To devotees of the English sport of royalty watching, it was an exercise in both contrast and symmetry. On the one side stood Prince Charles and his radiant Diana, basking in adulation after the birth of little Prince William. On the other side stood Charles' younger sister, Princess Anne, 32, and her husband of eight years, Mark Phillips, 33. If the English have embraced Diana and Charles to their collective hearts, they have never warmed to the dour Anne and her stolid ex-army captain. Anne is probably the LPR (Least Popular Royal), a reputation she has helped along with a waspish manner and occasionally churlish public comments. So it was not surprising that the realm's subjects almost gleefully seized upon a startling rumor: The marriage of Anne and Mark, the reports said, had come a cropper.

The rumor began just about a year ago, when tabloids linked Mark with former BBC newscaster Angela Rippon, who was collaborating with him on a biography titled Mark Phillips—The Man and His Horses. In Australia, the Sydney Sunday Telegraph went so far as to perk up a slow news day with the speculative headline "Anne and Mark to Split?" over an article by "Our Royal Correspondent," who theorized that Mark had been shipped off to Australia by the royal family in order to cool off. "There's been no harm done between us," Captain Phillips remarked at the time. "But when you read something like that, it sows little seeds."

Those seeds were lovingly nurtured by the irrepressible Fleet Street press, sometimes given to making unflattering comparisons between Anne and her greatest passion, horses. The tabloid London Sunday Mirror reported that Captain Mark had been seen in Rome flirting with his 25-year-old groom, Zena Pilgrim. London's Daily Mirror piled on with a claim that Mark had lost all interest in escorting his wife to her official engagements, leaving her to appear in public all by her royal self. Snickered the paper: "Captain Phillips presumably pleaded that he had to stay behind to muck out something or other." So persistent was the gossip about a royal split that a Daily Mirror columnist tucked tongue in cheek to observe: "It is now so rare for this couple to do things together one wonders if the marriage has not been over for some time, and that we are all being hoodwinked."

In July, Mark failed to show up for the Queen's garden party at Buckingham Palace and followed that with a highly conspicuous absence during the royal family's vacation last month at Scotland's Balmoral Castle. Mark's no-show also fueled rumors about problems that Anne and Mark were having with the royal family in general. There's been talk in England of animosity between Mark and Prince Charles, while Anne has come off poorly in comparisons with Diana. While Di is seen as warm and giving, Anne usually comes across as cold and aloof. In fact, during her last pregnancy, Anne (who has two children, Peter, 4, and Zara, 1) caused quite a stir by telling an interviewer that she was having "a very boring time. I'm not particularly maternal—it's an occupational hazard of being a wife." And after the birth of Prince William, she declared that she thought too much of a fuss was being made over him and that she had no intention of teaching her brother's son to ride. "It's not my child," she said. "He might not even like me."

Princess Anne and Captain Mark, on the other hand, seem to be made for one another, with a relationship that's been described as "forthright" and "rump-slapping." Mark opened his heart to the British public, declaring, "I feel bloody low, as if I had been cut off at the knees." His separations from Anne (who receives the equivalent of approximately $148,000 a year as her royal stipend), he insisted, were due to the press of business at his Gatcombe Park farm and stables in Gloucestershire, which he has run since he left the army in 1978. "I am a working farmer, who has to make this business pay like any other. We have a mortgage and bills to pay like any other couple. And on top of everything, our horses have caught this flu virus. It's rotten luck. I can really do without this utter nonsense about our marriage when I have had a week like this."

Eventually, as some Englishmen staunchly rallied around the beleaguered couple, the London papers backtracked with a shameless show of piety. The Daily Mail harrumphed: "Captain Mark Phillips is an unpretentious chap. His concerns are down-to-earth: gathering in the harvest, looking after his horses, running the estate, paying the mortgage. Criticism of him is both unfair and ill-informed." The Daily Star piously predicted that Anne would go back to the couple's farm and "scotch once and for all gossip that their marriage is in trouble." So repentant was the press that many of London's papers featured recantations on their front pages last week, proving once again that contrition is good for the soul—and the circulation.