Sarah, Duchess of York

Twenty-two years ago, a fun loving, flame-haired woman named Sarah Ferguson became engaged to the Queen's second son, Prince Andrew. She was hailed as being a breath of fresh air to the Royal Family, with her cheekiness and wacky outfits (does anyone recall some of the horrors that she showed up in at Royal Ascot before the wedding?), the contrast to her sister-in-law to be, Princess Diana whose persona as 'Shy Di' had captivated the nation five years prior.

Unlike the Prince and Princess of Wales, it was clear that Prince Andrew and his bride to be were madly in love. Sarah vowed to be the perfect navy wife, standing by her man, while she learned her royal duties. So what went wrong? How did Sarah, Duchess of York go from being the bright shining hope of the Royal Family to a pariah in less than six years? To being called names in the tabloids like "The Duchess of Pork" and "Freeloading Fergie"?

Sarah Margaret Ferguson was born on October 15, 1959 to Major Ronald Ferguson and his wife the former Susan Wright. Although the Fergusons were not titled like the Spencers, the family were descended from Charles II through two of his illegitimate sons, the 1st Duke of Richmond, and James Crofts. Like the Princess of Wales, she came from a broken home and was raised by her fathers before being shipped off to boarding school. Her mother Susan had run off with another man, in Sarah's case, her mother moved half-way around the world to Argentina to live with her second husband Hector Barrantes, a polo player. Like Diana, Fergie had grown up on the fringes of the Royal Family, her father was for years the polo manager for Prince Charles. In her autobiography My Story, she wrote that as a child she used to sneak away from her father's polo matches, "to play tag with other like-minded truants - including Prince Andrew, who was just my age."

As a child, Fergie loved horses and won many prizes in horse shows. Like Diana, Sarah left school early, taking a secretarial course at Queen's Secretarial College, before going to work for a public relations firm. Eventually, she worked for an art gallery and then a publishing company that specialized in coffee table books. Without an inheritance to buy a posh pad, like Diana's in Coleherne Court, Fergie lived with a series of roommates in places like Lavender Hill in Clapham. Unlike Diana, however, Sarah had a past. Not only had she had several boyfriends, but she'd been involved for years with race car driver Paddy McNally, a much older man who had was divorced with two sons. She was at impasse in her relationship with Paddy, when she was invited to spend the weekend at Windsor Castle in June of 1985 to celebrate Royal Ascot where she renewed her acquaintance with the Queen's handsome second son.

Andrew, at this point in his life, was also at an impasse. He'd returned from the Falklands Island war with a taste of what it was like to have actually been in combat, something that his older brother Prince Charles had not experienced. He'd been thwarted in his relationship with the actress Koo Stark, once it was revealed that she'd appeared in several soft-core films. Both seemed ripe to fall in love when they met. There was some flirting over profiteroles that Fergie swore Prince Andrew tried to make her eat, although she was meant to be on a diet. The relationship was virtually incognito for months (unlike Prince Charle's courtship of Diana) before it was revealed when Sarah went to greet Andrew's ship when he returned from sea.

On a house visit to Floors Castle in Scotland, seat of the Duke of Roxburghe, Prince Andrew proposed and was accepted, although Sarah later admitted that she told him that he could take it back in the morning if he changed his mind. After a short engagement, the couple were married on July 23, 1986 at Westminster Abbey, in a ceremony that was seen around the world by a billion people. As a sign of her love for her prince, Sarah had even had his initial embroidered on the train of her gown.

And first Sarah could do no wrong. While Diana was coming under increasing criticism for her lavish wardrobe and for eclipsing the Prince, Sarah was seen as jolly good fun, exactly the type of woman that the British love, not afraid to have a good time, bad fashion sense, cheeky and not afraid to poke fun at staid tradition. Diana seemed to have an ally in The Royal Family, another outsider to commiserate with, against the establishment that seemed to want to see her fall from grace. Up until Fergie's arrival, Diana had felt increasingly isolated. Prince Charles had his own friends and hobbies, she never really felt close to the Queen, and Princess Anne had no use for her.

Diana, at first joined in the fun, with Fergie. Poking passers-by with their umbrellas at Ascot, dressing up as policemen to crash Prince Andrew's bachelor party at Annabel's, clowning around on the slopes at Kloster's, but as the press built Sarah up and tore Diana down, it seemed as Diana started to distance herself. Soon Sarah herself felt the string of the press. She was criticized for leaving her baby Beatrice to join Prince Andrew on tour, for her poor dress sense, her weight, and for being less Princess like than her sister-in-law. All the things that the press initially loved about her, now they hated.

Meanwhile, Fergie felt increasingly lonely while Andrew was away in the Navy, she saw him on average 42 days a year. Apparently even when he was home, he spent more time playing golf then he did with his wife, making her a golf widow as well as navy widow. The birth of their two daughters, Beatrice on August 8, 1988 and Eugenie in March of 1990 didn't bring the couple together. Even her attempts to learn to fly a helicopter to share her husband's interests was to no avail, although she became the first royal woman to gain a pilots licence. Like the Princess of Wales, Sarah was thrown into the deep end of engagements with no guidance or training whatsoever, left to make mistakes left and right.

