Once upon a time, the statement would have shaken the British monarchy to its very foundations. But that was before fairy tales developed contemporary endings, with lords turning lethargic, princesses becoming petulant—and happily ever after far from guaranteed. So last month, when the separation announcement came from Buckingham Palace, the world did not spin off its track. Even the central figures barely paused to acknowledge the event. Princess Anne and Capt. Mark Phillips pulled the plug on their 15-year marriage as they’ve done almost everything the past few years—from a distance. She was off pursuing her International Olympic Committee duties in Puerto Rico; he was tending his equestrian interests back home at Gatcombe Park, and their marital rift seemed as wide as the ocean between them.

Though the palace said that Anne, 39, and Mark, 40, have no plans to divorce, the separation clearly represents the first step. Royal watchers concur that the long-loveless duo will officially end their union after living apart for two years, to avoid a court explanation. What happens next—to the princess, her consort, their rumored romances—is the subject of much debate.

Immediately, the pubs and papers filled with a strong display of support for the oft-maligned Anne, so recently embroiled in scandal. Though stolen letters written to Anne by one of the Queen’s equerries, Cmdr. Timothy Laurence, 35, had caused an uproar on Fleet Street in April, the Princess is regarded with compassion. Frontpage stories announced Anne had been “freed” from an emotionally barren marriage. Phillips—alternately characterized as “bitter” and the recipient of a handsome “payoff’—didn’t fare as well. But by acknowledging that even the highest born have the right to a happy marriage—unless they are in immediate reach of the throne—the press signaled a more tolerant view of divorce within the royal family.

It is a view that might reflect the Queen’s own. Officially described as “sad but not surprised,” Elizabeth was unofficially credited with quietly orchestrating the timing and tenor of the announcement to avoid the outcry that occurred when I her sister, Princess Margaret, split from Lord Snowdon 13 years ago. The groundwork for the breakup was laid in April, when the palace confirmed that both Anne’s and Mark’s names had been linked to others. Instead of playing down the stolen letters, Laurence was offered up as their author. Earlier that month, in an equally astonishing move, the palace issued a statement connecting Phillips with House of Commons call girl Pamella Bordes.

Naturally, the separation announcement just made the royal rumor mill churn faster, with speculation focusing on whether Anne’s and Mark’s current romantic interests would become prospects for remarriage. Laurence, it seems, is very much still in the picture. It was he, not Phillips, who turned up on Aug. 15 to celebrate Anne’s 39th birthday with the royal family at Balmoral, Scotland. A few days later, Laurence, who is just ending his three-year stint as an equerry to take command of the frigate H.M.S. Boxer in January, was made a Member of the Royal Victorian Order by the Queen—another sign that he had not fallen from grace. Laurence, who was at home in Winchester when the announcement came, had no comment on his relationship with the princess, but when asked about his situation, he said, “Of course it has been very difficult. I’m hoping life will be back to normal in a couple of weeks.”

In contrast, Kathy Birks, the Canadian PR executive who is thought to be the other woman in Mark’s life, went into hiding. Birks, 45, is divorced with a 19-year-old daughter and has looked after Phillips’s Canadian media equestrian projects since 1986. Though their relationship has been the source of gossip almost from the start, Birks has continually dismissed the rumors as “absolutely untrue.” This summer, however, she and Phillips were often seen sharing candlelit dinners and breakfasts in Toronto.

As the smoke around these purported fires grew heavier, another, more troubling rumor was revived. The British scandal sheet the News of the Worldran a fuller version of a 1985 interview with Peter Cross, a police bodyguard assigned to Anne who was dismissed in 1981 for being “over familiar” with the princess. In the past, Cross’s revelations have led to conjecture that he might be the father of Anne’s 8-year-old daughter, Zara—a theory bolstered by his claim that Anne called him from the hospital the day her daughter was born.

Some observers do find a kernel of truth in his story: The trouble in Anne’s and Mark’s marriage dates back to the birth of their second child. It was then that the couple began spending more time apart, and Mark’s absences from royal outings took on added significance.

Throughout their years of discontent, the pair carefully arranged their time with the children they both clearly adore, and Peter, 11, and Zara are not expected to suffer any drastic change in life-style. Although the children will live with Anne when they are not in boarding school, Mark will see them often. According to the separation agreement, Mark will move from the family’s Gatcombe Park house to nearby Aston Farm, which the couple lease from the Queen. To keep up with his children and his business interests, Phillips has already cut a two-mile path across the fields that link the two estates.

Mark, who received a reported $3 million settlement, will continue to run both places, although he is required to shut down his office in Buckingham Palace. For her part, Anne will continue to maintain the hectic official pace that has earned her accolades as “the hardest-working royal.” After concluding her Olympic obligations in Puerto Rico, she embarked on a Central and South American tour in her role as president of the Save the Children Fund. She is expected to return home this week. In two years, if Anne and Mark divorce, both would be free to marry; although, like any other member of the royal family, Anne would need permission from the monarch. As a divorced person, she would be further constrained by the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, which prevents her from remarrying in England. (Anne could, however, marry in another country.)

For the moment, in Anne’s absence, Mark has done his best to shield the children from the publicity surrounding the breakup. He was home with them at Gatcombe Park until they left for boarding school last week. Before their departure, the children played soccer in the front yard and then said good-bye to their ponies—it is Zara’s first time away from home. After lunch, Phillips loaded Peter and Zara in the Range Rover, then drove away to their nanny’s encouraging wave. But a policeman stationed at the gate could not keep up the stalwart front. “It’s the end of an era,” he said wistfully. “It will never, ever be the same again.”

—Mary H.J. Farrell, Jonathan Cooper and Terry Smith in London

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