Updated March 11, 1996 12:00 PM

IN THE END, IT SEEMED, THE PRINCE AND PRINCESS of Wales couldn’t present a united front even after they abandoned their torturous marriage. At 6:15 p.m. on Feb. 28, the announcement came not from the Palace, but from one Jane Atkinson, who has been the princess’s PR woman for just over a month. In a statement issued through the British Press Association, Atkinson reported that her client had “agreed to Prince Charles’s request for a divorce.” Apparently determined to remind the world that “I won’t go quietly,” as she had put it in her defiant interview with the BBC last November, Diana, 34, let it be known that she had arranged to remain at Kensington Palace; that she would “continue to be involved in all decisions” about Prince William, 13, and Prince Harry, 11; and that she would not leave the marriage without a title: “Diana, Princess of Wales.”

As it happened, the move took the Palace by surprise. While Diana had, indeed, met with Charles, 47, at about 5 p.m., courtiers had no idea that she would beat them to the press. “The first they knew of the announcement was when they heard the news reports,” says Brian Hoey, author of a dozen books on the royals. Since the Queen, Charles, Prince Andrew and Princess Anne had attended a memorial service for Gulf War veterans at St. Paul’s Cathedral earlier in the day, adds Hoey, “they thought they’d get marvelous coverage. Instead, they were upstaged again. And Diana managed to make it look as if Charles is starting the proceedings when he’s really responding to the Queen’s request that they divorce.”

Diana, who was described by Atkinson as “extremely sad,” had told her sons about the decision earlier in the day—calling Ludgrove School in Berkshire to speak with Harry at about 3 p.m. and, at 4, meeting briefly with William at nearby Eton. Afterward, says Hoey, “she went straightaway to St. James’s Palace.” There, he says, “she saw Charles alone—insisting that it was a very private matter and that no one else be there, even though Charles had wanted a third person taking notes.”

The Windsors’ reaction to Diana’s move was typically noncommittal. Charles—who happened to be visiting a Hindu temple in North London on the evening of Feb. 28—betrayed no sign of emotion, and the Queen showed little reaction to the near certainty of a second divorce among her four children. (Princess Anne split with Mark Phillips in 1992, and the Duke of York, separated the same year, could jettison his financially troubled duchess at any moment.) Regal to the bone, the Queen commented only through the Palace, which noted that she was “most interested” in the fact that Diana had come to a decision.

Ironically, the long-awaited announcement actually established little save the fact that the princess will not oppose a divorce. Immediately after the news broke, the Palace—contradicting Diana’s account—asserted that “all details on these matters, including titles, remain to be discussed and settled.” And the princess’s lawyer, Anthony Julius, would say only that “discussions between lawyers” were still pending.

What, then, prompted the melodramatic communiqué? Since Diana (who had covered the topic with the BBC’s Martin Bashir) was on record as saying that she would agree to a divorce, royal watchers pegged the move as an attempt to force the Palace’s hand on issues including her title. On. Feb. 29, the Guardian reported that courtiers described the announcement as “a negotiating ploy…not a definitive picture of the settlement.” Says Lady Colin Campbell, author of the 1992 biography Diana in Private, the Princess Nobody Knows: “She’s back to manipulating again, and that means she knows she’s in trouble. Every single step she’s taken has diminished her, and this looks like another Pyrrhic victory.”

By all accounts, custody of the young princes has never been a point of contention. Since the Waleses’ 1992 separation, William and Harry have spent precisely half of their time away from school with each parent, and that arrangement is expected to continue.

Money may be another matter, however, and financial details reportedly have yet to be settled. “I very much doubt whether there’s going to be a huge lump sum for Diana,” says Hoey. “The royal family will dole it out in parcels to keep her in check, and there will be all sorts of conditions—the major one being that she doesn’t talk to anybody.” In the long term, the Queen is expected to help bear the cost of running a suitable household for Diana, who, according to Windsor watchers, will not be evicted from Kensington Palace. (“[The Queen] wanted that anyway,” says Hoey. “That way, her two grandchildren are [close], and she has a modicum of control over Diana.”)

The most significant sticking point, it seems, is Diana’s determination to cling to her position as an ad hoc humanitarian. In her talk with Bashir, she said that she hoped to become a kind of ambassador of good works—one who would, as she put it, earn a position as “queen of people’s hearts.” But that ambition seems to have backfired of late: In mid-February, she made a two-day trip to Pakistan to visit hospitals and commune with socialite Jemima Goldsmith Khan, newly married to cricket star emeritus Imran Khan. Though the mission was described as private, it was widely regarded as a political blunder, since the politically ambitious Imran is at odds with Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The trip, says Hoey, was “a great error of judgment”—one which may make it awkward for Prime Minister John Major to fulfill his vow that the princess “must have a role in public life, and as I see it, always will.”

As manipulative as Diana’s announcement may have seemed, some Britons reacted with relief to the notion that the royal Sturm und Drang may soon end. Others, however, foresaw no immediate end to the muddle: The Daily Mirror greeted Di’s “bombshell” with the headline “What a Farce.” A friend who spoke to Britain’s Independent Television News explained that Diana’s motives were pure: She had simply decided, said the chum, that “the time [had] come to clear the air.”

It has, in fact, been a long journey for the mismatched Waleses—one marked by high drama as well as low comedy. In some ways, their doomed partnership was no different from many marriages that fail to go the distance. Freighted by emotional estrangement, unrealistic expectations, adulterous relationships and delicate egos, it seemed fated to run aground.

