Prince Charles to Marry Camilla Parker Bowles

AN HEIR TO THE THRONE in love with a divorced woman - royal watchers have seen this movie before. But what a difference seven decades makes.

Prince Charles to Marry Camilla Parker Bowles

AN HEIR TO THE THRONE in love with a divorced woman - royal watchers have seen this movie before. But what a difference seven decades makes. In 1936, after King George V died, Edward VIII's desire to wed his mistress, Wallis Simpson, became a paralyzing crisis for Britain and the empire that was only resolved when he abdicated. Last week, when Prince Charles announced his engagement to divorcee Camilla Parker Bowles, the response was muted congratulations, not constitutional chaos. Charles's mum, Queen Elizabeth II, declared she was "very happy," sons Princes William, 22, and Harry, 20, were "delighted," while Prime Minister Tony Blair called it "very happy news."

Hardly rapturous enthusiasm, but quiet acceptance is clearly what Charles, 56, wants for his 35-year-old relationship with Camilla, 57. They first met in 1970, but soon drifted apart. She married army officer Andrew Parker Bowles in 1973. (They have two children: Tom, 30, and Laura, 26.) Her relationship with Charles resumed a few years later, but with marriage then impossible, the Prince of Wales became engaged to a young Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.

The new bride was soon intensely jealous of Charles and Camilla's relationship, convinced they were having an affair. Finally, after the royal marriage broke down in the mid-'80s, suspicion became reality. But Charles and Camilla's intimate relationship was kept private until the 1992 publication of Andrew Morton's Diana: Her True Story, chronicling the princess's version of her troubled marriage. The British public did not, to put it mildly, admire Charles for choosing a dowdy, middle-aged woman over his beautiful young wife. Camilla, vilified in the press as a marriage wrecker, retreated into rural seclusion.

Camilla and her husband divorced in 1995 (he quickly remarried), and she moved into a house near Charles's country mansion. When the prince and Diana divorced a year later, he and Camilla began to appear together at private functions. But after Diana's 1997 death in a Paris tunnel turned her into a popular saint, it was another two years before the pair could be seen together openly. It was another year and a half before a public peck on her cheek. The rules for appearances quickly emerged. Every situation had to be non-threatening to the memory of Diana. That meant, above all, that Camilla was never seen with Princes William or Harry. She never talked about her relationship to the press. (There was never, of course, any possibility of competition on the hair, beauty and clothes front.)

So what is it about Camilla? Famously discreet, with a good sense of humour, she enjoys gardening, hunting and horses - the same country pursuits Charles and the rest of the royals live for. She can coax him out of the funks he settles into, and won't attract a fraction of the public attention that buzzed about Diana.

Despite the slow relaxation of public opinion in the years since Diana's death - a recent poll showed that nearly 70 per cent of Britons would accept a marriage - the contrast between Charles's two wedding announcements could not have been more stark. In 1981, a beautiful blond and a smiling prince showed off her engagement ring for all the world to see. This time, no photo op, just the release of a month-old picture of two middle-aged people in grey tweeds standing beside each other. There are smiles, but no affectionate embrace. Instead of the "wedding of the century" held at St. Paul's Cathedral, there will be a private civil ceremony at Windsor Castle on April 8, followed by a prayer service led by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The British public may have come to accept Camilla as a part of Charles's life, but there are still limits. She will not be called the Princess of Wales, a title entwined with Diana, but HRH the Duchess of Cornwall. And Camilla will never be queen. After the death of Elizabeth II, now 78, she will become King Charles III's Princess Consort. Nor will she ever be the Queen of Hearts, except to Charles.

The Things Royals Say

"My great-grandmother was your great-great-grandfather's mistress, so how about it?"

- what Camilla reportedly said to Charles in the early 1970s, referring to Alice Keppel, long-time mistress of Edward VII

"The Rottweiler."

- Diana's name for Camilla

"Oh, you're going to come back as a pair of knickers."

"Or, God forbid, a Tampax."

- Camilla and Charles in a taped conversation released in 1993

"There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded."

- Diana discussing her marriage's collapse, in a 1995 BBC interview

OTHER ROCKY ROMANCES: The royals have a history of marriages gone wrong

Charles isn't the only British heir to the throne with a colourful romantic history.

Sophia Dorothea of Celle was 16 when she married the future George I in 1682. The marriage wasn't a success. George was interested in horses and women. She was beautiful but unintelligent, and got involved with a dragoons colonel. George found out and divorced her. Sophia Dorothea was imprisoned in a castle for the last 32 years of her life and never saw her children again. As for her lover, he disappeared permanently, apparently on George's orders.

When the future George IV first set eyes on Caroline of Brunswick in 1795, he needed a brandy, quickly. She was stocky, unattractive, lacked all common sense and didn't wash much. The negative impression was reciprocal, with Caroline thinking him "very stout" and not at all like his portraits. The wedding passed in an alcoholic haze. The marriage was a disaster. When he got the throne in 1820, George attempted to divorce Caroline, but the proceedings in the House of Lords were chaotic and ultimately collapsed amid titillating details. After a failed attempt to gatecrash his coronation, she died less than three weeks later.

Maclean's February 21, 2005