She called the Queen ‘Mama’, she became a rock to her after the death of Prince Philip, and she’s widely regarded as a ‘safe pair of hands’ for The Firm, but Sophie, Countess of Wessex, married to the Queen’s youngest son, Edward, didn’t always curry so much favour with the Royal Family.
In fact, having spent much of her early royal life trying to forge commercial careers as well as carry out official duties, the now 57-year-old and her husband were in many ways the Harry and Meghan of their day. But in recent years, having formed a very close bond with the Queen, Sophie Wessex was the only other non-blood relative aside from Princess Anne’s husband, Sir Tim Laurence, to join close family in Scotland to mourn the Queen after her death last week.
Now that he is King, it’s expected that Charles may give his younger brother, Edward, the role of the Duke of Edinburgh, meaning that Sophie would become The Duchess of Edinburgh. With her elevated role will come more responsibility, especially in acting as a confidante and sounding board to Kate, the new Princess of Wales.
But who really is the Queen’s ‘second daughter’ and what can we expect from Sophie Wessex going forward?
Unlike other members of the Royal Family, Sophie wasn’t born into aristocracy. In fact, when she married Edward in 1999, she became the first woman who worked and came from a middle-class background to join The Firm.
Sophie Helen Rhys-Jones was born at Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, on January 20, 1965, and was privately educated in Kent, where she grew up. Her mother was a secretary and her father a tyre salesman.
She trained to become a secretary before launching into a career in PR, which saw her work for several firms including Capital Radio, which is how she ended up meeting Prince Edward.
Her royal romance with Edward
Although they met in 1987, when she was working at the radio station, Sophie and Edward didn’t begin dating until 1993. In fact, he was dating one of her friends when they first met.
Six years after they first laid eyes on each other, they met again at the Prince’s Real Tennis Challenge event, which Sophie was handling the PR for.
Apparently bonding over their shared love of sports, they spent their first date playing tennis and having dinner at Buckingham Palace.
According to royal biographer Ingrid Seward, Edward got cold feet a year into their relationship, perhaps due to his elder siblings’s unsuccessful romantic relationships, but by 1999, they were wed in a low-key ceremony at Windsor, with 500 guests.
Early echos of Harry and Meghan
Once the media found out about Edward’s relationship with Sophie, the prince felt compelled to appeal for privacy for his new partner – something that his nephew, Harry, would also do in 2017. In December 1993, he wrote: “I am taking this unusual step of writing to you directly in the hopes of stopping your reporters and photographers from destroying that part of my life that I am entitled to regard as private and, more importantly, Sophie’s life.”
He also took issue with the media’s repetitive questioning on when the pair would wed. In 1996, he snapped at one reporter from the Radio Times, saying: “If you shut up, mind your own business, and let me do it when I want, it’s much more likely to happen.”
A shaky start to their royal careers
Sophie and Edward weren’t always treasured members of the Royal Family. In fact, they were rather reluctant royals, wanting to forge commercial careers alongside their duties.
Sophie pursued PR, setting up her own company, while Edward went into TV production, which saw him criticised for trying to cash in on his royal status.
Sophie, too, was lambasted for posing beside a Rover 75 at the Frankfurt Motor Show, having been paid £250,000 to advertise it.
She disappeared from the public eye after the ‘Fake Sheikh’ scandal
In April, 2001, Sophie was caught up in a sting operation by the News of The World where a reporter posed as a “fake sheikh” and the paper published embarrassing things Sophie said, including calling the Queen an “old dear”, the then prime minister “President Blair”, and his wife Cherie “horrid, absolutely horrid”.
At the same time as the scandal, Prince Edward also came under fire for breaking the palace’s privacy rules when his company, Ardent Productions, was caught filming his nephew, Prince William, at university.
After the two embarrassing incidents, the pair disappeared from the public eye for a few years before winding up their two companies and becoming full-time royals.
Sophie found royal duties difficult at first
Sophie once told Sunday Times reporter Christina Lamb that she found royal duties hard at first, saying that she wanted to be the one organising the event, not the “icing on the cake”.
