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updated 4/8/2005 5:06:59 PM ET 2005-04-08T21:06:59

The course of true love never did run smooth. Shakespeare wrote it. Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles have lived it. It’s taken 35 years for the couple to reach their wedding day, a day some say has been under a bit of a dark cloud. First the event had to be switched from Windsor Castle to a simple registry office, then some questioned whether the union would even be legal. Following that, the queen announced she wouldn't attend. So what should be a great event in British history is shaping up to be the royal version of a Vegas drive-thru. Writer Kathy Lette is just one of a large chorus who see a humorous side to the wedding.

Hoda Kotb: “This is such a tiny winy wedding and Charles is heir to the throne.”

Kathy Lette: “It is really sad, isn't it? It's a bit like they've been cast off into social Siberia.”

Just 30 people will jam themselves into a second-choice town hall venue outside London. There won't be a horse or carriage in sight. And to crown it all, the groom's own mom and dad, who live in that big house across the street, aren't even showing up to watch their son tie the knot.

Lette: “Imagine your mother not going. I mean this family is so dysfunctional. They make the Osbournes look completely functional.”

Remember 1981? Now That was a royal wedding -- when Prince Charles was Prince Charming and 20-year-old Lady Diana was the eye-popping princess in an apparent real-life fairytale that enchanted 750 million TV viewers around the world.

But the marriage didn't work out, and fans of Diana blame a certain woman who was in the congregation that day: Camilla Parker Bowles.

Kotb: “Diana described her as this evil Rottweiler, husband stealer, home wrecker. Was she all those things?”

Chris Wilson: “She was all those things and more.”

William Shawcross: “That's nonsense. She's not a home wrecker, she's not a husband stealer. I don't think that Charles' marriage with Diana foundered because of Camilla. That's just a myth that the press likes to create and perpetuate.”

So who is this woman who stole the prince's heart? Unlike Diana, whose story is famous around the world, Camilla Parker Bolwes has never told her story. So we tracked down some of her lifelong friends in England, friends who took us right back to the beginning.

Camilla Shand grew up in a wealthy wine merchant family in the South of England, a member of the British rural elite.Childhood friend of Camilla, Broderick Munro Wilson, says he remembers a girl who was always the life and soul of the party.

Kotb: “So was she someone who had lots of friends?”

Broderick Munro Wilson: “Lots and lots and lots of friends, a very popular person, yeah.”

He says she was skilled and competitive on horseback.

Kotb: “So what made Camilla, back in those days, different or unique compared to the other girls?”

Chris Wilson: “She was certainly different, I mean she had a lot of spirit, she was very, very lively.”

And apparently, very bold. He says he was at a polo match in 1970, when 23-year-old Camilla went up to 22-year-old Prince Charles and hit him with this:

Broderick Munro Wilson: “She says to him: 'Oh you know your great grandfather and my great grandmother were lovers, you know, how about it?'"

Hoda: “Was it surprising to you that Camilla and Charles started just talking and hit it off that day?”

Wilson: “Not at all because she's very easy and very relaxed.”

And it wasn't long before Charles apparently fell for Camilla's charms, says Royal watcher and Camilla critic Christopher Wilson.

Kotb: “So you think it was just love, instantly just like that between Charles and Camilla.”

Chris Wilson: “It was sex, instantly. Most of his other relationships with other women didn't have that sort of potent thrill.”

Kotb: “Why on earth didn't those two just go ahead and get married in the first place?”

Chris Wilson: “First, she wasn't a virgin and back in the early 1970s, weird as it seems, we wanted to have a Princess of Wales who'd never been to bed with anybody else.”

And, says Wilson, the royal elders hoped Charles would marry a princess from another country to create some kind of royal super-dynasty. And finally, he says, some of the advisors around the queen didn't approve of Camilla.

Chris Wilson: “Courtiers were looking at her when she was going out with Prince Charles and going, ‘We can't have that face on a stamp or a coin.’”

Camilla's life-long friend, the author William Shawcross, says that's all rubbish. He says it was Camilla's decision not to marry Charles back then because she had already met her prince -- the dashingly handsome army officer Andrew Parker Bowles.

Shawcross: “I know that she loved Andrew very much.”

Three years after Camilla met Charles, while he was serving overseas with the British Navy in 1973, she and Andrew got married.

Kotb: “But was Charles sort of always a factor or a force in her life throughout the early years of her married life?”

Shawcross: “No I don't think so. I think she got married to Andrew, and like all of us when we get married we wanted to make our marriages work and we hoped that they would be forever, and I have absolutely no reason to believe that, that wasn't the case with Camilla and Andrew.”

But skeptics claim Camilla and Charles were more than just good friends, that they carried on seeing each other after Camilla and her husband Andrew had children and Charles became godfather to their son.

Chris Wilson: “Oh I think the moment Camilla had had her child she went [crooks finger] and Charles came running.”

Kotb: “And what did her husband Andrew think?”

Wilson: “Well the English aristocracy like to serve their royal family and Andrew Parker Bowles was prepared to lay down his wife for his country. It was perfectly okay.

If that was indeed the arrangement, it might all have changed in 1980, when Charles started dating Diana. But even then, insists Christopher Wilson, Charles and Camilla were laying the groundwork to continue seeing each other.

Kotb: “So they were planning to carry on their relationship after Diana? That was there from the beginning?”

Chris Wilson: “Think actually it was Camilla's ambition to carry on the relationship.”

Kotb: “She sounds like she's agresssive.”

Chris Wilson: “Oh yes. Ambitious? Absolutely.

Ten years after Camilla first approached Charles, in 1980 she came face to face with Charles's new girlfriend, Lady Diana Spencer.

Wilson: “She thought that this was the ideal girl.”

