Charles, Camilla, the Vatican & Relaxing Formality


Yesterday, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall departed Florence for Rome and the Holy See where they met with Pope Francis. Before their visit they were given a private tour of the Vatican’s archives, which house manuscripts not accessible to the public. The secrecy makes sense given the thousands of extremely personal documents Rome was made privy to over the centuries, particularly when it was a more political entity going head-to-head with monarchs across Europe.

One such example referenced earlier this week by way of the papal dispensation sought by Henry VII and Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain for approval to marry their children, the future Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon – the document essentially haggled over the terms of Katherine’s virginity following her marriage to Arthur Tudor. But this was indicative of the personal nature of so many of the issues the Vatican weighed in on, from dispensations to divorces to legal issues, any number of which were related to the Royal Families ruling Europe.

Yesterday, Charles and Camilla were shown a letter from Mary I and Philip II of Spain regarding the return of England to the Catholic Church (needless to say that didn’t quite stick). And yet another from Mary, Queen of Scots, a direct ancestor of Charles’s, whose last letter before her execution on the orders of Elizabeth I in 1587 was to the Pope.


It’s illustrative of England’s rather intense relationship with Catholicism, having segued from crusaders like Richard I to zealots like Henry V to the dramatic Reformation under the Tudors. A break which, despite the best efforts of Mary (or, indeed, because of the efforts of Mary I), proved to be permanent. By the time the Stuarts ascended the throne in 1603 the religion was regarded suspiciously and centuries of religious competition for power, authority and the right to lead the British towards a certain form of salvation led any number of citizens to an early grave. It played a direct role in the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and through the Georgian Era with the Jacobites. There’s even a theory the question of religious tolerance towards Catholics helped drive George III mad.


As recently as 2008 Autumn Kelly was forced to convert from Catholicism in order to marry the Queen’s eldest grandson, Peter Phillips, so that he wouldn’t have to renounce his place in the succession.


Today, however, the biggest questions marks were what was Camilla going to wear and what gift would Charles and Pope Francis bestow one another.


The answer to the first was a pale gold silk dress and coat by Anne Valentine, a designer favored by the Duchess. It was a break with tradition, which has historically dictated women wear black in the presence of the Pontiff and have their heads covered. Indeed, it’s how Camilla dressed to meet Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 and how the late Princess of Wales met Pope John Paul II in 1982 and 1985.

Charles and Camilla at the Vatican in 2009

The exception to this rule is le privilège du blanc, or the privilege of white, which allows certain Catholic queens and princesses to wear a white dress and veil. It was recently adopted by Princess Charlene of Monaco, married to Prince Albert (or Princess Grace’s son as he is perhaps better known to some), when she met with Pope Benedict in 2013.


But the current Pope is known for his more relaxed, egalitarian style and the Vatican made it clear ahead of time he’s wasn’t particularly bothered by how Camilla planned to dress. The same couldn’t be said for many of the reports from today’s visit, which led with Camilla’s ensemble (non-critically) and what it illustrated about the current environment of the Holy See. As a Vatican spokesperson said, “Things have become more relaxed over the last few years there are no hard and fast rules.”


After Charles also attended a meeting on climate change at the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, the Pope met privately with Camilla and him (plus an interpreter) for a half-hour long meeting. It’s not known of what they spoke, but many news articles pointed out that both have spoken out about climate change and religious persecution. At the close of the meeting, Pope Francis said to Charles, “Wherever you go, may you be a man of peace.”


To which Charles responded, “I’ll do my best.”


They then exchanged public gifts. Charles offered up a basket of goods produced from his estate of Highgrove. According to The Telegraph:

The Prince told his host: “It’s difficult to know what to give Your Holiness”, looking at the hamper of homegrown produce he had settled on before modestly wondering: “Somebody else might like it”.

An aide lifted the lid of the wicker basket, placed on a table in a study in the Vatican, to reveal jars of food from the Prince’s Highgrove estate nestled amongst the straw.

The Prince, in his first audience with Pope Francis, explained: “They’re all homemade things I produce”.

His wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, added “It’s very good”. The items are destined to be distributed among the poor and homeless in Rome, as a gesture from the Pope and Royal couple.

To be clear, this gift is very much in keeping with custom. The Queen has, the past, presented the Pope with honey from Buckingham Palace and other goods sourced her Balmoral estate in Scotland.


In return, Pope Francis also presented Charles with gifts. Again, per The Telegraph:

He offered red bound copies of copies his Encyclicals, papal documents including Laudato Si which focuses on the environment, ecology, climate change and sustainable development.

The text is subtitled “on care for our common home” and includes critiques of consumerism and irresponsible development as well as global warming, and will resonate particularly with the Prince who has made a determined study of the “harmony” of nature over the last 40 years.


Earlier in the day, the couple visited The British School in Rome, which received a Royal Charter in 1912. They were given the chance to tour the building, meet and observe some of the artists and residence and learn about the facility’s offerings. Both Charles and Camilla are keen art enthusiasts, while Camilla “dabbles” with painting and her daughter, Laura, spent time as an intern in the art world in Venice. Today, she actually co-founded and runs London’s Eleven gallery.


Today marks the second to last day of the couple’s tour. On Thursday they are due to fly back to the UK from Vienna, at which point Charles will have on what has been dubbed a “charm offensive” for well over a week straight. And I have to say, while I have always had a soft spot for the Prince of Wales, watching him carry out his engagements with a slightly closer eye has been impressive.

Perhaps all the more so because this week has seen headline after headline splashing details of his childhood and first marriage courtesy of a new biography from Sally Bedell Smith in UK and American publications. While the biography is, I believe, largely sympathetic, it is also deeply personal and it’s worth taking a beat to consider the quantity and quality of work Charles has conducted without pause for a week, in a foreign country, surrounded by press, without missing a beat. That, my friends, is 68 years of experience in the public eye.

Catch up on yesterday here.

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