LONDON - Many saw her as Britain's future queen, but it looks like Kate Middleton's royal romance will not have a fairy-tale ending.
Middleton and Prince William have ended their four-year relationship, a decision that surprised palace-watchers and disappointed monarchists hoping for a glamorous royal wedding to rival that of
Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
For many Britons, however, the split provided more evidence that the royals are as human as anyone else.
"I think they're just like any other couple," said Minet Marshall, a 36-year-old London office worker. "They're young, and before you meet the right person you have to kiss a lot of frogs."
The Sun newspaper reported the breakup Saturday in a front-page story, saying the couple had reached an "amicable agreement" to separate.
William's Clarence House office refused to comment, saying it did not discuss the prince's private life, but royal sources did not deny the report, tacitly acknowledging it was true.
The news took many royal-watchers by surprise. It was widely thought the couple would soon announce their engagement; one bookmaker was so certain of a royal wedding it stopped taking bets on it earlier this year. The retail chain Woolworths had commissioned mugs, plates and other Wills-and-Kate memorabilia, despite the absence of a formal engagement.
Behind the scenes, a different story unfolded. The Sun said the split was caused by the "extraordinary pressures" on the couple and by William's career in the army. The second in line to the throne graduated from Sandhurst military academy in December and is undergoing further training at an army base in rural England, while Middleton lives in London.
Even though William was photographed at nightclubs in the company of several young women in recent weeks, there was little speculation that the relationship was on the rocks.
The prince, 24, and Middleton, 25, met as students at St. Andrew's University in Scotland in 2001 and had been dating since 2003.
Once their relationship became public with a joint photo on a Swiss skiing holiday in 2004, Middleton was a media darling. The brunette fashion buyer was photographed attending public events, going to work, even getting a parking ticket — a level of attention that evoked the romance of William's father, Prince Charles, and then-Lady Diana Spencer a quarter-century ago.
"William, after what happened to his father, cannot get it wrong," The Sun's royal reporter Duncan Larcombe told AP Television News. "He cannot marry the wrong woman, and I suppose, in a funny kind of way, it's better that we're here today talking about his girlfriend leaving, splitting up with her, than us talking about a royal divorce."
Charles and Diana married at St. Paul's Cathedral in 1981, in a televised ceremony watched by millions around the world. They had two sons, William and Harry, but divorced in 1996 after admissions of adultery on both sides. Diana died in a car crash in Paris in August 1997.
William was determined Middleton would not suffer the same media hounding his mother had endured, appealing through his office for the media to leave her alone.
Last month, Middleton lodged a complaint of media harassment with Britain's media watchdog, the Press Complaints Commission. She settled the claim earlier this month following an apology and admission of error by the Daily Mirror newspaper.
"It would put pressure on any relationship, that sort of attention," said Ingrid Seward, editor of Majesty magazine. But she said the media was not to blame for the split.
Seward said the couple's relationship had simply reached an impasse.
"They can't go forward because William is in the army and he's dedicated the next few years of his life to that, so he's not in a position to get married," she said.
"They had lived together when they were at university, so in a way their relationship has become more difficult. They have seen a lot less of each other and are under a huge amount of pressure."
Some held out hope for a happy ending.
"Let's not rule out a reconciliation when he realizes what he has lost," said Judy Wade, veteran royal correspondent for Hello! magazine.
Others were glad to see the end of the affair.
"He deserves better," said 13-year-old Jessica Davis. "I think Prince William should marry me."
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