He loves her. She loves him. That's the short version. The longer story is... well, much longer, and involves upending royal tradition and a religious crisis--along with the cuckolding of the Silver Stick in Waiting and erotic chat about a tampon. The announcement last week that Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles would finally marry on April 8 seemed almost anticlimactic compared with the Sturm und Drang of their 35-year affair. They have stuck with each other through marriage to others (both), divorce (both), scandal (both), parental scorn (Charles) and a reported pelting by rolls in a Wiltshire grocery (Camilla). After the news broke, the 57-year-old bride-to-be appeared before reporters at Windsor Castle blissfully flashing The Ring, a platinum-and-diamond royal heirloom. As cameras flashed, she disclosed that Charles, 56, had gone on his knees to propose. Her breathless reaction: "I'm just coming down to earth."

As charming as it is to see rather ordinary middle-aged folks acting like besotted adolescents, there's more to the timing of the royal betrothal than the ultimate triumph of true romance. Charles's finances have been under scrutiny lately from a committee in the House of Commons because he's shelling out more than $500,000, some of it from the country's funds. Marriage lowers the heat since supporting your wife is honorable while supporting your lover is not. "I think the wedding announcement is a direct result of the criticism Charles has recently faced for his lavish spending of public money on his mistress," says Charles's biographer Anthony Holden. "It has forced him to make an honest woman of her."

Charles has also been increasingly unhappy with the treatment engendered by Camilla's hazy status. One glaring example occurred in November, at the wedding of his godson Edward van Cutsem and Lady Tamara Grosvenor, daughter of the billionaire Duke of Westminster. Edward's parents, Hugh and Emilie van Cutsem, were once close to Charles and Camilla. Emilie even allowed the couple to use their house for trysts during the years he was married to Diana. But this time, Charles and Camilla were asked to sit pews apart at Chester Cathedral and leave in separate cars. That did it. The lovebirds stayed away and Charles, according to some accounts, began serious discussions with his closest advisers about marriage.

Many royal watchers think the queen, 78, wanted the couple to wed long before she dies so there would be no question about Charles's fitness for the throne. "She wanted to make sure that Charles and Camilla had time to gain public acceptance," says Ingrid Seward, editor in chief of Majesty magazine. There was pressure from the next generation as well. Camilla's son, Tom, 30, is getting married in September. Courtiers cringed at the thought of William, 22, walking down the aisle himself while his father still dallied in the shadows with his mistress.

The Church of England has been egging Charles on in recent months because it isn't seemly for the future head of the church (the role Charles will assume as king) to be openly living in sin. A religious wedding was out because of the church's rules about divorces' remarrying. Charles was somewhat less of a problem since his ex, Diana, died in a car crash in 1997. But Camilla's former husband, Andrew Parker Bowles (once holder of that Silver Stick title in the household cavalry), is very much alive. The diplomatic solution was to have the couple wed in a civil ceremony followed by a church blessing. "It's all coming together," says a friend of Camilla's. "It's inevitable and it's correct."

Although early polls last week showed considerable opposition to the marriage, that will probably fade. Private surveys for the royal family show rising support for Camilla. On the streets of London there was none of the excitement that accompanied Charles and Diana's 1981 engagement. But there was also little vituperation from Diana admirers who still blame Camilla for the breakup of that royal marriage (they were behind the roll-pelting episode). Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is expected to call an election for May 5, was reportedly consulted about the timing earlier in the week. He didn't object, although the date will interfere with campaign coverage, and offered the cabinet's congratulations.

Still, there are unresolved constitutional questions. When Charles and Camilla marry, she will technically become the second-most-senior female royal after the queen, but she will have no formal role. For now, she will be called Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of Cornwall (calling her the Princess of Wales would no doubt rile Diana fans). And although every past British king's wife was a queen, Charles's spokesman said Camilla will be "princess consort" when he becomes king. The precedent here is Albert, prince consort to Queen Victoria. But some scholars are uneasy. "The wife of the king has always been queen," says Vernon Bogdanor, a professor of government at Oxford and author of "The Monarchy and the Constitution." "I don't think you could change that without an act of Parliament."

That hurdle seems minor compared with the obstacles the couple has already overcome. Charles's transition from distant cad to loving dad was stunningly swift after Diana's death. On a visit to northern England just days after the tragedy, he moved a crowd to tears when he paid tribute to the public outpouring of grief. The pictures continued to soften: Charles and Harry in South Africa, genuinely enjoying each other's company, or Charles and his sons skiing in Switzerland and mugging affectionately for the cameras. As his relationship with William and Harry blossomed, Charles made an effort to integrate them into his life with Camilla, the woman he once called his "touchstone." She first met William in 1998, and although it reportedly went well, she nervously told a friend afterward, "I really need a gin and tonic." Since then, friends say, William and Harry have come to accept Camilla.

That approval was critical, and since then Charles and Camilla have appeared even more comfortable in each other's company. Both love gardening, horses and fox-hunting (activities Diana abhorred). They have the same quirky sense of humor and have been steadfast in their affection since they first met on a polo field in the early 1970s. Charles once said that not marrying Camilla then was the biggest mistake of his life. Their enduring connection is typical of a powerful first love, says Donna Hanover, the former New York City First Lady and author of "My Boyfriend's Back," about first loves who reunite (Hanover wed her own high-school sweetheart in 2003). "The scientists and therapists I talked to told me that falling in love as a young person is one of the most profound experiences you'll ever have," Hanover says. "Your identities are entwined. You were in each other's company during a time when you were becoming an adult. You're sort of hard-wired into each other."

That certainly appears to be what happened to Charles and Camilla. Although she married Parker Bowles in 1973 when Charles was off embarking on a naval career, they never lost touch. Charles is god--father to her son, Tom, born in 1974, and she accompanied Charles to Zimbabwe independence ceremonies in 1980. After Charles announced his engagement to Diana, he gave Camilla a "farewell" bracelet to thank her for her "understanding and support," according to biographer Jonathan Dimbleby. Although they were apparently not intimate during the first years of his marriage to Diana, Charles and Camilla revived their romance after the birth of Prince Harry in 1984. In 1993, the tabloids got hold of tapes of a 1989 phone conversation between the couple in which Charles professed a desire to be her tampon and expressed regret for all the indignities she endured because of their relationship. "Oh darling, don't be silly," she replied. "I'd suffer anything for you. That's love; it's the strength of love."

Her emergence as his official companion has been carefully orchestrated in the last few years. In 1999, they made their public debut as a couple when both attended a 50th-birthday party for Camilla's sister at the Ritz in London. A year later the queen recognized the relationship by attending a party with Camilla present. In 2001, Charles and Camilla exchanged their first public kiss at a charity function. In the past year, they have appeared together more often, and seemed relaxed and happy whether cameras were around or not.

Their wedding will be a far more subdued affair than the 1981 extravaganza at St. Paul's Cathedral. Windsor Castle is not licensed for weddings, so they will have to apply to the registrar at the local town hall for special permission and pay a fee of $1,500. Although they can choose music and readings for the ceremony, they can't include any even remotely religious words like "soul" or "spirit." After they are legally married by the registrar, they will make their way through the grounds of Windsor Castle to St. George's Chapel, where the Archbishop of Canterbury will preside over a special prayer service. That will be a private and relatively small ceremony by royal standards, with fewer than 1,000 of their nearest and dearest, probably followed by a honeymoon in Scotland.

The first marriage looked something out of a fairy tale. This one could be the real thing. In an interview soon after his engagement to Diana was announced, Charles was asked if the couple was in love. She answered, "Of course," with a smile. He replied, "Whatever 'in love' means." This time, he knows.

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