The Real Housewives of Windsor

It’s hard to believe that it has been 13 years since Sophie Rhys-Jones walked down the aisle at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor and walked out as HRH, The Countess of Wessex. From the beginning, Sophie seemed determined to do things differently than previous Windsor Wives and for a while it looked like she might succeed. She was going to be a working wife, continuing to pursue her career in PR, while fulfilling royal duties as needed. She even talked of putting of having royal offspring while she and Edward enjoyed married life. Over the past 13 years, Sophie has weathered a host of storms including infertility, racy photos, questions about her business and a tabloid scandal that rocked the monarchy but Sophie came through relatively unscathed and has even taken the former Kate Middleton under her wing to teach her the ropes.

When her relationship with Prince Edward was first revealed to the public, Sophie was often compared to Princess Diana. Both were tall, leggy blondes with short hair and English rose complexions, close in age (Diana was born in 1961, Sophie in 1965), but the resemblance was only on the surface. While Diana came from an aristocratic background, Sophie came from a decidedly middle-class one. Her father, Christopher, was a successful retired tire salesman, and her mother Mary was a secretary. Sophie’s mother even took in typing at home to help send her and her brother David to Dulwich Preparatory School and then to West Kent College.

While Diana used to joke that she was “thick as a plank,” Sophie obtained 8 O-levels and 2 A-levels in English and Law. Diana’s parents famously split up when Diana was little; Sophie’s parents were happily married until her mother’s death in 2005. Before her marriage, Sophie trained as a secretary and had a successful career in public relations, while Diana flitted from one low-paying job after another. Diana was a very immature 20 years old when she married Prince Charles after a short courtship. Sophie was a mature woman of 34 who had dated her prince for over five years before she walked down the aisle at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. Diana and Fergie’s family had royal connections stretching back centuries, Sophie’s only connection was that she was descended from the 1st Viscount Molesworth, a 17th century diplomat with links to the Stuart Kings of England and the Queen Mother, making Sophie and Edward cousins of sorts. While Diana had to contend with the continued presence of Camilla Parker-Bowles in her husband’s life, Sophie had to contend with rumors that Prince Edward was gay.

Sophie even met her Prince like other modern couples, through her job. The couple met at a strategy meeting to discuss The Real Tennis Challenge, an event to raise funds for the Duke of Edinburgh’s scheme in 1993. Sophie later ended up standing in for Sue Barker for the photo-call with Edward, her hand resting lightly on his shoulder. She expressed interest in the game of ‘real tennis’ (the version that Henry VIII would have played) which was Edward’s sporting passion. Intrigued, Edward asked her out. Somehow they managed to keep the relationship secret for three months before the tabloids found out.

To the royal family, Sophie must have seemed like a breath of fresh air. They were under pressure when she came on the scene. The monarchy was facing criticism from over everything from the Civil List, whether the Queen should pay taxes, as well as the disastrous marriages of the royal children. Sophie was neither a compassionate fashion icon like Diana nor a loose cannon like Sarah Ferguson. “You wouldn’t notice her in a crowd,” the Queen was overheard telling the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. Sophie was seen to be unthreatening, a mixture of solid middle-class conventionality mixed with media modernity. Colleagues from work described her as always game for a laugh and down to earth. The editor of OK! Magazine, one of her clients, said “She’s not a girl of extremes and that’s essential to her character. She’s a person who can cope.” Together Sophie and Edward seemed as sexy and exciting as bread pudding. Sophie got along with most of the Royal Family especially Prince Philip but also Princess Anne who had never befriended either of her two previous sisters-in-law. Princess Diana allegedly called Sophie, “little Miss Goody Two Shoes,” behind her back.

The couple announced their engagement their engagement in January of 1999. At the press conference, the couple held hands affectionately as they showed off Sophie’s ring. Unlike his older brother Prince Charles, who famously declared, ‘whatever in love means,’ Edward said, “We are the best of friends and we happen to love each other very much.’ When asked if she found the prospect of joining the Royal Family daunting, Sophie answered honestly, ‘It is slightly nerve-racking in many ways. But I am ready for it now and I am fully aware of the responsibilities.’ Sophie had time to get a good look at royal life over the past several years. She’d been invited to join the Queen for family holidays at Windsor, Balmoral and Sandringham. A blind eye was turned when Sophie spent the night with Prince Edward at Buckingham Palace. She was even given her own pass to come and go as she pleased. She became well acquainted with the “men in grey” who had made Diana and Fergie’s lives as Royals so difficult. Both Diana and Sarah were jealous that Sophie was getting special treatment they had been thrown to the wolves. Prince Edward had even taken the step of sending an open letter to the press asking that they back off of Sophie. Sophie seemed almost too good to be true.

