Sophie, Countess of Wessex
Sophie, Countess of Wessex, , is a member of the British royal family. She is married to 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 is a full-time working member of the royal family who splits her time between her work in support of the Queen and many of her own charities and organisations. The Earl and Countess have two children: Lady Louise Windsor and James, Viscount Severn, who are respectively thirteenth and twelfth in line to the British throne.
Early life and familySophie Helen Rhys-Jones was born at Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, on 20 January 1965. Her father, Christopher Bournes Rhys-Jones, is a retired sales director for an importer of industrial tyres and rubber goods. Her mother was Mary, 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 descends from King Henry IV of England. She is related to the family of the Viscounts Molesworth; her grandmother, Margaret Rhys-Jones, née Molesworth, was the great-granddaughter of the Rev. John Molesworth, himself the father of Sir Guilford Molesworth and the great-grandson of Robert Molesworth, 1st Viscount Molesworth.
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.
MarriageWhile 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. The ring was made by Asprey and Garrard and is worth an estimated £105,000. Sophie, who was reportedly close to the Queen from the beginning of her relationship with Edward, was allowed to use the royal apartments at Buckingham Palace prior to her engagement. 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. It is understood that he will 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. While their private residence is Bagshot Park, their office and official London residence is based at Buckingham Palace. Due to renovations at Buckingham Palace in 2018, the couple temporarily moved their offices to St James's Palace.
in June 2013
The Earl and Countess have two children: Lady Louise Windsor and James, Viscount Severn.
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.
Public appearancesThe Countess of Wessex's first overseas tour after her marriage was to the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island in 2000.
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 June 2012, as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, the Earl and Countess of Wessex, represented the Queen during a three-day tour to Gibraltar. The couple attended a Queen's Birthday Parade and toured Main Street, in the historic old town.
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. The Countess as Colonel-in-Chief of Corps of Army Music, visited The Countess of Wessex's String Orchestra at the Royal Artillery Barracks, in London. On 3 March 2014, the Queen approved the title of "The Countess of Wessex's String Orchestra" for the new Army String Orchestra in recognition of the Corps of Army Music's Colonel-in-Chief. In November 2014, the Countess was in Zambia representing the Queen at the State funeral of the late President of Zambia, Michael Sata.
On 26 March 2015, she attended the reburial of Richard III of England in Leicester Cathedral. In May 2015, the Countess represented the Queen in the 70th anniversary celebrations to mark the Liberation Day of the Channel Islands. The Countess delivered a message from the Queen, who paid tribute to the island's continued allegiance and loyalty to the Crown. The Countess visited Canada and the United States in November 2015. While in Toronto, she criss-crossed across the city, making stops at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair and the UHN's Toronto General Hospital and Toronto Western Hospital, of which she is patron. The two-day tour to Canada comes on the heels of a stop in New York City, where she paid an emotional visit to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. The Countess also made an appearance at an Armistice Day service at the Queen Elizabeth II September 11th Garden, which was opened in commemoration of the 67 British victims of the attack. In the evening, Sophie attended the 100 Women in Hedge Funds Gala dinner in New York.
The Earl and Countess of Wessex were in Canada in June 2016, visiting Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. The couple toured a variety of places in and around Regina, Saskatchewan before attending the Globe Theatre's 50th anniversary gala. In March 2017, the Countess embarked on a 4-day visit to Malawi as Vice-Patron of The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, visiting programmes to end avoidable blindness and champion young leaders. On 9 May 2017, the Countess represented the British Royal Family during King Harald and Queen Sonja of Norway's 80th Birthday Celebrations. The Earl and Countess of Wessex represented the Queen at the 50th Anniversary Celebrations of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah's Accession to the Throne of Brunei in October 2017. On 30 November 2017, the Countess visited the ‘Making for Change’ fashion training and manufacturing unit at HM Prison Downview as London College of Fashion's Patron. 'Making for Change' is a fashion training and manufacturing unit established by the Ministry of Justice and London College of Fashion in 2014. During her visit, the Countess met staff and prisoners, including female inmates, and awarded participants with certificates as part of their training programme.
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. The Earl and Countess of Wessex visited Sri Lanka in February 2018 to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of Independence, Sri Lanka–United Kingdom relations, the Commonwealth, education and young people. In October 2018, the Earl and Countess of Wessex toured the Baltic states.
