‘The newly-promoted Sophie is the royal family’s secret weapon’
As questions remain over whether the Duke and Duchess of Sussex will attend the coronation in May, the King need not fear a lack of strong women being there to support his most important day.
He will be joined by his wife Camilla, who will crowned alongside him and surrounded by the Princess of Wales, the Princess Royal and the newly-promoted Duchess of Edinburgh.
Dubbed the new Women of Windsor soon after the death of Queen Elizabeth II in September, these four powerful figures are expected to take a prominent place in the King’s reign, their roles even more in the spotlight since the departure of Charles’ daughter-in-law Meghan.
READ MORE: Royals begin confirming attendance at Charles’ coronation
While Princess Anne, Camilla, Catherine and Sophie have all had prominent roles in the monarchy for some time, none have had the spotlight turned on them as quickly as the Duchess of Edinburgh, formerly titled the Countess of Wessex.
Since the Duke and Duchess of Sussex stepped back from their places as senior working royals in 2020, Sophie and her husband Prince Edward have helped to fill the void left by Harry and Meghan.
They found themselves busier than ever when the Queen’s health began to decline, with the monarch eventually handing over more of her official duties to the remaining senior working royals.
Sophie and her husband were given the ultimate tick of approval last week when they were promoted by King Charles, who conferred his late father’s title the Duke of Edinburgh on his brother Prince Edward on his 59th birthday, March 10.
It was a fitting reward for Sophie, who carried out 138 official engagements in 2022, more than the Prince and Princess of Wales and Queen Camilla.
She’s also been a full-time working member of the royal family for 21 years.
The last woman to hold the title of Duchess of Edinburgh was Queen Elizabeth II. The Dukedom of Edinburgh was given to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten in 1947 when he married the then-Princess Elizabeth and although the rank sits high within the royal family, it does not come with any land or income.
Regardless, it is a step above countess and comes with the added benefit that Sophie will no longer have to curtsy to the Duchess of Sussex, now the two women are of equal rank.
Friends of Sophie say she is “relieved” not to have to show deference to Meghan, someone “who has not only left royal duties but has spent the past three years criticising the institution that Sophie works so hard to support”.
From similar humble beginnings to both Meghan and Kate, Sophie, 58, has been the other quiet achiever in the House of Windsor, forging a close bond with the late Queen to become one of the monarchy’s most valued members.
As The Firm marks a new beginning with the coronation on May 6, we can expect to see a lot more of the Duchess of Edinburgh who has become the royal family’s secret weapon of sorts.
From humble beginnings to royalty
Before marrying into the British royal family, Sophie Rhys-Jones grew up in Kent in a middle-class family. Her mother was a secretary and her father a tyre salesman.
She worked in at a ski resort in Switzerland and spent a year travelling around Australia, doing various jobs.
READ MORE: Sophie’s special tribute to late Queen in her funeral outfit
She returned to London in 1991 and started dating Prince Edward in 1993 and three years later, formed her own public relations firm, RJH Public Relations.
But in 2001, Sophie gave up her career to focus on her royal life and representing the Queen full time.
Much like Meghan, before the wedding, she was criticised by some sectors of the media for being the “girl next door” prompting Prince Edward to write to newspaper editors asking them to stop “destroying our private life and, more importantly, Sophie’s life”.
When it came to their nuptials at Windsor Castle – where Prince Harry and Meghan also tied the knot – Sophie and Edward kept things much smaller and more private.
They married inside St George’s Chapel on June 19, 1999, in a relatively simple wedding with no ceremonial state or military involvement.
They were given the titles of Earl and Countess of Wessex by Queen Elizabeth.
Prince Edward and Sophie have two children: Lady Louise Windsor, 19, and James, Viscount Severn, 15.
They live at Bagshot Park, a 120-room residence within the grounds of Windsor Great Park.
Prince Edward and Sophie decided not to give their children His or Her Royal Highness titles or prince and princess titles, even though they were eligible to do so under the Letters Patent created by King George V in 1917 and later amended by Queen Elizabeth II.
Sophie previously told The Sunday Times she and Edward “try to bring them up with the understanding they are very likely to have to work for a living”.
Even though the couple is now Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh, Sophie has reportedly said it was “highly unlikely” their children’s titles would change.
That’s in stark contrast to Prince Harry and Meghan’s views on the issue.
They recently confirmed their two children would be known as Prince Archie and Princess Lilibet, titles they are now able to use as grandchildren of the monarch (previously they were the great-grandchildren, making them ineligible).
Though that decision could be motivated more by Prince Harry and Meghan’s financial ambitions rather than loyalty to the monarchy.
One major reason for Sophie stepping back from her career in PR three years after her wedding was due to her being caught up in a sting organised by now-defunct tabloid News of the World, dubbed the the ‘Fake Sheikh’ scandal.
During the embarrassing incident, in which a reporter posed as a “fake sheikh”, Sophie was caught calling the Queen an “old dear”, the then prime minister “President Blair”, and his wife Cherie “horrid, absolutely horrid”.
Prince Edward, too, came under fire for breaking palace privacy rules when his production company, Ardent Productions, was caught filming his nephew, Prince William, at university.
They later wound up both companies and dedicated themselves to full-time royal duties.
Queen Elizabeth’s ‘favourite’
Despite being involved in such a compromising incident, the Duchess of Edinburgh managed to keep her head down to become one of the Queen’s closest confidants.
