Sophie, Countess of Wessex
Sophie, Countess of Wessex, GCVO (Sophie Helen; née Rhys-Jones; born 20 January 1965), is the wife of Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, the youngest son of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Married in 1999, she worked in public relations until 2002 and now assists her husband in his various activities. The Earl and Countess have two children: James, Viscount Severn, and Lady Louise Windsor, who are respectively tenth and eleventh in line to the British throne.
|Countess of Wessex (more)|
|Born||Sophie Helen Rhys-Jones
20 January 1965
Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford
|Spouse||Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex
|House||Windsor (by marriage)|
Sophie Helen Rhys-Jones was born at Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, on 20 January 1965, the second child and first daughter of Christopher Bournes Rhys-Jones (born 1931), a retired tyre salesman and past president of the Old Brutonian's Association, his alma mater. Her mother was Mary (née O'Sullivan; 1934–2005), a charity worker and secretary. Sophie has an elder brother, David, and was named after her father's sister, Helen, who died in a riding accident in 1960. Her godfather, actor Thane Bettany, was her father's stepbrother; both men spent their early life in Sarawak, North Borneo, then a British Protectorate ruled by the White Rajahs.
Sophie was raised in a four-bedroom 17th-century farmhouse in Brenchley, Kent. She began her education at Dulwich Preparatory School, before moving on to Kent College, Pembury, where she was friends with Sarah Sienesi, with whom she subsequently shared a flat in Fulham and who later became her lady-in-waiting. Sophie then trained as a secretary at West Kent College, Tonbridge.
She began a career in public relations, working for a variety of firms, including four years at Capital Radio, where she was assigned to the press and promotions department, as well as public relations companies The Quentin Bell Organisation and MacLaurin Communications & Media. She also worked as a ski representative in Switzerland and spent a year travelling and working in Australia. In 1996, Rhys-Jones launched her public relations agency, RJH Public Relations, which she ran with her business partner, Murray Harkin, for five years.
While working at Capital Radio, Sophie met Prince Edward, the youngest son of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, for the first time in 1987 when he was dating her friend. She met Prince Edward again at a charity event in 1993, and the two began their relationship soon afterwards. Their engagement was announced on 6 January 1999. Edward proposed to Sophie with an engagement ring featuring a two-carat oval diamond flanked by two heart-shaped gemstones set in 18-carat white gold. This engagement ring was made by Asprey and Garrard (now Garrard & Co) and is worth an estimated £105,000. The wedding took place on 19 June of the same year at St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle, a break from the weddings of Edward's older siblings, which were large, formal events at Westminster Abbey or St Paul's Cathedral. On the day of their marriage, Prince Edward was created a hereditary peer as Earl of Wessex with the subsidiary title of Viscount Severn, and the Queen declared her intention that he be elevated as Duke of Edinburgh when that title reverts to the Crown. The couple spent their honeymoon at Balmoral Castle. Following their union, the Earl and Countess moved to Bagshot Park, their home in Surrey.
Sophie who has reportedly been close to the Queen since the beginning of her relationship with Edward was allowed to use the royal apartments at Buckingham Palace prior to her engagement. After the death of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in 2002, Sophie became the second highest-ranking woman in the U.K.'s order of precedence, preceded only by the Queen, as her brothers-in-law, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York, were then unmarried. With the marriages of the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge and changes in favour of princesses by blood for private occasions, Sophie now ranks after her sisters-in-law, the Princess Royal and the Duchess of Cornwall; her nieces, Beatrice and Eugenie; her niece-in-law Catherine and her mother-in-law's cousin Alexandra.
In December 2001, the Countess was taken to the King Edward VII Hospital after feeling unwell. It was discovered that she was suffering from an ectopic pregnancy and the foetus had to be removed. Two years later, on 8 November 2003, she prematurely gave birth to her daughter, Louise, resulting from a sudden placental abruption that placed both mother and child at risk, and the Countess had to undergo an emergency caesarean section at Frimley Park Hospital, while the Earl of Wessex rushed back from Mauritius. The Countess returned to Frimley Park Hospital on 17 December 2007, to give birth, again by caesarean section, to her son, James, Viscount Severn.
