LONDON - Rarely has the guest list for a private luncheon caused such a commotion in Britain. But this is the first time that Queen Elizabeth II has used a luncheon to signal grudging acceptance of her oldest son's companion.
The lunch, seen as having important implications for the future of the monarchy, was held Saturday afternoon at Prince Charles' Highgrove estate and brought together - for the first time in 20 years - the queen and Camilla Parker Bowles, Prince Charles' lover.
The queen has long refused to attend any events where she would encounter Mrs. Parker Bowles as a not-so-subtle indication of her unhappiness with her son's romantic activities. But she dropped this policy Saturday in a development that indicates Mrs. Parker Bowles will now be welcomed at many royal family events.
Details leaked by the Buckingham Palace staff and gobbled up by Britain's breathless tabloid press indicated that Mrs. Parker Bowles curtseyed when she first met the queen and that the two women talked cordially for about 10 minutes before taking their places at separate tables.
To dispel any doubts about whether this was a chance meeting and not an official thaw, the palace indicated in a formal statement that the queen had known Mrs. Parker Bowles would be among the 100 guests gathered to mark the 60th anniversary of King Constantine, the exiled Greek monarch who is but a minor player on the royal stage.
King Constantine received barely a notice as Britain's royal watchers speculated that the long-awaited warming of relations between the two most important women in Prince Charles' life means that the prince will soon marry his longtime love.
Talk of possible nuptials were fueled by reports Monday in the The Daily Telegraph - a reliable newspaper known for its sound royal sources - indicating that Mrs. Parker Bowles had held several private meetings with the Archbishop of Canterbury to discuss religious matters.
That was seen as a possible move to dispel objections from the Church of England about the propriety of a possible marriage between a future king and a divorced woman.
This rush of developments prompted London's ubiquitous bookmakers to change the odds on the likelihood of a Prince Charles-Camilla Parker Bowles wedding in the next 12 months from 3-1 to 6-4.
The queen's decision to extend an olive branch to Mrs. Parker Bowles was praised by the press as perfectly timed and endorsed by 77 percent of the public in a snap poll conducted by The Mirror tabloid.
In an editorial prompted by the luncheon, The Daily Telegraph Monday welcomed the "ditente" between the queen and Mrs. Parker Bowles. The newspaper said the queen's action reflected the fact that the British public has warmed up to the idea of a possible union between the prince and his companion.
"Public acceptability of their marriage can now be envisaged, even though the practical arrangements remain fraught with difficulties," the editorial stated.
Indeed, 68 percent of the readers polled by The Mirror said the two lovers should exchange vows. Significantly, however, 83 percent said they do not believe Mrs. Parker Bowles should become Queen of England even if she marries Prince Charles and he ascends to the throne.
The Di factor
Mrs. Parker Bowles' position in public life has long been clouded by her role in the troubled marriage of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, who told interviewers that Mrs. Parker Bowles was a constant thorn in her side.
In a famous televised interview, Princess Diana said the marriage had been "crowded" because three people were involved. She also once referred to Mrs. Parker Bowles as a "Rottweiler" - an insulting sobriquet that contrasted her own brilliant good looks with the rather more ordinary appearance of Mrs. Parker Bowles.
The prince and his lover were also humiliated by the interception of a private telephone call in which he discussed his passion for her in intimate terms. The transcribed tape was published in British tabloids, casting the future king in an unflattering light.
When Princess Diana died in a car crash in 1997, Prince Charles and his advisers temporarily abandoned efforts to make Mrs. Parker Bowles more acceptable to the British public. The prince was painfully aware that many of Diana's devotees blamed him for their breakup.
But a carefully choreographed sequence of events brought Mrs. Parker Bowles back into the public eye. First came carefully leaked stories indicating that she had met - and won over - Prince Charles' two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry.
The next step was for Prince Charles and Mrs. Parker Bowles to permit themselves to be photographed together - a rite of passage that happened outside the Ritz Hotel last year.
But those events pale in comparison to the queen's decision to recognize Mrs. Parker Bowles' central role in Prince Charles' life.
The two lovers met in London in 1972 during Prince Charles' bachelor days. They struck up an immediate relationship that was interrupted when the prince went to sea with the Royal Navy. Shortly afterward, she married Andrew Parker Bowles.
Despite her marriage, Mrs. Parker Bowles remained on close terms with Prince Charles, and eventually her marriage fell apart.
Neither she or her former husband have ever discussed the matter in public, unlike Prince Charles and Princess Diana, who competed for public sympathy in televised interviews in which they discussed their private lives in some detail.
Mrs. Parker Bowles - characterized by some as a homewrecker - has been the object of some scorn directed her way by the British public, but the queen's decision to recognize her may go a long way toward remaking her image.