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Windsor v Windsor; Royal couple take first step to divorce

The judge adjusted his yellowing wig for what might have been another ordinary day's business in the divorce courts - a nurse, a housewife, a railway signal engineer and a serving prisoner were among the petitioners on his list.

But then history was made as the clerk came to the 31st case and read out, in the same steady voice, the names of their Royal Highnesses, the Prince and Princess of Wales.

As the sun streamed through into the small, pale green room, and 29 journalists packed the usually empty public benches, it seemed more like the perfect day for a wedding. But 15 years on, the famously tortured marriage of the heir to the throne, was finally being undone in Court One at Somerset House, London.

For a fee of pounds 80, the couple, who like all the other petitioners were not in court, were granted a decree nisi. In six weeks and one day, Prince Charles, who initiated the divorce proceedings on the grounds of "irreconcilable differences", will apply for the decree to be made absolute and for an additional pounds 20, the fairytale will be officially declared null and void.

Despite their historic status, the proceedings yesterday lasted a mere three minutes. Senior District Judge Gerald Angel has acquired a unique royal role in recent years, having also given Princess Anne, Camilla Parker- Bowles and the Duke and Duchess of York their divorces in the same court room.

Robin West, the manager of the Family Division of the High Court, based at Somerset House, which processes 9,000 divorces a year, summed up the mechanics of the procedure: "To all intents and purposes, it's a bit of a non-event."

It was impossible not to recall that perfect summer's day 15 years ago, the somewhat lengthier ceremony at St Paul's Cathedral, watched by 100 million people, and the famous image of the smiling wedding party, while thousands lined the streets to take part in the royal fantasy.

Instead, yesterday's event cemented the royal couple less cheerfully as a mirror of the nation - dysfunctional and unhappy. The reasons given by the other 30 petitioners on the case-list for the breakdown of their marriages echoed many of the Wales's experiences.

One poignantly described the horrors of an unhappy marriage: "I still suffer from nightmares about the respondent. I am still nervous, lacking in self-esteem and depressed because of the respondent's cruel behaviour towards me. I was prescribed Prozac and other anti-depressants."

A husband had petitioned for divorce on the basis of his wife's unreasonably lively social life. He said: "The respondent behaved badly, ie staying out late at night and drinking heavily. Tension grew between us and she left in July 1992. I have not heard of her ever since."

In circumstances that reflected the Waleses until 1993, when they formally separated, one couple said: "We have lived separate lives in the same home for some time." Another wife explained how her husband told her he had been staying with a woman in Ivory Coast, by whom he had had two children.

Perhaps the only real difference between the royal couple and the other petitioners was their divorce settlement. Princess Diana will receive pounds 1m for each year of her marriage to Prince Charles, but her appearance as HRH on the court list may be the last time, since she is to relinquish the title.

The Princess was at Kensington Palace yesterday, and is expected to go on holiday to France with the Duchess of York this week with their children, while the Prince was in Asia, watching a military parade as part of the Sultan of Brunei's 50th birthday celebrations.

For passers-by who paused outside Somerset House and recalled their street parties for the royal wedding, there was little left to celebrate. Judith Woodford, 53, from St Albans, Hertfordshire, said: "It did seem like a fairytale then, we were so excited, and now it's all over."