The Countess of Wessex's first overseas tour after her marriage was to the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island in 2000. She also became patron of a number of organisations, including the SAFC Foundation (the charitable arm of Sunderland A.F.C.) and Girlguiding UK. Moved by the death of her friend Jill Dando in 1999, the Countess became a trustee of UCL Jill Dando Institute, an institute of crime science established in her name in 2001. In 2003, after quitting her business interests she became more involved in charity works and started to carry out solo engagements on behalf of the royal family. She started to support charities that focus on communications difficulties, including Southampton General Hospital, and the New Haven Trust in Toronto. She also became patron of Tomorrow's People Trust. The Countess has also been the chair of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Women in Business Group since 2003, a committee that was founded by her. In 2006, she also lent her support to the Born in Bradford research project, which investigated causes of low birth weight and infant mortality between 2007 and 2010.
In December 2011, the Countess of Wessex joined her husband visiting troops in Afghanistan. On the same trip, the royal couple visited Bahrain, and received two gifts of jewels from the Bahraini royal family and Prime Minister. Given concern about human rights abuses in Bahrain, this gift attracted controversy, with calls for the jewels to be sold, and the proceeds used for the benefit of the Bahraini people. In February and March 2012, the Earl and Countess visited the Caribbean for the Diamond Jubilee, visiting Saint Lucia, Barbados, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, Montserrat, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Anguilla and Antigua and Barbuda. Highlights of the tour included the 50th Anniversary Independence Day celebrations in Saint Lucia, a joint address from both houses of the Barbados Parliament and a visit to sites affected by the recent volcanic eruptions in Montserrat. In 2013, the couple visited South Africa and Sophie later made solo trips to India and Qatar as the patron of the sight-saving charity Orbis UK. In her capacity as patron of Vision 2020: The Right to Sight and ambassador for IAPB, the Countess visited numerous facilities in Qatar and India in order to raise awareness about preventable blindness. Her work on the issue has been described as influential in creating the Qatar Creating Vision initiative. She subsequently wrote an article on the subject which was published on the Daily Telegraph in October 2013. She made a similar visit to Bangladesh in November 2017.
On 26 March 2015, she attended the reburial of Richard III of England in Leicester Cathedral. In September 2016, the Countess took part in a cycling challenge from the Holyrood Palace to Buckingham Palace for the Duke of Edinburgh's Award's Diamond Challenge. In December 2016, she participated in ICAP charity day in order to raise money for Shooting Star Chase, a children's hospice of which she has been a patron. At the same month, after the Queen stepped down from her position as patron of numerous charities, Sophie replaced her as the principal patron of NSPCC and Blind Veterans UK. An avid supporter of charities that deal with learning disabilities, the Countess made a solo trip to Belfast in January 2018 to visit a number of charities that she had supported through her work over the last decade including Mencap's Children's Centre. She also opened the new dementia-friendly unit of Northern Ireland Hospice, the first of its kind in the UK.
Fashion and style
Although Sophie was not initially prominent for her fashion style, she subsequently began to develop her own style and has worn outfits by Bruce Oldfield, Emilia Wickstead, Erdem Moralıoğlu, Mary Katrantzou, Oscar de la Renta, Valentino, Alexander McQueen, Victoria Beckham, Azzedine Alaïa, and Stella McCartney. Alongside the Duchess of Cambridge and Meghan Markle, Sophie has been named one of the most stylish members of the royal family. The Countess who has been able to create her own fashion trend throughout the past years is particularly known for wearing different combinations of hats and coats, and favours silk dresses and frocks. Describing her style in an interview by Sunday Express Sophie said: "It's about my charities but I recognize that I'm on display. [...] When you walk into a room, yes, people are going to talk about what you're doing there, but they're also going to want to know what you're wearing". She also revealed that she has never had a stylist of her own and that she makes her fashion choices herself. In 2015, the Countess was named on Vanity Fair's Best Dressed List. Together with the Duchess of Cambridge, the Countess hosted the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange reception at Buckingham Palace during the 2018 London Fashion Week.
Privacy and the media
Violation of privacy
In May 1999, less than a month before her wedding, the Sun published a photo of a topless Sophie with her Capital Radio colleague Chris Tarrant, which was taken during a business trip to Spain in 1988. Buckingham Palace immediately issued a statement saying, "This morning's story in The Sun is a gross invasion of privacy and cannot be regarded as in the public interest. It has caused considerable distress." Prime Minister Tony Blair also condemned the publication of the photograph. The Palace made an official complaint to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). According to Sophie's business partner the incident had left her "distressed", and she was reportedly "devastated" and felt "she was 'letting the side down’ before her wedding". Tarrant later said, "There was never, ever the slightest hint of romance between Sophie and myself, let alone these snidey insinuations." Following its publication, the newspaper issued a statement and apologised to Rhys-Jones and the next issue came out with the headline "Sorry, Sophie". It also said that it would again apologise to Sophie in a letter and donate all sale proceeds of the issue to her charities. The photo had been given to the tabloid by Kara Noble, a friend and colleague of Sophie, for £100,000. Noble later apologised in the following months saying, "I just want to say sorry to everyone who was involved." Both she and the newspaper faced criticism from the public, and Noble was fired from her job at Heart 106.2 FM. The couple later decided not to make a formal complaint.
