LONDON – Thirty years after their first romance, Prince Charles (search) and Camilla Parker Bowles (search), both now graying divorcees, will finally wed in a civil ceremony and put the official seal on a relationship Princess Diana (search) blamed for the breakdown of her marriage to the man who would be king.
In a nod to those who have not warmed to Parker Bowles, the royal family said Thursday she will never hold the title of queen but eventually will be called HRH Princess Consort instead. But usually reserved Charles seemed overjoyed simply to be able to take her as his wife.
"I'm very excited," the prince said as he entered London's storied Goldsmith's Hall and looked at wedding rings.
In their first public appearance together since the announcement, Charles, 56, and Parker Bowles, 57, smiled broadly as they walked into a Windsor Castle (search) reception Thursday night, and the guests applauded.
A radiant Parker Bowles, wearing a fuchsia gown, showed off her engagement ring against a black clutch bag. The platinum band, a royal family heirloom, has a square-cut central diamond with three diamond baguettes on each side.
"Of course," she said when asked by a reporter if Charles had gotten down on one knee to propose. "I'm just coming down to Earth."
The April 8 ceremony at Windsor Castle will be a far cry from the pageantry of Charles' 1981 wedding to Lady Diana Spencer at St. Paul's Cathedral. Divorce is a delicate issue for the man who would be head of the Church of England.
The news of the nuptials was received with warmth in Britain, where public opinion was once so hostile to Parker Bowles that shoppers pelted her with rolls in a supermarket.
The House of Commons burst into cheers at the news, and ordinary Britons offered their congratulations. Charles and Diana's sons said they welcomed the announcement.
"We are both very happy for our father and Camilla, and we wish them all the luck in the future," Prince William, 22, and Prince Harry, 20, said in a statement.
One Very Important Person also gave her blessing: Queen Elizabeth II granted the necessary formal permission for the union. And as mother of the bridegroom, she said she and Prince Philip, who is Charles' father, "are very happy that the Prince of Wales and Mrs. Parker Bowles are to marry."
To mark the engagement, the queen decided that the Round Tower at Windsor Castle should be illuminated Thursday night.
The civil marriage will be followed by a service of prayer and dedication at St. George's Chapel within the castle walls. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual head of the Church of England, will preside.
Williams said the wedding service plans "have my strong support and are consistent with Church of England guidelines concerning remarriage."
The archbishop's approval and participation could help allay concerns of those with questions about the fitness of the divorced Charles to be supreme governor of the church when he becomes king. In general, the Church of England, the established faith of the nation, disapproves of remarriage of divorced people in church.
There is no Act of Parliament saying the wife of a king should be queen, but it is a historical convention. The prince's office at Clarence House said there was no legal reason Charles' second wife could not be queen, and that the couple had decided otherwise.
After Charles accedes to the throne upon Elizabeth's death, his wife will be known as the HRH — Her Royal Highness — Princess Consort.
Charles, in addition to being Prince of Wales, is Duke of Cornwall and Rothesay. After her marriage, Parker Bowles will not use the title Princess of Wales, but would like people to call her the HRH Duchess of Cornwall, Clarence House said.
Prime Minister Tony Blair said he was delighted at the impending marriage. At his regular meeting with the queen Wednesday night, the two discussed the wedding plans, and Blair gave her legal advice before she went on to grant her royal consent, officials said.
Perhaps the most important vote of approval is pending.
The British public who took Diana into their hearts have been divided about the Camilla-Charles romance. The nation's tabloid press dubbed Parker Bowles "the other woman" as details of their relationship became public.
But in the years since Diana's 1997 death in a Paris car crash, much of the ill will against Charles has eased, with the public noting the evident warmth of his relationship with William and Harry.
Parker Bowles, who stays well out of the limelight, has won a degree of respect for her discretion. Many people simply wish them well as a couple whose love has withstood the test of years of anguish and vilification.
"They are clearly very much in love. It must be the end of a series of nightmare years for Camilla. ... They are entitled to have their own happiness the same as everyone else," Winston Churchill, grandson of the wartime prime minister, told Sky News.
On the streets of London, many Britons welcomed the announcement but said they may never love Parker Bowles as they had Diana.
"Diana is still in so many people's hearts," said Chris Morris, 54, a building engineer. "Queen Camilla wouldn't be so popular."
Charles, the queen's eldest son, first met Camilla Shand in the early 1970s and they had a brief romance that ended in late 1972 when the prince was called away on naval duties. She married Andrew Parker Bowles in 1973.
Throughout the late 1970s Charles and Parker Bowles kept in touch, and they became close friends again toward the end of the decade. They remained so after Charles' 1981 marriage to Diana.
Diana blamed the friendship for the failure of her marriage to the Prince of Wales. "There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded," Diana said in 1995.
While the saga of the disintegrating royal marriage played out publicly, Parker Bowles was often cast as the villain, the object both of invective for being a "marriage breaker" and of ridicule over tapes of intimate conversations between her and the prince.
In 1994, Charles admitted in a TV documentary that he had strayed from his marriage vows, but insisted the infidelity happened only after the marriage was "irretrievably broken down, us both having tried." It was widely assumed, but never confirmed, that Parker Bowles was the other woman.
Charles and Diana divorced in 1996, a year before she was killed. Parker Bowles obtained her divorce in 1995.
In April 1997, Parker Bowles took a tentative step into public life when she became patron of the National Osteoporosis Society. That July, Charles hosted a party for Parker Bowles to celebrate her 50th birthday.
The couple appeared less frequently in public after Diana's death in August 1997, but in 1999 Parker Bowles met William and Harry for the first time.
In recent years, she has regularly accompanied Charles to galas and become accustomed to appearing in front of the media.
In Great Brington, a tidy, tiny village near Diana's grave and childhood home, many residents said Thursday they accepted the engagement but were glad Parker Bowles would not take Diana's title or ever reign as queen.
Bar worker Alison Watson, 37, approved of the low-key civil ceremony.
"We all know that Charles did wrong by Diana, but life goes on and I don't begrudge him his happiness," she said.
Not everyone at the local pub was interested in the royal wedding.
"I could care less," said Roger Warburton. "I hope there are more important things in the world than Charles remarrying."