From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Andrew's shipmates on HMS Brazen toasted the couple with champagne. Church bells in Sarah Ferguson's hometown village of Dummer, Hampshire pealed for two hours, and friends raised a glass to her at Paling's Wine Bar, close by the West End office of the graphic arts company where she works as a saleswoman. Even five of Andrew's exes joined in the congratulations. Actress Katie Rabett, whom he was taken by in 1983, professed to be "delighted," and Koo Stark, about whom he was alarmingly serious only three years ago, wished the couple "every happiness."

But while none of the well-wishers said so, most of them were pondering an especially significant aspect of the engagement of Britain's Prince Andrew to Sarah Ferguson: Thirty or 40 years ago, this marriage would never have been allowed to happen.

Fergie, as her friends and now the world know her, is a woman with a past. It isn't much of a past, actually, but she has lived with two men and openly enough so that it has been widely reported by the ever-diligent British press. At Buckingham Palace, where divorce is still enough to get a servant kicked out, Fergie might once have been blackballed for that. Three things have served to give the story a happier ending. The royal family, along with almost everybody else, has lightened up. Andrew (who almost surely will become the Duke of York) stands a remote fourth in the line of succession, behind Charles and his two sons. And everybody likes Fergie, especially considering the alternatives.

By all indications it is an apt match—he, a fun-loving, cheerful prince with a penchant for adventure, amorous and otherwise; she, a spirited commoner with blue blood, a well-developed sense of humor and enough worldly experience to handle him. The 26-year-old daughter of Maj. Ronald Ferguson, Prince Charles's polo manager and friend, Sarah is a descendant of King Charles II and his mistress Lucy Walters. Sarah's romantic past doesn't matter, according to Harold Brookes-Baker of Burke's Peerage, because "today family background is much more important, and Sarah's is unimpeachable."

Fergie also has impressive connections at Kensington Palace. It was Princess Diana—a "very, very good friend," as Ferguson describes her—who apparently engineered the romance. Although Sarah had known Andrew, who is four months younger, since childhood, the Prince seemed mesmerized by the flashier likes of Koo until last June, when Diana suggested that he invite Fergie to Royal Ascot. At the Windsor Castle house party given by the Queen, Andrew and Sarah rediscovered one another: Even if the chunky, freckled Fergie lacked the glossy looks of Andy's previous girlfriends, Di's matchmaking instincts were on target. Asserts one knowledgeable Palace-watcher: "There's one person above all Sarah can thank when she becomes a princess later this year—Diana."

She also buoyed Sarah's spirits when Andrew was at sea or seemed unresponsive to marriage. Diana has even helped Sarah in dealing with Fleet Street: In February she presided over a surprise unveiling of a slightly more polished, slimmer Fergie (she lost weight by munching cottage cheese and salad) during a visit to the Brazen, the frigate to which Lieutenant Andrew is assigned. "Keep smiling, for goodness' sake, keep smiling," Diana whispered as the cameramen closed in. Ferguson (who was the only guest outside of the royal family invited to lunch at Kensington Palace on Diana's 21st birthday in 1982) has much in common with her mentor: a love for dancing, a gift for mimicry, a taste for Phil Collins and Supertramp and the scars of an adolescence marred by her parents' divorce. In 1973 her mother, the society beauty Susan Fitzherbert Wright, deserted her husband Ronald to marry Hector Barrantes, an Argentinian polo player, now 47, who is hired each season by wealthy amateurs to bolster their teams. Major Ferguson was left to raise Sarah, then 13, and sister Jane, 15.

"It was a trauma—a bit of a fright, to put it mildly, for everyone," Ronald remembers. "It meant that at that vulnerable age they didn't have Mother, so Father took over and did his best...." Privately Ferguson has been far more bitter. "That woman, you must remember, deserted her children," he has told friends. Says a family intimate: "Sarah never forgave her mother for walking out on them. The scars will be there forever."