In April 2001, Sophie appeared in the media after she was misled in a meeting at the Dorchester by a News of the World reporter posing as an Arab sheikh, Mazher Mahmood, who was later exposed for perjury in Southwark Crown Court. It was claimed by the newspapers that during their "secretly taped" conversation, the Countess had insulted the Royal Family and politicians, calling the Queen "old dear", and referring to Cherie Blair as "absolutely horrid, horrid, horrid", as well as criticising the leadership of Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, and mocking Leader of the Opposition William Hague's appearance. It was reported by the Mail on Sunday and Sunday Mirror that the Countess subsequently had sent apology letters to Blair, Hague and Prince Charles.
Buckingham Palace denied the accuracy of the reports saying, "The Countess of Wessex, who is trying to pursue her own career, is obviously vulnerable to set-ups such as this." The Palace released a statement saying the reported comments were "selective, distorted and in several cases, flatly untrue". The Palace officials stated that the Countess hadn't insulted the Queen, the Queen Mother, or the politicians, and the rumours about her difficulties in marriage and her alleged comments about her husband's sexuality were untrue, while according to the Mail on Sunday multiple reliable sources had confirmed these reports. Subsequently, in 2002, both the Earl and Countess announced that they would quit their business interests in order to focus on activities and official engagements on behalf of the royal family and aid the Queen in her Golden Jubilee year.
The Countess of Wessex has been criticised for accepting two sets of jewels from the royal family of Bahrain during an official day-long visit to the country in December 2011, as she and her husband returned to the UK from a trip to Afghanistan. She was given one set by Bahrain's king and a second set by the country’s prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa. Her husband, the Earl, received a pen and a watch as well as a silk rug from the Crown Prince of Bahrain, Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, who also gave the countess a silver and pearl cup. The value of the jewellery has not been estimated and its precise contents were not disclosed.
Critics said the Countess should sell the gems and give the proceeds to political protesters in Bahrain. Denis MacShane, then a Labour MP and previously a Foreign Office minister, said: “Given the appalling suffering and repression of the Bahraini people, it would be a fitting gesture for the Countess of Wessex to auction these trinkets and distribute the proceeds to the victims of the regime.”
Royal Family guidelines and procedures relating to gifts published by the government in 2003, state that "before accepting any gift, careful consideration should always be given, wherever practicable, to the donor, the reason for and occasion of the gift and the nature of the gift itself (..) Equally, before declining the offer of a gift, careful consideration should be given to any offence that might be caused by such action."
Titles, styles, honours and arms
Titles and styles
Since her marriage, Sophie has been styled as "Her Royal Highness The Countess of Wessex".
- 2010: Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order (GCVO)
- 2005: Dame of Justice Venerable Order of Saint John (DJStJ)
- 2004: Member of the Royal Family Order of Queen Elizabeth II
- 2002: Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal
- 2005: Commemorative Medal for the Centennial of Saskatchewan
- 2012: Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal
Honorary military appointments
- Colonel-in-Chief of the South Alberta Light Horse (since 2005)
- Colonel-in-Chief of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment (since 13 October 2004)
- Colonel-in-Chief of the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps
- Colonel-in-Chief of the Corps of Army Music
- Royal Colonel of the 5th Battalion The Rifles
- Honorary Air Commodore Royal Air Force Wittering
- Ship's Sponsor of HMS Daring
Sophie descends from the Lancastrian King Henry IV of England. She is also related to the family of the Viscounts Molesworth by the descent of her paternal grandmother – Margaret Patricia Molesworth (1904–1985) – from Robert Molesworth, 1st Viscount Molesworth. Sophie's paternal grandfather, Theophilus Rhys-Jones (d. 1959), was headmaster of St Peter's School, Harefield, Exmouth, Devon.
|Ancestors of Sophie, Countess of Wessex|
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The Countess's father, Christopher Rhys-Jones, past president of the OBA, was also present
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Mrs Rhys-Jones, a charity worker and secretary, has her own royal connection. As a young woman she once danced with Prince Philip at a society ball.
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....and has issue living, Cressida Helen b. 1971,– Christopher Bournes Rhys-Jones (Homestead Farmhouse, Palmers Green Lane...