SHE has kept her emotions under control while in the public gaze, but the redness around her eyes speaks volumes about how the Countess of Wessex has been deeply affected by the loss of her mother-in-law.
For Sophie, 57, the Queen’s death means not only a step up in the royal hierarchy, but the sudden absence of the maternal figure with whom she spoke most mornings.
Sophie’s memories of being with the Queen this summer are particularly fresh.
Along with her husband Prince Edward, she took their daughter Lady Louise Windsor, 18, and son James Viscount Severn, 14, to stay at Balmoral.
They enjoyed all the usual Highland pursuits with, says a friend, “not a shadow of what was about to happen a few weeks after they waved goodbye to the Queen”.
The suddenness of the sovereign’s death has hit Sophie hard. Her friend says she, along with the rest of the family, “thought they had plenty of time left”.
They “fully expected” to see the Queen at Windsor, where she was expected to return as normal in October.
Windsor formed the bedrock of Sophie’s relationship with the Queen.
Most Saturday afternoons Sophie would drive the 10 miles from her home at Bagshot Park to the castle, where the Queen would be waiting for a good catch-up over tea.
This was followed by a session of war films and historical documentaries, which the pair loved to watch together – a source of their closeness.
“They watched countless films together,” says a royal source.
“If some particular event or battle caught their imagination, the Queen would sometimes arrange for the Royal Archives – kept at Windsor – to be opened so the two could pore over any relevant documents.
“Sophie is very keen on history, she’s proud of her knowledge of military campaigns, and she and the Queen could chatter on for hours about whether this general or that admiral made the right move in some battle or another.”
These hours spent in the Queen’s sitting room at Windsor strengthened the bond between the monarch and her daughter-in-law.
The two began spending more time together soon after the Queen lost her sister Princess Margaret, followed by her mother just seven weeks later in 2002.
Three years later Sophie mourned the death of her mother Mary, who died from cancer aged 71.
Not only did the Queen enjoy Sophie’s company but, remarkably, for someone who had gotten things so badly wrong when she was newly married to Edward, she came to be viewed by Her Majesty as the Royal Family’s safest pair of hands.
She also has a reputation as a peacemaker – visible last week when she leaned in to exchange words with Meghan Markle while the Royal Family waited for the arrival of the Queen’s coffin at Westminster Hall.
The Duchess of Sussex seemed visibly more relaxed after the exchange of words as the pair shared their grief.
Given Sophie’s seemingly unassailable position as the sovereign’s favorite, she was well-placed to offer lessons to the latest female member of The Firm.
A member of the Wessex circle informs me: “Sophie was one of the first to invite Meghan, on her own, to Bagshot for tea.”
However, they added: “They got on perfectly well, but Sophie could feel they were never going to become the best of friends.
“Let’s just say that Meghan seemed to have her own agenda and was not in the market for words of advice, however well-intentioned.”
The calm, incisive, self-assured and thoughtful Countess we see today is a long way from the awkward figure who, early in her marriage, was still running her own public relations consultancy.
She created a ‘royals for hire’ storm when she posed next to a Rover 75 at the Frankfurt Motor Show, having secured a £250,000 contract to publicize it.
When Sophie finally gave up her PR company and committed herself to a life of full-time royal duties, there was doubt over whether she would ever be able to erase the memory of such indiscretions.
“What helped to remove that doubt,” says one royal observer, “was that the Queen had long spotted certain qualities in Sophie as a royal consort – probably before her youngest son did.”
The Queen was said to be irritated by how long Edward was taking with the romance – it was six years, and Sophie was 34 by the time she made it up the aisle at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor.
As such, Her Majesty uniquely arranged for Sophie to have her own pass to enter Buckingham Palace, enabling her to stay overnight in the royal apartments, where Edward had his suite of rooms, whenever she wished.
Sophie herself has acknowledged that the Queen found her “different” because she had known another life in commerce before marrying her prince.
She said in a speech: “I am rare because I am one of the few ladies in the British Royal Family who has had a professional business career and her own company.”
Embraced royal life
Sophie was not born to live in a stately home. She was brought up in the Kent commuter belt where her father Christopher Rhys-Jones worked as a tire company executive.
But she has embraced the rural pursuits beloved by the royals.
One friend, who knew her before her royal marriage, observes: “In her early days of marriage, Sophie set herself a series of tasks – she’s quite driven and focused like that – of learning how to ride properly, how to fish, how to shoot game and, more recently, carriage driving.”
Her friend adds: “She became like a daughter to Her Majesty, they were that close.
“It was a view that was shared by Prince Philip, who admired Sophie for the way she buckled down to her duties.
“Not only has Sophie flourished as a dedicated member of the Royal Family, she has brought up two well-balanced teenagers.
“The Queen was also mindful that Sophie’s marriage has survived where her other children’s relationships have failed – and she knew that was in no small part down to Sophie’s dedication.
The Queen was mindful Sophie’s marriage has survived where her other children’s relationships have failed – and she knew that was in no small part down to Sophie’s dedication
“She is aware, as Edward’s mother, what a tricky creature he can be.”
An example of Sophie’s closeness to the Queen came from Sandringham, where the staff on duty on a Sunday would amuse themselves by placing bets on who would accompany the Sovereign in the Rolls Royce to the morning service at St Mary Magdalene Church.
No money exchanged hands in this below-stairs contest, because nine times out of 10, they knew exactly who would be in prime position in the cream leather comfort of the Rolls backseat.
“If Sophie was staying at Sandringham then you can pretty much guarantee the Queen would ask her – usually last thing on a Saturday night – if she would like ‘a lift’ to the church,” said a former royal equerry.
“And the same happened at Balmoral. The Queen liked to be completely calm before church and she found Sophie’s presence soothing.”
‘Safe pair of hands’
Sophie is now confident and relaxed when dealing with the public – evident in the sensitive way she answered questions from a crowd the day after Philip died.
Watched by her slightly-startled husband, she told them his passing was “so gentle, like someone took him by the hand, and then he went.” Very peaceful, which is what you want for somebody, isn’t it?”
It was the second time Sophie had spoken in public about her father-in-law’s death.
The day before she had responded to a question about how the Queen was bearing up, revealing she was “thinking of others before herself – she’s amazing”.
Now that the Queen has passed away, the public has already witnessed more of Sophie’s qualities that HM spotted so early.
Sophie, who is already connected with some 70 charities and organizations, will reportedly take on a host of the Queen’s patronages, including the Women’s Institute and the Dogs Trust.
And when King Charles announces, as he is expected to in the next few weeks, that Edward is to become the Duke of Edinburgh – in accordance with Prince Philip’s wishes – Sophie will become a royal duchess.
A well-deserved promotion.