In March 2019, the Countess travelled to New York City to attend the 63rd session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The annual event brought together more than 9,000 gender equality representatives from around the world. The CSW is "the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women." From 29 April to 3 May 2019, the Countess, Vice-Patron of the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, visited India in her final overseas tour as vice-patron ahead of the Trust's planned closure in January 2020. The Countess saw the work the charitable foundation has supported to tackle avoidable blindness and heard about programmes successfully launched by Queen's Young Leaders.
In July 2019, the Earl and Countess, visited Forfar on their first official visit to the town since the Queen granted the Earl the additional title Earl of Forfar in March 2019. Later in October, the Countess visited Kosovo to meet victims of sexual violence after the Kosovo War and their families. In March 2020, Sophie became the first member of the royal family to visit South Sudan. During the visit, which was requested by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Countess of Wessex met victims and survivors of gender-based violence and promoted their rights by meeting the female political leaders in the country.
Charity work and patronagesThe Earl and Countess of Wessex established their foundation The Wessex Youth Trust in 1999 to support initiatives and charities that help children and young people. In 2000, she became patron of a number of organisations, including Foundation of Light which develops educational and community programmes in northern England, based around football. 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 ending 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 a learning centre for children with autism. She also became patron of Tomorrow's People Trust which helps the disadvantaged to find work, housing and a place in society. The Countess became patron and ambassador of Meningitis Now, a charity that supports people who have experienced meningitis, and raising awareness of the disease. In February 2003, she became patron to The Scar Free Foundation, a medical research charity raising and investing funds in wound healing, burns and cleft research. In 2003, she succeeded Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother as patron of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists. The Countess, who was a Brownie as a child, became the new president of Girlguiding UK in 2003. She took over the presidency following the death of Princess Margaret in February 2002. She established the Women in Business Group in 2003 to support the Duke of Edinburgh's Award reach more young people and help them develop skills that can transform their futures. The Countess became Brainwave's president in 2003, a charity providing therapy for children with developmental delay. In June 2003, she became royal patron of the Greater London Fund for the Blind which raises funds for smaller charities for visually impaired people in London. The Countess has been National Autistic Society's royal patron since August 2003. She took over this role from The Princess Royal. In 2004, she joined St John Ambulance as Grand President and heads the work of St John's County Presidents who provide a variety of support for their local St John members. She has supported ChildLine for many years, and became their first patron in 2005. In 2006, she 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 September 2006, she was appointed an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
The Countess is a keen supporter of agriculture, farming and food production and held the position of Show President of the Royal Bath and West Show in 2010 before becoming Vice Patron in 2011. She is also Patron of the Association of Show and Agricultural Organisations and has been Patron of The Border Union Agricultural Society since its bicentennial year in 2012. The Countess also works to support the ‘Campaign for Wool’ which was set up by The Prince of Wales and aims to promote the use of British wool. In 2013, the Countess became the first ever Patron of London College of Fashion. In June 2013, she was appointed global ambassador for The Duke of Edinburgh's International Award Foundation, an umbrella body co-ordinating organisations running The Duke of Edinburgh's Award worldwide. She has been the chairman of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Women's Network Forum since January 2014, a committee that was founded by her whose goal is the advancement of gender balance and equality by influencing business leaders, inspiring the next generation and sharing best practice. In June 2014, the Countess was appointed the patron of Ubunye Foundation based in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. This is a rural development trust dedicated to unlocking the potential of rural communities.
On the Countess's 50th birthday, she became Vice-Patron of The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, a charitable foundation established in 2012 for Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee. The Trust is a time-limited charitable foundation and planned to close, on 31 January 2020. In February 2015, the Queen gave a joint reception to celebrate the patronages and affiliations of the Earl and the Countess of Wessex as well as their 50th birthday at Buckingham Palace. Elizabeth, accompanied by the couple, met key supporters, staff, volunteers and alumnus from the charities of which they are patron or president, as well as representatives from their various military appointments. In November 2015, 100 Women in Hedge Funds announced that the Countess will serve as Global Ambassador of 100WF’s Next Generation initiatives.
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 Diamond Challenge. The ride raised more than £180,000 for the DofE's Award, which was celebrating its 60th anniversary. The Countess received a diamond pin to mark her completion of the Diamond Challenge. Farming organisation Linking Environment And Farming in October 2016 named the Countess as its new Honorary President. In November 2016, she was announced as Women of the Future's official ambassador which supports and celebrates the successes of young women. In December 2016, the Countess 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, Blind Veterans UK and British Cycling Federation.