Three weeks before wedding, the first scandal hit the headlines. London's biggest tabloid, The Sun, printed a topless picture of Sophie. What should have been a tempest in a teapot became a national uproar in the wake of Princess Diana's death, which was widely blamed on Fleet Street's disregard for royal privacy. The outcry was so enormous the tabloid Sun actually issued a groveling apology. The 11-year-old snapshot showed Sophie gallivanting with radio disc jockey Chris Tarrant during a 1988 business trip to Spain. At the time, Sophie was working for Capital Radio as a PR executive. The picture showed Tarrant pulling up a laughing Sophie’s bikini top, exposing one breast. The photographer, Kara Noble, was paid £40,000 for the photo but in the backlash after their publication, she was sacked from her job as a disc jockey. While the scandal was tame compared to the pictures of a topless Fergie having her toes sucked in the South of France, the publication signaled the end of the honeymoon between Sophie and the Press.

The nuptials of Sophie and Edward on June 19, 1999 were a much more low-key affair than his siblings’ weddings, which took place at Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Since all three of those weddings ended in divorce, perhaps Prince Edward was hedging his bets by getting married at Windsor. Whatever the reason, Edward and Sophie had made it clear that their wedding was not to be a state occasion. On his wedding day, he was created The Earl of Wessex. Sophie’s new title would be HRH The Countess of Wessex. Eventually the plan was that after the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh’s death, Edward would inherit his father’s title. The wedding was attended by 560 guests and an estimated 200 million viewers around the world. Some commentators called it the “people’s wedding,” and 8,000 people were picked at random and invited into the castle grounds.

Unlike the over-the-top 80’s confections worn by Diana and Sarah, Sophie wore a simple dress made of hand-dyed silk organza and silk crepe, with long sleeves and the detail consists of rows of pearls and crystal beading around the neck, sleeves and train, with further beading down the back and front of the dress-coat. 325,000 cut-glass and pearl beads were sewn on the dress, which was corseted, with a V-neck. To accompany the dress, the bride also wore a black-and-white pearl necklace, interspersed with white gold rondels, and a matching pair of black-and-white pearl drop earrings, designed by Prince Edward and made by Asprey and Garrard as a wedding gift from Edward. Sophie wore a diamond tiara, from the Queen's private collection, consisting of three open-work scroll motifs, designed and re-modeled by the Crown Jeweler, David Thomas, and Asprey and Garrard.

Soon after their wedding, it was announced that the royal couple would be balancing their professional lives with their royal duties. The Queen was said to be behind the couple’s decision. The couple took a 150 year lease on the 57 room Bagshot Park in Surrey, paying £5 million pounds for a property that on the open market would be worth at least 6 times as much. It is one of the largest Royal homes; even Prince Charles’s beloved Highgrove is not as big. Prince Edward went back to work at the moderately successful production company that he’d started in 1993, Ardent Productions while Sophie continued on with her PR firm RJH. But from the beginning there were questions about whether royalty and commerce should mix. Even before the wedding, Sophie was accused of using her relationship with Edward to drum up business. The longer her romance with Edward continued, the more her career seemed to flourish.

Her critics said a big “I told you so,” when in 2001, an undercover reporter for the tabloid News of the World, Mazher Mahmood, posing as an Arab sheikh, recorded Sophie making disparaging remarks about Cherie Blair as "absolutely horrid, horrid, horrid" and criticized the prime minister's leadership style as "too presidential". It was also claimed that she boasted that she was the Royal family’s savior and calling the Queen ‘the old dear.’ It also appeared that Sophie was using her royal connections to drum up business. The story was picked up by the Daily Mail and other media outlets, humiliating the Countess. Although Buckingham Palace issued a statement suggesting that the reported comments were ‘selective, distorted and in several cases, flatly untrue,’ the damage was done. Sophie herself issued a statement that read, that she regretted the embarrassment she had caused after being taken in by the reporter's scheme. “I am deeply distressed by the carrying-out of an entrapment operation on me and my business but I also very much regret my own misjudgment in succumbing to that subterfuge.” For a supposedly smart and savvy business woman, it never seems to have occurred to Sophie to check out her new potential client. Landing such a lucrative account seemed to outweigh her common sense. Unlike Fergie who could at least claim alcohol as an excuse, Sophie drank nothing but mineral water during the meeting.

The news brought back memories of ‘Squidgygate’ and ‘Tampongate’ when the Wales’s phone calls were taped and then published in the tabloids. Sophie compounded her error by sending personal letters of apology to Blair, Hague and Prince Charles. The tabloid turned over the tapes to Buckingham Palace in exchange for a 5 page interview with Sophie, in which she discussed IVF & Edward’s sexuality. Instead of being a breath of fresh air, Sophie was in danger of been seen as no better than her predecessors. Her partner resigned but Sophie was hoping to ride it out but clients began to leave, outraged by publicity. Later that fall, Prince Edward got into trouble for filming at St. Andrew’s University as his nephew Prince William matriculated for a documentary. In 2002, both the Prince Edward and his wife announced that they would quit their business interests to focus on royal duties full time and to aid the Queen during her Golden Jubilee. To take some of the sting out having to give up their careers, the Queen increased the annual allowance to £250,000, essentially paying them not to work.