Ferguson married Susan Deptford, the daughter of a wealthy farmer, in 1976, and it was she who helped her stepdaughter through many adolescent trials, he says. "It says much for Fergie's big heart that she welcomed me with great enthusiasm as her stepmother," says Susan, now 39. "She was very close to her real mother, but she went out of her way to make me feel welcome."

If Sarah was indeed shaken by the breakup, she didn't become withdrawn. Classmates at Hurst Lodge, a boarding school in Sunningdale, Berkshire, remember her as a prankster who put salt in the sugar bowl, led the cream pie fights and loved to stage illicit midnight feasts in the dorm. "She was our gang leader," remembers Susan Clapham. "If we were up to something we shouldn't have been, Fergie was usually behind it." At 16, she and close friend Charlotte McGowan enrolled in a London secretarial college. "Fergie is very intelligent, but, like me, she was never cut out to be a secretary," says McGowan. After scraping through the course, the two 18-year-olds decided to chuck the secretarial life in favor of a four-month, 6,000-mile journey from Fergie's stepfather's 30,000-acre ranch near Buenos Aires to the U.S. In South America, they "spent days on end traveling thousands of miles on buses without even being able to change our clothes," McGowan remembers. "The roads were bumpy...and we shared our journey with farmers and chickens. It was the trip of a lifetime." Afterward, Sarah tried her hand at being a secretary (a quite acceptable job for a Sloane Ranger), without great success. "She was a nightmare to manage," remembers a colleague. "She was all for parties, late nights, getting in late and going to bed late. She was permanently on the phone."

Fergie's social life seems to have been at least as important to her as her career. Her first major romance, with businessman Kim Smith-Bingham, now 29, blossomed in 1981, when the two shared a chalet and a passion for skiing at the tony resort of Verbier, Switzerland. Although her lover (who married in 1984) was "a bit of a nerd," according to one acquaintance, Fergie apparently plunged into romantic love. "Sarah had traditional values," Smith-Bingham says. "She liked being given chocolates, but more especially flowers—particularly red roses. She liked men to pay for meals and to open doors for her." A former workmate recalls that the romance wasn't all candlelight and bouquets, however. "She would spend half the time in tears because he was so often away. Sarah would hear he had been unfaithful to her [and] she would sit at home and suffer."

Ferguson also seems to have done her share of suffering during her three-year relationship with Paddy McNally, a former manager to racing driver Niki Lauda. Beginning in 1982 Sarah and the widowed father of two often lived together in his chalet also in Verbier, which was famous to locals as the scene of freewheeling, jet-set parties. "Sarah knew all these awful people, but she never became tainted by them," says the friend. "But again she spent half her time in tears because Paddy was constantly unfaithful to her, right in front of her eyes."

Prince Andrew came along just as Sarah was breaking off with McNally, who reportedly had refused her marriage ultimatum. Says a member of Fergie's family: "Sarah will be perfectly all right with Andrew being in the navy. She has got used to sitting at home waiting for her men to come back...She always chooses a boyfriend who just doesn't make life easy for her."

If Prince Andrew's past life is any indication, Sarah will never lack amusement. While the Queen's second son seems to have grown up a bit lately—"He seems ready to settle down," Prince Charles observes, although Andrew bristled at the implications of that phrase when a TV interviewer used it—his family considers him to be markedly immature. Educated at the isolated Gordonstoun in Scotland, he was sheltered from the kind of cosmopolitan society that his fiancée knew. Just 19 when he joined the navy, he has been molded by the kind of hail-fellow clubbiness that marks the military elite. Since the age of 16—when Andrew fell into puppy love with Canadian Sandi Jones, who was his official hostess at the Montreal Olympics—he has distinguished himself primarily by his naval career and romantic exploits.

The tabloids have documented his affairs with glee: In 1982, when he began cavorting with Koo, Fleet Street went wild. Although she loyally refused to talk about her royal romance, headlines told the story: SECRET LOVE OF THE PRINCE AND A NUDE STAR and I SAW ANDREW LEAVE HER FLAT IN THE MORNINGS. HE ALWAYS LOOKED RATHER TIRED.

And finally, QUEEN BANS KOO...and IF NOT KOO, WHO?

