‘You know, Rebecca, if there is one thing I have learnt in my years, it is to say “no” to quite a lot of things. Some people don’t know how to say the word. I do,’ the Duchess of Cornwall says, arching her brows and shooting a smile in the direction of her deputy private secretary, who grins knowingly back.
That’s Camilla and her dry sense of humour all over. Ever since she married the Prince of Wales at the age of 57, waving goodbye to her life as a country housewife, Camilla has had to work hard to earn her keep as a member of the Royal Family – while safeguarding her sanity and sense of humour.
She’s still beavering away as she approaches her 75th birthday, carrying out well over 150 engagements a year.
The Duchess penned more than 2,400 letters to members of the public last year, worked as a phone volunteer chatting to lonely pensioners and set up a hugely successful online ‘reading room’, which now boasts more than 141,000 followers.
She has also formed her own, unlikely court at Clarence House, packed with modern-day ‘bluestockings’ – feisty, flatform sandal-wearing feminists – including the brilliant Jude Kelly CBE, founder of The WOW (Women of the World) Foundation.
People assume because of her romantic history with the Prince of Wales that the Duchess isn’t a woman’s woman. In reality, she’s surrounded by a fiercely loyal group of wonderfully vivacious ladies.
Her entire team of staff are female – many are working mothers with young children – while her closest girlfriends have been by her side for years.
The Duchess of Cornwall wearing Fiona Clare in an exclusive photoshoot at Clarence House for the Daily Mail. In an exclusive newspaper interview with the Daily Mail, she confirmed her reputation as the most delightfully relatable royal
Camilla and I are chatting on the sun-dappled veranda of her hotel in a quiet suburb of Kigali, during last month’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
The luscious hills and valleys of the Rwandan capital stretch out before us. Ahead lies another packed day of official engagements.
‘Can I get you something to drink? Come and sit here,’ she says, tapping the seat next to her.
I ask the Duchess if she minds me putting my tape recorder down, explaining: ‘My menopause-addled brain makes me forget what I am saying by the end of a sentence, let alone a whole interview.’
‘Well, with any luck you might forget what I am saying now!’ she whips back dryly, with her familiar throaty laugh.
This is to be the Duchess’s only newspaper interview, granted to mark her 75th birthday on Sunday.
It’s not something she relishes.
‘We don’t really want to talk about birthdays, do we, Rebecca?’ she grimaces.
‘Unfortunately, I can never lie about my age as it’s always brought up in a newspaper, so I just have to get on with it.
‘Landmarks are horrible, aren’t they?’ but she gamely discusses everything from her determination to shine a light on the ‘taboo’ issue of domestic violence as Queen, to what books her husband likes to read to grandchildren George, Charlotte and Louis.
Her own five grandchildren – the offspring of her son, Tom, and daughter, Laura – can often be seen popping into Clarence House when they are in London, and family is at the heart of everything Camilla does.
‘We’re a tight-knit bunch,’ she smiles. ‘Family is incredibly important. I couldn’t do without mine.’
Indeed, the eroding of family values is a theme to which she frequently returns, sounding reassuringly like the very no-nonsense gran she is behind the scenes.
‘Families don’t sit down any longer, do they, and have dinner,’ she says. ‘Because I am ancient, in the old days we all sat down [to eat]. Now everyone is on their devices. People take those flipping phones [with them to the table]! You have to take them away from them.’
She believes social media is a ‘double-edged sword’, capable of great good – such as her own The Duchess of Cornwall’s Reading Room, which has attracted a massive worldwide online community of enthusiasts – but which is also capable of great harm.
‘Social media can achieve a lot of good, but then you have the nightmare of children going on and seeing things they don’t understand,’ she says.
‘And then they can’t have a conversation or look you in the face. I am always saying: “Stop it and look up at me [to her grandchildren]!”
Prince Charles and Camilla laugh during a visit to Orokonui Ecosanctuary on November 5, 2015 in Dunedin, New Zealand. The couple have been married for nearly 20 years
‘It’s a nightmare. It makes me quite cross!’
So she isn’t a secret Instagrammer, then?
‘Well, I did go on Houseparty [the social media group chat app] during lockdown,’ she chortles. ‘It was the only way I could keep in touch because I was in Scotland and they were in the south.
‘We’d go on Houseparty and I could see everyone in the south sitting in the sunshine, while I was looking at snowflakes coming down my end.
‘I’m not sure if they [her grandchildren] think I’m cool at 75. But we do have a very close relationship and they keep me in touch with the world of youth – and TikTok!’
