The enduring marriage of Prince Edward and Sophie, Countess of Wessex – who celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary

Edward’s vow to play a careful game pays off.
Prince Edward and Sophie Wessex wedding day

They’re a rarity among their generation of royals – a couple who’ve managed to stay married.

Prince Edward and his wife Sophie, Countess of Wessex, are celebrating their 20th anniversary this month, which makes them unique among his siblings.

Edward’s brothers Prince Charles and Prince Andrew, and his sister Princess Anne, have all been divorced, making him the only one of the Queen’s children to still be married to their first spouse.

So how have the Wessexes managed to avoid the royal divorce curse?

It seems it all comes down to the simple fact that Edward married the right woman.

Sophie Rhys-Jones was a mature, capable 34-year-old businesswoman who knew what she was letting herself in for when she said her vows at St George’s Chapel on June 19, 1999.

She and Edward had been together for six years and already had a strong relationship.

That was in stark contrast to Charles’ bride, Lady Diana Spencer, a shy, naive 19-year-old kindergarten teacher he barely knew before they married.

When they married, Sophie was a PR professional in her thirties who’d been dating Edward for six years.

Edward had witnessed the disintegration of his siblings’ marriages before he met PR professional Sophie at a tennis match in 1993.

Anne had separated from Captain Mark Phillips in 1989 and they divorced in 1992, the year it was announced that both Charles and Andrew were parting company from their wives, Princess Diana and Sarah, Duchess of York.

Edward didn’t want history to repeat itself, says royal biographer and the editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine Ingrid Seward.

“The failures of the marriages of his beloved sister Anne and then in rapid and ever more embarrassing succession, Andrew and Charles, made Edward even more determined to put caution before commitment,” she says.

As soon as their relationship became public, Edward (55) warned the media not to hassle Sophie (54).

“I am very conscious that other members of my immediate family have been subjected to similar attention and it has not been at all beneficial to their relationships,” he said.

He took his time proposing, and when the engagement was announced, there was not the same frenzy over a royal wedding that his brothers had experienced, perhaps because everyone expected the union would end the same way.

“The country has shown no signs of investing its romantic dreams in this couple as it did with Charles and Diana,” wrote one media commentator in the lead-up to the big day.

“Nor has it gushed a welcome to the modern, middle-class bride as a ‘breath of fresh air’ in the Sarah Ferguson mould.”

While public optimism for the couple’s future may have been low, those who knew them were convinced they were well suited.

Reverend Peter Nott, who married the couple, said, “I think one of the wonderful things is how the two of them have been so very committed to this big step. They are lovely people with a great sense of warmth, kindness, humanity and humour, and a deep seriousness about this.”

Edward had witnessed the disintegration of Charles and Diana’s marriage and was determined to do better.

(Credit: Getty Images)

When it came to how Sophie – the daughter of a tyre company sales director and a secretary – was likely to handle royal life, her friends had full confidence in her.

“If anyone can cope with it, then she can,” said Murray Harkin, her business partner in PR agency RJH. “She is very discreet, loyal and extremely level-headed.”

Apart from one misstep early in the marriage – when she had an indiscreet conversation with a businessman who turned out to be an undercover reporter and published her unfavourable opinions of several people – Sophie has displayed a quiet self-assurance throughout her marriage, endearing herself not only to her husband, but his mother, the Queen.

Her Majesty recognised early on that Sophie was good for The Firm as well as for Edward.

To help the couple get to know each other, the Queen arranged for Sophie to have her own pass to Buckingham Palace, where Edward lived, so she could stay overnight with little fuss.

Sophie has earned a place as a confidante of the Queen.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Edward and Sophie now live at Bagshot Park, just 18km from Windsor Castle, and they and their children, Lady Louise (15) and James, Viscount Severn (11), see a lot of the royal matriarch, often popping over for afternoon tea.

The Queen and Sophie have a shared interest in horses and military history, which has brought them closer together.

A royal insider says Sophie loves listening to the Queen talk about historical events, and the pair sometimes disappear for hours to the Royal Archives at Windsor, where they pore over ancient documents together.

“She is trusted and relied on by the Queen in a way I couldn’t say applied to the Duchess of Cambridge or the Duchess of Cornwall,” says a royal aide.

“She is like another daughter to Her Majesty, they are that close. Sophie has filled a terrible gap in the Queen’s life that was left when her sister Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother died in 2002. She talks to Sophie the same way she used to talk to Margaret.”

Meanwhile, the Queen was a great support to Sophie when her mother Mary died, aged 71, in 2005.

Sophie’s father Christopher is often invited to royal family events that other in-laws, including the Middletons, are excluded from. He stays discreetly in the background.

The Wessex family attend church on Christmas Day.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Sophie’s discretion is thought to be a key reason for the survival of her marriage and her popularity with the Queen, but she’s also valued for her work ethic.

Since stepping away from her PR company after the undercover-reporter scandal, she has devoted herself to royal duties and raising her children, carrying out her work with the minimum of fuss.

Often, there is little or no media coverage of the engagements she carries out, either solo or with Edward.

In April, she visited India on behalf of the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, but the trip failed to generate the same attention as a visit by Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, or Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, would have.

She spoke out on issues such as preventing sexual violence against women and providing better care for premature babies, a cause particularly close to her heart as her daughter Louise was born prematurely.

After watching a film on the subject at a reception in New Delhi, she admitted she’d seen it twice before and each time it had

made a huge impact.

“Each time I see it, it makes me cry,” she said. “Every time I see anything to do with premature babies, it takes me back to those early days, the shock of Louise’s early arrival and then the realisation that she had a sight issue, which we would have to manage.”

A source close to the Wessexes says the trauma of Louise’s birth – during which Sophie nearly died – and the way she dealt with Louise’s vision problems brought her and Edward closer.

He admires the way she coped and he also appreciates how laid-back she is when it comes to her royal status.

For a few years after Sophie married Edward, she was the highest-ranking royal woman behind the Queen and Princess Anne, but has slipped down the rankings as Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, Kate and Meghan have married into the family.

“Sophie is not troubled about that,” says the source.

In April 2019 Sophie visited premature babies and their mothers in India.

(Credit: Shutterstock)

She also lost her right to have royal protection officers outside of official engagements in 2012.

Her brother-in-law Andrew kicked up a fuss because his daughters Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie lost their police protection at the same time, but Sophie was “entirely relaxed”, confides a friend.

“It meant they could live life as an ordinary family, which is how she was brought up. Sophie is at her most content when she is driving the children to school in her blue Jaguar and picking them up again.”

Sophie usually does her own hair and make-up, and sometimes drives herself to engagements. Her efforts are greatly appreciated by Edward, the source says.

Body language expert Judi James believes the way Sophie conducts herself is one of the reasons the marriage has gone the distance.

“Judging from her history and her body language, I would suggest it’s largely down to Sophie. She integrated into the royal family in a very unfussy way and was a perfect complement for her husband’s trait of apparently taking himself a little too seriously.”

Edward himself summed up the secret of their success, not long after they married.

“We were the very best of friends and that’s essential,” he said. “It also helps that we happen to love each other very much.”

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