It took more than three decades, countless illicit assignations, two divorces and then perhaps a bit of divine intervention to keep threatened rain away. But last week, under clear skies, amid a sea of fabulous hats only English women can get away with, Prince Charles finally married the woman he says he's always loved: Camilla Parker Bowles. Their big day began when they pulled up to Guildhall in Windsor in a Rolls-Royce lent to them by the queen. Charles, 56, looked serious but Camilla, 57, seemed happy and relaxed. After a brief civil ceremony--the only option for these two divorced people in the Church of England--Camilla was transformed from The Other Woman to HRH the Duchess of Cornwall, the second most senior female royal. Only the queen now outranks her. Then the newlyweds headed across the street to Windsor Castle, where they confessed their sins, were blessed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and promised to be faithful to each other. At a reception afterward hosted by the queen, 800 guests (Joan Rivers, a friend of both, made the list) toasted the couple before they took off for their honeymoon in Scotland.
The day was meant to be low-key, and anything would be compared with Charles and Diana's 1981 extravaganza, which captivated millions around the world. Only about 20,000 people lined the streets of Windsor to cheer them on. In many ways, it seemed more like a family wedding than an official event, with members of the royal family, including Princes William and Harry, riding minibuses from Guildhall to the castle. Many who watched said they were just glad the scandals were over. "It is a shame they could not have gotten married all those years ago," says Emma Hoare, who works at the Reject China Shop across the street from the castle. "I think she really suits him."
The big do was threatened by what one writer described as a "compendium of cock-ups" that began soon after the February engagement. Charles and Camilla had planned to be married in Windsor Castle, but that was nixed when someone pointed out it wasn't a legal site for weddings. That meant a shift to Guildhall, a much more plebeian venue. Then the queen announced that she would not attend the civil ceremony. The official explanation: she didn't want to disrupt the couple's desire for a "low-key" wedding. Many think the snub really reflects her distaste for the union. The couple had hoped to placate critics by promising that Camilla would be princess consort when Charles becomes king. But legal experts insisted she will someday officially be queen. Then, in an event no one could have predicted, the pope's funeral was scheduled for the same day as the wedding. Charles was forced to postpone the event 24 hours. The last-minute shift meant increased security costs and more nasty headlines.
But it was all forgotten last Saturday. A friend of Camilla's says she won Charles by being his lover, his best friend and the mother he never really had. Camilla is totally devoted to him and, unlike Diana, shuns publicity. She defers to him in almost everything, much the way that the queen defers to Prince Philip in most matters of the royal household. While Charles and Diana had almost nothing in common, Charles and Camilla share many of the same tastes. Both particularly enjoy what the English call "country pursuits" like gardening and fox hunting, which Camilla is particularly passionate about.
Like the Royal Brady Bunch, their four children stood on the steps of Guildhall after the ceremony--one happy, newly blended family. Charles is godfather to Camilla's son, Tom, 30, a food journalist. He also gets along well with her daughter, Laura, 25. Recently, he set up $1.8 million trust funds for both of them. Camilla has had to work harder to win over William, 22, and Harry, 20. She first met William in 1998 and afterward told an aide that she could use a gin and tonic. Friends say William and Harry have OK'd the marriage, although that doesn't mean they see her as a replacement for their mother. Both are still devoted to Diana, trying to remember the good things about her, not the scandals. They reportedly keep their mother's picture in their bedrooms and tolerate Camilla only because they know she is there to stay.
Camilla's walk down the aisle was the end of a long and often ugly journey. In the early '90s, she became an object of scorn as the woman who shattered the royal fairy tale. Negative stories about Camilla--whether true or not--were repeated so often in the tabloids that they assumed the status of legend. She was messy, throwing dirty clothes on the floor all over her house. She was smelly, someone who would hop into a ball gown straight from riding without bothering to bathe. She was homely. Diana is said to have described her as having the face of a mare and the rump of a stallion. (That description inspired one of the best wedding souvenirs this time around, a T shirt that shows Camilla as a white horse with Charles blissfully riding her.)
After both were divorced (Camilla from Andrew Parker Bowles in 1995 and Charles from Diana a year later), a public-relations specialist who worked for Charles helped reintroduce Camilla to the public. In 1997, she became patron of the National Osteoporosis Society after watching her mother, Rosalind, die of the disease. In July of that year, Charles hosted a 50th-birthday party for her in his country estate at Highgrove. But just weeks later, Diana's death put the image campaign on hold for a while. It wasn't until 1999 that the couple made their first public appearance together at a 50th-birthday party for Camilla's sister, Annabel Elliot. Two years later, they exchanged their first public kiss at a reception for the Osteoporosis Society.
She may have won her prince, but Camilla hasn't won over the hearts and minds of most Britons. Many are still opposed to the marriage, but the overwhelming reaction seems to be indifference. Wedding souvenirs, which overflowed stores before the first royal wedding, were scarce except in shops in the shadow of Windsor Castle. They were selling primarily because people thought tea towels with the wrong date might someday be valuable. But after all these years of soap opera, public indifference could be a real blessing.