She and Prince Edward would later gain the reputation as being the royal family’s ‘safest pairs of hands’ through their dedication to official work, largely conducted without much fanfare.
In 2021, an article in The Telegraph UK called the then-Earl and Countess of Wessex “the monarchy’s most underappreciated troopers”, having served the UK and Commonwealth for nearly 25 years while other, more popular royals, got the attention.
Their roles became even more prominent with the death of the Duke of Edinburgh and the retirement of Prince Andrew.
The void left by Harry and Meghan, too, gave them a bigger opportunity to carry out their duties to much greater press attention.
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Speaking about that shift, the countess told the publication: “Inevitably the spotlight and the focus falls on younger members as time goes on…We’ve plodded along doing what we’re doing, hopefully doing it well.
“And then all of a sudden there’s a bit of a hiatus and things have changed a bit.
“Naturally, the media are looking for people to fill the so-called void. But you know, we have been doing this for what feels like a pretty long time!
“If people want to pay more attention to what we’re doing then great, because actually, that’s got to be good for our organisations and the work that we are trying to carry out.”
They are now among the busiest members of the royal family.
In the years since her marriage to Edward, Sophie was often called the late Queen’s “favourite” daughter-in-law.
One of the duchess’ former aides said: “That’s why she’s the Queen’s favourite daughter-in-law – she’s down to earth and just gets on with it”.
The duchess is believed to have become even closer to the Queen when Prince Philip died in 2021.
They used to speak on the phone daily if Sophie could not make the short visit to Windsor Castle, where the Queen lived in her final years.
They were so close, the countess often referred to the monarch as “mama” in public, including during speech at Buckingham Palace in 2019.
“Their bond is very like a mother and daughter and the feeling of love and respect is quite mutual. It is very special,” a source said of their relationship.
When the former Duke of Edinburgh died, Sophie was the first member of the family to speak about his passing to the media, showing how important she had become to both the monarch and the institution.
Mentor to Meghan and ‘peacemaker’
The Duchess of Edinburgh was so trusted by the Queen she was asked by the monarch to help instruct newcomer Meghan Markle learn the ropes before marrying Prince Harry.
Writing in Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait author and friend of the royal family Gyles Brandreth said the sovereign understood how hard some aspects of royal life could be for those from non-noble backgrounds.
“The Queen (who, of course, had seen it all before) understood that Harry’s girl might find adjusting to royal life ‘challenging to begin with’ (as she put it).
“To help Meghan, the Queen suggested that her daughter-in-law, Sophie Wessex, would be an ideal mentor. ‘Sophie can help show you the ropes,’ said the Queen.
But, he adds, “Meghan made it clear that she did not feel she needed Sophie’s help. She had Harry.”
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However, Sophie is said to have been the first royal to visit Meghan after the Duchess of Sussex gave birth to Archie, choosing to drive herself to Frogmore Cottage to welcome the baby and check on Meghan, rather than wait for their catch-up to be scheduled by royal aides.
Sophie was later labelled the family’s “peacemaker” when she approached Prince Harry after Philip’s funeral, speaking to him for around 30 minutes, after the then-Duchess of Cambridge had also reached out amid tensions following the Oprah Winfrey interview weeks before.
When the Queen died, Sophie and Meghan rode together in a car to Westminster Hall for the lying in state service. Kate had accompanied Camilla, the Queen Consort, in a separate car.
A source told The Telegraph UK at the time: “Like Meghan, she’s not only had a professional life before royalty but she also knows what it feels like to be vilified in the press. She understands what Harry and Meghan are going through.”
Sophie is one of the most fashionable members of the royal family and has developed a love of British designers including Emilia Wickstead and Suzannah.
She is often seen wearing a full-skirted midi dress with a belt, floaty tea dresses or wide-legged trousers and a fitted jacket.
Sophie’s favourite accessory brand is Sophie Habsburg and is seen at most engagements carrying a clutch from the French-born, Rome-based designer who is also known as Archduchess Sophie of Austria.
Much like the Queen, Sophie opts for a comfortable shoe and is regularly seen wearing wedges and block heels.
One of the countess’ most iconic looks was seen at Royal Ascot in 2018 when she became the first member of the royal family to trial the event’s new jumpsuit dress code, wearing a bespoke creation by Emilia Wickstead.
Recently to a state banquet at Buckingham Palace were tiaras were part of the dress code, Sophie wore another jumpsuit, this time by Suzannah.
The Duchess of Edinburgh is patron of more than 70 charities and organisations and is one of the busiest members of the royal family.
In October, 2021, she was the first member of The Firm to travel to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The historic visit was made to address the impact of sexual and gender-based violence in conflict. While there, Sophie met survivors and helped to tackle the stigma they face.
Her work on gender-based violence in conflict has seen her travel to Kosovo, Lebanon, South Sudan and Sierra Leone.
She once revealed she had gone to “some very dark places” whilst working with sexual violence victims, describing the “tears dripping off your chin” when you hear their stories.
Another area of focus for the countess is supporting people with disabilities and the prevention of blindness in developing countries.
The issue was partly inspired by her experiences with daughter Lady Louise, who was born prematurely and suffered exotropia – a condition that turns the eyes outwards.
Lady Louise can now see without any issues following a series of corrective operations.
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