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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 March, 2005, 19:25 GMT
Wedding that became a soap opera
By Barnaby Mason
UK affairs analyst

Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles
Both Charles and Camilla have been married before
One of the things the British establishment is famous for is organising immaculate royal ceremonies which unfold with clockwork precision.

But a series of mishaps - or blunders - has beset preparations for the April wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles.

Tradition and soap opera are entangled; dignity and an often raucous media are at war.

If you were superstitious, you might think the ghost of Charles's first wife, Princess Diana, had a hand in it.

Certainly, she has cast a long shadow from which he has been trying to escape ever since she was killed in a car crash with her lover, Dodi al-Fayed, in 1997.

Diana was beautiful and immensely popular. When her marriage to the heir to the throne broke down, she was the one who attracted most of the sympathy.

Charles has spent the past few years in a painstaking manoeuvre - two steps forward, one step back - to get the British public used to the idea that his mistress Camilla was a fixture and that he would eventually marry her.

Opinion polls suggest that among those who care at all, the majority feel he should get on with it.

Church's misgivings

But his late wife has not been the only obstacle.

In the eyes of the Church of England, both Charles and Camilla are adulterers who must carry some blame for the breakdown of their first marriages.

They knew each other long before Charles met Diana, and Mrs Parker Bowles' husband is still alive.

Diana and Charles on their wedding day in 1981
Charles and Diana: A fairytale wedding but no happy ending
So they cannot be married in church. The solution offered to them, as to many others, was to marry in a civil ceremony and then have their union blessed in a religious service.

These complications are given an extra dimension by the peculiar relationship between the Church and the monarchy, a relationship dating from the early 16th Century.

Henry VIII broke with the Pope in Rome not for reasons of doctrine, but because the Pope wouldn't let him divorce his wife - the first of the six. He set himself up as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, which thus became part of the apparatus of state.

One of the many ironies of this affair is that Henry VIII, an extremist if ever there was one, created the Church so that he could marry his mistress.

Today's Supreme Governor-in-waiting, the mild-mannered Charles, is not allowed to marry his mistress in church.

Some religious conservatives think Prince Charles is unfit to become head of the Church at all; other people argue that it is a constitutional, symbolic position that has little to do with personal morality; yet others that a Supreme Governor of a minority faith is irrelevant to the reality of modern Britain.

To much of the country, nowadays, these issues are a matter of supreme indifference. But the story has taken on a life of its own.

Fiasco?

Royal officials first announced that the civil wedding would take place inside Windsor Castle, one of the Queen's palaces. It quickly became clear that they had not done their homework.

The Castle was not licensed for weddings. It could be, but the licence would run for three years, and during that time all and sundry could choose to get married there. The Queen seems to have balked at that.

The Queen's move can hardly be interpreted as enthusiasm for her son's marriage; it looks more like irritation
So the venue was switched to Windsor Guildhall across the road, which does have a license. Legal experts then popped up to say that in that case members of the public would have the right to attend the ceremony.

Shortly afterwards, the Queen announced that she would not be there.

At this point, words like farce and fiasco were being thrown around.

The Queen's stated reason for not attending the wedding - that the couple wanted it to be a low-key event - did not convince many.

After all, she was going to be at the blessing service afterwards in Windsor Castle and would be hosting a big reception.

If her absence was intended as a deliberate snub - and that is denied - it looks a bit half-hearted.

On the other hand, the Queen's move can hardly be interpreted as enthusiasm for her son's marriage; it looks more like irritation.

However, the most extraordinary development in this messy story was the revelation that a civil marriage for a member of the royal family may not even be valid in law.

A complicated argument has been going on, revolving around how two Acts of Parliament should be interpreted, and some objectors are threatening court action.

Royals on show

Tony Blair's government stepped in with an assurance that it was indeed lawful for Prince Charles and Mrs Parker Bowles to marry in a civil ceremony.

But this led to mocking parallels being drawn with an earlier piece of disputed government legal advice - that the war against Iraq was legal.

The whole affair illustrates the disjointed relationship between the British monarchy and the public in the 21st Century.

The royal family still has a special religious and constitutional position, but it also stars in a kind of low comedy played out in the media to general amusement or outrage.

Many people profess not to be interested but avidly follow every twist and turn of the plot.

Charles's marriage to Diana in St Paul's Cathedral in 1981 was a fairy-tale event that ran like clockwork but ended in disaster.

He's presumably hoping that despite the chaos surrounding the wedding this time, it will pave the way to a more sedate partnership.


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