Edward and Sophie:
They’ve endured their share of bad press, but now Prince Edward and his wife Sophie are being seen as the perfect royals – quietly going about their duty without the fanfare of attention-grabbing headlines. William Langley profiles this hard-working, dedi
are they the perfect royals?
Aresplendent figure in a shiny limousine, the 52-year-old Earl of Wessex glides through the ornate gates of Bagshot Park into a world that seems barely to notice. Edward looks the business in a heavily-braided RAF commodore’s uniform, and everyone in his entourage knows he will perform the day’s duties impeccably.
As does the elegant blonde he has just said goodbye to.
The problem for those around the Queen’s youngest child is that his low-profile way of doing things attracts little attention. While the younger royals draw big crowds and generate excited headlines, Edward tends to be portrayed as the “Invisible Prince” – but all this may be about to change.
A subtle power shift is underway in the royal order, and Edward – steered by his glamorous wife, Sophie, Countess of Wessex – is at the centre of it. Once out of favour, Sophie, 51, the daughter of a tyre salesman and a secretary, has burrowed her way back into the royal good books, building a remarkably close relationship with the Queen, and she now basks in an influential new role as the 90-year-old sovereign’s personal standard-setter.
The Queen rarely changes her mind about anything. Or anybody. Sophie’s early years as a royal bride were marked by a series of disastrous gaffes – she once found it necessary to assure the public that her husband wasn’t gay – which infuriated the Buckingham Palace old guard, and led to questions about her suitability for the role. Yet she learned quickly, produced two children and amassed an impressive portfolio of good works as a testament to her new intent.
Most importantly, she and Edward have stayed together. After seeing her three older children’s marriages collapse, the Queen was desperate to avoid another divorce. Today, 17 years after their wedding, no whiff of marital discord seeps from the Victorian gables of Bagshot, their huge family pile west of London, and by all accounts they are close and happy.
The Queen has come to view the Wessexes as “model royals” – young enough to be relevant, old enough to know the rules, hard-working and aware of the example they are expected to set. Ever since he was a small boy, Edward has been thought of as the Queen’s favourite child, but it is her growing admiration for
Sophie that now intrigues royal watchers and has put the Wessexes’ star into the ascendant.
Bagshot is just a 20-minute drive from Windsor Castle, and Sophie is one of the most regular visitors to the Queen’s apartments, often staying for hours. They have a shared passion for horses and military history and, despite being a generation apart, hold near-identical views on the monarchy’s place in the modern world. Unlike many traditionalist courtiers, they think of it almost in terms of a business that must adapt to the demands of its customers. Some wince when the Queen refers to the royal family as “The Firm”, but Sophie – a former public relations executive – knows exactly what she means.
The Countess has recently spoken of how much more assured she now feels around the Queen. “The art of talking
Sophie now basks in an influential new role as the 90-year-old sovereign’s personal standard-setter.”
meaningfully is one that has to be learnt,” she said in an interview on her 50th birthday. “It’s sometimes hard to make people think the conversation you’ve had with them has been worthwhile, but the Queen is very good at that. In the early days, I used to rush around as quickly as I could, but when you observe the Queen, she does things in such a measured way, so I try not to bounce into a room, but do things in a more elegant way.”
“Sophie,” says former BBC royal correspondent and author Jenny
Bond, “has become a perfect fit within the royal family.”
With the assurance has come a confidence – even an outspokenness – that few thought she was capable of. Late last year, addressing a glittering gathering of some of the wealthiest businesswomen in New York, Sophie declared: “I am rare, because I am one of the few ladies in the British royal family who has had a professional career and run their own company.”
This was widely seen as a jibe at
Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, whose minimal CV and relaxed schedule of public engagements Sophie is said to disapprove of. Last year, the Wessexes jointly logged 572 engagements, compared to just 184 by the Cambridges, with Kate managing only 62.
Reports of tensions between the Countess and the Duchess have been further fuelled by suggestions that Sophie is privately sceptical of the Cambridges’ much-publicised pledge to give their children, George and Catherine, “normal” lives. Certainly, Sophie appeared to be upping the ante during a TV interview earlier this year in which she claimed her now 12-year- old daughter, Louise, had reached school age before she realised her grandmother was the Queen. “It was a shock to the system,” said Sophie.
“She was coming home from school and saying, “Mummy, people keep telling me Grandma is the Queen.”