“Certainly, I missed it to begin with,’ she said about giving up her career. “Certainly, it took me a little while to find my feet. But I’ve met some incredible people during the time I’ve been doing royal duties. I’ve learned a huge amount about an awful lot and now I’ve got this new area [campaigning against war rape] which is enormously challenging and quite an emotional rollercoaster, but I find hugely rewarding.”
Sophie is patron of more than 70 organisations and one of the hardest-working members of the Royal Family. Her charity work focuses mainly on preventable blindness and the issue of sexual violence in war.
One senior Whitehall source told the Daily Mail: “She is not afraid to shy away from the questions that need to be asked of those in charge and hold their feet to the fire”.
Royal journalist and author Victoria Murphy said: “Her work does not regularly receive the kind of media attention that the younger royals command, but Sophie has become a stalwart member of the “Firm”. The spotlight on Sophie has intensified in the vacuum left as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle step back.”
Her daughter, Lady Louise Windsor, could play a key role in the future
Now 18, Sophie’s daughter, Lady Louise Windsor, is playing an increasingly public role. But, when she was a child, her mother wanted her to have as normal a life as possible. Her protectiveness over her children was increased by her near-death experience during the birth of her daughter. In 2003, while pregnant with Lady Louise, she began to haemorrhage at Bagshot Park. Sophie was airlifted to nearby Frimley Park Hospital semi-conscious and was said to have been 15 minutes from death.
“She doesn’t like to talk about it and can’t remember most of it,” says a source. Sophie was born one month early and was taken straight to intensive care.
Lady Louise was also born with esotropia, a condition that causes the eyes to turn inwards, which was corrected in a 2013 operation. She went to George’s School, Windsor Castle, before moving to St Mary’s School Ascot from year nine.
Lady Louise was protected from media attention until her first royal outing – she was a bridesmaid at the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding in 2011, when she was nine.
But Lady Louise surprised fans recently when she took a job in a garden centre before starting university. One customer said: ‘I knew the cost-of-living crisis was bad, but I didn’t think I’d ever see a grandchild of the Queen working in a garden centre.’
However, other royal commentators saw it as a positive thing. Ingrid Seward said: “Isn’t it wonderful the Queen’s granddaughter rolled her sleeves up and got her hands dirty with a summer job before going to university — just like any other normal teenager?”
Royal experts speculate that Lady Louise could be a valuable asset to the Royal Family in the future. “She seems to be very mature for her age,” commented royal commentator Phil Dampier.
“Could there be a role for her in a slimmed-down monarchy? The Queen and Philip had 1,500 patronages between them. You have to ask yourself who is going to continue their legacy, with Harry and Meghan and Prince Andrew off the scene? There’s a huge workload there.”
Sophie was the Queen’s “second daughter” and knew “how to handle” Philip
Since living just a stone’s throw from Windsor Castle, Sophie, her husband Edward, and their two children spent a lot of time with the Queen, and Sophie, in particular, developed a very strong bond with Her Majesty. After losing her own mum, Mary Rhys-Jones, to stomach cancer in 2005 at just 71, she had taken to affectionately calling the Queen ‘Mama’.
And, before that, Sophie always got on well with Philip, even though the Queen was allegedly worried that wouldn’t be the case. In her book, Prince Philip Revealed: A Man of His Century, author Ingrid Seward says: “She got on very well with Philip. She knew how to handle him. She made him laugh, and was not fazed by his abruptness. She would not let him bully her.”
After his death, Sophie’s bond with the Queen further strengthened – in fact, Sophie was often invited to take Philip’s place in the car to royal events, with the Queen saying she found her presence “soothing”.
Royal expert Duncan Larcombe told The Sun at the time: “Sophie has emerged as the Queen’s unlikely ‘rock’ as the monarch adjusts to life without Prince Philip.
“Prince Edward’s wife has – according to sources – made it her personal mission to ensure Her Majesty is fully supported by the family.”
Sophie told the Telegraph that, during lockdown, she would travel to wave at the Queen on her 20ft-high balcony.
“Since the Duke’s death in April, Sophie has driven the 10 miles from her Bagshot Park home to Windsor Castle every few days and most weekends to spend socially distanced time with Her Majesty.”
