EVEN ON THEIR WEDDING DAY, VICTORIA Lockwood and Charles Edward Maurice Spencer seemed destined for something less than connubial bliss. Married in Great Brington, England, on a rain-soaked September afternoon in 1989, just four months after they met, the former model—who had been a drug addict and anorexic—and Champagne Charlie, as Princess Diana's hard-partying younger brother was known, looked more depressed than devoted. The groom told a friend he was "very nervous"; the bride admitted to being "terrified." Her first words to her new husband were reportedly "Come on—kiss me."

That inauspicious beginning paled in comparison, however, to the union's spectacularly seamy ending in a South African courtroom last week. During five days of hearings to determine whether the couple's divorce proceedings should be moved to Britain (where Victoria, 32, would likely win a larger settlement) or remain in Cape Town, where both parties live, Charles's image—temporarily rehabilitated in the wake of his stirring eulogy at Diana's funeral—took a monumental beating. Countess Spencer's lawyers painted the earl, 33, as a "serial adulterer," accusing him, among other things, of telling his wife that he had slept with as many as 12 women during her stay at an alcohol and eating disorder clinic in 1995 ("The 12 Women of Charlie Althrob," read one British headline).

Charles, visibly stunned, claimed that the marriage broke down as a result of his wife's "mental and physical health." She was too fragile, his side contended, to handle the $6.3 million lump sum she was asking for. A more reasonable settlement, they said, would be $500,000 plus $4,200 a month in maintenance, the house she lived in, a car and child support for their children: Kitty, almost 7, twins Eliza and Katya, 5, and Louis, 3. (The bulk of the Spencer clan's $165 million, he claimed, was tied up in property.) Lawyers for both sides—no doubt mindful of the press's giddy front-page coverage—ultimately compromised on Dec. 1. Among the terms of the settlement: Victoria would receive at least $3.4 million in a lump sum, and accusations by both sides would stop.

"He miscalculated," a friend told the London Times, explaining why Charles faced his wife in South Africa, where divorce cases are public, instead of in Britain, where the press he has so often railed against would have been barred. "Victoria is so paranoid about revealing" anything about her private life, he was sure she would panic. His biggest miscalculation was how strong Victoria had become—and how badly she wanted her revenge."

He also failed to anticipate the fury of another woman scorned—Chantal Collopy, 38, a former model who left her Cape Town husband for Charles just before he cut short their affair last January. In addition to selling details of her hanky-panky with Charles to tabloids during the hearings (estimated take: $170,000), Collopy accompanied former rival Victoria to court. And it was Collopy, says her friend Ray Joseph, former editor of South Africa's Sunday Times, who showed Victoria a letter in which Charles admitted "callous and vicious" behavior toward her and said he had never felt "an abundance [of love]" for Victoria. "It made her determined to take him on," says Joseph. "Without Chantal's intervention, she would never have fought."

Indeed, the Victoria Lockwood that Charles married was not the fighting kind. The daughter of an executive in Britain's Civil Aviation Authority and his magistrate wife, she fell into hard drugs and developed anorexia in the mid-'80s. Victoria said in court papers that the pressures of modeling—a career at which she was moderately successful—were too much. Life with Charles, who learned of her problems soon after they met at a society photographer's party, didn't help. Early into the marriage, he had a fling with journalist Sally Ann Lasson, who promptly sold her story to Britain's down-market News of the World. Devastated, Victoria began drinking heavily. She bore her husband children—including Louis, the heir he longed for—but the marriage didn't improve. There were "periods of great happiness," she stated in her court brief, "intermingled with stormy fights," usually after both drank. She claimed that in 1994, while lounging in his bath at Althorp, Charles summoned her. "I no longer love you," he purportedly said. "You're no good as a wife."

The couple separated in April 1995 while Victoria was undergoing alcoholism and anorexia treatment at the Farm Place clinic in Surrey. But by January of 1996, Charles had persuaded her and the kids to join him—albeit in a separate residence—in the prosperous Cape Town suburb of Constantia, a move he hoped would distance the family from the British press. Charles's motive for moving, however, may have been to get closer to Collopy, whom he had begun seeing 17 months earlier. Though Victoria became aware of her husband's affair with Collopy, she and Charles remained bizarrely intimate. "You tell me about [a boyfriend named] Richard, how you want advice on how to seduce him," Charles wrote her in a letter (marked "not sent" in court documents) in August 1996, "which if I did the same thing to you you would whinge about for its gross insensitivity."

Far from whinging, Victoria is now thriving in Constantia, friends say. She and the children (who see their father on weekends) occupy a $500,000 four-bedroom bungalow, complete with servants and a swimming pool, and since August 1996 she has been dating Guy Woods, 26, a windsurfing enthusiast who works in his father's Cape Town pharmacy. "When she first came to Cape Town she looked defeated," says Ray Joseph. "But the change since she met Guy is phenomenal. Now she strides around proud and strong."

As for the ever-resilient Charles, in addition to dabbling in journalism, he recently became patron of Lifeline/Childline, a Cape Town charity. For the immediate future he plans to remain in Constantia, where he has an elegant English Country-style home and "an awful lot of very rich friends," says Joseph. And, as usual, he has a woman on his arm: Johannesburg-born Josie Borain, 34, a former Calvin Klein model. She, for one, says Charles is just fine. "He's doing more than okay," she says. "He's as strong as an ox."

KIM HUBBARD
SIMON PERRY and NINA BIDDLE in London and INIGO GILMORE in Cape Town

  • Contributors:
  • Simon Perry,
  • Nina Biddle,
  • Inigo Gilmore.