Somewhat stiff, instinctively reserved and never fully at ease among the masses, Prince Charles (search) has always seemed overshadowed by his glamorous late wife — even years after her death.

But in his own plodding way, he has carved a niche in the hearts of his people with the earnestness with which he has carried out his duties and the warmth he has shown his sons.

While Princess Diana (search) was all luminosity, any ray of sunshine from Charles' regal reserve has been taken as an endearing sign of humanity.

It is the goodwill he has won from the public that may be the biggest factor allowing him to wed his longtime love, Camilla Parker Bowles (search).

For a while after Diana's death, Charles, now 56, was portrayed in much of the domestic press as something of a villain — a distant husband whose coldness drove her into the arms of other men.

Since then, he has been able turn his slightly awkward persona — the aristocratic stoop, the perennially ruddy cheeks, the bewilderment he projects whenever he's greeted with cheers by the public — to his advantage.

Above all, Diana's death freed him from the constraints of being her adversary and cast him in another role: single dad with two young and heartbroken sons.

By being seen with them on vacation and through the fitful way in which smiles and laughter started appearing in photographs taken of the three princes, Charles was able to project a sense that he was shepherding William and Harry out of their grief.

The closeness between father and sons stood in stark contrast to the indifference and harshness that Charles reportedly endured from his father, Prince Philip.

Gradually, the British public even came to accept Camilla as his consort.

Their story had neither the fairy-tale allure of Charles and Diana's early years, nor the stormy melodrama of the breakup. But many Britons came to see something touching in the durability of a romance between two aging adults that survived time, royal duties, humiliations and public condemnation.

The prince let down his guard a bit Thursday after announcing the engagement, saying "I'm very excited" when he was congratulated as he entered London's Goldsmiths jewelers, where he looked at wedding rings.

Charles has been training to be king for decades, but it is not clear when he might ascend to the throne.

At age 78, Queen Elizabeth II appears in excellent health, and her mother lived to be 101. Charles may very well become the oldest monarch to be crowned, outdoing William IV, who became king in 1830 at 64.

Charles became the first heir to the throne to earn a college degree — in history from Cambridge University — and had a career in the navy, finishing as commander of a mine sweeper.

His interests and accomplishments include flying jets, parachuting, scuba diving, skiing, polo and painting watercolors.

He also has his pet obsessions — among them traditional architecture, horticulture and organic farming — and they have brought him as much ridicule as praise; for years, the tabloids labeled him a "loony" who talked to his plants.

Charles gets the highest marks for the time he devotes to The Prince's Trust, which has helped more than 35,000 disadvantaged young people start businesses and provided job training to thousands more.