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Last Updated: Friday, 11 July, 2003, 08:26 GMT 09:26 UK
Camilla's inherited role as royal mistress
By Ryan Dilley
BBC News Online

She was lover of the Prince of Wales - a strong influence on him and a humiliation for his wife. And she was Camilla Parker Bowles's great-grandmother.

Alice Keppel had the "sexual morals of an alley cat", says historian Victoria Glendinning. "Sexual faithfulness to her husband wasn't a value to her."

And with whom, in 1898, did Keppel embark on her most infamous extramarital affair? None other than the Prince of Wales.

Edward VII was well known as a womaniser
Alice Keppel was Edward VII's longest-serving mistress

The minor socialite came to be the semi-official escort for the Prince, even after he succeeded his mother - Queen Victoria - to the Imperial throne and was crowned King Edward VII.

She was the notoriously amorous king's last and longest-serving mistress and one of the few people in his circle able to defuse his cantankerous mood swings.

"Alice Keppel was a fantastic help to Edward VII, more help than his wife [Queen Alexandra] could have ever have been," says Christopher Wilson, who has written about Keppel's great-granddaughter, Camilla Parker Bowles.

The family link between the two women, and the parallels of them both having relationships with princes of Wales, is highlighted by a BBC Two documentary being broadcast on Friday.

The young Camilla Shand enjoyed a privileged upbringing - a childhood not so dissimilar to that experienced by her notorious ancestor almost a century before. The Keppel family rather revelled in Alice's royal connection (particularly the possibility that Camilla's grandma Sonia was of royal blood), and Camilla was said to been "in awe" of her great-grandmother.

"Camilla saw how you could be a successful support to someone in an exposed public position. She learned a great deal from [Alice], and was able to enact it for herself," says Mr Wilson.

Camilla parker Bowles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1980
Camilla is said to have influenced Charles's choice of bride

This "enacting" began when horse-mad Camilla's path crossed that of Edward VII's great-great-grandson Charles, the newly invested Prince of Wales, at the polo matches.

"Prince Charles was very wet behind the ears when it came to women, but on horseback he looked like a god," says Mr Wilson.

The pair quickly became lovers, despite Camilla being involved with a cavalry officer, Andrew Parker Bowles, and warnings to Prince Charles from palace officials that the match was doomed because Camilla was not a virgin.

However, even Camilla's marriage to Parker Bowles in 1973 did not extinguish the feelings Prince Charles had for her.

Penny Junor, the Prince's biographer, says the couple's shared love of horses and The Goons cemented their relationship.

Just as Edward VII and Alice Keppel had done 90 years before, Charles and Camilla arranged to rendezvous at the country estates of friends.

"Both couples were surrounded by fantastically close-knit coteries of friends. People who would rather have had their heads chopped off rather than discuss with anyone who they'd had under their roof," says Ms Junor.

Camilla is touted as a prospective bride for Prince Charles
Camilla has had a rough ride, but has fared better than Alice

Camilla had a hand in helping Prince Charles buy his Highgrove estate - conveniently close to her home - and even advised her lover on his choice of the all-important bride who would provide Charles with an heir and the nation with its future king.

In 1980, the 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer was given the seal of approval. Many in the royal circle thought the shy Diana would be a "quiet little mouse" and cause her husband and his mistress as little trouble as Queen Alexandra had her errant royal husband.

While she shared much with the fashion-conscious and charitably-minded Queen Alexandra, as Princess Diana's fairy tale marriage quickly disintegrated, she proved herself to be anything but mousy.

This was not the only place where Camilla's path departed from that of her great-grandmother.

In Edwardian high society, loveless marriages and discreet serial bed-hopping were more acceptable than divorce. "You didn't think you were a bad woman or an immoral woman if you slept with a man other than your husband," says historian Victoria Glendinning.

However, by the late 20th Century such shenanigans were deemed more reprehensible - though some argue that the artistocracy has been slow to catch up.

Also, the mass media - which so careful coded its references to Edward VII's female companions - had taken a far more explicit interest in the love lives of the great and the good.

But despite the very public humiliations Camilla has suffered since her affair with Prince came to light - partly due to Princess Diana's discussions with journalists and writers - she may in the end fare better than her great-grandmother.

When Edward VII died in 1910, Alice Keppel found that the considerable influence she had enjoyed for 12 years was stopped with the beating of the king's heart.

A woman seen by some as a power behind the throne was not even permitted to sign the book of condolence for her dead lover.




SEE ALSO:
The rise of Camilla
07 Jul 01 |  UK News
Camilla's family 'call her Queen'
22 Oct 02 |  Panorama


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