Outside of Covid, the pair became so close that they would even watch old war films and historical documentaries together. Sophie is even thought to have convinced the Queen to watch Netflix’s The Crown.
Sophie also dedicated herself to taking up hobbies that the Queen enjoyed so that they could bond over that. Speaking in 2021, one friend said: “Sophie set herself a series of tasks. She learned how to ride properly and now rides with the Queen at least once a week.
“She took up carriage-driving to be close to Philip. She had her own series of scandals before her marriage, when she was accused of cashing in on her royal connections, but she calmly put all that behind her and has been an exemplary daughter-in-law.”
Her sweet friendship with Kate
Kate and Sophie’s friendship is visible; the pair are often pictured giggling together and smiling warmly at each other at events such as Ascot. Despite being 17 years apart in age, the pair has things in common – mainly that they were both from ‘normal’ backgrounds before joining the Royal Family.
A royal insider said this is a valuable asset to the family as a whole and to Kate going forward: “Sophie wasn’t born into aristocracy. She has always worked for a living. As countesses go, she’s pretty grounded. And that’s something the Royal Family needs.”
In fact, now that Kate is in even more of an important role within the Firm, the support of a strong female, such as Sophie, will be crucial. “Sophie has never sought the limelight but, as we go into the next phase of the monarchy, it will be absolutely critical for the [then] Duchess of Cambridge to have a female sounding board,’ said Mark Foster-Brown, a close family friend and chairman of the Wessex Youth Trust, before the Queen’s death.
And Rebecca English, royal editor at the Daily Mail, agrees, saying that Sophie has become something of a confidante for Kate, as they both navigate motherhood and royal life.
In fact, Sophie is now so admired within the Firm that some courtiers refer to her as “the Royals’ secret weapon”.
They like her so much that Buckingham Palace posted a rare birthday tweet on her 57th birthday in January.
“She fell into her role so brilliantly and has been dedicated to doing everything right,” long-term friend Penny Mountbatten, ex-wife of the Queen’s cousin Lord Ivar Mountbatten, told the Daily Mail.
“At the same time as conducting all her royal duties, she’s a hands-on mum and the most loyal and supportive friend you could ever hope for. Finding the time and the balance to do all of that right is really quite genius. I think she’s just remarkable.”
A fiercely loyal friend and a straight talker
Despite being so close with the Queen, Sophie never forgot who her friends were and has remained “fiercely loyal” to them. She still has a core group of girlfriends from her pre-royal days and is always on hand to offer them advice.
Penny Mountbatten said: “She keeps them all very close. She is godmother to quite a few children and they all feel the same, that she is someone they can call any time for advice or guidance. Being the Queen’s daughter- in-law, and one that has such a particularly close relationship with her, could have changed her but it didn’t. She’s never forgotten her roots.”
One of her close friends, jewellery designer Belinda Scott, said: “You can sit down with her, and she will focus and sort it all out with you. And she’s pretty practical and logical. She is a fiercely loyal friend, who’d drop everything to help.’
One of the qualities Sophie is particularly admired for is her ability to speak her mind in a polite way. “She actually presents herself as an ordinary person and I think that is increasingly what the Royal Family needs to do,” said Amanda Pullinger, CEO of 100 Women in Finance.
“It’s interesting—she’s not nicey nicey. Of course, she’s polite, but she’ll tell you what she thinks. If she disagrees, she’ll say, and she’s done it to me a number of times.”
How the Queen’s death might change her role going forward
If Edward becomes the Duke of Edinburgh, as is expected, then his wife, Sophie, will become the Duchess of Edinburgh, meaning she will have more of a public-facing role. Behind the scenes, too, she is expected to offer a lot of support to the new Prince and Princess of Wales.
Mark Foster-Brown, who knows Sophie and Edward well, said her high empathy comes from her charitable work – speaking to people who have been in testing situations.
“She is really good at helping people out and being empathetic and saying the right thing,” he said. “She has a particular talent for hitting the right note and letting people feel that she really does care.
“I really hope that we will see more of both of them. If Prince Andrew and Harry are not going to be undertaking royal roles, then the core group is considerably smaller. I think the Wessexes should be in the front line.”