Sarah turned to writing, publishing a series of children's books about Budgie, the Helicopter. Although they were successful, she was again criticized for not donating all the funds to charity, and there were rumors that the stories were similar to another series that had been published years before. Her family didn'thelp matters, her father Ronald Ferguson was caught frequenting a massage parlor, the pictures splashed all over the tabloids. Although he proclaimed his innocence, however it led him to leave his post as Prince Charles's polo manager and his position at the Guards Polo Club. Fergie was also accused of taking too many holidays and of accepting too many free gifts. Then there was the debacle of The Royal Knockabout, a televised tournament that Prince Edward produced with celebrity teams led by Andrew, Sarah, Fergie, and Edward that embarrassed The Royal Family. Despite Prince Andrew receiving an allowance from the Civil List, the money didn't begin to cover their lifestyle. There were criticisms over the building of the York's house Sunninghill, which the tabloids dubbed South York. And the couples agreeing to appear in Hello! Magazine after the birth of Beatrice was also criticized. Sarah found herself increasingly in debt, building up an overdraft that at one point amounted to about $4MM.

Unlike the days of the Prince Regent, who could rely on Parliament to advance him the necessary sums to clear up his debts (which led to his marriage to Princess Caroline of Brunswick), there would be no help from The Royal Family towards Sarah's debts. In early 1992, the Palace announced that the Duke and Duchess of York were separating. It was another blow to the monarchy that had already seen Princess Anne's marriage collapse, and the increasing cracks in the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales.

After the separation, things seemed to be cordial between Sarah and the Queen, until photographs of Sarah and her 'financial advisor' Johnny Bryan in compromising positions were published in the newspaper. Although the Duke and Duchess were legally separated, the pictures of Johny Bryan sucking the Duchess's toes while she sunbathed topless (Sarah later claimed in her autobiography that he wasn't but the pictures tell another story) led many to believe that she had been cheating on the Duke before their separation. Later on more pictures were found of the Duchess with Steve Wyatt, the son of a rich Texan, that were conveniently left in his flat after he moved back to the States.

Were the pictures just found as was claimed or were they part of a conspiracy to damage the Duchess's reputation further? What about the photographers who just happened to be in the South of France? Theories abound that Princess Diana was responsible for some of the leaks to take the heat of her own situation. Whatever the reason, it damaged Sarah's relationship with the crown, and didn't do much for her public reputation either. Ironically, the Duke stood by his estranged wife. However, they were divorced in 1996 and Fergie was stripped of the title HRH, leaving her Sarah, Duchess of York, a title that she is allowed until she remarries.

Unlike the Prince and Princess of Wales, there was so rancor between the Duke and Duchess. Despite their later divorce, the two stayed friends, taking vacations together with their daughters, even sharing the marital home at Sunninghill until it was eventually sold. Sarah even describes her ex-husband as her 'bestest friend.' Despite both having romances with other people, neither one has ever remarried, and there has always been speculation that one day they might reunite.

Life for the Duchess after leaving the royal fold seemed to go more smoothly then it did for the Princess of Wales. She became the US spokesperson for Weight Watchers, an association that she continues to this day, she published a book on Queen Victoria and her house on the Isle of Wight, she's served as a guest host on Larry King's popular program on CNN, she has her own line of jewelry and candles, and published her autobiography My Story. All her commercial activities are confined to the United States so that she isn't seen to be embarassing the Royal Family. She's become known now more for her charity work, including Children in Crisis a charity that she founded, than for her more scandalous years as a member of the Royal Family.

After her mother's death, it was revealed that Sarah had been taking care of her mother for years after the death of her husband, Hector Barrantes in a car accident, she'd even shared her divorce settlement with her.

Another thing that Sarah and the late Princess Diana had in common was that they were both devoted mothers. Sarah and her two daughters, Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie are very close. On her 18th birthday two years ago, Princess Beatrice declaired that her mother was the woman who inspired her the most. "She leads by example and her behavior is one that I'd really like to follow," she was quoted as saying. A far cry from the days when the press and the establishment deplored her behavior!

Unfortunately, Sarah and Diana had a falling out before Diana's death over some things that Fergie wrote in her autobiography, including the claim that Fergie ended up with something called veruca from borrowing Diana's shoes. Before they could make up, Diana was killed in France in the car crash that shocked the world.

From being a total embarrassment to Mother of the Year, Sarah, Duchess of York has reinvented herself and become a person of substance in her own right. Now approaching her 49th birthday, she seems more assured and sophisticated than the rather jolly girl who charmed the nation with her lively personality.

In her autobiography, she wrote, "I was never cut out for royalty....I have my life back and I will not let go of it. And I might just live happily ever after."

This post prepared with help from Wikipedia.

For more information:

Sarah, Duchess of York - My Story


Very nice piece on Sarah! I enjoyed it. It's too bad we don't hear more about her.
Anonymous said…
Thank you for writing this article. I had been wondering what ever became of her, and am glad she is doing well.
Thanks Susan. I have a real fondness for Sarah. I think she got such a bad rap while she was a member of The Royal Family, and I always thought that it was really sad that she and Andrew couldn't make it work, although they seem to have maintained a loving friendship over the years. Apparently even the Royal Family has thawed towards her in recent years as well, and she has nothing but good things to say about the Queen.

Yes, Dale, she is doing wonderfully well isn't she? I have real admiration for the way that she's pulled her life together, and her daughters seem to be real ladies who happen to be Princesses.
Anonymous said…

I was just wondering about some of the earlier pics of Sarah.... like say the first three years of marriage when she went on lots of Royal duties, made all kinds of visits and was photographed a million times.

Her popularity in those years even put Princess

Di in the shade.

I m wondering where all these pics are... you d think they would be somewhere on the web.

Ok there are lots of pics... in agencies etc

of Sarah in the last two or three years

but surely some of the old photos must be out there somewhere .

thanks for any info

Pierre said…
Certainly she seems to have had her faults but she is gorgeous, vivacious, intelligent and fun. Andrew should have stuck with her.

Popular posts from this blog

The Many Lives of Beryl Markham

Scandalous Women in Fiction: Irene Forsyte

Royal Princess, Royal Scandal - the sad life of Princess Margaret