Queen Elizabeth II and Sophie, Countess of Wessex: The Closest Royal Friendship You Didn't Know About

Countess Sophie of Wessex, the wife of Queen Elizabeth II's youngest son, Prince Edward, was one of her mother-in-law's closest confidantes.

By Natalie Finn Sep 14, 2022 7:40 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 now-King Charles III and Princess Diana announced their separations (and both couples eventually divorced).

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 that's 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 first dated Diana's older sister, now Lady Sarah McCorquodale, while Princess Anne dated future Queen Consort Camilla's first husband, Andrew Parker Bowles, in the early 1970s.

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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.

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While 1992 may have seemed like a low, Diana's death in 1997 shook the entire foundation of the royal family. The tragedy left then-15-year-old Prince William and 12-year-old Prince Harry without a mother and the usually pitch-perfect 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 and she ascended to the throne at 25.

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 the princess' 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, 25 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 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 Andrew, then-wife Sarah and Princess Anne competing in physical challenges—and which 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 went by and the queen started thinning her schedule.

In fact, the Earl and Countess of Wessex were among the first in the family to venture back into making in-person appearances following the COVID-19 lockdown, which they spent working remotely at Bagshot Park. Their 56-room home in Surrey, a wedding gift from the queen, is also about a 20-minute drive from Windsor Castle, where the queen and Philip were doing their social distancing. Sophie was also known to be volunteering at a nearby food bank.

The Wessexes' office has also been based at Buckingham Palace, which contributed to Sophie's close bond with the queen, and they share the Royal Family social media account.

"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."

When the royals all went to their respective homes to ride out the lockdown in March 2020, Sophie recorded a video message, shot by her daughter, now 18-year-old Louise, about services available those who would inevitably need them during the extended period of isolation.


"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 U.K.'s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children's service 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."

That June, as the world was opening up, she visited the NSPCC office (one of her more than 70 patronages), where she met with workers and sat in on a Childline counseling shift.

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Sophie and Edward celebrated their 23rd wedding anniversary in June in the wake of the queen's Platinum Jubilee, the last time the monarch's sprawling family was all together before they reunited in the wake of her death last week.

The Wessexes were subject to the usual trouble-in-paradise rumors over the years, but they always had the queen's support (and the occasional assist from the Palace's communications office when absolutely necessary), as well as each other's.

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"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...

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"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 was certainly nice to be close with one's mother-in-law, especially after Sophie's own mother died in 2005.

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"Sophie first of all respects her as the Queen, then as a mother-in-law," the monarch's cousin Elizabeth Anson told Elizabeth the Queen author Sally Bedell Smith, "but she also understands that she is a human being, and treats her that way."

Sophie and the queen were also 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 got tough—or when faced with the very real threat of exciting young royals co-opting all the headlines.

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

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She also knew how to blend in, often enjoying pride of place next to the queen in the back of her Rolls-Royce during rides to church in Windsor or at Sandringham.

Royal aides compared their relationship to that of mother and daughter, and in addition to being a confidante for years, Sophie was said to have become the queen's rock in the wake of Philip's death in April 2021.

Marveling at her mother-in-law's stoicism, meanwhile, a teary-eyed Sophie told reporters after Philip died, "The queen has been amazing."

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(Originally published June 19, 2020, at 12 p.m. PT)