But, of course, Charles and Diana had faced unique challenges—saying their vows before an audience of 750 million, for example, and being cast as the couple who would breathe life into the fusty British monarchy. For the self-involved Waleses, it was a mandate that proved daunting. Almost as soon as their honeymoon cruise ended, they had spun into separate orbits. By 1992, when they made a joint expedition to South Korea, their body language said it all: They were a pair so steeped in misery that they literally turned their backs to one another. Before the Queen stepped in last December, the world had witnessed a distressingly public conjugal battle—one that gave the lie to the notion that the monarch-in-waiting and his wife could inspire the sort of respect that the Queen herself had earned.

As Wales watchers see it, it is the heir apparent who eventually will claim victory—and Di who must cope with a loss of status. “Diana is aware that she will be in a much weaker position as the ex-wife,” says a veteran journalist who covers the Palace. Adds Lady Colin: “A lot of the substance, cachet and glamor will be removed. As the mother of the next-but-one King, she has to be treated with sufficient respect not to tarnish the crown, but that’s all.”

Charles’s image, in contrast, “might well be enhanced,” says Hoey. “People have long wanted a clean break, and Charles is going to have a martyred air as a single man. Indeed, he may well regain a great deal of his lost popularity, particularly with females.”

For many Britons, the most compelling element of the drama involves the prince’s future. While the constitution does not forbid a divorced royal to claim the crown, remarriage—presumably to mistress Camilla Parker Bowles—would prove an enormous hurdle. As Prince of Wales, Charles would need the Queen’s permission to marry, and although the loyal Parker Bowles is a favorite at court, the monarch recognizes that the divorcee is unlikely to be accepted as queen consort. Notes Hoey: “While Camilla and Charles are equally guilty in whatever relationship they’ve had, she’s the one the public won’t forgive.” And as Charles will automatically become Supreme Governor of the Church of England when his mother dies, remarriage would be unpalatable to the clergy (which does not perform marriages for divorces) as well.

In theory, says constitutional historian Lord Blake, 81, Charles could sidestep the problem by marrying in the less stringent Church of Scotland. “But aside from constitutional niceties,” Blake says, “the monarchy depends on public acceptability. If Charles were to marry Camilla before he became King, there would probably be a widespread feeling that his succession would not be acceptable. If public opinion were not for the marriage, it would be a little like the situation with Edward VIII. Charles would, in effect, be required to step aside.”

Typically, the prince has given mixed signals about Parker Bowles. On Dec. 21, press secretary Alan Percival announced that Charles “has no intention” of remarrying; but when opinion makers began praising him for ruling out another marriage, he reportedly exploded—insisting that he had never meant to close the door on matrimony.

Says Campbell: “I think Charles wants to marry Camilla, but the chances are remote. He has no intention of marrying unless he can do so without sacrificing the crown.”

Of late, Charles’s ex-to-be has seemed less concerned about Camilla than about losing influence with her own sons. Convinced that the monarchy is hopelessly archaic, Diana has made a point of taking William and Harry to visit shelters for the homeless, in addition to making jaunts to theme parks and fast-food restaurants where ordinary folk frolic. “She wants strong hands on the children—she doesn’t want to take them away from the House of Windsor, but she wants to give them a different perspective,” says a veteran journalist who covers the Palace. While she is close to both boys—who view her as loving but emotionally fragile—Windsor watchers predict that her influence will wane and that Charles’s heirs will “go more and more into the Windsor mold—shooting, Balmoral, deer stalking, hunting, polo,” in the words of a seasoned Palace watcher.

Of course, no one can predict whether their parents’ problems will have a lingering effect on the sensitive William and spirited Harry. Since 1992, when Diana allowed her friends to speak candidly to biographer Andrew Morton (Diana: Her True Story), the headlines have been relentless. Reports about Diana’s bulimia, cry-for-help suicide attempts, suggestive conversations with admirer James Gilbey and her five-year affair with ex-Guardsman James Hewitt have competed with scoops about Charles’s I-want-to-live-in-your-trousers phone chat with Camilla and, most recently, Di’s verbal attacks on Tiggy Legge-Bourke, the attractive aide who serves as companion to her sons when they are with Charles. “The prince and princess have always said that their prime concern is for their children, but they haven’t shown much loving responsibility,” says Hoey. “William, in particular, must be going through a dreadful time at Eton, because boys can be extremely cruel.”

For the moment, at least, William and Harry will not have to fret about their mother’s romantic life. She has said that she would like another child, but she is in no hurry to marry again. Although she has been linked by tabloids to Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, 35, most royal watchers are convinced that Diana has no interest in making a romantic commitment. “If she did remarry, it would certainly diminish her role,” says Hoey. “Just as with Jackie Kennedy when she married Onassis—her popularity plummeted. This would happen to Diana, particularly if she married a foreigner.”

In the wake of Diana’s announcement, it was unclear whether the couple who dazzled the world on July 29, 1981, would ever regain their dignity. “I don’t think we will see any sniping from Charles,” says Lady Colin. “But I have no doubt that Diana will continue to play the victim. She’ll need the oxygen that publicity provides more than ever.”

“Diana will be a very difficult person to harness,” adds Hoey. “Charles won’t take the initiative, but each time she snipes at him, he will reply in kind. Unfortunately, he is that sort of guy.”

Others, however, predict that the divorce—whenever it comes—may help save the monarchy. The Waleses’ vendetta, says one London reporter, “was beginning to divide not only politicians but the people of this country. The situation can only improve.”