Inside the Closest Royal Friendship You Don't Know About: The Queen and Sophie, Countess of Wessex

Now married to the queen's son Prince Edward for 21 years, Countess Sophie has long been one of her mother-in-law's favorite (and relatively drama-free) confidantes

By Natalie Finn 19 Jun, 2020 7:00 PMTags
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It's common knowledge by now that 1992 wasn't a banner year for Britain's royal family.

Dubbed an annus horribilis by Queen Elizabeth II herself, those scandal-plagued 12 months bore witness to, not only a fire at Windsor Castle, but also the end of all three of her married children's marriages. Those unions had imploded long before, but it was in 1992 that Princess Anne finalized her divorce from Mark Phillips (and remarried that same year); while Prince Andrew and Sarah, Duchess of York and Prince Charles and Princess Diana announced their separations.

That would be a lot for any family, let alone one of the most visible dynasties in the world.

Only Prince Edward managed to not get divorced in 1992, but only because he wasn't married yet.

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In fact, Edward, the youngest of the queen and Prince Philip's four children, wasn't even dating his future wife, Sophie Rhys-Jones, yet.

A Cambridge graduate and Royal Marine training dropout, Edward wildly diverged from the path trod by his father and brothers by becoming a production assistant at Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Theater Company in the 1980s and then forming his own entertainment company, Ardent Productions, in 1993.

That's also the year he reunited with Rhys-Jones, a public relations executive whom he first crossed paths with in 1987—when he was dating her friend. (Not an uncommon launch pad for future romance in his family: Charles dated Diana's older sister, now Lady Sarah McCorquodale, first, while Princess Anne dated Duchess Camilla's first husband, Andrew Parker Bowles, in the early 1970s before either was married.)

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Sophie and Edward—by then 29 but not under as much pressure to settle down as his eldest brother Charles had been as he approached 30—saw each other at a Real Tennis charity event in 1993 and started dating.

As the baby of the family and so far the least scandalous of the bunch, Edward enjoyed a certain amount of privacy, but he knew that when it comes to royal romance all bets are off. When he called Sophie at work he would say it was "Richard" phoning, and they took pains to avoid photographers while venturing out together. The proudly shameless News of the World, which closed after a century in 2011 after the publication was caught up in a hacking scandal, was the first to give their relationship front-page treatment in December 1993.

But in part because he had just watched all three of his siblings' marriages not work out in spectacular fashion, Edward was in no rush to take the next step. According to biographer Ingrid Seward's 1995 book Prince Edward, "Like all couples, there were moments when the effort of adjusting led to rows and disagreements and, in the summer of 1994, [he and Sophie] came precariously close to parting."

 

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Meanwhile, Sophie started her own PR firm in 1996 and started walking the walk of a future member of the royal family, the local papers enjoying her normal-girl background (grew up in Kent in a four-bedroom 17th-century farmhouse, higher education at West Kent College, descendant of King Henry IV, 1399-1413) and speculating constantly about the state of their relationship.

Edward continued to bide his time, waiting until the end of 1998 to pop the question. His proposal included a ring with a two-carat oval diamond, flanked by two heart-shaped gemstones and set in 18-carat white gold, by royal jeweler Asprey and Garrard.

Of course, before he proposed, Edward sought the OK from his mother, the queen's approval being No. 1 on the list of to-dos before anything could be made official.

Happily for all involved, the queen liked her future daughter-in-law quite a bit.

While 1992 may have seemed like a low, Diana's death in 1997 shook the entire foundation of the royal family. The tragedy left 15-year-old Prince William and 12-year-old Prince Harry without a mother and the queen grappling with how to grieve in public after decades of getting used to doing no such thing, including when her father, King George VI, died in 1952. With Diana's millions of fans clamoring for more emotion from the royal family, the queen met them as far as her position allowed, delivering a touching public address on Sept. 5, five days after Diana's fatal accident.

"We have all been trying in our different ways to cope," the monarch said. "It is not easy to express a sense of loss, since the initial shock is often succeeded by a mixture of other feelings—disbelief, incomprehension, anger and concern for those who remain. We have all felt those emotions in these last few days. So what I say to you now, as your queen and as a grandmother, I say from my heart."

