For millions of women the world over, the best time to think deeply about their family is when they are doing mundane household chores. For the Queen it is when she is sorting through the candle store at Balmoral.
It was there, amid the calm of this soothing ritual, when our famously frugal monarch decides which candles to keep and which are burned so low that they must be discarded, that she made up her mind about Charles and Camilla — and, rare for the Queen, uttered what amounted to an order: ‘This game of cat and mouse cannot go on.’
The ‘game’ was the way Charles and his mistress Mrs Camilla Parker Bowles were continuing to meet furtively less than two years after Princess Diana’s death. Clearly, it was too soon for them to countenance marriage, but the Queen’s view was that they should be open about the relationship.
Her candle-cupboard epiphany came after Charles had held a party at Buckingham Palace for 80 guests, including Camilla. The Queen and Prince Philip were away at Windsor organising Prince Edward’s wedding to Sophie Rhys-Jones.
It was Camilla’s first time officially inside the Palace since she had been ‘banned’ from royal premises — and excluded from its guest lists — many years earlier by the Queen, after the shock of learning that her son was having an affair with the wife of a brother officer in the Brigade of Guards, something that was simply not done.
Banning Camilla was an uncomfortable decision because the Queen had known her for years, and the Queen Mother was her husband Andrew Parker Bowles’s godmother. Relations had been close and warm.
‘I remember Andrew and Camilla coming to stay,’ says a former equerry to the Queen.
‘They were good friends and she’s known Camilla for ever.’ But the ban could not have been more total.
‘There was an unwritten instruction that ‘that woman’ does not cross the threshold,’ says Colin Henderson, who, at the time, was the Queen’s head coachman in the Royal Mews.
The Queen regarded Camilla as an adulteress who had led her son astray. So that first visit to the Palace after all those years — albeit in Her Majesty’s absence — was highly significant.
At the party, during which the guests, all wealthy Americans contributing to Charles’s charities, were given a private tour of the State Rooms, the Prince made a speech in which, cheekily, he declared: ‘When the cat’s away the mice will play.’
It didn’t take long for the remark to reach the Queen’s ears, and she did not see the joke. It wasn’t Charles’s rather facetious quip that jarred, so much as how it made her think of her own mortality, and what might happen to the monarchy if she suddenly died and Charles succeeded her.
For in many ways the country was still in mourning over the loss of Diana at the age of 36, and Camilla continued to be blamed for destroying the royal marriage.
‘What if I fell off my horse?’ asked the Queen (who refuses to wear a hard hat) of one of the family. ‘This situation has to be resolved.’ In fact, there was another chilling possibility that could bring about Charles’s sudden accession to the throne, one that was never far from the Queen’s mind: assassination.
‘We were going riding one morning at Sandringham and as we got on our horses I remarked to the Queen that it was very misty,’ says her cousin and lifelong friend Margaret Rhodes, 90.