As Charles takes throne, Camilla becomes Queen Consort, capping years of image restoration

Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and wife of Prince Charles, should become the Queen Consort when Charles ascends the throne. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON - Earlier this year, Queen Elizabeth issued a letter that was seen as a major moment of recognition for a long beleaguered member of the royal family, intended to smooth the path for her ascent when the inevitable finally came.

In a statement marking her 70 years on the throne, the queen laid out how her daughter-in-law Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall and wife of Prince Charles, should become the Queen Consort when Charles, "in the fullness of time", ascended the throne.

Elizabeth also asked the nation to pass on the goodwill it had long shown her to the woman who would bear the title of queen.

So when Elizabeth died on Thursday at 96, there was no question that as her eldest son became King Charles III, his wife would become Queen Consort - a title indicating she is the spouse of the reigning king. In everyday contexts, she will be known simply as Queen Camilla. Elizabeth's statement had put to rest years of uncertainty about what role she would play.

But even more important, Camilla's ascendance was seen by many royal watchers and historians as a culmination of years of careful image repair by the royal couple, who had often endured outright abuse, much of it directed disproportionately at Camilla by the British tabloids.

Arianne Chernock, an associate professor of history at Boston University and an expert in the modern British monarchy, said the images of both Charles and Camilla have been rehabilitated through the work of the queen and through the couple's own efforts. But the two are also quite aware of the public's perception of their past.

"If we think back to 1992, it's actually quite difficult to imagine that they would be where they are today, with this kind of dignity about them, the sense of large public approval and a genuine desire for them to succeed in their roles," she said.

On Friday, some of that public approval was on display as the new king and queen greeted the crowds that had gathered outside Buckingham Palace as the royal couple made their first public appearance with their new titles.

Dressed in black and wearing pearls and an elegant diamond knot brooch, Camilla walked alongside her husband and greeted the crowds before the two walked together into the storied palace.

Later in the day, in his first address to the nation as king, Charles spoke of his "darling wife Camilla", who has now become queen, saying, "I know she will bring to the demands of her new role the steadfast devotion to duty which I have come to rely on so much."

In the royal historian Penny Junor's book "The Duchess," which follows Camilla's remarkable rise from maligned mistress to a key senior member of the royal household, Junor portrays Camilla as playing a central role in restoring Charles' own reputation, and a true partner to him.

"The person who has given Charles the courage and the encouragement to do half the things he has done in the last few decades is Camilla," Junor writes.

The public perception of their union has come a long way. During the 1990s, after the breakup of Charles' marriage to Diana, who referred to Camilla as the "third person" in their failed marriage, the British tabloid press called Camilla "the most hated woman in Britain".

While acknowledging that Camilla will probably never be universally loved, Junor writes that she is a warm and welcoming woman with "a twinkle in her eye" - and a stabilising force in the royal family as it has endured the ups and downs of the last several decades.

In a piece for The Daily Mail on the book's publication in 2017, Junor wrote, "Looking at the Duchess today, valued for her work, successfully juggling her roles of duty and family, beautifully presented and stepping out serenely beside a much, much happier Prince Charles on the world stage, it is easy to forget just what she went through to achieve this".

Charles, Prince of Wales and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall arrive on day one of Royal Ascot, Britain, on June 14, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Charles first met Camilla in the early 1970s, and they dated for some time, but Charles went abroad for military duty, and Camilla soon married Andrew Parker Bowles, an army cavalry officer. The pair would go on to have two children.

Charles later married Diana, but their marriage painfully dissolved in front of the whole world. Camilla seemed to bear much of the public disapproval of the prince's separation from the much-loved Diana in 1991.

Then came the release in 1993 of an embarrassing covert recording of a conversation between Charles and Camilla - which came to be known as the "Camillagate Tapes". In the recording, Charles said he wanted to "live in her trousers".

Charles' subsequent admission of adultery, in a TV documentary that aired a year later and was intended as image repair, was a further blow to the couple's standing.

Camilla and her first husband divorced in 1995, and Charles and Diana's divorce was finalised in 1996. After Diana's death in 1997, the relationship between Charles and Camilla was kept far from the public eye. But in 1999, they began to make their first public appearances as a couple, and in 2003, they moved into the royal residence at Clarence House together.

In early 2005, Charles and Camilla announced their engagement, and in April of that year, they were married in a civil ceremony. Prince William served as his father's best man. Elizabeth was notably absent from the ceremony, though she did attend the reception afterwards.

And with the marriage, Camilla was given the title Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cornwall.

In the years following their marriage, speculation swirled about just what title Camilla would carry and whether she would receive the title of queen, one packed with symbolism in a country that for 70 years had been led by an unforgettable monarch.

In early 2005, after being married to Charles, Camilla was given the title Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cornwall. PHOTO: REUTERS

Analysts say the couple's standing could be benefiting from the precarious situation Britain finds itself in right now, amid a cost-of-living crisis and a volatile political landscape.

"There's a broad, widespread recognition that the UK really needs the sovereign to remain a stable entity," Chernock said. "And that the monarchy must remain this tradition that unites the United Kingdom."

But, she added, the role of Camilla alongside her husband can be seen as a transitional one. She said that if and when Charles' son William and his wife, Kate, take the throne, there could be more significant changes but "attuned to and mindful of tradition."

While the monarch has a constitutional role to play as the head of state by approving bills before they become law, the queen consort does not hold a formal position in the government. But Camilla will be crowned in a ceremony and be at Charles' side during his coronation.

Elizabeth was not always the biggest champion of her son's union with Camilla. But in one of her final attempts to smooth the transition to Charles' reign, she released the letter in February specifying that Camilla should be called a queen, in what many saw as an official stamp of approval of their union.

Camilla's new status could pave the way for her to capture some of the fondness that was accorded to a queen so many in Britain now mourn. NYTIMES

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