With the exception of one post when the Countess of Wessex attended a royal birthday party in Norway and a handful of mentions, I’ve rarely discussed the Wessex family, but their stock is rising within the Royal Family and today actually marks the couple’s 18th wedding anniversary. That their star, Sophie’s in particular, is waxing and not waning as the Queen grows older may be a bit counterintuitive; after all, while the Earl of Wessex is now the monarch’s son, he’ll eventually be the monarch’s brother and then his uncle – his profile, significance and responsibility will likely decrease over the years.
But the Wessexes are a unique example within the House of Windsor, perhaps because they are the most traditional family unit within it – indeed, it could be argued Prince Edward was the only one of Queen Elizabeth’s children who followed the model she would have expected all of her children to have done.
While the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York both entered into highly dramatic and dysfunctional marriages with Lady Diana Spencer and Sarah Ferguson, the Wessex marriage has always been relatively scandal free. While his brothers’ personal lives were splashed across the tabloids, Edward and Sophie have pretty much flown under the radar, with a few notable exceptions. And perhaps that comes down to having gotten married later in life (though Charles was 32 when he married), or perhaps it is a token of lessons having been learnt on how Windsor princes can and should carry on their affairs.
The fact of the matter is, Edward has always been the least famous of his siblings. Charles and the Princess Royal were the first to hit adulthood and, as a result, the public became interested in their dating lives and then their marriages and then their children. Andrew and Edward, born roughly a decade later (in fact, Charles is nearly 16 years older than Edward), were always set apart. Indeed, some royal insiders say they had a wholly dissimilar upbringing to that of their older siblings. Since Charles and Anne were both born before their mother became queen, the majority of their childhoods played out as she was learning the job. By the time the younger two came along, she had more time and mental energy to devote to them.
Perhaps that has had some bearing, but Andrew and Edward have followed very different life courses, at least when they were younger. Andrew, of course, married Sarah or “Fergie” when he was 26 in 1986, had two daughters and then went through a very public separation and divorce in the 1990s. The latter events unfolded at the roughly the same time the Wales marriage was breaking down, meanwhile Anne divorced and quickly remarried in the background with decidedly less fanfare.
So, what was Edward doing while all of this was causing his parents anguish? He was dating Sophie Rhys-Jones, mainly. The two met in 1987 when Edward was dating a friend of hers and again in 1993 when Sophie, then working in public relations, was assigned to assist in the planning of a tennis charity match in which Edward was involved.
The courtship was apparently slow-going, but early on had the full endorsement of the Queen who took an instant liking to Sophie, then 28. That the Queen took to her future daughter-in-law isn’t particularly surprising based on the Queen’s reported temperament and Sophie’s background was solidly middle-class, educated and hard working. She took her career seriously and she never became a tabloid fixture during her “girlfriend of” days. The Queen apparently liked her so much she went ahead and had a pass made for her that allowed her to come and go from Buckingham Palace, where Edward lived, whenever she wanted – that image actually cracks me up, for while BP is obviously huge and Edward had his own suite of apartments, it does have a ring of living with a meddling mummy, doesn’t it?
Anyway, their engagement was finally announced after a nearly six-year courtship on January 6, 1999 and the two were married at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle on June 19th. Unlike the pomp and ceremony that accompanied the weddings of Charles, Anne and Andrew in 1981, 1973 and 1986, respectively, Edward opted for a non-state occasion.
The early days of their marriage did, finally, provide some tabloid fodder. While Sophie had mostly been eclipsed by the activities of Diana and Fergie throughout the 90s, by the time she married Edward those marriages were over and by 1999, it was two years after Diana’s death. As such, she was the most senior woman in the Royal Family after the Queen and the Queen Mother (the line of seniority was only adjusted to bump up “blood princesses” much later), and once the Queen Mother died in 2002, she became the second lady of the land. She was also blonde and pretty and there was a bit of trying by the media to turn her into the “next Diana,” a dynamic Sophie reportedly detested and understandably so.
At first, Sophie attempted to keep her career, perhaps thinking that as the wife of the youngest brother she could get away with it. Unfortunately, it created too much of a conflict of interest, particularly given the nature of her profession in PR. At one point Sophie had an indiscreet conversation with a potential client in the lobby of a London hotel who turned out to be an undercover reporter – over the course of the meeting she reportedly referred to the Queen as an “old dear.” She also assured the reporter that Charles would eventually marry Camilla when “the old lady dies” (aka the Queen Mother). The Palace issued a strong rebuttal, stating that the quotes were false and no one in the RF was upset with Sophie.
I would hazard to guess while some of the wording may have been lost in translation, the quotes were actually quite true, particularly given the dynamic of Charles and Camilla waiting for the passing of the Queen Mother was widely accepted. There was also the matter of Sophie insulting Tony and Cherie Blair, which would obviously cause a bit of a furor given the Chinese Wall between Palace and Downing Street and the Queen’s precedent of never stating a political opinion.
Most embarrassing of all was the quote about Diana: “The public have put me on the plinth vacated by Diana.”
Which, again, the media certainly tried that game, but that was definitely not how the public saw her. The Palace’s statement was actually quite interesting:
“A member of the Royal Family such as the Countess of Wessex who is trying to pursue her own career is obviously vulnerable to set-ups such as this. And all members of the Royal Family risk tittle-tattle, misinformations and – from time to time – wholesale inaccuracy. We suggest no serious journalist gives this story the time of day.”
