Unlucky star: Madonna - A £300m split?

It always looked like an unlikely pairing: the queen of pop and the laddish British film director. Now, it seems, the marriage of Madonna and Guy Ritchie may be over

Last summer, Madonna sat down with Guy Ritchie and her three children at their home in Wiltshire to celebrate her 49th birthday. An equestrian troop dressed in medieval-style armour fought with lances on the lawn as the happy family looked on.

Ten months later, the jousting seems to have acquired a serious nature: after months of speculation about the couple's relationship, reports suggest that they are on the brink of divorce after seven and a half years of marriage.

Madge is said to have turned to the eminent divorce lawyer Fiona Shackleton, "the Steel Magnolia", who represented Prince Andrew against Sarah Ferguson, his brother Charles against Diana, and most recently Sir Paul McCartney against Heather Mills.

Ms Shackleton memorably emerged from the final hearing with her hair plastered to her forehead, after Ms Mills threw a jug of water over her in anger at the £24.3m settlement.

Relations between Madonna and Ritchie are said to remain cordial. With one acrimonious divorce from the actor Sean Penn behind her, the Queen of Pop is said to be adamant they avoid a "warpath"-style separation. Priority will be given not to division of wealth or their properties – which include a townhouse in Marylebone, central London – but the future of the children, Lourdes, 11, Rocco, seven, and their adopted Malawian son, David Banda, who will be three in September.

The formidable music publicist Barbara Charone, who has handled the singer's media inquiries since the beginning of her pop career, declined yesterday to deny the detailed red-top newspaper reports. She offered The Independent "no official comment", explaining that Madonna was exercising her right not to talk about her personal life.

To worsen the mood, Madonna's estranged brother, Christopher Ciccone, 47, is pushing ahead with the publication of a "tell-all" biography, Life with My Sister Madonna, penned in collaboration with the writer Wendy Leigh, the author of previous works about Prince Edward, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Liza Minnelli. Mr Ciccone's "extraordinary memoir" will be "based on his life and 47 years of growing up with and working with his sister – the most famous woman in the world".

The British publisher Simon & Schuster is avoiding calls on the subject of the 15 July publication, amid reports that the celebrity's lawyers are trying to block its release. A similar intervention last year stopped the publication of a book by the BBC journalist John Sweeney on Wayne Rooney and a notorious incident with the "Auld Slapper".

Ms Charone said there would be no formal response from Madonna about her brother's book, but she pointed out that the siblings were no longer friends: "If they were friends, would he write the book?"

Madonna Louise Ciccone met Guy Stuart Ritchie, best known for directing the film Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, through their mutual friend Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler. In August 2000 she bore their son Rocco in Los Angeles. Just before Christmas that year they married in a lavish ceremony at Skibo Castle in Scotland, the groom wearing Highland dress tartan. The Material Girl became a more muted "English rose", Country Life-style wife, wearing tweeds and turning up to her husband's favourite west London "boozer" for a pint.

The couple adopted the mystical Jewish religion Kabbalah, donating millions to the London centre and attending faith sessions there.

In a maelstrom of publicity, she flew to Malawi in 2006 to help build an orphanage – later filing adoption papers for David Banda Mwale. The couple had to submit papers to Kensington & Chelsea council, which considered their suitability and approved of the move.

Marilyn Stowe, a celebrity divorce lawyer at Grahame Stowe Solicitors, said any proceedings could leave Ritchie claiming a substantial amount of the couple's reported £300m wealth, if he argues that he has been financially disadvantaged over the course of the marriage.

"Undoubtedly, her career has prospered while his has not," said Ms Stowe. "The question is: did Guy Ritchie sacrifice his career and earning capacity in order to prioritise hers? Did he have a choice? Has it been difficult for him, living with such a famous and wealthy woman?"

Ms Stowe said it was highly likely that Madonna went into the marriage with a pre-nuptial agreement.

But in spite of the crisis at Madonna's west London home and any damage to her reputation that follows publication of her brother's book, many are already predicting she will emerge from the experience largely unscathed.

The fresh-faced A-grade student and cheerleader who arrived in New York with just $35 in her pocket in the early Eighties has proved she is made of steely stuff in the past, turning numerous potential pitfalls to her advantage over three decades in the entertainment industry. Few would doubt Madonna's ability to emerge triumphant.

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