor their way on the issue of Camilla’s becoming queen. In an interview in November with Brian Williams of NBC, Charles answered hopefully when asked whether Camilla would ever be the queen.
“You know, I mean, we’ll see,” he replied, as if ambushed by the question. “That could be.”
In February, it was Camilla’s turn.
“Are you going to be queen one day?” a little girl asked her on a visit to a children’s center in the Wiltshire town of Chippenham.
“You never know,” Camilla replied, smiling.