Ruling-class status hasn't saved Windsors from serving up scandals

ROYAL FLUSH

June 06, 1993|By Nigel Dempster and Peter Evans

Editor's Note: In Part 1 of a five-part excerpt from "Behind Palace Doors: Marriage and Divorce in the House of Windsor," by Nigel Dempster and Peter Evans, Prince Charles is attacked from all sides after his intimate conversation with Camilla Parker Bowles is splashed across newspapers around the world.

Whose side are you on, Mummy? Charles demanded plaintively at one stage of the harrowing and at times acrimonious debate on Sunday, January 17, 1993, at Sandringham, the royal retreat in Norfolk. He probably had cause to wonder. His mother's devotion to the institution of the Crown was consummate. Even as a mother, she found it hard to find any ameliorating words for the harm Charles had clearly done to the monarchy by his now horrifyingly public relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles, whose husband, Andrew, had been the colonel in charge of her own Household Cavalry. Inevitably, this caused friction and misunderstanding. "When Charles talked about the future, he was essentially talking about his own future," says a close friend of the family, who had heard accounts of the family summit at Sandringham from both Charles and his father. "When the queen talked about the future, she was talking about the monarchy itself."

If the queen was at times inscrutable ("Even when she tells you what she thinks, you never know what she feels," says a friend), Prince Philip was the opposite. The man who by virtue of his experience should calmly have taken charge simply lost his temper with everybody, his voice becoming more angry and adenoidal with every syllable he uttered. To be fair, the notion that his son's intimate, mildly dirty, and decidedly unprincely telephone conversations with a married woman would not only be taped but splashed across newspapers around the world was good reason for ire. Yet, perhaps part of that anger, suggests a royal staffer who understands him well, was the realization of just how far both he and the queen had gone wrong as parents. "I think they both felt guilty. In that, at least, they share the same conscience."

But for a royal father it must have been especially painful. For it meant that his very raison d'etre had been destroyed. "When you strip it right down, his prime duty to the family had been to produce a viable male heir to the throne -- and at that moment even that achievement seemed to be in the balance."

Faced with the awesome reserve of his mother and the fury of his father, not to mention the disgusting mix of ridicule and condemnation emanating from the press, the prince of Wales arrived at Sandringham, according to one source, in a mood of pessimism and despair. According to another source, his desperation was palpable as the family grimly gathered to see what, if anything, could be done. "A man far more confident of himself than Prince Charles has ever been would have been shaken by the events of that week. He was under attack from so many sides, and for so many reasons," says one of his friends, putting in yet another interpretation of his mood that weekend. ,, "But he was resolute, realistic, and thoughtful."

When criticized by his mother, the prince's mood turned to anger. Attacked by his father, it turned remarkably to defiance. "Defiance was something the queen mother could build on," said one of her own equerries, who had made a private study of the way she operates.

And so for the first time in that long and difficult Sunday, old Queen Mother Elizabeth spoke up. Perhaps it had taken her time to overcome her own anger and disappointment in her favorite grandson. Like the queen, she had not read the excerpts of her grandson's outpourings to Mrs. Parker Bowles and said she never would. But it was an article of faith in the British creed, she said, that if a man is born a prince, he must be credited with a kind of moral stature. Charles had made serious mistakes in the conduct of his private life. Women particularly did not like the way he had behaved. But he was fundamentally a good man, and the British people knew that. They knew he was sincere and dedicated. Now he must prove to the people that he had courage, too. His final problem had been brought out in the open. Now he must work for the people's forgiveness -- then he would be forgiven, and more popular than he had ever been. They were words of consolation, but words of warning, too.

'Black Wednesday'

The crisis that threatened the backbone of the monarchy itself had begun shortly before 6:15 a.m. on Wednesday, January 13, "Black Wednesday," as the royal family came to call it. A junior currency dealer in the City of London, the United Kingdom's financial hub, paid 25 pounds to a man on the Australian desk for the first unexpurgated transcript of the private bedtime conversation between the prince of Wales and the 45-year-old wife of his friend Andrew Parker Bowles. By 6:45, people were lining up to fax the transcripts to friends and colleagues around the world.

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