'HRH' -- Camilla Is Getting Those Magic Initials

Somewhere, Princess Diana is probably turning in her grave. And the Duchess of Windsor is spinning.

Prince Charles announced Thursday that he will marry Camilla Parker Bowles, the divorcée who has been his mistress for several years. The woman Diana blamed, publicly and bitterly, for the breakup of her marriage. "The Rottweiler," as Diana called her.

Parker Bowles won't be known as Princess of Wales when she marries her prince on April 8. Instead, she will be called the Duchess of Cornwall, taking one of Charles' other titles. When he succeeds to the throne, she won't become queen. Instead, she will be known as "princess consort."

But she'll have an honor that was taken away from Diana, an honor that was always denied the Duchess of Windsor.

Camilla Parker Bowles will become Her Royal Highness.

Three Little Letters Mean So Much

It's a coveted title, that HRH. It has a sort of magic. It means one has become a member of the inner circle of the royal family. It means other women have to curtsy to you.

Diana was stripped of those three special letters when she and Charles were divorced in 1996. It rankled her. It rankled her admirers, too.

Queen Elizabeth II knew it; she reportedly offered to restore the title a year later, during the public outpouring of grief after Diana's death in a car crash. The Spencer family declined.

Wallis Warfield Simpson wanted to be HRH too. When King Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 to marry "the woman I love," he soon learned that it's the person who's currently on the throne who makes all the rules. Edward, then the Duke of Windsor, married the twice-divorced Mrs. Simpson, and he expected that she would automatically share all his titles -- including that HRH.

Nothing doing, said the new king, George VI, who had been left holding the bag when Edward left the throne. King George (egged on by his wife and his mother, Queen Mary) didn't feel an American adventuress who had already gone through two husbands should be recognized as royal. Edward and Wallis never forgave the snub.

In a way, Camilla is getting something else Edward and Wallis tried for -- a sort of morganatic marriage, in which a royal personage legally marries someone of inferior rank, but the spouse does not take the title, and their children cannot inherit. (Since Camilla is 57 and Charles 56, the rights of future children are moot. Besides, Diana already produced the heir and the spare.)

Before he gave up the throne, Edward tried to find a way to keep his crown and still marry Mrs. Simpson. He proposed a morganatic marriage in which Mrs. Simpson could not become queen. Since William the Conqueror came charging across the channel in 1066, the wife of the king had always been styled the queen, but perhaps there was a way around it.

The prime ministers of the British dominions (then Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Irish Free State) were approached about this possibility, but no one went for it. If one had a king, they reasoned, then that king's wife was automatically the queen. And Queen Wallis wasn't something the people were prepared to stomach.

Public Enemy No. 1

At one point, Queen Camilla was something no one was willing to stomach either. Andrew Morton's "Diana: Her True Story" (written with the assistance of Diana herself) revealed that Charles had been carrying on with his old pal Mrs. Parker Bowles while his beautiful wife became so desperately unhappy that she fell prey to bulimia, threw herself down a flight of stairs while pregnant and sliced at her wrists with a lemon peeler.

Charles looked like the ultimate cad, but Camilla fared even worse in popular opinion. She had dated Charles in the early 1970s, but either because she wasn't considered suitable royal bride material, didn't want to subject herself to the pressures of royal life or Charles wasn't ready to make up his mind (theories differ; Camilla herself has never said), she married a cavalry officer, Andrew Parker Bowles, and had two children. Camilla resumed a friendship with the prince. Charles later said he remained faithful to Diana "until the marriage had irretrievably broken down," but Diana clearly felt that Camilla had always been her rival. "There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded," the princess said in a 1995 interview.

The more the public learned about Camilla, the less they liked her. Calculating Camilla, the story went, had even helped choose Lady Diana Spencer as a bride for Charles, in the belief the naive girl would not threaten her own position with the prince. In 1992, a mob of shoppers at Camilla's local supermarket pelted her with bread rolls.

The release of the infamous "Camillagate" tape didn't help matters. A revolted public could call a special number to hear their future king prattle on about his most intimate longings, including a bizarre desire to be reincarnated as a feminine hygiene product. "Oh, God, I'll just live inside your trousers or something," he said, according to transcripts published in myriad newspapers and books.

Testing the Waters

Following his 1996 divorce from Diana, Charles took some tentative steps toward making his relationship with Camilla more public. She and her husband had divorced a year earlier, after Charles admitted on TV that he had committed adultery.

The death of Diana in 1997 put a crimp in their plans to win the public over, but gradually the couple began to be seen more in public. In 1999, more ice was broken when Camilla met Prince William. Diana's sons seemed to like their father's companion well enough.

The Queen Mum -- Charles' beloved grandmother and the wife who had urged George VI to deny the Duchess of Windsor the coveted HRH -- was adamantly opposed to recognizing Camilla. But the Queen Mother's death in 2002, at the amazing age of 101, removed another obstacle to the couple's acceptance. When the prince moved into his grandmother's old residence, Clarence House, Camilla came too. People became accustomed to seeing Camilla at the prince's side.

Much has been made of the fact that Parker Bowles is a divorcée whose first husband is still living. The Church of England, of which Charles will one day be supreme governor, frowns upon divorced people getting married. (Charles is also divorced, but his ex-wife is no longer around, so that doesn't count against him.)

When Edward VIII wanted to marry Wallis Simpson, divorced persons weren't received at court -- even if they were the "innocent party." In 1955, Princess Margaret, the queen's younger sister, had to give up the love of her life, war hero Group Capt. Peter Townsend, because he was divorced. In 1978, her marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones, Earl of Snowden, was dissolved, making her the first British royal since Henry VIII to get a divorce.

She started a trend. Charles and Diana split; Prince Andrew, the queen's second son, divorced Fergie. Princess Anne, the queen's only daughter, divorced Capt. Mark Phillips, with whom she had two children, and married Timothy Laurence in a Church of Scotland ceremony.

Charles and Camilla will be married in a civil ceremony, but Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual head of the Church of England, will preside over a prayer service afterward. He's giving the marriage his blessing. Apparently he's not the only one who sees nothing wrong with a middle-aged couple making it legal after three decades. The queen and Prince Philip have both OK'd the marriage; Princes William and Harry, now 22 and 20, issued a statement expressing their "delight" at their dad's engagement.

Winning People Over

As for the public, they seem to be warming to Camilla. Her decision to be known as Duchess of Cornwall, rather than Princess of Wales, is a sop to those who may be reluctant to see Diana's former rival in the late princess's place. And it's hard not to be impressed by the way the couple has stayed together, through more than 30 years and countless scandals. Camilla's loyalty to the prince is unquestioned. However she may have felt about Diana, she has maintained a dignified public silence.

People who know her say it's hard not to like Camilla, who's been described as being great fun. She certainly has a sassy streak. Legend has it that when meeting the heir to the throne for the first time, a young Camilla Shand pointed out that her great-grandmother, Alice Keppel, had been the mistress of his great-great-grandfather, King Edward VII. "So how about it?" she asked the prince.

Charles' feelings for Mrs. Keppel's descendant have never been clearer. When his engagement to Diana Spencer was announced, a reporter asked if they were in love. "Of course," Diana replied. "Yes," said Charles, "whatever love is."

Today, it's a different story. "I'm just coming down to Earth," Camilla said, showing off her engagement ring.

And Charles? "I'm very excited," he said.

Andra Varin has written extensively about the British and other royal families.