Interesting not only for its use of “tittle-tattle,” which you really don’t see every day in an official capacity, but because it candidly addressed why Sophie eventually had to step away from her career, which must have been difficult given that she was co-running a firm she had helped to found and was reportedly quite good at her job.
The decision for Edward and Sophie to step back from their non-royal careers followed a personal tragedy when it was revealed Sophie had been suffering from an ectopic pregnancy, which was ended for medical reasons in 2001. Two years later, on November 8, 2003, Sophie gave birth to a daughter, Louise, after a difficult labor that nearly cost mother and child their lives. A placental abruption forced an emergency c-section, all of which was well before the due date, meaning Edward wasn’t even present for the birth of his first child, a series of occurrences that must have been horrifying to them both. Sophie ended up having to stay in hospital for over two weeks.
Louise was also born with esotropia, affecting her vision, for which she has received treatment over the course of her childhood to correct.
A second child, James, known as Viscount Severn, was born on December 17, 2007.
In the immediate years after their children were born, Edward and Sophie continued to maintain a low-profile, though they carried out a number of engagements on behalf of the Queen – indeed, given that those years coincided with the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry still being in school, and before William was married, there were simply less adult Royals to undertake patronages all around.
Interestingly enough, Sophie’s profile began to rise significantly right around the time Kate officially joined the scene in 2010 and 2011, and that has somewhat continued in the years since. Some of that is due to the natural comparisons of women in the media and speculation as to how other women in the family were getting on with the latest addition, but a great deal of it stemmed from the steady drum beat of a narrative speaking to how close Sophie had grown to the Queen.
Reportedly Sophie has become one of the Queen’s closest family members, helping to fill the void left by the deaths of the Queen Mother and the Countess of Snowdon in 2002. They apparently share a love of military history and, according to a story from the Daily Mail a few years back:
Sophie loves listening to the Queen talk about great historical events, and the pair are sometimes gone for hours, poring over ancient documents in the Royal Archives, which are kept at Windsor Castle. When Sophie visited the World War I and World War II battlefields and cemeteries in France, she told the Queen all about what she had seen and what she felt.
While it’s certainly heartwarming to hear that the Queen has more female companionship, there’s something a bit bittersweet about all of it, given that between three sons you would have hoped many relationships like this could have been established over the years. Certainly it’s believed that the Queen is close with a number of her grandchildren, including her granddaughters, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, and I hope that that’s true.
The same article also notes something interesting, which I had never really paid much attention to – the relationship between Sophie and Kate or, more broadly, the relationship between the Cambridges and Wessexes. I had always assumed they weren’t close based on body language from photos, but the article correctly notes that Sophie and Kate are from relatively similar backgrounds. In theory, Sophie could have been quite the oracle of wisdom to Kate in the early years of her marriage and it hasn’t really played out like that.
To be fair, Louise was included as a bridesmaid during William and Kate’s wedding in 2011, but beyond that there’s little indication of much of a relationship. And while the article hints that it may be down to differences in work ethic and parenting styles, I have a feeling it has more to do with Edward and William than Sophie and Kate.
Back when William was at University and Edward was still working in production, his company was the only one to violate a rule that William was not be bothered while attending to his studies – effectively a multi-year media moratorium that was meant to ensure a modicum of privacy. You can imagine, then, the fury of William and Charles when the one crew to break this came from another member of the family. A few months later a rather lurid “documentary” on William and Harry was broadcast containing quite a bit of speculative gossip about both young men’s social lives and all that insinuates. Needless to say, the Waleses weren’t pleased.
And that, I think, has led to a rather chilly relationship between William and Edward, at least on William’s side, for which I can’t really blame him. My guess is apologies were made and accepted, but it’s not a trusting relationship and it was never particularly close to begin with – Charles and Edward never having much of a relationship given the age gap. I have a feeling that has carried over to Sophie and Kate – perfectly friendly, but not overly intimate.
To a certain extent that’s a shame, because I think Sophie is an excellent, and now seasoned, working Royal from whom Kate could learn a lot. And that’s not a slight of Kate, but simply a matter of Sophie having had more years on the job.
It also speaks to how different the trajectories are of the Cambridges and Wessexes. While Kate will only see her responsibility rise over the years and, increasingly, have to manage interest in her children while still preparing them for very public lives, Sophie faces the opposite. Edward and Sophie declined to name Louise and James prince and princess – instead they are styled simply as the children of an earl (and someday duke, assuming Edward inherits Philip’s title of Duke of Edinburgh after his passing, as is the Queen’s wish). Both parents have also been candid that they don’t expect their children to live royal lives – that they, like Anne’s children, Peter and Zara, will be expected to financially make their own way in life and carry out full-time jobs.
Even so, the Wessexes hold a unique position with the family. For all that their profile may lessen over time, today they remain the single most reliable and low-key pair on whom the Queen can rely. Sophie, in particular, has the popularity and grace to remain an endearing figure to the public, as well as the experience to ensure everything is smooth sailing. Simply put, theirs is the most successful marriage of the Queen’s children.