Prince Charles & Camilla Parker Bowles
02/12/1996 at 01:00 AM EST
When 20-year-old Lady Diana Spencer, her shy smile accessorizing her voluminous gown, turned to kiss her gallant Prince on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on July 29, 1981, the whole world cheered. But the world didn't see the entire picture. While Diana pledged her heart to Charles, 32, his heart was somewhere else: with longtime love Camilla Parker Bowles. "There were three of us in this marriage," Diana concluded 14 years later in her startling BBC interview. "So it was a bit crowded."
Just days before the wedding, Diana had intercepted a gold bracelet engraved with the letters F and G (reportedly for Fred and Gladys, Charles and Camilla's pet names for each other) that her future husband had bought for his one true love. Charles had been trysting with Camilla since 1970, when they met on the polo grounds of Windsor Great Park. "My great-grandmother was the mistress of your great-great-grandfather," said the then 23-year-old Camilla Shand. "So how about it, then?"
The pair shared a love for horses, hunting and country living, and by 1972, Charles was smitten enough to consider asking Camilla to marry him. But the Palace did not approve of the worldly Camilla, whose torrid romance with cavalry officer Andrew Parker Bowles was well-known. The future King, after all, was expected to marry a virgin. A resigned Camilla wed Parker Bowles in 1973, while Charles was on a tour of duty with the Royal Navy. "I suppose the feeling of emptiness will pass eventually," the heartbroken Prince wrote in a letter at the time.
But neither time nor even the 1993 humiliation of hearing their phone cooings broadcast to the world (Camilla: "I need you all the week, all the time." Charles: "Oh, God, I'll just live inside your trousers.") could break their bond. In Camilla, writes Jonathan Dimbleby in his biography The Prince of Wales, "the Prince found the warmth, the understanding and the steadiness for which he had always longed." With her 1995 divorce and his impending one, the two may yet make a life together—though they'll likely never wed. "Charles and Camilla are equally guilty in whatever relationship they've had," says royals author Brian Hoey, "but she is the one the public won't forgive. A mistress is all she'll ever be."