Between Harry and Meghan’s departure for Los Angeles and coronavirus, which has sidelined Queen Elizabeth from all but the most carefully choreographed virtual public appearances, there’s a big hole in the royal roster. Though Charles has reportedly argued for a more streamlined (read: smaller) monarchy for years, right now the operation still requires a few ancillary family members to cut ribbons and attend photo ops around the United Kingdom–projects that George and Charlotte aren’t quite ready to take on. And so Americans will likely be seeing a lot more of an unfamiliar face: Enter Sophie, Countess of Wessex, Elizabeth’s beloved daughter-in-law, and the answer to both the royals’ temporary short-handedness and the high drama of the last year. Once a “middle class” newcomer to the family, she’s now the perfect, unflashy supporting player for the monarchy’s retreat to being as stable—and as staid—as possible.
Sophie was stepping up her appearances even before the logistics of covid-19 sidelined senior royals and has done a flurry of virtual engagements in recent weeks. Sophie Rhys-Jones arrived on the scene in 1993, when she met Prince Edward—she was working in publicity and apparently doing promo for a charity tennis tournament. They dated for five years before announcing their engagement in 1999. She was a less likely princess than her predecessors: Diana had been the daughter of an illustrious aristocratic family and her grandmother was a lady-in-waiting to the Queen Mother; Fergie had at least been floating around the outer limits of the royal orbit, as her father was Prince Philip’s polo manager. Sophie was, instead, “a middle-class career woman” who was also “the daughter of an auto-parts salesman and a homemaker,” who worked periodically as a secretary, explained Sally Bedell Smith in her biography of Queen Elizabeth. Though she is apparently related, somewhat distantly, to the “Viscounts Molesworth,” who are real, and not characters from a children’s picture book series about anthropomorphic animals.
Her supposedly lowly birth inspired some occasional pushback: In this AP footage from the run-up to her wedding, a “royal watcher” carped that, while Sophie was charming, “ideally, sons of the Queen of England do not end up marrying people whose father was once a tire salesman.” Ironic, the idea that Sophie’s background might be embarrassing, considering the type of loathsome person with whom her brother-in-law has associated. Nor did it seem to bother the queen.
But Sophie, most of all, was stable, and even a bit boring. She had early, ugly run-in with the notoriously rough British press when The Sun published topless photos taken on a vacation years earlier in the weeks before the couple’s wedding, but the paper was quickly forced to apologize and afterward she rarely provided particularly good copy. That was then a real balm for the Windsors after the many scandals of the 1990s. “Sophie’s marriage has the ring of a rebranding exercise about it,” wrote a commentator at The Independent at the time of their wedding, citing her “Home Counties stability” and “squeaky-clean reliability,” before calling Edward and Sophie “about as sexy as yesterday’s mashed potato” at their engagement shoot. However anything as chaotic as electric sex appeal was unwelcome, after more than a decade of high drama in which three of the Queen’s children divorced, and just two years after the horrible death of Diana and as Fergie was still promoting Weight Watchers, Ocean Spray, and other American consumer brands. The Windsors were in a rebuilding period.
Sophie and Edward had expressed a desire to keep their wedding fairly low-key, a fact that seems to have charmed an American audience that loves to have it both ways. “At Windsor, Royal Wedding Has a Common Touch,” read the New York Times headline; the story continued, “It was the marriage of a prince who prefers to be called “mister” to a suburban girl turned downtown publicist bringing a commoner’s touch to the starchy British monarchy.” (Though the Times did note that the wedding was only modest in comparison to the family standard of majestic opulence.) The ceremony was carried live on MSNBC, with a presenter who announced that, “The groom and his older brothers broke with tradition, arriving not by car but on foot, a sign of the modern monarchy for Princes Charles, Andrew, and Edward—mingling with the crowd.” The segment packaged the wedding as a fairy tale, but a relatable one, a slightly informal “modern” couple still wrapped in cursive and Union Jack bunting.
By Sophie’s unveiling, at the turn of the millennium, the American public’s fascination with the Windsors was at an ebb; the glory days of trash tabloid-driven celebrity culture were just kicking off, and movie stars drunk-driving around Los Angeles were the order of the day. The fascination with the royals didn’t begin to tick back up until the advent of William and Kate as an engaged couple (though Hollywood film The Queen helped prepare the way). The international market for royal gossip just couldn’t support global fame for the polished but fairly low-key wife of Queen Elizabeth’s youngest son. And besides, Sophie just wasn’t up to much. After initially trying to hold down regular jobs and exist as royals—resulting in an embarrassing scandal in which Sophie was called “indiscreet” for talking to a tabloid reporter who frequently went undercover as a “fake sheik”—the couple resolved the conflict by shutting down their outside projects, adopting a low profile, and quietly dedicating themselves to the least flashy aspects of “working royal” life.
But after years of quiet work as president or patron of 70 charities, doggedly staying (mostly) below the media radar, Sophie has become one of the queen’s favorites. “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,” a senior royal aid told the Sun; she routinely rides to church in the backseat with her mother-in-law, for instance, a sign of Elizabeth’s esteem. Sophie is a great example of what it really takes to succeed as an outsider joining the Firm: jettisoning all your other plans and devoting yourself wholly to showing up, smiling, and saying as little as possible. (The life of a princess comes at a cost, even if it’s a life marked by luxury.) And so she is perfectly positioned to take up any slack. Beatrice and Eugenie have been bandied about as royals who could fill in for Harry and Meghan. But they’re another generation away from the sovereign, they’re not already working royals, and—through absolutely no fault of their own—they’re stuck with the baggage of their parents the Duke and Duchess of York’s many embarrassing public missteps.
And so it’s unsurprising that in the wake of Harry and Meghan’s departure, Sophie is appearing more and more on the Royal Family Instagram account. She was already a steady presence on behalf of the Queen, and since the pandemic really took hold, she’s done a series of video conferences about coronavirus response and appeared in Instagram videos touting the online resources available to parents at home with their children and with her own family, clapping for NHS workers and others on the frontlines.
Of course, she’s in no way a replacement for the megawatt star power of Harry and Meghan. While she’s stylish, the Countess of Wessex has stubbornly resisted such outright Hollywood glamour over the years, and besides, major-league fame requires the back-and-forth of positive and negative narratives, as Sharon Marcus explained in her book The Drama of Celebrity. Harry and Meghan will have to contend with the ins and outs of celebrity as part of their new lives in Los Angeles; Sophie just shows up, does her bit, and leaves. Playing the dutiful representative of the Queen doesn’t really make for a juicy, long-running supporting role in the soap opera that is the Windsors. But that’s exactly what the monarchy doesn’t want right now. Once again, Sophie is being tapped to show up in the wake of somebody else’s drama and be as resolutely polite and boring as possible.