SAY WHAT YOU LIKE ABOUT THE DUCHESS OF York—she certainly knew what to give her mother-in-law for her birthday. On April 16—five days before the Queen's 70th—lawyers for Sarah and Prince Andrew revealed that the couple would divorce. The long-awaited announcement brought a near-conclusion to an almost 10-year soap opera whose highlights have included a splendid wedding; two beautiful daughters; a father (Fergie's) caught exiting a massage parlor; topless photos (of Fergie); and allegations of toe-sucking (more later). As if the divorce wasn't enough of a present to the Queen, Fergie, 36, wrapped her gift in dignity: Prodded by the press on April 17 while vacationing in Switzerland with Princesses Beatrice, 7, and Eugenie, 6, she kept her comments short and laid no blame. "This is the saddest day of my life," she said, adding that she would remain "best friends" with Andrew, 36. "I'm well, the Duke's well, everybody's well, and we're just getting on with it," she said bravely.

Back in Britain, however, the press was less reserved. Dismissing Fergie as "a royal disaster," the Daily Mirror described her as "a boil on the backside of the House of Windsor that should have been lanced long ago."

As royal watchers tell it, the Yorks agreed to the move largely because an impatient Prince Philip had lobbied for a clean break. Though lawyers reportedly have been working on an agreement since last year, Sarah, unlike Princess Diana, had not pushed for an official role or a hefty settlement. Her civility has pleased the Queen (who, in January, had been moved to announce that she would not be responsible for Fergie's $2.3 million debt): One courtier has said that Her Majesty wishes that the contentious Di would go as quietly.

Fergie's take from the marriage is modest. When the couple separated in 1992, she agreed to a settlement of $3.5 million. The divorce will net her a relatively small amount of additional cash—about $760,000. Another $2.1 million will be put in trust for Beatrice and Eugenie. Andrew—who draws $445,000 annually from the Queen and $46,000 from the Navy—will continue to help with expenses, including school fees.

Palace watchers note that the embarrassments of the past year—her financial difficulties, flirtation with Austrian tennis ace Thomas Muster, 28, (whom she followed to Australia in January) and involvement with such patrons as the Emir of Qatar—eroded Fergie's bargaining position. "As the mother of the Queen's granddaughters she could have expected more," says Brian Hoey, author of 12 books on the Windsors. "But she's so beyond the pale she's lost almost everything."

Except, apparently, the support of the Prince. Still besotted with his fickle wife, Andrew has had no serious love interest since their separation. He has rendezvoused with Fergie at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, and in August the two took their daughters to Spain. Last month, he reportedly offered to leave the Navy and break off with a woman he had dated casually if Sarah would agree to mend the marriage. Although she is said to have turned him down, the Yorks spent Easter at Sunninghill Park, the $8 million Berkshire property that was a present from the Queen. But the holiday was bittersweet since they reportedly spent much of the time discussing details of the settlement.

In the short term, the divorce, expected to become final in May, will bring few changes. Never at odds on the issue of their children, the Yorks (devoted parents, both) will share custody of the girls, who will continue to live with Sarah. Although she reluctantly has relinquished her status as Her Royal Highness—a move that will make it more difficult to exploit her family connections—Fergie will keep the title Duchess of York. And by some reports, she plans to leave her $3,000-a-week house in Surrey for Sunninghill, where she would move into a renovated stable block—the better, it seems, to pare expenses and provide stability for their daughters.

The relationship that brought such shame to the Windsors began on a rambunctious note: Seated together at the Queen's 1985 pre-Ascot luncheon, Andrew and Sarah, a chum of Di's, had flirted until he affectionately lobbed a profiterole at her. When their engagement was announced the next March, the spirited 26-year-old was regarded as a good match for the Queen's worldly second son. A Navy pilot who had served in the Falklands war, Andy was known as an adventurer with a taste for fast women. After leaving school at 16, the sporty Sarah had bounced from Argentina to Switzerland, where she lived with Paddy McNally, a motor consultant 22 years her senior.

Happy to see her favorite son betrothed, the Queen welcomed the commoner who loved tramping about at Balmoral. And Sarah was hardly an unknown: Her father, Maj. Ronald Ferguson, was Prince Charles's polo manager. When the Yorks wed on July 23, 1986, they drew a TV audience of 300 million. "It's so wonderful to have found someone to look after me," exulted the new duchess.

The tide, of course, soon turned. By 1989, Fergie was being branded a flighty, greedy frump. In the year after Beatrice was born, she spent nearly two months abroad, leaving her daughter with nannies. Although the Yorks had moved into showy Sunninghill, she complained about being cash-poor. She accepted money for interviews, wrote a children's book (Budgie the Little Helicopter) and kept part of the proceeds that she had promised to donate to Children in Crisis, a charity that she had established, in part, to provide an outlet for face-saving humanitarian work. Despite missions to such destinations as Bosnia, she never managed to shake her image as an avaricious opportunist. The real crisis, it appears, was sparked by her financial excesses; after the Queen refused to rescue her, Fergie's office announced that she had been bailed out by a consortium that would pay millions for future rights to Budgie and other projects. By April, however, the deal seemed to have evaporated, and the debt remained.

Her alliance with Di, it seems, has been another liability. "When Fergie found out how restrictive royal life is, she rebelled, and she was egged on by Diana," says Hoey. Eager to "cause disruption in the family," he says, Di advised her to ignore courtiers' warnings and "live the life she'd always lived." For Fergie, that meant partying with companions including Texas businessman Steve Wyatt. But it was his friend John Bryan who created the real scandal: Although Fergie described the unctuous American, now 40, as her "financial adviser," a paparazzo snapped the pair poolside in the South of France in 1992. In some frames the duchess was topless; in others Bryan seemed to be sucking her toes—or at least kissing her feet.

Ultimately that kiss proved fatal. Says a friend: "Andrew can accept that his wife has a past, but he can't cope with it being flaunted in front of him."

Although Andrew is known as a man who can be a boor and a bully, the Yorks are on their best behavior at the moment. In spite of reports that Bryan is peddling a tell-all, Fergie (who broke with him last summer, though they do speak) is expected to keep quiet. While she may be tempted by hefty book advances, a confidentiality clause reportedly is part of the Yorks' divorce agreement.

For his part, the prince once known as Randy Andy has shown little interest in starting a new life. A solitary figure who watches videos or plays golf when off duty, he's "a very sad man," says Chris Hutchins, author of Fergie Confidential: The Real Story. Now, at least, he can take comfort in knowing that he has pleased his mother's subjects by jettisoning the wife who turned herself into a pariah—and who, by most accounts, has learned little from her mistakes.

ELLIN STEIN, LYDIA DENWORTH, MARGARET WRIGHT and BRYAN ALEXANDER in London