The Countess was elected president of the Devon County Agricultural Association in February 2017. In May 2017, as Patron of the British Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association the Countess attended its 90th anniversary as well as the athlete awards dinner. The Ice Maiden, five British Army women, received royal patronage from the Countess for their ambitious coast-to-coast ski expedition across Antarctica in October 2017. The team aimed to inspire women and girls everywhere to challenge perceptions and grow their ambitions. In January 2018, the Countess became the Royal Patron of the Nursing Memorial Appeal. The Appeal aims to create a memorial dedicated to the 1,500 nurses who gave their lives in First and Second World Wars. In February 2018, Westmorland Agricultural Society welcomed the Countess as its president.
In January 2019, the Countess became the patron of the air ambulance service that helped save her life. Sophie was airlifted to hospital from her home in Bagshot Park, by Thames Valley Air Ambulance in 2001, when she suffered a potentially life-threatening ectopic pregnancy.
On 29 January, the Countess was elected President of The Royal Smithfield Club. The Countess has become increasingly involved with the agricultural world in recent years and supports a number of farming organisations. The Club promotes the education and knowledge to advance best practice in the meat and livestock industry.
On International Women's Day March 2019, the Countess officially announced her involvement in taking a stand against sex crimes in conflict zones, joining Angelina Jolie to work with the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative as well as Women, Peace and Security formed 20 years ago to tackle the impact of armed conflict on women and girls, and to promote the positive role women play in building peace and stability. On 25 April 2019, it was announced that the Countess, along with her husband, the Earl of Wessex and her brother-in-law, the Duke of York, have each been appointed vice president of the annual Royal Windsor Horse Show. The Queen is patron and the Duke of Edinburgh is president. In May 2019, she took over the patronage of the Chartered Management Institute from the Duke of Edinburgh.
After twenty years of operation, the Wessex Youth Trust was renamed the Earl and Countess of Wessex Charitable Trust in 2019 and its management was transferred to the Private Office of the Earl and Countess of Wessex. It was announced that the Trust's broad charitable objectives would not change, however, their future efforts would be aimed towards supporting a different range of charities.
In April 2020, the Countess helped Rhubarb, a catering company, in preparing and delivering food to NHS staff amidst the coronavirus pandemic. It was later reported that she was participating in an initiative organised by Ian Wace to help with preparing food for front-line NHS staff across London. To mark the International Nurses Day in May 2020, the Countess helped the Nourish our Nurses charity group with packing and delivering food for nurses and healthcare staff.
Fashion and styleAlthough Sophie was not initially prominent for her fashion style, she subsequently began to develop her own style and has worn outfits by many notable fashion designers. The Countess has exclusively worn Jane Taylor millinery designs since 2009 on numerous occasions. In a Marie Claire interview, Jane Taylor described her first royal commission: "My first royal client was the Countess of Wessex, and it was quite nerve-racking. But she wears such lovely clothes and she always looks so fabulous, so it's quite easy to design for her. Since she came to see me, she's never worn any other milliner's hats, which is a big compliment. I was really excited, honored, and slightly nervous." Alongside the Duchess of Cambridge and the Duchess of Sussex, 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 privacyIn 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. 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 was sold to the tabloid by Kara Noble, a former friend and colleague of Sophie. 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.
Media stingIn 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 had not 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.
Jewellery giftsThe 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 armsSince her marriage, Sophie has been styled as "Her Royal Highness The Countess of Wessex". On 10 March 2019, the Queen granted the Earldom of Forfar to the Earl of Wessex for use in Scotland. Sophie thus uses the title Countess of Forfar when in Scotland.
- 2002: Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal
- 2004: Royal Family Order of Queen Elizabeth II
- 2005: Dame of Justice Venerable Order of Saint John
- 2010: Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order
- 2012: Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal
- 2017: Service Medal of the Order of St John
- 2005: Commemorative Medal for the Centennial of Saskatchewan
- 2016 Canadian Forces Decoration
- 2017: Sultan of Brunei Golden Jubilee Medal
- 2015: Sash of the Order of the Aztec Eagle
Honorary military appointments
- 2004: Colonel-in-Chief of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment
- 2005: Colonel-in-Chief of the South Alberta Light Horse
- 2003: Colonel-in-Chief of the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps
- 2005: Colonel-in-Chief of the Corps of Army Music
- 2006: Ship's Sponsor of HMS Daring
- 2006: Royal Colonel of the 5th Battalion The Rifles
- 2008: Honorary Air Commodore Royal Air Force Wittering