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It's also fathomable that Edward may not have wanted to propose to Sophie directly in the wake of one of the most shocking deaths of a public figure in recent memory (or, almost 23 years later, ever), especially one that came as close to ripping his family apart as it did. Edward himself got on fine with Diana, but they weren't particularly close. But either way, perhaps he was waiting for a more tasteful time to lock it down with Sophie for the world to see.

Edward and Sophie's engagement was finally announced on Jan. 6, 1999.

And joyful the news was. The queen showed her support for her son's girlfriend early on, breaking her own rules by allowing Sophie stay overnight at Buckingham Palace in the royal apartments—where all of her kids maintained a residence—before she and Edward were married.

Asked during their first joint interview after their engagement how she felt about joining the royal family, Sophie told the BBC, "It is slightly nerve-racking in many ways. But I am ready for it now and I am fully aware of the responsibilities."

 

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The couple tied the knot on June 19, 1999, in a first-time-for-everything evening ceremony (as opposed to the midday nuptials that prompt all those morning coats and brightly colored fascinators—in fact, the couple requested no hats, to emphasize the more "casual" vibe they were going for) at St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle. Sophie wore a gown by Samantha Shaw and a tiara from the queen's private collection.

Before they walked down the aisle, the queen gave Edward the title of Earl of Wessex, making Sophie the Countess of Wessex. (Sarah Sienesi, Sophie's flatmate from her first days starting out in PR, became her lady-in-waiting.)

Roughly 200 million people caught at least some of the ceremony on TV, but the bride and groom wanted an apolitical affair, so luminaries such as Prime Minister Tony Blair were not on the guest list. The at-home audience was in for a bit of a letdown, anyway, because the Wessexes did not go in for the public kiss on the steps of the chapel after their I-dos—though that gesture, however sweet, isn't necessarily a harbinger of happiness.

The queen hosted their wedding reception at Windsor Castle that evening.

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Heartbreak befell the couple when Sophie had an ectopic pregnancy in 2001 and needed surgery to remove the fetus, after which she took a long break from public appearances to recover, but she and Edward were determined to start a family. 

Their daughter, Lady Louise Windsor, was born prematurely on Nov. 8, 2003, after Sophie suffered a placental abruption and required an emergency C-section. The new mom remained in the hospital (Frimley Park, in Surrey) for several weeks before being well enough to go home, only after which did she and Edward announce their baby girl's name. Their son James, Viscount Severn, was born on Dec. 17, 2007, also via C-section at Frimley Park Hospital.

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The queen and Sophie—who until Charles married Camilla in 2005 remained her only daughter-in-law—grew ever closer, though it's not as if there hasn't been any reason for the queen to invoke her stiff upper lip since her youngest son finally settled down. 

In 2001, before her medical troubles, Sophie was purportedly recorded telling an undercover reporter from News of the World (who was posing as an international businessman) that if he used her PR firm, R-JH, he would benefit because of her prominence as a member of the royal family. Not exactly selling access (as Prince Andrew's ex-wife the Duchess of York would appear to do later in 2010, though she insisted it was a misunderstanding) but a huge no-no to even invoke royal connections. She also supposedly referred to the queen as "old dear" and slammed some government figures (also a no-no for the royals to talk politics). It was subsequently reported that Sophie sent apology letters to whomever she may have offended.

Buckingham Palace stood up for her, though, denying the existence of those letters and saying in a statement, "The Countess of Wessex, who is trying to pursue her own career, is obviously vulnerable to set-ups such as this."

Still, Sophie shuttered R-JH Publicity in 2002.

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Meanwhile, Edward's Ardent Productions was never a financial success, and was most infamous for a 1987 competition special called It's a Royal Knockout that featured Prince Andrew, then-wife Sarah Ferguson and Princess Anne competing in physical challenges—and which Prince Charles smartly refused to have any involvement with at all.

In 2001, Charles was reportedly rather livid when a two-man crew from his brother's company were accused of trying to gain access to 19-year-old Prince William at university for a documentary—a violation of the guidelines Charles had set in place for all media coverage of his children while they were at school.

Edward apologized to the queen and promised not to try to make any more shows about the family. "I can confirm that our energies will be put into the drama and film areas," Ardent chairman Malcolm Cockren stated at the time, per the Telegraph

With Charles being of the opinion (presumably shared by the queen) that his brother and sister-in-law needed to either get out of private business or out of public royalty, Edward stepped down from his working roles at Ardent in 2002. The company itself finally closed in 2009.