This is the first time the Duchess has spoken to a newspaper since the Queen anointed her as Queen Consort-in-waiting earlier this year. When Camilla and Charles married in 2005, such was their baggage as a couple, that was an unthinkable prospect.
It has taken 17 years of sterling public service to prove herself, but it’s clearly not a subject with which the Duchess is comfortable.
She’s never one to bang her own drum for a start, and she’s acutely respectful towards her mother-in-law, with whom she has developed a genuinely affectionate bond.
‘I was extremely touched and very surprised,’ she says, smiling somewhat awkwardly.
‘I feel very, well, flattered… you try to give a bit of service to the country and do it well…’
The Queen’s decision earlier this year to appoint Camilla a Royal Lady of the Order of the Garter, Britain’s most ancient order of chivalry, was also something that moved her immensely.
‘It’s probably my favourite ceremonial occasion. It is timeless and beautiful and often brings tears to my eyes,’ she says.
For our meeting, she’s wearing a pretty shirt-dress in flattering hues of green and blue, with an armful of gold bracelets and a Fitbit activity tracker watch. But I always think it’s Camilla’s shoes that are most indicative of her personality.
Camilla says she has made her ‘blended’ family work. Pictured are (Back row left to right) Prince Louis, the Duchess of Cambridge, the Duke of Cambridge, the Duke of Sussex and the Duchess of Sussex. (Front row left to right) Prince George, the Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Cornwall and Princess Charlotte, in the gardens of Clarence House
She has worn the same pair for years: they are beige, low-heeled and practical, with a slightly pointed toe.
The heels are always scuffed, despite an army of royal staff. She likes to look smart and business-like, but at the end of the day she has no pretension – people must just take her as she is.
It’s sometimes hard to remember now she is a pillar of the Establishment, with a well-deserved reputation for tackling issues well out of the royal comfort zone, that Camilla was once known only for the woman she was.
But with powerful campaigns under way on issues ranging from osteoporosis to literacy and violence against women, the Duchess is forging a reputation as a woman who does. ‘I can only do things that I feel quite passionately about,’ she says.
‘I am not a natural actress. That’s why I take on only patronages I love. I like all the book patronages, I steal them. If one comes up, I’m like: “Sorry, but that one’s mine!”’
The Duchess makes it clear that her campaigning zeal will continue once Charles becomes king. Violence against women is at the top of her list, something she has championed through groups such as Safe Lives.
‘It was always: “Shhhh… don’t mention the T word. Taboo. We don’t talk about it,”’ she gestures, holding her finger to her lips.
‘Coercive control is the most frightening thing. You can have someone who appears such a charming individual, that nice, smiley man who is lovely to everyone… to your friends, to your family… And we all know one, don’t we?
‘Of course, it’s not always men. Women do it as well. But the majority are men. Fortunately, this is an issue that is being addressed and is going into the courts. No one would listen before. Now they realise that it is a crime.’
Flexing her muscles and using the royals’ famous ‘convening’ power is something Camilla has come to relish, organising receptions and roundtable events to bring together government, policing, individuals and organisations with an interest in making women’s lives better.
‘It’s quite nice when you get a lot of women together. You have everyone exchanging ideas, talking to each other,’ she says.
Besides her children and grandchildren, Camilla has a sister, Annabel, to whom she is extremely close and she adored her late brother, Mark Shand, a wildlife campaigner who died in 2014. She also now has her extended family through the Prince of Wales.
‘We might, like all families, argue and have our ups and downs. But when there’s a crisis, we all defend each other to the end,’ she says, referring to her siblings and children.
‘If someone criticises one of us, that’s it. I think that’s probably what has got me through some tough times.’
It can’t have been easy for Camilla to have navigated a modern ‘blended’ family with so much history under her belt – or, it must be said, for her two stepsons to have accepted her either.
But they have found a way to make it work, and she has formed a warm bond with her daughter-in-law, the Duchess of Cambridge, who recently photographed her birthday portrait for the magazine Country Life.
‘We had a great deal of fun and laughter taking the pictures and I love the result,’ she says. ‘Being photographed at my ripe old age is not something I really enjoy.’
She also reveals that her husband, who has not always enjoyed an easy relationship with his sons, is revelling in his role of grandfather.
I ask whether he still reads bedtime stories to her grandchildren, since they are now growing up (she once told me they loved to snuggle down with him and read Harry Potter).
