Prince Philip had those words of wisdom for his son, Prince Charles, when the hopelessly not-in-love future King of England sought his father’s counsel about what he, as a man married to one woman but wanting to be with another, should do.
“My father-in-law said to my husband, ‘If your marriage doesn’t work out, you can always go back to her after five years,'” Princess Diana herself said, as revealed in a 2017 Channel 4 special that utilized taped conversations between the Princess of Wales and her voice coach. “Which is exactly—I mean, for real I knew that it had happened after five—I knew something was happening before that but the fifth year I had confirmation.”
Former royal butler Paul Burrell wrote in his 2003 book A Royal Duty, “Both the Prince and the Princess were told that they must learn to compromise, be less selfish and try to work through their difficulties for the sake of the monarchy, their children, the country and its people.”
But as the world knows, Diana wasn’t willing to be in a marriage of three forever, and Charles wasn’t willing to quit Camilla Parker Bowles, so the old-fashioned way more common to Philip’s day went by the wayside in 1992, when Charles and Diana—not content just to live separate lives—actually separated.
But fast forward to 2018 and, with the monarchy modernizing at a rapid pace, there are whisperings that enough time has gone by so that Camilla can become Queen Consort.
“It’s now 21 years since the death of Diana in 1997 and public attitudes have changed, and continues to do so, with a greater acceptance of Camilla today than there was say 13 years ago…,” Dickie Arbiter, the Queen’s former press spokesman, told Hello! recently. “The Duchess through her work has shown herself to be a good support to her husband and to the Queen thus making her not only an asset to the country but to the institution of monarchy.”
And while none of this has unfolded the way Charles’ mother or father once envisioned, Prince Philip knows a thing or two about the importance of good support.
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The eldest offspring of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Charles has been destined to assume the throne at some point since his birth, when about 3,000 people gathered outside Buckingham Palace to await the announcement. Even his mother had 10 whole years of relatively expectation-less childhood before her father shockingly became King George VI when his brother abdicated, forever altering the line of succession and putting young “Lilibet” next in line for the throne. So when Charles was born in 1948, his mother and father already knew that the day would come when their lives, as little as they didn’t already, would revolve entirely around the crown.
“I think of you so much with a sweet baby of your own,” Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, wrote to him upon Charles’ arrival, “of your joy and the interest you will take in all of his little doings. How fascinating nature is, but how one has to pay for it in the anxious trying hours of the confinement.” (Elizabeth was in labor for 30 hours.)
Philip was, indeed, in a “wonderful mood,” according to Philip Eade’s 2011 biography Prince Philip: The Turbulent Early Life of the Man Who Married Queen Elizabeth II.
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Elizabeth became Queen when Charles was 3, having spent many of his early days away in Malta, where Philip was still stationed with the Royal Navy. Even once they returned, however, it being the 1950s and all, Philip wasn’t exactly going to be a hands-on dad. He cared deeply about his firstborn son, and once he was back from Malta he helped establish Charles’ lifelong love of the outdoors and teaching him to shoot, fish and swim, the usual father-son activities. But Charles later remembered “being cowed by the forceful personality of his father,” according to Jonathan Dimbleby’s 1994 book The Prince of Wales: A Biography.
His mother was “not indifferent so much as detached” from her children and what friends remembered as her husband’s often “bullying” or “belittling” behavior toward Charles. Both parents, for instance, shook hands with their 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter, Princess Anne, upon their return from a nearly six-month tour abroad in 1954.
Meanwhile, Charles’ great-uncle Dickie Mountbatten (who had a famously open marriage with Countess Edwina Mountbatten), was a majorly influential figure in his life. In 1974, Dickie advised his nephew in a letter to “sow his wild oats and have as many affairs as he can before settling down.”
Philip already had to come to terms with what marrying Elizabeth meant before they did so on Nov. 20, 1947, knowing that he’d have to give up his naval career and become his wife’s right-hand man. But he was also the man of the house, and the queen tasked him with organizing the household—or at least supervising the organizing of the household—and to this day is said to rarely make decisions without at least seeking his input.
Prince Charles was introverted, less so than Princess Anne, who handled their father’s characteristic ribbing more naturally. As a child he gravitated toward his maternal grandmother, Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, and they would remain close until her death in 2002 at the age of 101. Charles was more artistic and cerebral than athletic (though he was a good shot and was an avid polo player), which he guessed correctly disappointed his father.
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Intent on toughening his son up, Philip insisted he go to his alma mater, Gordonstoun in Scotland, instead of the closer Eton, which the Queen Mother recommended (and where Charles later sent his boys, Prince William and Prince Harry). But Philip purposely wanted Charles to be outside his comfort zone, far away from the cushy confines of Clarence House, and put his foot down.
Philip, a seasoned pilot, flew Charles to Scotland himself.
According to all accounts, Charles’ first months at Gordonstoun were miserable, but Philip refused to let him transfer.
Then, when Charles was 17, Philip arranged to send him abroad to Australia for a year, which would kindle his son’s lifelong interest in exploration and anthropology.
And Dad was right: Charles came back a man, albeit still a sensitive one. He spent his final year at Gordonstoun as head boy and joined the Sea Rescue Corps. His parents threw him an 18th birthday party with a band and 150 guests at Windsor Castle.
