Queen Camilla leans on friends to lead slimmed-down royal family

British monarchy boosted in troubled times by queen's willingness to lead from the front in absence of King Charles

Queen Camilla, right, with long-standing friend Lady Sarah Keswick, centre, at Cheltenham Racecourse this week. PA
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Easter surely cannot come soon enough for Britain's Queen Camilla as she shoulders the burden of royal public duties without her convalescing husband, King Charles III.

But as she leads from the front, a visit to the Cheltenham Festival this week showed how important the queen's long-standing friends are to her efforts.

Lady Sarah Keswick, who was pictured with the then Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles as long ago as 1979, was at the premier horse racing event as a Queen Companion on Wednesday.

Charles was diagnosed with cancer early this year and is absent until at least Easter.

Long before his coronation, and conscious of the cost to the taxpayer, the king had argued for a slimmed-down monarchy.

Recent appearances by the royals on the balcony of Buckingham Palace have highlighted the key team of the king and queen, the Prince and Princess of Wales, Princess Anne and her husband and the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh.

Unseen in the background is the role of a tight-knit group of largely women friends the queen can depend on.

In November 2022, Camilla announced her new “Queen's Companions” as the position of lady-in-waiting was abolished.

Indicating a break from tradition, she decided to enlist six confidantes as her companions, each receiving a nominal fee to cover their expenses in much the same way as ladies-in-waiting.

Princess Anne said presciently last year the royals were dangerously close to having too few members for the range of public duties.

“I think the ‘slimmed-down’ monarchy was said in a day when there were a few more people around to make that seem like a justifiable comment. I doesn’t sound like a good idea where I am standing.”

Never does that seem truer than now.

People forget that she has not been brought up to do this role. The King and Prince William know their destiny but she’s a relative newcomer
Ailsa Anderson, former press secretary to Queen Elizabeth II

After the death of Princess Diana in 1997, it would have seemed almost impossible to imagine Prince Charles’s companion, the then Camilla Parker-Bowles, crowned as queen.

Nor, according to friends, did she expect or want the title. In spite of this, it transpired Queen Elizabeth II gave her approval to it before her death. The endorsement was widely seen as a formal sign that the royal family had finally accepted Camilla as a respected senior member.

Shortly after it was announced that King Charles was receiving treatment for an enlarged prostate this year, graver news emerged on February 5 that he was also to be treated for a form of cancer.

Although Queen Elizabeth’s father had died prematurely from lung cancer in 1952, her mother and the late monarch herself were blessed with robust health and longevity.

It, therefore, came as a shock to a nation unused to royal frailty, that the recently crowned king and, simultaneously, his daughter-in-law, the Princess of Wales, were suffering from serious health issues.

King Charles carries out first public duties since cancer diagnosis

King Charles carries out first public duties since cancer diagnosis

The King is receiving regular treatment that precludes public appearances for the foreseeable future, and the Princess of Wales is not expected to resume public duties until later in the year.

When Queen Elizabeth died in September 2022, Buckingham Palace announced that Camilla would be styled as Queen Consort. "Consort" has been dropped since the coronation so she is now known simply as Queen Camilla.

Given the precipitate departure of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to California, the recent health issues of senior royal family members, the slimmed-down monarchy and episodes like the Prince of Wales recently cancelling his appearance at the memorial service for his godfather the late former king of Greece for “personal reasons”, it has fallen to 76-year-old queen to represent the family as most senior royal.

When the queen made her first public outing in the week the monarch's cancer diagnosis was made public, she chose two of these ladies to accompany her to Salisbury Cathedral: Sarah Troughton, Lord Lieutenant of Wiltshire, and the Marchioness of Lansdowne, Fiona Petty-Fitzmaurice, who also served as one of her Ladies in Attendance alongside the queen’s younger sister, 75-year-old Annabel Elliot, at the coronation. While her sister is not one of the Queen’s Companions, the pair are very close.

Annabel supported her sister throughout the difficulties of her relationship with Prince Charles, driving Camilla away and out of public view when then prime minister John Major announced in the Commons the separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1992.

Annabel's 40th birthday party was where Princess Diana confronted Camilla over her relationship with Charles and it was her 50th birthday celebrations at the Ritz in London where Camilla came out as Charles' partner, using the occasion to pose for their first public pictures together on the hotel steps.

Along, naturally, with that of her children, Tom and Laura, the queen also has the support of her former husband, Andrew Parker-Bowles. Although they divorced in 1995 after 22 years of marriage they have an enduring friendship.

He attended the coronation to see his ex-wife being crowned alongside King Charles and was in the royal box at the racing with his ex-wife this week.

They are said to lunch together frequently, a sign of their ongoing warm relationship.

If the queen has been shocked and upset by her husband’s diagnosis, she has not let it show as she goes about the business of keeping the royal show on the road. If she has a natural hesitancy sometimes at public events, she also has great warmth and humour.

Ailsa Anderson, former press secretary to Queen Elizabeth II, has said not enough credit is given to Camilla.

“People forget that she has not been brought up to do this role. The king and Prince William know their destiny but she’s a relative newcomer to the dynasty. She’s a grandmother but she’s a wife as well – she’s got to support her husband.

“Anyone who knows someone who has had cancer knows how hard it is for the spouse.”

After leading the royal family with 13 public engagements since the king’s diagnosis, it was reported that the queen took a short break recently before she returned to represent King Charles at the Commonwealth service at Westminster Abbey. In a more relaxed setting – she is an ardent horsewoman – she was seen enjoying the Cheltenham Races this week.

It’s thought Queen Camilla has taken heart from the public’s reaction to her leading the royal family the past few weeks, a reaction she could never have imagined when she was being reviled by the same British public for being instrumental in bringing about the end of the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

Although she would never have expected to find herself in the position of leading the royal family, the queen, never a bearer of grudges, seems absolutely prepared to do whatever needs to be done for the institution.

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Updated: March 16, 2024, 6:02 PM