‘Well, his grandchildren aren’t [too old],’ she says, ‘and he’s very good because he does all these voices for them. He loves Babar the Elephant. They are such lovely books, I think all ages love them, even grown-ups.’
So he’s introducing to his grandchildren some of the books he enjoyed as a child?
‘Exactly,’ she nods, ‘I think we all do that, don’t we? I can never read Black Beauty [her favourite childhood tome] to Eliza, my grand-daughter, though, because she can’t cope with anything to do with an animal that is hurt.’
Literacy is something that is very close to Camilla’s heart. She’s a voracious reader and is particularly concerned about the lack of libraries in primary schools and the negative effect lockdown has had on children living in more deprived areas of the country.
Here Camilla is pictured with Prince Charles and Her Majesty the Queen on her wedding day at St George’s Chapel in Windsor in April 2005. She says her husband is revelling in the role of being a grandfather
During that time, she set up The Duchess of Cornwall’s Reading Room on Instagram after publishing a well-received list of her favourite books.
‘I got so many letters afterwards, saying thank you so much. So we thought: “Well, maybe, we could take it a step further?” There were a few naysayers who said it was never going to work, so that made us even more determined!
‘Anyway it started shooting up. We kept saying: “Ooh, look at the numbers… 20,000, 30,000… and now we are on to 141,000.’
Downtime doesn’t appear to feature too heavily in the Duchess’s schedule. But she’s very good, as we know, at saying ‘no’ and scheduling some time away from official duties. It’s what keeps her sane.
‘I absolutely adore my garden. And the nice thing about gardening is that you can do it and not have to think about it. It’s very therapeutic,’ she says.
‘Or I go and see the grandchildren. I pick them up from school when I can. And I read, which is the real joy. When we [she and Charles] go to Scotland, I take a pile of books. You get yourselves into this lovely routine.’
It’s clear, from the way she speaks about her husband – whom she has known since she was 22 and been married to for 17 years – that he is her rock.
That’s not to say they live in each other’s pockets. They have different friends, separate interests – and even their own homes (Highgrove and Ray Mill House, 30 minutes’ drive from each other in the Cotswolds).
She’ll have a glass of wine and a giggle on official engagements, while Prince Charles sticks to water. And, shock horror, they occasionally argue!
But when you spend as much time on the road with them as I do, you see how genuinely good they are for each other.
He’s always encouraged his wife to spread her wings and is clearly deeply proud of what she has achieved. He likes the fact that other people have started to love the woman he adores, too.
Most importantly, they still laugh together – a lot.
The Duchess is open about how much her husband’s love has meant to her over the years (although she’s not so blind to his quirks that she doesn’t occasionally give him a discreet pat on the back when she thinks he’s been delighting a dignitary about the environment for long enough).
‘It’s very important to have my husband’s support. It was particularly special to have his guiding hand through this year’s Garter Ceremony,’ she says.
The Duchess knows that when Charles accedes to the throne, the pressure will only grow on them as a couple, and she thinks a lot about the support the late Duke of Edinburgh gave to the Queen. He was a man she greatly admired and whose wise counsel she came to cherish.
‘I think it is equally important [for us] to support each other as a team in the years ahead,’ she says, adding matter-of-factly: ‘I don’t quite go at the pace of my husband… He’s like a machine. I don’t know how he does it.
‘But you sort of get on with it. The adrenaline sets in so you keep going, and then at the end of one of these tours, for example, something goes pop and you are like a deflated balloon.
‘And then you just go and chill.’
I love the idea of the Duchess ‘chilling’ with her husband (aka the future king) and family, I say.
‘There’s nothing nicer,’ she smiles, laughing: ‘They don’t mind what you say to them!’
Indeed, Camilla will enjoy a decidedly tech-free birthday celebration with her family tomorrow – a low-key dinner with her husband, children and grandchildren.
But for now, the clock is ticking and the First Lady of Rwanda awaits.
‘Well thank you, Rebecca, now I am going to lose my voice when I have to make this big speech. And I shall blame it all on you,’ she says with a slight cough.
As I get up to go, I notice the Duchess has a glass of Coca-Cola in front of her.
‘I see you are still drinking that full-fat stuff,’ I remark (it’s become a bit of joke between us).
‘Absolutely! I don’t want any of that diet business! A bit of sugar keeps you going,’ she laughs. ‘Enjoy what you like. Just not too much! Everything in moderation.’
As mantras go, it’s one that will serve her well as she moves into the next stage of her extraordinary life.