WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- For a Valentine's Day prelude, the spectacle was bittersweet. Prince Charles arrived alone here yesterday to help the College of William and Mary celebrate its 300th birthday, finding himself, like the college's royal patrons, a victim of the vagaries of love.
A lifelong student of the monarchy, the Prince of Wales certainly recognized the twist.
On a first visit in 1981 to the college, the nation's second-oldest, he confided to students that the marriage of the future monarchs William and Mary in 1677 had been a "bad and depressing affair."
LTC His would be anything but that, the heir to the English throne vowed. He himself was engaged to Lady Diana Spencer, a dozen years his junior, a gap coincidentally the same as that separating Princess Mary and her cousin William.
"But there, the similarity comes to an abrupt halt," the prince pledged.
The parallel has instead proved worse than exact, with the prince's storybook marriage having unraveled for all to see.
At the college of his predecessors' glory, the prince returned yesterday a would-be king estranged from the would-be queen, their bitter separation both cause and emblem of a monarchy in trouble.
It may be that the institution can weather the burden of marital woes. But already in Britain, a Gallup poll last week showed that 38 percent of Britons said Prince Charles should not become king.
And here in a former colonial capital, the prince's presence at a rare tercentenary in American history added an object lesson to an occasion with the unspoken theme of the decline of monarchy and an American ascendancy.
In his keynote address yesterday at the Hall of William and Mary, a 1960s-era basketball arena, Prince Charles chose not to repeat his earlier disparagement of his predecessors' union.
But he did note wryly that he had been "young and relatively inexperienced" at the time of his 1981 bachelor visit, and he offered warm thanks to the Virginia audience for its "encouraging welcome."
Emphasizing for the most part a favorite subject, the importance of education, he spoke only briefly about the ways crown and former colony had changed places.
His last visit, he remembered, had been to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Yorktown, "an event, for some reason, more celebrated in this country than in my own."
But even such ellipticism carried particular poignancy here, in the college that William and Mary granted their "well-behaved and trusty subjects" to bring education to British colonists and Christianity to the Indians.
Second in age only to Harvard among U.S. institutions of learning, William and Mary's sense of a shared British and American heritage was evident from the outset of yesterday's ceremony as the college's own Queen's Guard bore the flags of the United Kingdom and the United States, its ROTC affiliation disguised under beaver-skin versions of the famed Beefeater hat.