Britain's Prince Charles stands with his fiancee Camilla Parker Bowles during an engagement at Clarence House in London
Stephen Hird  /  Reuters
Britain's Prince Charles stands beside his smiling fiancee Camilla Parker Bowles. They will marry on Saturday.
By London bureau chief
NBC News
updated 4/8/2005 7:06:29 PM ET 2005-04-08T23:06:29

There was once a time when the wedding of a future king of England would have led to dancing in the streets.

Not for nothing were we known in those olden and golden days as “Merrie England.” Our ancestors knew how to party. Our monarchs knew how to rule. Whatever the king’s pleasure, it was also ours (whether we wanted it or not).

It wasn’t just in days of yore that a royal wedding could unite this country of ours in celebration. It was only 25 years ago that the United Kingdom really lived up to its name.

Tasteless souvenirs and all
It was then that a charming young prince called Charles met a golden young goddess, Diana, and took her away to his palace.

Their wedding was the stuff off fairytales: a beautiful princess in a Cinderella glass coach, escorted by all the queen’s horses and all the queen’s men.

There were street parties, the essential tasteless souvenirs and the all-pervasive sense that we were taking part in something very special. Oh how we cheered and sang till we were hoarse.

Six hundred thousand people lined the streets of London to wish the happy couple well. 

Seven hundred and fifty million people watched on TV. The British government declared a national holiday.

There was enough pomp and circumstance to last a lifetime.  But sadly not enough love to make their marriage last for half of one.

Chapter Two: Brothers’ Grimm take over
Fast forward to the impending second wedding of this future king of England.

The prince, somewhat older, the charm tinged with crankiness, is marrying the woman he has apparently loved all the time — even when he was married to his little princess.

Step forward Camilla, our future queen.

This wedding, by contrast, is not much of a fairytale — unless you’re a fan of the Brothers’ Grimm.

It is, regrettably, a tale of adulterous affairs, messy divorce, embarrassing public confessions, "hard-hearted" royals — and despairing subjects.

The prince and his bride fall out of love (“whatever love is,” as Charles famously said on their engagement). They are unfaithful. They split up.

The lovely princess — not quite the innocent she once was — dies horribly in a car smash. 

The display of public grief that follows is on a scale seldom seen in modern times. Likewise the public’s disenchantment with the royal family.

Out from behind the palace walls
No more dancing in the streets. No more cheering to the rafters. Just a bewildered nation wondering what was happening to the family most had been brought up to regard in high esteem — a cut above their subjects. Video:

It didn’t help that they had come out from behind their palace walls. Over the years their relationship with the media has changed from one of forelock-tugging toadying to something more akin to a turkey shoot.

No wonder the prince was last week overheard to say loathingly of the media: “Bloody people.”

Tabloid papers and glossy magazines everywhere know that royal stories drive sales. Royal photos more so.  Royal indiscretions most of all.

And shock! Horror! Britain’s royal family has been keen to oblige. They’ve been behaving just like, well, er, their subjects.

Who will forget the heir to the throne admitting on TV that he’d been having an affair but “only after” his marriage broke down (a big fib). Or Diana’s tearful TV counter-attack in which she declared: “There were three of us in this marriage.” It was a royal tragi-sitcom, a sort of "All in the Family" with sex.

Rightly or wrongly, Prince Charles was seen as the villain in this fairytale gone wrong, the evil giant, fee-fi-fo-fumming his way to acrimonious divorce. The nation has been, for the most part, long on memory and short on forgiveness.

Slow introduction to the 'new' couple
After Diana, it was always going to be a tough sell if Charles were ever to marry again. Tougher still to the mistress he cheated with for many years. And — shame on us — to one who isn’t candy-box pretty.

So Camilla’s introduction to public life has been slow, as the prince and his advisors felt their way through the dangerous sands of public opinion. They knew that one wrong step and they’d be sunk. Not only was the public wary — so was the queen.  She has had more than enough reason to be.

His Royal Highness Prince Charles, prince of Wales, duke of Rothesay, and duke of Cornwall is, as you can see, no ordinary Joe.  He is heir-apparent to the throne and defender of the faith (the Protestant one).

In older times, some of his forebears were no strangers to divorce and adultery. These days they don’t usually form part of the resume.

But one thing is not in doubt — Charles’s love for his future wife and his determination to bring her the "respectability" of marriage.

In consequence, we have been drip-fed information and photos of the “new” couple. In return, there’s been a tidal wave of advice and protestations from press, pundits and politicians alike, ranging from “How could they?” to “Get on with it!”

The sound of indifference
And so they have.  But what a mess they’ve made.

The announcement of the wedding was leaked, rather than formally announced. The venue chopped and changed. The legality of the marriage was questioned at the highest level. The queen said she wasn’t coming to the wedding itself, only to the blessing. And there was a real ballyhoo when we realized we might end up crowning a Queen Camilla.

For any other couple there would have been an outpouring of sympathy, or at least something more than a trickle. It is, perhaps, a measure of the apathy in some quarters and antipathy in others that much of the reaction instead has ranged between a yawn and barely disguised glee.

The latest complication — though no fault of their own — has led to the postponement of Charles and Camilla’s nuptials by a day. The death of the pope meant the groom had to pay his respects elsewhere.

In different circumstances you might have expected to hear a sigh of disappointment from the British public as they hung up their dancing shoes and put the plastic wrap back over the trifle.

Whatever indifference sounds like, I think I’m hearing it.

It would, of course, be mean-spirited not to wish the couple well after they’ve come this far. At last the prince seems to know what love is and he likes it.

You can be sure that there will be a hearty crowd of monarchists, loyal subjects and rubber-neckers watching the wedding on the streets of Windsor on Saturday.

They will cheer. Some may even sing. I doubt their hearts will glow.

But now the time is nearly come. And as one of the “bloody people” Charles so detests, may I raise my glass of warm English ale and say: “Here’s to the bride and groom. Now get on with it.”

Chris Hampson is NBC News London Bureau Chief. He is currently on assignment in Rome covering Pope John Paul II's funeral.


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