Tom and Sara Parker Bowles after 12 years of marriage
Throughout his childhood, Tom Parker Bowles had to live with the unsettling knowledge that his mother Camilla was in love with a man who was not his father. It was a distressing and sometimes painful experience.
At school and university, he was exposed to the gossip of contemporaries and had to endure snide remarks about ‘the Rottweiler’, as Princess Diana famously called her rival. He also endured mockery about his father, Andrew, who was ridiculed for ‘laying down his wife for his country’.
Later came the glare of public fascination as he struggled to shake off the burden of his royal connection. Even when his parents separated, freeing Mrs Parker Bowles and the Prince of Wales to pursue their relationship openly, his surname was often more of a curse than a blessing.
Remarkably, despite briefly gaining a reputation as a cocaine-snorting party animal, Tom emerged unscathed from the whole saga insisting that neither he, nor his younger sister Laura, should be cast as victims in the War of the Waleses.
Which was why, when the news was made public yesterday that the easy-going and likeable 43-year-old food writer had parted from his wife Sara, it shocked his many friends, and has deeply saddened his mother and Prince Charles, who is also his godfather.
After 12 years of marriage, Tom has moved out of the marital home in Shepherd’s Bush, West London, which he shared with Sara and their two children, and is renting a home nearby.
There are apparently no plans for divorce. ‘They are very clear the separation is not final,’ says a friend. ‘There is no one else involved. Their priority is the children.’
Tom Parker Bowles kisses Sara on their wedding day in 2005 in Oxfordshire, England
Prince Charles and Camilla were left 'deeply saddened' after hearing of the breakdown in Tom and Sara's marriage
Although news of the separation came out of the blue, I understand there had been difficulties in the marriage for some time. Both are familiar figures on the London social scene, though in an interview last year Parker Bowles confessed that his idea of luxury was a ‘blank page in the diary’ and spending time at home ‘cooking and watching telly’.
Says a friend: ‘Tom used to be very hard-partying, but he has quietened down a lot since the children came along. He is more likely to be seen doing things with the kids these days.’
Last year Tom and Sara took their ten-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son to Klosters, the Swiss mountain resort where Charles taught William and Harry to ski.
Now, their split might cause complications over the invitations to Prince Harry and Meghan’s wedding in May. Tom’s name would almost certainly be one of the first on the list.
Both William and Harry were at Tom and Sara’s Oxfordshire wedding in 2005, five months after Camilla herself was married to the Prince of Wales. ‘There’s no reason why Tom and Sara shouldn’t be at the royal wedding, but it may be awkward,’ says a chum.
Tom Parker Bowles was spotted leaving his family home in London today
Certainly, news of the marriage breakdown is especially troubling for Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. Camilla is extremely fond of her daughter-in-law, and adores having her grandchildren to stay at Ray Mill House, the Wiltshire home she kept on after marrying Charles.
Charles himself is close to Tom and admires the way he has gone about his life. ‘Tom has never played the victim card, which would have been very easy to do,’ says a courtier. ‘He has accepted what life has dealt him and has got on with it. The Prince thinks that’s commendable.’
But just how much those formative experiences are to blame for the split in his marriage can only be guessed at.
Charles and Camilla had, of course, been lovers before Tom and his sister Laura were even born. They resumed their affair not long after Laura’s birth, which made secrecy a part of her children’s earliest upbringing.
A telling insight into the effect this had on Tom came when he was at Summer Fields prep school near Oxford. As he later recalled, he once stole sweets from another boy’s locker.
The headmaster marshalled the entire school into the chapel and said he would keep them there until the thief came forward. After a ten-minute silence, the head then punished an entirely innocent boy, who was in floods of tears. Tom never owned up. He had learned from his mother that silence was the best policy.
He was just as circumspect at Eton where, when anyone mentioned his mother’s affair, he would retreat into a cocoon of silence.
‘He hated people discussing it,’ a contemporary recalled. ‘But discuss it we did — you know what boys are like. He really didn’t like that. At that age we all like our parents to be as conventional as possible.’
The comfort of an ordinary, settled childhood was denied to Tom. His father, Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles, was always willing to stand aside for royalty, even when it came to his own wife, and made himself absent for long periods from Middlewick House, the family home in Wiltshire.
A friend said that the couple had been having problems for some time, even though Tom gave up his partying ways
That allowed Charles — or ‘Sir’ as Tom has always called the godfather who is now his stepfather — to visit more or less at will, which undoubtedly had a disruptive influence on the children: few were surprised when Tom went off the rails.
While reading English at Oxford University, he was arrested for possessing ecstasy and cannabis (and was cautioned after claiming they were for personal use). After university, he became a film publicist and compounded his mistake by admitting to a fondness for cocaine after being gulled by an undercover reporter.
That confession led to his being banned by Prince Charles from Highgrove and St James’s Palace, and from having any contact with the young Prince William.
Charles felt that his mistress’s free-spirited son was a bad influence. It was a siren warning that, when it comes to the good name of the monarchy, Charles will usually put the Royal Family first.
But while those youthful indiscretions have long been forgotten, and despite their shared domestic history, Tom is not close to the royal Princes. In a rare moment of candour, he admitted last year: ‘I don’t hang out with William and Harry much. They are different ages and have different lives. I’m a 43-year old hack.’
Even by the time he moved into the basement flat in Notting Hill, which featured in Performance — the gender-bending, drug-soaked 1970 film starring Mick Jagger — Parker Bowles had put his bohemian tastes behind him. He gave up smoking and insisted he no longer took drugs. ‘I don’t use them any more,’ he declared before his wedding. ‘My life has changed.’
His journalism took off when he submitted a food column to Tatler magazine. His film career had ended amicably a couple of years earlier because of his habit of sleeping through morning meetings. After that, he spent a couple of years working with his cousin Ben Elliot’s concierge company Quintessentially, where he sourced food suppliers. But he preferred writing about food.
At the same time, his union with Sara, whom he met at Oxford, and who used to work for fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar, was formalised in a traditional — if star-studded — ceremony, with guests including Jagger, Hugh Grant and Joanna Lumley.
Sara’s Alexander McQueen bridal gown is thought to have inspired Kate Middleton to choose the same designer.
Last year, Tom Parker Bowles offered an intriguing insight into his relationship. ‘Marriage is about compromise, about two people who might be rather different, but who love each other very much,’ he observed. ‘Marriage is a wonderful thing in the long term, but there are ups and downs.’
Friends were last night wondering if that might prove to be its epitaph.