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When "Fergie," the Duchess of York, flees her gilded royal cage she will leave an ancient British monarchy facing an uncertain future.

These are troubling times for the House of Windsor, the descendants of a medieval dynasty that survived republicanism and revolt to become the world's most glittering royal show.Queen Elizabeth, who has nursed the royal family's image for 40 years, has suffered a litany of woes in recent months that have called the survival of the monarchy into question.

Her family was accused of decadence during the gulf war and of high living while the country suffers in a recession. The queen's exemption from income tax was assailed by politicians and the press. Then there were the rumors that Prince Charles, heir to the throne, and his wife Diana had fallen out of love.

But a new crisis came last week from an unexpected quarter when Prince Andrew and the Duchess of York, a couple widely thought to well-matched and happily married, announced that their marriage had ended.

Constitutional experts say the separation of the fourth in line of succession and his wife will have little direct impact on the monarchy. Neither the prince nor his daughters, Beatrice and Eugenie, could ever really expect to reach the throne.

But a national figurehead must command respect as a worthy symbol of the country it represents. If the monarchy loses respect - and opinion polls suggest it is beginning to do so - it loses legitimacy in Britain's constitional framework.

"For Gawd's Sake Sort 'Em Out, Ma'am," exhorted Monday's Daily Mirror, which warned that the royals would become a laughingstock if the queen failed to put her foot down.

Since Victorian times royalty has been expected to set an example of moral rectitude, embodying an ideal of a stable, happy family. If it can no longer manage to do this, critics ask, what need is there for a monarchy at all?

"It's another pointer to the growing crisis for the British monarchy in sustaining its role as an icon for the nation," said Guardian columnist Melanie Phillips of the royal breakup.

The failure of the marriage poses a more practical problem - how to find suitable and willing spouses for the royal family in an age of intense media scrutiny.

The constant press criticism of the Duchess of York is a cautionary tale to anyone who thinks marrying a royal is a fairy tale come true.

"Before you let your daughter marry a Windsor think twice, then think again. And then take advice," said the Sunday Express in a pullout supplement on the royal breakup.

British royals are no longer expected to find a mate among their cousins in the royal houses of Europe, but the love matches of recent years have not been a great success.

Princess Margaret, the queen's sister, divorced photographer Lord Snowdon in 1978, and Princess Anne is estranged from her equestrian husband Mark Phillips. The queen's youngest son Prince Edward never seems to have a woman in his life.

A divorce for Prince Charles could be the death of the monarchy, causing a conflict of loyalty between the man born to be king and a princess who has become one of history's most popular royals.

"In such circumstances British royalty would face the prospect of extinction by atrophy," said the Sunday Times.

But historians say the monarchy has made it through worse times than these. David Starkey of the London School of Economics said when George IV was crowned in the early 19th century his queen, Caroline, was "actually locked out of Westminster Abbey and banged on the doors of Westminster Hall trying to be let in to the coronation banquet."

There were also reports about her "careering round Europe with dubious Italian courtiers in states of advanced undress."

There are clouds on the horizon, apart from the country's mixed feelings about her heir Charles. The opposition Labor Party has promised an overhaul of the system of privilege which has the royal family at its apex.

Labor's proposed abolition of the House of Lords, an unelected chamber for peers of the realm, could leave the monarchy looking like an expensive anachronism.