January 23, 1995 12:00 PM

AS SENSATIONAL AS IT WAS, THE LATEST TWIST IN ONE of England’s longest-running melodramas—the tangled tale of Charles and Camilla—surprised no one. For two years, Andrew and Camilla Parker Bowles had assured Fleet Street—and all of Britain—that their marriage was intact, scoffing at reports about Camilla’s sexual entanglement with the heir to the British throne. In 1993 an irritated Andrew scolded a reporter, saying, “No, it’s not true. How many times do I have to spell it out? [The stories are] pure fiction.”

Then, last June, Prince Charles himself put the lie to such disclaimers when he admitted to broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby that he had committed adultery with Camilla, whom he called a great friend. Finally, on Jan. 10, the Parker Bowleses abandoned the entire charade: In a joint statement, they conceded that they have been “leading separate lives” since 1993 and plan to end their 21-year marriage. With the requisite two-year separation period behind them, Andrew, 55, and Camilla, 47, could claim their freedom before the month is over.

Naturally, Wales watchers were quick to spot a conspiracy, especially since the announcement came just one month after Charles and Diana became eligible for a divorce. Palace insiders are convinced that, along with Charles’s startling confession last year, Camilla’s split is part of an elaborate long-range plan designed to bring the 25-year relationship out of the shadows—and, perhaps, set the stage for another royal marriage.

For her part, Princess Diana (back in top form after a year of travails, including James Hewitt’s revelations about their romance) was said to be “jubilant” about the announcement. Close observers say she hopes the divorce will strengthen the impression of her as the “wronged party” and bolster her position when it comes time to finalize her financial settlement with Charles.

In their announcement, the Parker Bowleses made no reference to extramarital involvements, claiming that their breakup was prompted only by emotional estrangement. “We have always tended to follow rather different interests,” they said, “but in recent years we have…grown apart to such an extent that, with the exception of our children [Tom, 20, and Laura, 16]…there is little of common interest between us.”

In truth, Camilla’s passion for the prince had compromised the union from the start. From the moment they met, at a 1970 polo match at Windsor Great Park, the sexually confident deb had him in her thrall. Charles proposed about 18 months later, but—reluctant to sacrifice her privacy and accept the role of future queen—Camilla declined. She wed Andrew (a dashing cavalry officer whose escorts included Princess Anne) in 1973, but six years later she and Charles were again an item.

Although many wonder how Parker Bowles could have defended his wife’s honor while being branded “the most famous cuckold of his generation,” insiders say the Roman Catholic Andrew is a staunch traditionalist driven by a sense of duty. His father, Derek, a Berkshire horse breeder, was a distant cousin of the Queen Mum, and Andrew himself was a childhood playmate of Charles’s. Imbued with a fierce loyalty to the crown, he seemed “almost proud,” as a friend put it, when his wife became the prince’s mistress.

That pride undoubtedly turned to shame, however, with the 1993 release of the transcript of the “Camillagate” tape. A recording of a conversation in which Charles told his mistress he wanted to “live in your knickers or something,” it was a graphic confirmation of their infidelity. In spite of the enormous pressure, Parker Bowles (who reportedly was barred from his wife’s bed in 1984 because Charles refused to share her) wasn’t moved to act until last June, when the prince publicly acknowledged that Camilla was his mistress. Friends claim that the humiliation of that revelation, combined with Parker Bowles’s December retirement as head of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, prompted a crisis. In the words of one friend, he decided that he “wanted to split while he has time to make…a new life.”

Other Windsor watchers, though, are convinced that Andrew is once again sacrificing himself for the benefit of the crown and stepping aside so that Camilla (who is not a Catholic) can take her place beside Charles. “There’s simply no need for the protection of the marriage anymore—the secret’s out,” says Lady Colin Campbell, author of Diana in Private: The Princess Nobody Knows.

Undeniably the Parker Bowleses have long been in different orbits. For the past two years, Camilla has lived at their $1.2 million mansion in Wiltshire (a 20-minute drive from Highgrove, Charles’s country retreat), while Andrew has been installed at a friend’s flat in London. By all accounts, he has not been lonely. He has a long-standing reputation as a rake-about-town, and his love interests have included widow Carolyn Benson, 47, Camilla’s best friend.

Although their children are at school—Tom at Worcester College, Oxford, and Laura in Dorset—they have not escaped gibes about their parents’ marriage. Tom in particular has faced brutal taunting. “You can imagine the kind of thing that drunken students are saying to his face,” a schoolmate told the Daily Mail.

Unfortunately, life isn’t likely to become easier for him or his sister, for Britain is awash in speculation about Camilla’s future. Although the Palace denies that a divorce between the Waleses is in the works, insiders expect them to end their marriage this year. With both Charles and Camilla unfettered, the scenario would become more complex. Although Charles is not legally barred from divorcing or from wedding a divorcee, he knows his subjects would be loath to accept Camilla as their queen. Moreover, the Church of England forbids a divorced person from remarrying in the church. Should he attempt to claim both the crown and Camilla, “he would divide the country like nothing since the abdication [of Edward VIII],” says one Palace expert. “Such a division would be enough to force Charles to [give up the throne], just as Edward did.”

Charles, of course, is keeping his own counsel. Some royal watchers say that in the coming months, he will test the waters by introducing Camilla to public life. “They will no longer resort to cloak-and-dagger meetings—they will come out into the open,” predicts one friend.

Already, Charles’s paramour seems more comfortable with the press. Despite Camilla’s recent appearance at the top of Mr. Black well’s Worst Dressed list, the Daily Mirror noted on Jan. 11 that of late she “has started to smile and relax in front of the cameras.” As a friend told the paper, Charles hopes that, once Camilla is divorced, Britain will come to accept the woman he loves—as his consort if not as their queen. “We need to get people used to the fact that she is around,” he said. “It will take time to condition the public that she really is a permanent feature in his life.”

MICHELLE GREEN

TERRY SMITH, MARGARET WRIGHT and LYDIA DENWORTH in London

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