Revealed: What made Charles marry now

Why? And why now? They have been lovers for much of their adult lives, and, since the death of Princess Diana, have all but lived together. So why do these two fiftysomethings now want to risk antagonising the Church and a public still devoted to Diana by marrying? Brian Cathcart and Francis Elliott report

There was a moment in the television coverage of the reception at Windsor Castle last Thursday night - a moment captured and frozen on many front pages the next morning - when Camilla Parker Bowles looked almost like a teenager in love.

There was a moment in the television coverage of the reception at Windsor Castle last Thursday night - a moment captured and frozen on many front pages the next morning - when Camilla Parker Bowles looked almost like a teenager in love.

For all her 57 years she seemed giddy with delight, coy and proud at the same time, the look in her eye saying she couldn't quite believe her luck. Watching her, you did not have to be a devotee of Mills & Boon novels to feel the warmth, to see things her way for once, and to hope it turns out well.

That moment was also a revelation in less sentimental ways. For one thing, it was a sharp reminder that for all her shadowy and sometimes almost demonic presence in British life over the past 10 or 20 years we do not know her.

She hasn't looked into the camera before, let alone addressed reporters. Her public life, if it can be called that, has been devoted to avoidance and discretion, and our knowledge of her manner and attitudes is confined to a few often-repeated crumbs of information, usually of dubious provenance.

Also unexpected is a possibility of which we may have had a first glimpse: that she herself might just be the royal trump card in this troublesome business that the New York Post has dubbed "Chuck's Nups".

Prince Charles's possible nuptials and how they might go down with his future subjects have been discussed many times over the years, but rarely has anyone mentioned the possibility that the bride herself might clinch the matter, that she might have the power to win people over. After all - and she won't need to be reminded of this - she is no Princess Di.

But there she was on Thursday, showing off her engagement ring, smiling, laughing, cheerfully confirming that her bloke got down on one knee to propose - all in a genuinely winning way. In the words of Sir Bob Worcester, the chairman of Mori: "That's worth a few points in the polls."

It has been a long time coming, this marriage - so long that you have to ask, why now? The timing may have a little to do with cold calculations about the polls but, friends of the couple say, it owes more to the recent mood and feelings of Charles, his future wife and perhaps his mother.

Long before the ink was dry on Prince Charles's divorce in 1996, the possibility of this second marriage was in the air, and there was never any doubt that that was what the couple wanted. There was talk about the constitution, but that was never a problem. Certain hoops had to be jumped through, it is true, but the political background to last week's announcement shows that they were very easily negotiated.

The Prime Minister first heard informally last summer that the heir to the throne was minded to marry again, according to a Downing Street aide. The subject came up again in December, but it was not until Tony Blair returned from his holiday in Egypt in January that he was given formal notice he would be asked to approve the match.

His spokesman has said that the number of people he then told was "less than the fingers of one hand". Two of those were Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, and Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, who gave their opinions on the constitutional implications.

Their advice, though necessary, was very simple, and it chimed perfectly with what Clarence House believed: no new legislation would be needed to allow the marriage, so long as the bride did not expect to become Queen. It will only be on Charles's death, when (assuming she outlives him) her place on the Civil List might need to be addressed, that an Act of Parliament could be needed.

The matter of titles, too, is and always has been simple. For the moment, the title Duchess of Cornwall, or of Rothesay when in Scotland, sounds grand enough for most tastes, and later, if she can't become Queen then Princess Consort will do fine - even if, as has been pointed out, it sounds like a brand of 1950s wedding car.

The former Camilla Shand, wine merchant's daughter, is hardly likely to complain, and nor should the titles be too cumbersome for the public, who see nothing odd in the Queen being married to someone called the Duke of Edinburgh. (If anybody has grounds for complaint now it might be Prince Philip, who for all his blue blood and decades of trailing in the regal wake has never quite made it to the status of Prince Consort.)

If there weren't any real legal or procedural obstacles, what stopped the couple from simply doing the deed? Diana, and public opinion.

