January 26, 1987 12:00 PM

As a chilly Wednesday afternoon waned in Devon, Edward Antony Richard Louis, 22 and fifth in line for the British throne, paced anxiously in an anteroom of the Lympstone training center of the Royal Marines, near the stern portrait of his father, Prince Philip, the Marines’ Honorary Captain General. That morning Britain’s shrill tabloid, the Sun, had triumphantly made the startling claim that Edward, who had failed to return to his officers’ training after the Christmas break (officially because of the flu), was quitting the Marines one-third of the way through his grueling one-year commando course. The day before, a grim, top-ranking Marine officer had arrived at Buckingham Palace to talk with the young Prince. Now, at his urging, Edward, in civilian clothes and looking decidedly drawn, was back at Lympstone to undergo “counseling,” which is given to every recruit who considers dropping out. More than a third of Lympstone’s recruits do wash out of the elite fighting force, usually because of injury sustained during the punishing drills, and nearly all recruits think of leaving at some point. But for Queen Elizabeth’s youngest, resigning would be personally and publicly far graver. His father, the handsome Honorary Captain General whose face now stared down from a nearby wall, had reportedly reacted to the possibility with such anger that he had reduced his son to prolonged tears. His Royal Highness Prince Edward was letting down the side: By resigning, he would become the first member of Britain’s royal family in memory to quit military training.

When the door of Lympstone’s officers’ mess opened, Edward went in for a heart-to-heart with his commanding officer and Lympstone’s commandant. Two days later Buckingham Palace announced that Edward’s decision would be made public within 72 hours. That Sunday prayers for the recruit’s redemption were said during the Royal Marines’ church parade at Lympstone. On Monday the Palace issued an announcement: “His Royal Highness Prince Edward has decided to resign from the Royal Marines…with great regret.” That day the civilian Prince took the wheel of his silver Rover and drove away from Lympstone and into a strange, unwelcome place in history.

But what had really happened here? Was Edward, in the Sunday Times’s words, simply “a square peg in a round hole,” a mama’s boy who still took his two-foot teddy bear to bed and had no business being in the Marines? Worse, was he a “weeping wimp” (the ever-ready New York Post’s inelegant phrase) who couldn’t take the physical battering and emotional stress of boot camp and had brought shame on his family and country? Or was he actually a hero, bravely asserting himself in the face of an unsympathetic, demanding father who was trying to wrench his son into his own macho image?

There is support in Britain for all those assessments. Some of Lympstone’s Marine recruits, who only days earlier had sneered at the quitting rumors because Edward seemed to be doing okay, were so incensed by his leaving they reportedly ordered up T-shirts reading, “SOD OFF, EDDIE.” Prince Philip continues to be so angry that he and Edward are said to be barely speaking. And some palace insiders drew parallels between young Edward and the discredited King Edward VIII, who put personal happiness before royal duty, abdicating to marry the divorced Wallis Simpson.

Yet most Englishmen didn’t see it that way. In one poll, an overwhelming 80 percent of the respondents approved of Edward’s decision—and about 70 percent felt that Philip should have supported him. Most of the British press also proved surprisingly sympathetic to the plight of “His Royal Shyness.” Even more surprisingly, it became plain that, far from wimping out during training, Edward had gamely and even bravely met the rugged requirements. During his 14 weeks he had soldiered on through a twisted ankle, a black eye and a bloody nose (from boxing matches) and a damaged knee, supporting the claim of his base commander, Col. Ian Moore, that “he had all the physical ability to complete his training satisfactorily, indeed well.” What made him quit, in fact, was almost dazzlingly simple: He didn’t like it.

Anguished as his decision was, the greatest trial for Edward lies ahead. Put simply, he doesn’t have a job anymore, and his prospects aren’t at all bright. Less occupied with royal duties than his three older siblings, he is nevertheless as proscribed as they are from most occupations—including law, politics and trade—in which being royal is considered an unfair advantage. “The usual jobs that a young upper-class boy can do just aren’t open to somebody that close to the monarch,” explains Harold Brooks-Baker, publishing director of Burke’s Peerage. In earlier times, a member of the royal family might have been given a diplomatic job. But, says Brooks-Baker, “The kind of posts that were open to, say, the Duke of Windsor, such as the governorship of the Bahamas, no longer seem possible because of modern politics. Can you imagine having a Prince as an aide-de-camp in Washington? People would try socially and politically to get at Edward before they would the Ambassador. It wouldn’t be appropriate.” The young man, in short, is virtually unemployable. And this will be rubbed in at official functions when his brothers, both successes in the Navy, will shine in beribboned uniforms while Edward will wear civvies.