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And so, in addition to becoming parents in 2003, Sophie and Edward dedicated themselves solely to the job of royalty—and senior working royals they've remained, only increasing their share of the workload as time has gone by and the queen has lightened her own schedule (slightly).

"Sophie's a long-term favorite of the queen and has been singled out as a person the Palace would like to help ease the burden," a source told The Sun in January.

In fact, they were among the first in the family this month to venture back into making in-person appearances following the COVID-19 lockdown, which they spent working remotely at Bagshot Park, their home in Surrey—which is about a 20-minute drive from Windsor Castle, where the queen and Philip chose to do their social distancing. Sophie was also known to be volunteering at a nearby food bank.

The Wessexes' office is still at Buckingham Palace, and they share the queen's Royal Family social media account. When the royals all went to their respective homes in March, Sophie encouraged families to reach out for help if needed during quarantine, sending her message in a video shot by her daughter, now 16-year-old Lady Louise.

 

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"For parents and carers, it can be a daunting time to help our children and young people through this period of uncertainty but please don't feel alone," said the countess, a patron of the NSPCC children's services center and help line. "Make use of the resources out there and the fantastic digital communities that are sharing and supporting them. Stay safe and thinking of you all."

This week she visited the NSPCC office (one of her 70 patronages), where she met with workers and sat in on a Childline counseling shift.

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With news of Princess Anne's son Peter Phillips' separation from wife Autumn rattling the royals earlier this year, it's all the more reason to appreciate Sophie and Edward's 21st anniversary today.

The queen certainly does, according to a royal aide. Her Majesty is "mindful that Sophie's marriage has survived where her other children's relationships have failed," the aide told The Sun last September, "and she knows that is in no small way down to Sophie's dedication. She is aware, as is Edward's mother, what a tricky creature he can be. And not only has Sophie flourished as a dedicated, albeit still relatively junior member of the royal family, she has brought up two teenagers who are well-balanced, sporty, amusing and delightful."

She and Edward have been subject to the usual trouble-in-paradise rumors over the years, but they've always enjoyed support from the queen (and the occasional stated denial from the Palace when absolutely necessary) and, more importantly, from each other.

"Sophie has been through some trying times," a friend told Ingrid Seward in 2013. "Edward has always been her shoulder to cry on and has seen her at her lowest ebb." Body language expert Judi James acknowledged to the Express in 2019 that Edward's marriage was originally the least-expected to last, but...

Here they are.

"A successful PR with her own firm, [Sophie] integrated into the royal family in a very unfussy way and was a perfect compliment for her husband's trait of apparently taking himself a little too seriously," James observed.

And it's certainly nice to be chums with one's mother-in-law.

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Working out of Buckingham Palace all these years has helped Sophie and the queen stay close.

"If Sophie wasn't there, the Queen would only have a lady-in-waiting for those feminine chats she likes," a royal aide told Seward in 2013. "The Princess Royal [Anne] is very close to her mother, but is hardly ever there, while Sophie is around a lot."

The ladies are also both military history buffs and it's said they would disappear into the royal archives for hours on end. And though she wasn't a natural equestrian, Sophie took lessons to become an accomplished enough horseback rider to accompany the queen on the monarch's beloved rides around the grounds of Balmoral or Windsor when invited.

Enjoying the queen's friendship all these years has also helped Sophie remain confident and poised when the going gets tough—or when others might feel threatened by the exciting youngsters making all the headlines these days, including a certain grandson/future king and his wife, Kate Middleton. (Though having a husband who's only 11th in line to the throne may help ease the pressure as well.)

Sophie "radiates happiness," Laura Benjamin, one of her go-to designers told Seward. "I think she enjoys looking good and doing good."

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The mutual support system continues to run both ways, with Sophie usually enjoying pride of place next to the queen in the back of the Rolls during rides to church, which Philip has used his position as a nonagenarian for the past nine years to skip in favor of rest most weekends.

"If Sophie Wessex is staying at Sandringham then you can pretty much guarantee the Queen will ask her—usually last thing on a Saturday night—if she would like 'a lift' to the church," a former royal equerry told The Sun last September. "And the same happens at Balmoral. The Queen likes to be completely calm before church and she finds Sophie's presence soothing."

A senior royal aide told the paper that Sophie "is trusted and relied on by the Queen in a way I couldn't say applied to the Duchess of Cambridge or the Duchess of Cornwall. 

"She is like another daughter to Her Majesty, they are that close."