Hard road to the throne Charles yearns to become King Charles III, but numerous obstacles, including his mother, could keep him from attaining that lifelong dream.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Poor Charles; he can bed Camilla but he can't wed her - not if he wants to be king.

That was the verdict of 67,000 Britons out of 100,000 who responded to a BBC poll that asked if the Prince of Wales, 48, should assume the throne if he marries Camilla Parker Bowles, 50, his longtime mistress.

The very personal decision carries potentially grave consequences for the British monarchy, weakened by the soap opera scandals involving Queen Elizabeth II's children - especially the Charles-Diana-Camilla triangle.

The initial shock of Charles' and Diana's admissions of adultery and the divorces of Prince Andrew, Princess Anne and Princess Margaret have passed, but the scandals have left scars that have led to questions about the monarchy's continued relevance to the country.

The monarchy is symbolic rather than practical, an expensive symbol of a vanished empire.

The antics of Charles and his siblings might be delicious in the gossip pages, but many critics say the royals are no longer value for money for United Kingdom taxpayers.

So long as the queen and the queen mother, 97 tomorrow, are around, the wolves will remain at bay. But King Charles III and his "popsy" would be irresistible targets for British republicans.

Although Charles and Camilla have maintained a low joint profile since their respective divorces, the prince is clearly intent on ensuring that the world understands they are a couple.

The BBC poll shows, however, that while the British people might not begrudge Charles the companionship of a woman he has loved since youth, their acceptance of the prince's mistress has limits.

Reinforcing public resistance to a formal union is opposition from Church of England leaders who reject Charles, a confessed adulterer, as an acceptable head of the church.

Charles is pushing the social envelope to make their relationship publicly palatable by a discreet campaign, coincident with Camilla's 50th birthday.

A carefully selected group of friends who could be relied upon to say nice things celebrated at a birthday gala at Charles' estate, Highgrove. Afterward, the British Press Association reported that Camilla - who sported a diamond necklace thought to be Charles' present - hesitated momentarily, then waved to waiting photographers as she was driven away from the party.

The next consideration will be whether Camilla presses Charles for marriage or is content to remain his mistress. Her great grandmother, Alice Keppel, filled that role for an earlier prince of Wales, later King Edward VII.

Royalty and mistresses have gone hand-in-hand down the years, so to speak. King William IV and his mistress, actress Dorothea Jordan, had 10 children before he entered an arranged marriage so he could ascend the throne and try - unsuccessfully - for a legitimate heir.

The scandals of Queen Elizabeth's children are nowhere near the worst of British royalty, including heirs to the throne. However, unlike his ancestors, Charles' peccadilloes have been played out in the glare of unremitting publicity, endless television and press coverage, and technology that permitted eavesdropping on intimate telephone conversations.

Further discomfiting Charles is the inherent conflict between monarch and heir, and his mother, the queen, is hale and hearty at 71.

If Charles decides that he wants the throne, he will just have to suffer king-in-waiting syndrome for as long as it takes. There is no chance the queen will abdicate in his favor.

If she became terminally ill and unable to function, Charles could be named regent until her death, as George IV was during the "madness" of his father, George III, in the early 19th century.

"Prinny," as George IV was known during his lecherous career as prince of Wales, was king for only a decade, from 1820 to 1830, after his father's 60-year reign. Edward VII, Victoria's son, was another old roue, who had the job for less than 10 years after finally reaching the throne in 1901 at age 59. His mother had warmed the seat for 64 years.

George IV and Edward VII were victims of the longest reigns in British history, and Queen Elizabeth appears intent on trying to match her ancestors' longevity, at 45 years and going strong.

Charles also must deal with the complications resulting from one of the shortest reigns, that of his great-uncle, Edward VIII, later the duke of Windsor, who abdicated "for the woman I love."

When the duke threw up the crown to marry twice-divorced Baltimorean Wallis Warfield Simpson, he shocked the kingdom and his family to their foundations. The abdication left a permanent mark on the young Elizabeth, who saw her father, King George VI, catapulted into a job for which he was ill prepared.

He mastered it, however, and impressed on her the absolute sense of duty that has been the hallmark of Elizabeth's 45 years as queen, which is why she will surrender the throne only to death. Unlike the Duke of Windsor, she does not see it as a disposable personal item.

The Camilla affair has led people to speculate whether Charles has inherited his mother's sense of duty or whether, despite his years of training, he is just a spoiled prince who is bored at not having a real job and, having provided an heir and a spare, figures he should get to do what he wants to do for once.

Suggestions for a morganatic marriage between Charles and Camilla, in which he would be king but she would not be queen, have drawn strong opposition. So, if Charles is determined to marry her anyway, his only realistic course would be to surrender his succession.

His elder son, Prince William, 14, is being groomed for his eventual turn on the throne, and his accession, even under a regency until he comes of age, would lend the monarchy a degree of credibility for another generation.

Robert A. Erlandson was chief of The Sun's London Bureau from 1979 to 1983. He covered the romance and wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer - one of the "fairy tales" of the century.

Pub Date: 8/03/97

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