At his father and great-uncle Dickie Mountbatten’s urging, Charles attended Trinity College, Cambridge, where he became the first heir to the British throne to earn his degree. After that there were stints in the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy and, like his father, he became a pilot. He also followed in Philip’s footsteps as a conservationist, and then struck out on his own as a committed environmentalist, local agrarian concerns destined to dominate much of Charles’ time in the future.
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Parker Bowles was a friend of the Queen Mother and her circle, so the couple were never far from the center of Charles’ universe. Charles and Camilla remained confidantes and, according to The Diana Chronicles, their affair was rekindled in 1979 when Charles was grief-stricken over the death of Uncle Dickie, who was killed along with his teenage grandson and another boy when an assassin’s bomb blew up his fishing boat.
Though they were going mad over Charles’ poorly kept secret, neither the queen nor Philip said much about their son’s many indiscretions. Philip did at one point write his son a letter chiding him for having “paraded” one of his girlfriends around. They just hoped Charles would settle on someone appropriate to marry, and the virginal Diana happened to fit the bill.
Despite their myriad differences and a 12-year age gap, Charles and Diana embarked on a romance in July 1980, around when she turned 19. The tabloids were all over the couple, and Diana in particular, and, though denied by the Palace, a positively scandalous headline in the Daily Mirror—“Royal Love Train,” with the report that they had spent two nights together aboard the Royal Train—set off endless chatter about when, or if, Charles was ever going to make an honest woman of her.
In January 1981, Philip sent his son another one of his famous letters (as opposed to picking up the phone or having an in-person chat), urging him to go one way or the other—propose or break up. Charles only read it one way.
In their televised engagement interview, aired on Feb. 24, 1981, Charles said he was “delighted and happy.” Asked rhetorically if he was “in love” with Diana, he said, “whatever ‘in love’ means.”
Diana suffered from severe postpartum depression after giving birth to Prince William in 1982 and rarely left the house for about eight months after his christening. Per Sally Bedell Smith’s Diana in Search of Herself, Diana showed up late to the annual Festival of Remembrance commemorating Britain’s war dead, and an onlooker described seeing Philip “looking daggers” at his daughter-in-law in the royal box.
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Unlike what William would have with his in-laws one day, Diana didn’t have much of a relationship with the queen and Philip, the monarch always being rather reserved and Philip being friendly and funny but not fatherly. Meanwhile, Charles had taken up with Camilla again and his parents actually thought that their son having a “safety valve” was better than him getting divorced.
But then Princess Anne divorced husband Mark Phillips. Her parents weren’t happy about it, but Anne and Mark had already been separated for three years, since a tabloid published love letters written to Anne from Commander Timothy Laurence. Anne and Laurence have been married since 1992.
There are conflicting takes on how Philip received Diana, though all may be true since the nature of the Princess of Wales’ relationship with the royal family changed so drastically over the 15 years she was married to Charles, including the three years they spent separated. Diana later said that Philip raged at her during a visit to Windsor Castle, but her father-in-law proceeded to write her multiple letters explaining the importance of royalty loyalty and why it wasn’t good to be airing the family’s dirty laundry to anyone.
“[Diana] never shredded the letters,” former royal butler Paul Burrell wrote in his 2003 book A Royal Duty. “Instead, she tied them into a bundle and kept them, a deliberate preservation of the truth, and she made several photocopies that she dispatched to friends she trusted.” (Burrell was accused of stealing items from Diana’s estate but theft charges were dropped in 2002 after it was revealed he had told the Queen he had the items.)
Then Bimbleby’s biography The Prince of Wales came along in 1994, further upsetting the queen and Philip.
“I’ve never made any comment about any member of my family in 40 years, and I’m not going to start now,” the Duke of Edinburgh tersely told the Telegraph
“If you don’t walk, you may regret it later,” Philip told a 14-year-old Prince William, who along with Harry was resisting their father’s entreaty to walk behind their mother’s casket in the procession, which was watched on TV by an estimated 2.5 billion people.
“I think you should do it,” their grandfather encouraged. “If I walk, will you walk with me?”
Tina Brown wrote that Philip “mellowed a lot” in the years after Diana’s death—and besides, he wasn’t raised, neither in practice or in time period, to be a doting dad. His era wasn’t exactly churning out attentive, sensitive fathers.
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Charles’ parents also hosted a party for him at Buckingham Palace, at which Camilla was not among the 850 guests invited.
On Charles’ actual birthday, Nov. 14, 1998, Camilla momentously was his date, receiving guests alongside him as hostess, at a party at Highgrove—which his parents and siblings did not attend.
Their first official appearance as a couple occurred Jan. 28, 1999, at Camilla’s sister Annabel Elliot‘s 50th birthday party. However, Camilla was not among the guests when Charles’ brother Prince Edward married Sophie Rhys-Jones that June. Camilla actually wouldn’t have any sort of face time with the queen until 2000 when they had a nod-and-curtsy at a birthday barbecue for a cousin of Charles’ at Highgrove, their first time socializing since the 1980s.
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As for Charles and Camilla, “They have overcome Becher’s Brook and The Chair and all kinds of other terrible obstacles,” the Queen continued, taking up the racing theme. “They have come through, and I’m very proud and wish them well. My son is home and dry with the woman he loves.”
And what a difference a decade makes. When Charles threw Camilla a 60th birthday party at Highgrove in July 2007, the Queen and Philip attended. But far more attention was paid to the presence of Kate Middleton, back together with William after a brief breakup.