A tricky proposition in 1996, the marriage became the Royal Family's private unexploded bomb after the "Diana week" of September 1997, no one daring to touch the subject for fear of unleashing another megaton-power burst of public emotion. Camilla was, after all, the woman who, according to the widely accepted Diana version, had made the life of the People's Princess a misery.

And so the waiting began, with the relationship continuing in low key. The polls, monitored closely in the royal households, which these days commission their own market research, often pointed to complex public attitudes.

Five years ago, for example, a poll for The Sun found that a clear majority of people agreed with all of the following statements: Charles and Camilla should be allowed to continue their relationship; they should be allowed to live together in royal palaces if they want; they should be free to appear jointly at public engagements; she should spend time with William and Harry; she should be permitted to meet the Queen.

All very modern. Yet in the same poll, when people were asked whether the couple should marry, there was only confusion, with roughly equal numbers of yes, no and don't know responses. And they were sure that she should never be Queen.

What were royal poll-watchers supposed to make of that? On the face of it, people appeared content that Mrs Parker Bowles should be Charles's wife in everything but name. It was not a position that could withstand any moral scrutiny, nor was it one the couple themselves could be expected to accept indefinitely. The irritations and indignities grew steadily more unbearable as the years passed. A friend of the couple confirmed yesterday that Camilla felt "deeply humiliated" by her effective exclusion from the recent wedding of one of the Prince's godchildren, and it was only the latest such incident.

There were some practical problems. "She's the only person he knows that can't set foot in the royal plane," the friend said. So when he flies up to Scotland she has to travel separately, on a scheduled flight from Heathrow. "If they go out to a restaurant they can't use an official car, have outriders or anything. She didn't complain but it obviously complicated their lives."

The same friend also pointed out that, whatever reservations there might be today about a marriage in which Camilla can never be Queen, the alternative - of the couple growing old with Charles as King and her still in official limbo - is surely worse. Time, in other words, made the marriage inevitable.

With such thoughts in mind, a long and now well-documented campaign was waged to get the public used to the idea of the couple together and to prepare opinion for an engagement.

Insiders say, however, that as long ago as early 2003 those involved in this decided they had gone as far as they could. The judgement was made that the public, better disposed than it had been but still apparently ambivalent, could not be nudged further. Now there was a gamble to be taken. It was not a question of whether, but of when, and the matter was effectively left to the couple and the Royal Family. Charles is said to have been left depressed in recent months by the Paul Burrell trial and its consequences and by other household scandals, and has spent a lot of time with Camilla at Birkhall, the house on the Balmoral estate which the couple regard as their retreat (and where they will spend their honeymoon).

There, friends say, they took stock and apparently edged towards their decision. The Queen, who for years avoided meeting Camilla but eventually decided that the marriage was inevitable, is said to have given her "dithering" son a final push.

The effect on the Prince of Wales was instantaneous, according to one friend. "He's been so grumpy for the last couple of years and now you can see the relief on his face." There are still worries, though, about her stamina ("she does tend to flag a bit," said a friend) and about whether or not the public will take to her and accept her unusual role.

The children on both sides are also causing some concern. Tom and Laura Parker Bowles are likely to endure some unfamiliar press attention, while William and Harry present problems of their own. The view, apparently, is that it should be easier to manage the two princes when the couple have their own affairs in proper order.

The best-laid plans, of course, can go astray. After tiptoeing towards the announcement over several weeks, going through the necessary formalities and ensuring all was ready, the intention was to break the news in the week of Valentine's Day, but a leak to the London Evening Standard forced them to bring it forward.

The finger of blame pointed first to Downing Street, but that now seems unlikely (however grateful Tony Blair may be for any news story that keeps Iraq out of the headlines). A more likely cause, it seems, was the need to advise Commonwealth leaders around the world, including Australia, that they should keep a day in April clear in their diaries.

Despite the last-minute hiccup, the day went well and the coverage was surely as positive as anyone involved in the long build-up could have hoped. Camilla's evident joy worked its magic.

Three days later, however, and the storm clouds are building. This week's meeting of the General Synod will give evangelical Anglicans a platform to voice their unease. Some even plan to call on Charles and Camilla to apologise publicly for their infidelity.