Sophie, by all accounts, was devastated at having to give-up the business that she had worked so hard at developing for a life of ribbon-cutting and garden parties at Buckingham Palace. She had founded RJH in 1996 with her business partner Murray Harkin, and had been a dedicated career woman before her marriage. The company had a prestigious client list that included the Lanesborough Hotel in London, Boodles & Dunthorne, Thomas Goode China, DFS Furniture chain, Rover Cars, and the Banyan Tree Hotel in Phuket, Thailand. According to an article in London’s The Daily Mail, the company was in talks to sell the business for £3.5 million (8 years later the company folded owing £1.7 million). However devastated she might have been, she also seemed resigned that if she wanted her marriage to work, she would have to make a success of her life as a royal instead. There were some who took great delight in her downfall, who felt that Sophie had developed a case of ‘red carpet fever’ when she married the Queen’s youngest son, that she got caught up with being a member of the Royal Family. She’d once remarked that she was the ‘second lady of the land’ and apparently had the attitude that went along with it.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Sophie also had problems conceiving. In December of 2001, Sophie was brought to King Edward VII Hospital after complaining that she didn’t feel well. It was soon discovered that she was suffering from an ectopic pregnancy. She lost both the baby and an ovary. Two years later, she went into premature labor, resulting from a placental eruption, giving birth to a daughter Lady Louse on November 8, 2003. Sophie had to have a caesarian, and it was touch and go for a while for both mother and daughter. She lost a considerable amount of blood, and was said to be 20 minutes away from death. And then their daughter, Louise, was born with extropia, an eye condition that left her with one eye turning outwards. Longing for a second child, the couple went through a number of unsuccessful IVF treatments, before conceiving their son James, Viscount Severn (born December 17, 2007), naturally after almost four years of trying. It was an emotionally devastating time for Sophie, who had to watch several women on staff at the Palace give birth, while she struggled to conceive. Neither children will either have or use the style HRH at their parents’ request. Both Sophie and Edward wish for them to have as normal an upbringing as possible.

Through it all, the Queen has been a huge supporter of Sophie. They share a strong bond and an interest in military history, and horses. Sophie is reportedly the first of The Queen’s daughters-in-law with home she has enjoyed a permanently warm relationship. While The Queen’s relationship with Camilla has thawed, they will never truly be close, and so far Prince Andrew has declined to remarry after his divorce from Fergie. The Queen even went so far as to pay a secret visit to Sophie when she was in the hospital after the traumatic birth of Lady Louise which was unprecedented. They became even closer after Sophie lost her mother to cancer in 2005. The Queen and Sophie take regular horseback rides around Windsor Great Park, and the Queen has even been known to pop around for tea at Bagshot Park unannounced. In 2010, Sophie was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order. Honorees are chosen by the Queen personally for this honor rather than recommended by the Prime Minister.

Now 47, Sophie has proved to be a valuable member of the Royal Family. Unlike the Duchess of York who keeps making the same mistakes over and over again, but expecting a different result, Sophie learned from her earlier mistakes, and has not put a foot wrong since. She has even stepped it up fashion-wise in recent years, showing off a trimmer figure, and more stylish wardrobe of tall hats, and platform shoes. Articles in such diverse publications as Hello Magazine, The Telegraph and Majesty Magazine have all remarked on her transformation over the years. Another sign of how well thought of Sophie now is, she volunteered to take Kate Middleton under her wing, to show her the royal ropes after her engagement. She’s also become good friends with Princess Charlene of Monaco. Over the years, Sophie has been able to use her PR skills to good use to help the charities she’s patron of, including Born in Bradford research project, which investigates the causes of low birth weight and infant mortality.

Edward and Sophie are now the Queen’s go to Royals to represent her on overseas trips and at royal weddings. In 2011, they attended the wedding of Prince Albert II of Monaco to Charlene Wittstock. To celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, they traveled to the Caribbean as well as a controversial trip to Gibraltar. As the Queen and Prince Philip cut back on their engagements, Sophie and Edward will no doubt continue to have a high profile until Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge become full-time royals.



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paula key said…
It is important that royals procreate…and as a lesbian, I am happy for heterosexual royals as for any heterosexual woman and man.

This was a post about gay royals. I have no problem that being a royal has its drawbacks if you are gay…
but I'd like some honesty.

If Edward is gay or bi-sexual, he has obviously worked it out with his wife.
Isn't this wonderful.

If Sophia and Edward have worked out a relationship based on honesty and love, does it matter if Edward has male lovers. In the past, heterosexual royals had mistresses.

Allen Perry said…
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Esclarmonde said…
The Duchess of Cornwall has always been the favourite of HM The Queen, she has wonderful photographs of Camilla with Prince William and Prince Harry taken long before her marriage to Prince Charles.

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