For all the attention lavished on the newest women to marry into the Queen’s family—Kate and Meghan—it can be easy to forget that the guideposted path they are walking was laid out by another in-law, Sophie, Countess of Wessex. Perhaps most famous for her stupendous hat collection and royally daring fashions, Sophie has carved out a role as a hard-working member of the House of Windsor, a confident woman who is free with warm laughs, and hugs for children. In addition, she and her husband, Prince Edward, have achieved something at which his siblings failed miserably and publicly: a happy, successful first marriage. On June 19, they celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary.
After years of toiling away in relative obscurity, Sophie, 54, is gaining increased attention for her work, as well as her style. Last week she undertook the royal family’s first official visit to Lebanon, where in addition to the usual diplomatic meetings, she met Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley and saw how NGOs are dealing with sexual violence in the conflicts of the Middle East, as part of her support of Angelina Jolie’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative.
Like Prince William and Kate Middleton, Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones had a long relationship before getting married, including quietly living together, so that public relations executive Rhys-Jones could fully understand the pros and cons of joining the most famous family in the world. And just like Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Sophie and Edward opted for the lower-profile, family-friendly wedding venue of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, and now live nearby, removed from the crowds and camera phone intrusions of London.
Like Kate and Meghan, she has had to deal with media intrusions. Shortly before her wedding, a photo of a topless Sophie was splashed over the front page of the Sun tabloid. (The newspaper later apologized and donated profits from the edition’s sales to royal charities.) And in one infamous incident, the media attention was of her own making. After her marriage, she continued her PR work until caught in a 2001 recorded tabloid sting badmouthing politicians—PM Tony Blair was “ignorant of the countryside,” while his wife “hates it”—while chatting indiscreetly about the royals and also suggesting her royal position could be financially beneficial to her business. The scandal raged for days. Sophie apologized and quietly shut down her private venture, as did her husband, who had a struggling TV production firm, becoming full-time working royals. The scandal showed why it’s all but impossible to balance a private-sector career with royal duties. The Sophie example is one reason why Meghan gave up her career from the moment she got engaged to Harry.
Other lessons are more benign. When Harry and Meghan passed on a title for their baby, Archie, they were following a precedent set by the Wessexes 16 years earlier. In 2003, when their daughter Louise was born, the older couple declined to use the style and title “HRH Princess” automatically due Louise, as the granddaughter of a monarch. Instead, they opted for the lower profile Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor, recognizing that she, and her younger brother, James, Viscount Severn, would move farther and farther away from the throne. (Currently, they are 12th and 13th in line. A detailed explanation of the title issue is here.)
Like all younger royals, Sophie and Edward spend a lot of time with their children, often blocking off school holidays on their work calendars. Having a family wasn’t easy for the couple. In 2001, she suffered an ectopic pregnancy that necessitated an emergency air lift to hospital. (Earlier this year, Sophie became the patron of Thames Valley Air Ambulance, which saved her life.) Two years later, she gave birth to a premature Louise after suffering complications that reportedly resulted in massive blood loss. Due to their delicate health, mother and daughter remained in hospital for some time. She’s believed to have undergone IVF treatments before becoming pregnant with their second child, James, born in 2007.
Sophie regularly undertakes around 250 engagements a year, and got a lesson from the Queen on how to handle what can be a grindingly repetitive schedule: “It doesn’t matter how tired you are—carry on,” the countess told Harper’s Bazaar in a rare interview. “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, and I hope I’ve learnt to try not to bounce into the room, but do things in a slightly more elegant way.”
Sophie is a firm favourite of the Queen, who enjoys spending time with her daughter-in-law. Whenever the Queen has family gatherings or vacations, it’s often Sophie and Edward who stay the longest. And the monarch has long opened her vast jewellery collection to her daughter-in-law.
Like all royals, Sophie has found areas of interest that she has made her own, including working with people with disabilities, Girl Guide-ing, as well as country associations and agricultural shows. The increasingly fashion-forward royal became patron of the London School of Fashion in 2013, which involves not just providing fashion students with business skills but also training female inmates to be seamstresses. She’s deeply involved in the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, which Edward took over from his now-retired father, Prince Philip. In 2016, she cycled more than 700 km from the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh to Buckingham Palace to raise funds for its 60th anniversary.
Recently, her most high-profile work has been for the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust. Set up to be a time-limited charity (established in 2012, it closes this year), the organization has focused on just two specific goals: creating and supporting a Commonwealth-wide network of young leaders, and ending preventable blindness. Sophie’s travels to promote its works include trips to India and Bangladesh, where the trust developed screening and treatment plans for diabetic retinopathy, as well as to Malawi, where blinding trachoma is a stubborn problem. The results have been impressive: so far, the trust has not only provided more than 20 million treatments in high-risk areas around the world, but it has trained surgeons and more than 40,000 workers to find people at risk of trachoma.
If previous years are any indication, Sophie and Edward will spend their 20th anniversary at Royal Ascot. It’s there that Sophie gets to indulge in her taste for spectacular British millinery fashions while betting on a few horse races with the Queen and other members of the royal family. She’ll also take risks at the über-competitive style sweepstakes that dominate media coverage. Sophie is increasingly confident, and willing to take risks. Last year, while Kate and Meghan wore traditional royal fashions, she tested the racecourse’s strict fashion boundaries by wearing a bright aqua Emily Wickstead jumpsuit. This year, perhaps she’ll opt for a trouser suit.