LONDON — The British Royal Family said Wednesday that Prince Andrew, whose flings with models and actresses delighted gossip columnists, will marry a childhood friend with red hair and freckles called "Fergie."
Buckingham Palace's announcement said that Andrew, second son of Queen Elizabeth II and fourth in line to the British throne, is engaged to Sarah Ferguson, daughter of Prince Charles' polo manager, retired army Maj. Ronald Ferguson. Both the prince and his fiancee are 26.
No date or place was set, but Andrew said he hopes that the wedding would be in the summer at Westminster Abbey. His parents were married there in 1947, and it is the site of all coronations since the crown was placed on William the Conqueror's head in 1066.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Archbishop of Canterbury Robert A.K. Runcie, spiritual head of the Church of England, were among the first to offer congratulations.
Prince Charles, the 37-year-old heir to the throne, whose marriage to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 was televised around the world, said he "could not be more delighted" by his brother's choice. "I think she is wonderful," he told reporters.
First Joint Interview
Soon after their engagement was announced, the couple had their first interview with British newspaper and television reporters in the prince's study at the palace.
They kissed for the benefit of the cameras, giggled, teased one another and displayed the engagement ring, a large ruby set in circle of diamonds.
She replied, when asked what they liked about one another, "Wit, charm . . . looks." He said, "The same, and the red hair."
After marriage, Sarah will be Her Royal Highness, the Princess Andrew. They probably will become Duke and Duchess of York, the dukedom reserved by tradition for the monarch's second son.
Both said they will continue working.
Andrew, a Royal Navy lieutenant and helicopter pilot, saw action in the 1982 Falkland Islands war with Argentina. Ferguson is a sales executive with a London graphics and printing firm.
After the marriage, Andrew will automatically get a raise of 30,000 pounds ($44,000) a year from the royal payroll. He now receives 20,000 pounds ($29,000) from that fund and about 15,000 pounds ($22,000) a year from the navy.
The engagement was announced in a brief statement handed to reporters outside Buckingham Palace.
It said: "It is with the greatest pleasure that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh announce the betrothal of their beloved son, Prince Andrew, to Miss Sarah Ferguson, daughter of Major Ronald Ferguson and Mrs. Hector Barrantes."
The Duke of Edinburgh is Prince Philip, the queen's husband.
Sarah Ferguson's parents were divorced 11 years ago, and her mother, Susan, married Hector Barrantes, an Argentine polo player.
The prince's romantic escapades made newspaper headlines for years and earned him the nickname "Randy Andy" in the gossip columns. The most notable was a long relationship with American actress Kathleen (Koo) Stark, who appeared in soft-porn films early in her career.
Seen at Ascot Races
The prince and his bride-to-be were first seen together in public last June at the Royal Ascot horse races, premier event of the British social calendar.
Andrew said, "We have known each other since we were 4 or 5, but we only really noticed each other fairly recently."
"We met up again in 1983 at a house party and became very good friends," Sarah added. "Then in June, 1985, when I was a guest of the queen at Royal Ascot, we became better friends."
At the time of Royal Ascot, Sarah is said to have been involved in a three-year romance with motor racing figure Paddy McNally, a 48-year-old widower. British press reports said they stopped seeing each other four months later.
Awaited Queen's Return
Andrew said he proposed "some weeks ago' but put off an announcement until his mother returned from a tour of Nepal, New Zealand and Australia.
"We asked the queen for permission last weekend at Windsor Castle when she returned," the prince said. Under Britain's Royal Marriage Act of 1772, the monarch's consent is required for those in the line of succession to marry.
Sarah's family has long and close links with royalty, and she is descended from King Charles II. Her maternal grandmother was a Montagu-Douglas-Scott, from the family of the Duke of Buccleuch, Scotland's largest private landowner.
"The fact that I know the ways of the court will certainly help me cope a lot easier than perhaps other people," she said.
Princess Diana is a close friend, and if she needs advice on being a royal wife "there's no one better" to ask, Sarah said.