Neither Louise nor her eight-yearold brother James have royal titles, and the Wessexes have made it clear that they expect both children to work for a living. Sophie takes motherhood seriously: “I have watched her on several occasions,” says Ingrid Seward, editor of Majesty magazine, “and she always seems willing to give that bit more. Yet it can be a lonely existence, always exhausting, and you sense what Sophie wants more than anything is to be at home with her children.”
But it seems Sophie is not averse to stealing Kate’s style secrets. Until a few years ago, the Countess was considered one of the royal family’s less adventurous dressers, heavily dependent on boxy, over-padded Sloane-era standards, which made her look – in the cruel words of one fashion critic – like a Bulgarian flight attendant. Today, she sashays confidently around social London in outfits by New Zealand-born Emilia Wickstead (who just happens to be a favourite of Kate’s) and Alexander McQueen (ditto).
Today she sashays confidently around social London in outfits by New Zealandborn Emilia Wickstead.”
She has lost weight, and follows a ferocious fitness programme which includes Pilates, swimming and long-distance cycling on a $2000 carbon-fibre race-bike designed by British Olympic champion Chris Boardman. It’s a rigorous schedule, in preparation for her riding in September’s 700km charity cycle ride from Edinburgh to Buckingham Palace, to celebrate the Diamond anniversary of her father-in-law the Duke of Edinburgh’s awards scheme. “I am now training hard and trying to get to grips with the kit, the fitness level, the seat(!),” says
Sophie, “the aching shoulders, wrists and backside, the terrifying roads, the hills and, worst of all, the cleats! Yes I have fallen off several times, but the bruises are fading and each time out gets a little better.”
Yet the real difference with Sophie is the one she has made to her husband’s standing in the royal firmament. Born when the Queen was 38 – unusually late by royal standards – Edward was a meek, unsporty child, who struggled at school and was ridiculed when he “won” a place at Cambridge University with grades far below those usually expected. More mockery followed when he dropped out of a Royal Marines officer training course after just three months, having found it too tough.
With similarly little appetite for the routines of royal life, he went into the entertainment business, working for Andrew Lloyd Webber as a production assistant on shows such as Cats and Phantom of the Opera. Accounts differ as to what Edward actually did in this capacity, with some colleagues later scoffing that his job was merely to make the tea and attract publicity.
He later launched his own TV production company, but it made a calamitous debut with a royal-themed gameshow, The Grand Knockout Tournament, featuring teams sponsored by his sister, Princess Anne, and brother, Prince Andrew, which was panned by critics.
His consolation was meeting Sophie, a blonde PR girl from a middle-class family who was in the process of launching her own company. Disaster followed when she fell for a newspaper sting and was lured by a fake client offering lucrative fees into making indelicate comments about the Queen, who she described as “an old dear”, and Cherie Blair, wife of the former British prime minister, who she called “horrid, horrid, horrid”.
In 2001, nursing their bruises, the couple gave up on the business world and embraced a full-time royal role. But they remained marginal figures in the royal glamour stakes, stuck with the perception that he was boring, she was frumpy and both were on the make.
It took a near-tragedy to bring about a change. In 2003, while eight months pregnant with Louise, Sophie began to haemorrhage and was airlifted to hospital, where it was discovered she had placental abruption, and an emergency caesarean had to be performed. Edward flew home from Mauritius, where he had been on official duty, to learn that his wife had been in a life-threatening situation.
While the couple have rarely spoken of the experience, those in their circle have no doubt that it changed them profoundly. “To put it simply, they began to count their blessings,” says a former member of their staff. They re-committed themselves to royal duties, shed the vestiges of their “fastbuck” lifestyles, and set about repairing their strained ties with the Queen.
So successfully has all this been accomplished, that Edward and his wife are seen as the new template for the modern royal couple, and in Court circles, it is hard to hear a bad word said about them – perhaps because the words that now matter are the ones Sophie is whispering to the Queen.
LEFT: Sophie and the Queen share a laugh at the Royal Ascot races in June this year. The Countess has developed a close relationship with her mother-in-law.
RIGHT: Sophie and Edward after attending the Order of the Garter Service at Windsor Castle in 2015.
ABOVE: The Countess of Wessex during a training session for September’s 700km charity cycle ride.
LEFT: At 51, Sophie is a picture of elegance and assurance with a more adventurous fashion style – one that is said to have been taken from the Duchess of Cambridge.