Charles and Camilla have done more harm than Henry VIII, says Melanie McDonagh The response of the American public to the arrival of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall has been relatively muted to date, insofar as the national sense of hospitality, and its weakness for money and monarchy, allows. Muted, that is, by comparison with the superstar status enjoyed by the Prince’s first wife in America. It’s not for want of trying on the Prince’s side, or for undue frivolity in the couple’s programme. Their itinerary featured high politics, with Wednesday’s dinner at the White House and the meeting with Kofi Annan at the UN, heartwarming photo-opportunities at a homeless shelter in San Francisco and with hurricane victims in New Orleans, and social moments, like the gathering at the British Memorial Garden for the British 9/11 victims, which the Telegraph correspondent described as “Burke’s Peerage, crossed with the Forbe’s 400”.
The tour, of course, was directed at the British public at least as much as the American people. It is the first proper royal tour undertaken by the couple together and thus a measure of the extent to which the former Camilla Parker Bowles has established herself as a queen-in-waiting. The efforts of Clarence House in ratcheting up the position of the Duchess of Cornwall has been nicely calibrated from the start and this tour is no exception. A combination of Camilla’s queenly dress for formal occasions and her modest but sympathetic demeanour at public gatherings is intended both to disarm her critics and to help prepare the home audience for the inevitability of her eventual assumption of the title of Queen, notwithstanding previous assurances that she has no such ambition.
Interestingly, the visit coincides with revelations in the Daily Mail this week from Diana’s friend and royal correspondent, Richard Kay, about the controversy surrounding the church blessing for the marriage of Charles and Camilla in April. The blessing was by no means a foregone conclusion. The Church of England may sanction the remarriage of divorcees in church but it will not normally do so where one or both of the parties concerned was involved in the breakdown of the preceding marriage or marriages. In this case, everyone knew that the adulterous affair between Charles and Camilla was not just a symptom of the unwinding of their respective unions, but a real cause.
No doubt Camilla was not the only reason for the estrangement of the Prince of Wales and his wife, but she was at the least a potent contributory factor to it, and we know as much from Diana’s own, emphatic testimony. Equally, Andrew and Camilla Parker Bowles may have still had a perfectly amiable, easygoing marriage, were it not for the sheer publicity attending her affair with the Prince of Wales. In other words, in this case there was not only the mortal sin of adultery, but the scandal of that adultery being projected on the public stage. When Charles and Camilla came to be married, there was no scope for easygoing discretion in respect of the circum stances attending their previous divorces. We all knew.
Small wonder, then, that the small, discreet circle of bishops which met periodically to discuss the question of the possible remarriage of the Prince of Wales was divided about the question of a church blessing. And this remained the case even after the appointment of Dr Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury, when he replaced the meetings of that ad-hoc committee with telephone conversations with its members. The chief impediment to the fulfilment of the Prince’s obstinate insistence on a church blessing was the principled objection of the then Archbishop of York, Dr David Hope. With his resignation, that impediment was removed.
Within days, the Archbishop of Canterbury had agreed to a church blessing. Innocent, unworldly soul that he was, he assumed that the blessing ceremony would be a discreet affair. He possibly thought it would be modelled on the Greek Orthodox model, whereby a second marriage is celebrated with infinitely less gaity than the first. Instead, the congregation, which he thought would number a modest 40 or so, swelled to 700, including the celebrities from showbiz, public life and politics. So very far from being discreetly conducted, it was televised for a global audience. If he thought that the event would mark some sort of repentence for the adultery that preceded the marriage, he was wrong, except inasmuch as it featured a general confession by the congregation, just like any other service. His delicacy in conducting the ceremony, not in full vestments but in choir dress, was universally unrecognised. Dr Williams was, in other words, taken for a ride. It served him right, for his culpable inability to recognise the fact that the church blessing would be crucial for the couple in terms of public relations as well as in easing the mind of the Queen about the propriety of the union. Most churchy people felt, if the marriage was good enough for the Archbishop of Canterbury, it was good enough for them.
That public relations project in establishing Camilla as the prospective Queen of England has, from then on, been wildly successful. The American tour is only the latest sign of the extent to which it has worked. But the success of that project is something that ought to worry not just Anglicans, but all Christians. For the lesson from a Queen Camilla will be that if you persist in wrongdoing, you will eventually be vindicated by a complaisant establishment. If you break up two marriages by virtue of persistent and public adultery, you will not pay a price; there will be no social or religious sanction. Sanction – what am I saying? By virtue of being mistress to the Prince of Wales, you can end up as Queen of England with the blessing of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Are you wondering why people no longer feel the need to take marriage promises seriously? Charles and Camilla have done more harm to the notion that Christian marriage is for life than Henry VIII.