The Rev Rod Thomas, a leading member of the conservative Reform grouping, says he is prepared to call for a debate when the Synod opens on Monday. He said: "If they go ahead as things stand, it will increase the pressure on the future King, increase the pressure for disestablishment, undermine his role, and the whole effect on our institutions will be to bring them under fresh pressure.

"How could he possibly say the coronation oath promising to uphold the teachings of the Church of England? How could he say that with credibility in view of his own circumstances?" asked Mr Thomas, vicar of St Matthew's Plymouth. "It is up to them to say we believe in lifelong marriage and that we have acted incorrectly and that before God we're sorry for these things.

"If our interest is in promoting the concept of marriage as a lifelong commitment involving faithfulness, the question has to be what can we do to make sure that this wedding doesn't damage that concept?"

Dr Philip Giddings, a senior Synod member and a prominent traditionalist, said: "I would not be surprised if the announcement of the wedding is raised at Synod."

The polls are not chock-full of good news either. One ICM survey published yesterday found that 65 per cent blamed Camilla for the break-up of Charles and Diana's marriage, and that fewer than 40 per cent were happy at the prospect of her HRH title.

One obvious way to seek to swing the figures would be for the future Princess Consort to give a lengthy television interview. Some in her circle are already pressing her to do so but she is resisting, not least because she dislikes the interviewer being pressed on her. Jonathan Dimbleby may be a good friend of her fiancé's but, insiders say, his charms are lost on Camilla.

Her gut feeling is, in any case, to keep her head down.

At about the time last month when Prince Charles finally proposed to Camilla - as we now know, on bended knee - at Birkhall, The Sun published its picture of Prince Harry in mock Afrika Korps uniform with a swastika on his arm.

It was another example of the way that events can complicate royal plans, but like Camilla's smile last week, it was also a revealing moment, and one that may augur well for the couple, even if it sheds an unflattering light on the British public.

Cast your mind back to Diana's funeral in 1997, to the spectacle of Harry and his brother walking behind the coffin, and to the words of Earl Spencer, who, on behalf of all the mourners both in the abbey and outside, promised support and protection to the motherless princes.

How many people nodded in agreement and accepted their share in his pledge? How many times on that day did we hear the words - from people in the street and from pundits in the media: "It's the boys I feel sorry for."

Seven years later, when Harry made the mistake of wearing that uniform, support and protection were in conspicuously short supply. The young prince was apparently off the rails, but the public was much more inclined to condemn than sympathise.

It is a sign of public fickleness, but one that suits the Royal Family now, for it shows that Diana's emotional legacy has faded, even from around her younger son. Britain appears to have moved on. So who knows, by the time we reach Chuck's Nups Day on 8 April, the nation may have taken Camilla to its heart.

World's press takes a broader view

Press reaction around the world was a little more unfettered than here. New York Post columnist Andrea Payser wrote, in a piece headlined "Icky heir to the throne acts like a man, for once": "Camilla Parker Bowles has surgically removed her longtime love interest from the hem of his emotionally indifferent mummy ... and attached the guy permanently inside her own trousers." Among other comments:

USA Today: "The Prince of Wales is marrying a divorcee, and hardly anyone cares. What a difference nearly seven decades (and millions of British divorces) can make."

Le Figaro, France: "His tormented union with Diana and his divorce, the princess's tragic death, the Queen Mother's implacable hostility to his relationship, his mother's disdain, his future subjects' disapproval, and the church's reserve all forced him to live out his great passion behind a mask."

Publico, Portugal: "No one has ever understood Charles's love for her. The British people loved Diana and Charles loved Camilla."

Le Temps, Switzerland: "This is all about a couple... marrying late in life after trials, tribulations and divorces... showing that life can begin again at an age old enough to be a grandparent."

Tribune de Genève, Switzerland: Mrs Parker Bowles "always looks as if her clothes were bought in the sales..."

El Pais, Spain: "The wealth of scandals from the British royals [now] causes no more than a shrug of the shoulders."

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