In fact the Queen was a lot less upset by Randy Andy's antics than the tabs liked to claim. "Having fun with those girls was acceptable," says one insider. "It was only marrying them that wasn't."

Among Stark's more flamboyant successors was Vicki Hodge, 39, who collected a small fortune ($132,000) by selling her pictures and memoirs of a bacchanalian beach holiday with Andrew and two female friends. Vicki, the daughter of a baronet, announced that she had "seen the royal bum" and "claimed the crown jewels." This time, headlines like: WE MADE LOVE AMONG THE SCENTED TROPICAL FLOWERS accompanied pictures of the Prince standing naked in the surf, swinging his swimming trunks over his head or riding the waves with the topless beauties.

Not surprisingly friends were startled when Andrew began dating Sarah. "Fergie was the sort of girl you would look at but wouldn't look at twice," one male chum has observed. Mindful of his reputation, Ferguson is said to have exercised caution early on. "I don't think she has ever felt intimidated by the fact that Prince Andrew has been involved with a wide variety of girls," says her pal McGowan. "She is very composed, very sure of herself...[but] she didn't wish to commit herself totally until their relationship was solid."

Now, it seems, both have plunged into the relationship with abandon. Says Ronald Ferguson: "Sarah is terribly happy. It is perfectly obvious that they love each other."

Sarah and Andrew have pledged to devote themselves to "hard work" between now and their wedding at Westminster Abbey on July 23, and neither will ever again be able to carry on as before. Sarah's life will undergo a marked transformation. Already she has moved into Buckingham Palace, where she has been assigned the third-floor suite (a floor below Andy's) that Diana occupied during part of her engagement. As promised, she returned to work the morning after the betrothal was announced, but she arrived in a royal limo in the company of two security guards packing pistols. The assembled press duly noted that her ensemble—a checked skirt with white blouse and bluejacket—was one she had appeared in earlier in the week, that she tripped over the doorstep as she entered her office building and that she could at last show her bedazzled co-workers the ruby-and-diamond engagement ring she had been hiding on a chain inside her blouse.

Her days as a civilian working girl seem to be numbered: Scotland Yard is horrified by the prospect of protecting her in a totally public place, and Sarah herself seems to recognize the problems. "I've got a job to do, and I would like to continue, but I will only do so as long as it's practical," she says now.

As the nuptials approach, Ferguson will be trained in the minutiae of fashion and protocol. She will be given biographies of other royal consorts to read. And there is the problem of having to invite both Susan Barrantes and her husband, Hector, who was recalled but actually did not serve in the Argentine army during the Falkland Islands War. The Queen still has strong feelings about those hostilities, which cost Britain 237 servicemen and $3.7 billion dollars, and she hasn't forgotten that the enemy directed their missiles at her son—then risking his life as a helicopter pilot—with such messages as, "This one is for you, Prince Andrew." For her part, Susan pleads, "Let's keep politics out of it and try to make it lovely and happy for Sarah." She isn't willing to leave her husband home to accomplish that, though. "Of course Hector is coming," she says. "He's my husband." Even if Sarah has mended her relationship with her mother, however, the hope at Buckingham Palace is that Senor Barrantes will plead illness rather than embarrass the Queen.

Like Diana Spencer before her, Sarah will need fine-tuning for her job. Ladies-in-waiting like Lady Susan Hussey will instruct her in the proper behavior at garden parties and ribbon cuttings. (One should never wave at crowds like a movie star.) As a close member of the royal household told the Daily Express, "There isn't a charm school for princesses. Sarah will have to learn by example. The most important thing will be to calm her down, as we had to calm Diana down.... Everything has to be more discreet."

After the honeymoon (which is expected to be on the royal yacht, Britannia), Prince Andrew and his princess are likely to take up residence at either St. James's or Kensington Palace, where they will live on his civil list income of about $75,000 per annum, together with his naval salary of about $17,000.

Apparently the two feel more than equal to the challenges. Allowing to a BBC interviewer that marriage is indeed a major upheaval, Sarah added, "I think I'm going to cope—with the help of Andrew here." Here, here.