Philip, a decorated Navy veteran of World War II, put his sons on a military tack at the earliest opportunity. He shipped them off to the cold-shower discipline of Gordonstoun, his harsh school in Scotland. As the nephew and protégé of that celebrated hero Lord Mountbatten, Philip revived the tradition of royal military service. It did not matter that no monarch has led troops into battle since George II in 1743. Charles, 16 years older than Edward, went from Gordonstoun to Cambridge, then served five years in the Navy, ending as the commander of a minesweeper. Andrew, who is not much for learning, bypassed the university and embarked on a 12-year tour in the Navy, where it is said special tutoring in learning to fly helicopters helped get him through. That didn’t seem to diminish an arrogance that led other recruits to dub him the great “I Am,” and fellow Marines also bridled at Edward’s overbearing manner. But despite the military tradition, the Queen and the younger royals reportedly defended Edward’s right to choose for himself. Andrew’s wife, Fergie, in the heat of the crisis, is reported to have called her father-in-law a “tyrant.”

Yet it was left to Edward, the most charming and sensitive son, to break the mold of sometimes resentful compliance with Philip’s wishes. After duly completing his rugged stint at Gordonstoun, Edward went to Cambridge, even though his entering scores were so low that some students at Jesus College protested his admission. At Cambridge, the 6’2″ Prince became an avid actor, a passable student of anthropology (the press began to call him “Educated Eddie”) and a valiant but unmistakably ill-equipped rugby player on his college’s second team. “His pals would cover up for him,” says an observer of those games. “They’d say it was unfair the way he was singled out for a showdown because of who he was. It was a great chance for ordinary people to give the son of the Queen of England a bad time.”

At Cambridge, the young Prince was neither gregarious nor a dashing swain, though the press sought to drum up romances with fellow student Eleanor Weightman, nicknamed “Munchkin,” and leggy model Romy Adlington, 20. These romances apparently did not progress beyond friendship, flowers and boxes of candy, but Romy was summoned to Buckingham Palace by the Prince during his darkest hours last week and stayed talking with him until 3 a.m. The next day she told the press: “Edward has been put through a terrible ordeal and has no one to speak for him. As one of his closest friends, I want the public to know he is a normal human being who has to make an important decision. He doesn’t have the same responsibility as his brothers [they are closer in the line of succession], yet he still can’t go off and do what he wants. He has often asked me: ‘What’s it like to go for a walk alone in the park? How does it feel to be able to walk into a shop without everyone staring at you?’ That’s all he wants to be able to do.”

What Edward plainly did not want to do was spend the next nine years of his Marine contract constantly testing his ability to outperform and outlast the men he would lead, as required of an officer. Lympstone’s training is savage. “It’s no coincidence that the terrain here resembles the Falklands,” says a sergeant major who routinely leads recruits on 15-mile “yomps” across the desolate reaches of Dart-moor. During these outings, each man carries a 70-pound kit across chilling bogs, up steep hills and through long stretches of high grass. On one sub-freezing night this month, a trainee had to be brought back from such an exercise because he had collapsed from exhaustion. Officers also are expected to help each other out. For someone who doesn’t quite fit in, like a diffident Prince, such training was daunting, and Edward may have come in for more than his share of “leveling down” (hazing) by the noncommissioned officers. On one occasion just before the Christmas break, the Prince was said to have snapped insubordinately at an NCO he suspected of giving him an unwarranted “beasting,” Marine lingo for a hard time. Some fellow trainees showed little sympathy for such princely gripes. “All this stuff about him being bawled out by the NCOs is utter rot—if anything he was being treated more leniently,” said one. “Hundreds of good men are turned down every year, and there’s no doubt he got a place at Lympstone because of who he is.”

Who Edward is, of course, is the big question, and some think he has performed a worthwhile, if uncomfortable, public service by focusing debate on royal character instead of royal roles. There have even been revolutionary calls for chucking some of the tradition and militarism overboard. “It is perhaps time,” editorialized the Observer, “that we had a royal doctor, archeologist, diplomat or teacher.” Even though he himself serves as a chancellor of Cambridge, Philip can’t have cared for that notion any more than he cared for his son’s quitting, but there may be a moral in that. “Prince Edward was known for trying to please everybody—his parents, his friends, the press,” says Burke’s Brooks-Baker. “But there comes a time in a person’s life where it is impossible to please all the time.” It seems the time can come even to royal families.