Ideal for Camilla's ambitions to maintain her clandestine relationship with Charles, says writer and royal family critic Christopher Wilson. But he doesn't stop there. He claims Camilla actually vetted Diana, who was one in a string of the prince's girlfriends.

Chris Wilson: “Camilla helped a huge amount in trying to sift through these girls to see who would make a useful wife for him.”

Kotb:So what did Camilla think of Diana?”

Chris Wilson: “She looked pretty, she would produce lovely children and Camilla could control her.”

Kotb: “Diana was pliable and that's why Camilla liked her?”

Chris Wilson: “Camilla thought that Diana was a mouse and she got it wrong.”

In fact, right from the beginning, Diana suspected Camilla was seeing Charles behind her back. Even during her engagement to Charles, Diana says she caught him making hurried telephone calls to Camilla. She discovered he sent Camilla personalized jewelry and kept photos of her in his wallet.

Kotb: “How big of a presence was she?”

Wilson: “I think that her shadow was huge. It loomed over Diana, it was there all the time.”

The pomp and majesty of that wedding day in 1981, says Wilson, was the perfect cover for Charles's and Camilla's secret love.

Chris Wilson: “The wedding was a sham right from the start. It was a fix, 750 million people watched it on television and it was a lie.”

If there really was a relationship between Camilla and Charles, the world suspected nothing of it or how powerful their romance might have been.

Wilson: “Their relationship was clandestine. And I think that always adds a little spice to your sex life, if you're not supposed to be doing it.”

But Camilla's friends insist in the early years of Charles's and Diana's marriage that there was no love affair.  And that Camilla did not scheme to become Prince Charles's mistress.

Shawcross: “They were friends and I don't think anybody should make more of it than that. And I'm absolutely sure that Prince Charles wanted his marriage to Diana to work.”

But at some point in the 1980s, the romantic relationship between Camilla and Charles did in fact resume. If there was any doubt about when exactly Charles and Camilla got back together and how serious they were about each other, all that was cleared up pretty quickly on audio tape.

An intimate six-minute conversation between Camilla and Charles recorded in 1989, eight years after Charles married Diana, finally exposed the couple when it was made public in early 1993.

Kotb: “How big of a scandal was that one on the Richter scale?”

Chris Wilson: “It blew the Richter scale to pieces.”

Kotb: “Does the queen like Camilla?”

Wilson: “The queen sees anybody who upsets the royal family as being a traitor, and to her Camilla is a traitor.”

Supporters of Diana were furious at Camilla.

Wilson: “They hate her. They resent her. They once threw bread rolls at her in a supermarket.”

In 1994, after Charles and Diana had separated, the prince went on British national television and confessed:

Dimbleby: Did you try to be faithful and honorable to your wife when you took on your vow of marriage?
Charles: Yes.
Dimbleby: And you were?
Charles: Yes, until it became irretrievably broken down.

As Charles's and Diana's marriage crumbled, Diana shocked the royal family and the public by launching her own publicity campaign blaming Camilla for her wrecked marriage. But Broderick Munro Wilson says Diana wasn't being entirely truthful.

Chris Wilson: “Princess Diana had the most fantastic publicity machine behind her, and of course she was the master manipulator. I mean Camilla Parker Bowles has done none of that.”

And one of Camilla's closest friends William Shawcross agrees, saying Camilla has been misunderstood because she has declined to tell her story.

Kotb: “Why do you think Camilla has never spoken publicly?”

Shawcross: “She's always been discreet and she has never sought to answer back. She has never sort of stooped if you like to say: ‘I must have my day on the front of the tabloid press’ and I think that's a terrific sign of strength on her part.”

In 1995 Camilla and her husband Andrew divorced. A year later so did Charles and Diana, though if Charles had any thoughts of marrying Camilla soon after, those were dashed in the tragedy that ended Diana's life.

As tragic as Diana's death was, her married life with Prince Charles had ended long before. For Charles it was time to turn a new page, to step away from grief and finally embrace the woman he'd loved for so long.

In January 1999, two years after Diana's death, Charles privately introduced Camilla to his sons William and Harry. Little by little he let the world into his life with Camilla. And in February this year Charles, 56, and Camilla, 57, finally came out after Charles popped the question and Camilla said yes.

As unpopular as Camilla has been, her friends say her character will shine through all the scandal as the public get to know her.

Shawcross: “She's not the sort of pinup like Diana was in a sense, but she had certainly as a child and as a young woman and still continues to have, a sort of inner beauty if you like. And I think that she’s fun she's always been a lot of fun.”

Kotb: “What are they like together?”

Shawcross:  “They're fun. They're obviously -- they are a cozy couple. They laugh at each other's jokes, they support each other they have fun together. They sort of wink across the table.”

Writer Kathy Lette says she admires Camilla.

Lette: “I think she's fabulous. I've met her and she's rye and dry, she's very funny, she doesn't mind how she looks. She says that Americans keep sending her their cosmetic surgeons' numbers and she's like: ‘Read between my lines,’ you know. It's all there, the babies, the adventures, the love affairs.

Kotb: “Is the marriage between Camilla and Charles a fairytale in its own way?”

Lette: “I don't think it's a fairytale. I think it's a reality tale and that's what makes it so good. They're old enough, they're experienced enough to know that this is what they really, really want. And I think that this one will absolutely last.”

It is Charles's and Camilla's day, with Prince Willam and Harry there, and in a ceremonial blessing of the marriage at nearby Windsor castle, the queen attends after all.

Camilla becomes Her Royal Highness, and second most senior woman in the royal household, second only to the queen herself. If Charles becomes king one day, then Camilla will be queen. And even if the couple's past controversy is not forgotten, by then it might not matter.

Lette: “They are irrelevant to younger generations. If you talk to most British kids about what they think about the queen, they think you're talking about Elton John.”

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