Royal Wedding of Edward and Sophie

If the tabloids had their way, this royal wedding would be remembered as the saga of Sophie's bared breast. It is a poignant story, even a little tawdry, about a bashful prince and a canny career girl.

Royal Wedding of Edward and Sophie

If the tabloids had their way, this royal wedding would be remembered as the saga of Sophie's bared breast. It is a poignant story, even a little tawdry, about a bashful prince and a canny career girl. But it is also a thoroughly modern tale, a comment on contemporary ideas about some old institutions, marriage and the British monarchy in particular. The heroine, of course, is Sophie Rhys-Jones, the commoner from Kent set to marry Prince Edward of the illustrious House of Windsor, seventh in line to inherit the throne now occupied by his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. For a time, it seemed as if Sophie and Edward's impending nuptials on June 19 might well unfold quietly, not exactly unnoticed perhaps, but certainly the least public royal wedding in modern history, even though it will be televised live around the world. But then a naughty snapshot in a racy tabloid appeared - and things changed. "Everyone began to feel sorry for Sophie and suddenly remembered, 'Oh, there's a wedding happening,' " says veteran royal watcher Judy Wade.

There were, to be sure, howls of indignation when London's Sun chose to publish last month the now-infamous picture, an 11-year-old snapshot of British television star Chris Tarrant playfully tugging at Rhys-Jones's bikini top to reveal a single breast during a car trip to Spain. "Premeditated cruelty," complained Buckingham Palace, "a gross invasion of privacy." Kara Noble, Rhys-Jones's former colleague who took the photo and sold it to the Rupert Murdoch-owned daily for a reported $920,000, was fired by her employer, a London radio station. Even Prime Minister Tony Blair felt moved to issue a public condemnation. In the face of the outcry, the Sun agreed to donate all profits from syndication of the photo to charity and published a grovelling, full-page apology. "We thought we were printing a saucy, but harmless, picture," said the newspaper. "We thought it showed the fun-loving side of a woman who is bringing a breath of fresh air to the royals. We were wrong."

Still, if the photo had not appeared when it did, there was a good chance that Sophie and Edward might well be married in St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle as they had originally hoped, in something approaching relative privacy, or at least as close to that state as any royal marriage can be. "It is certainly the wedding that has attracted the least enthusiasm of any royal wedding in my lifetime," laments ardent royalist Harold Brooks-Baker, publishing director of Burke's Peerage, the authoritative guide to the British aristocracy. And that speaks volumes, not only about lurid public appetites, but also about the continuing uneasy state of the House of Windsor as it struggles to redefine itself amid all the pressures to modernize the British monarchy.

Much is riding upon Edward's union with Sophie. He is the last of the Queen's four children to reach the altar. All of the other marriages ended in failure, generally in spectacular fashion. The public has become seriously disenchanted after the unending years of royal soap opera - the divorces, the adultery, and the tragic saga of Diana, Princess of Wales. "Another royal bust-up could be fatal," warns Brooks-Baker. "Sophie and Edward are going to be closely watched. I would not like to be in their shoes."

From the outset, both the prince and his bride-to-be seem to have recognized the perils. Neither can be described as freshly minted. Edward is a balding 35-year-old; Sophie is 34. Their courtship has been long, more than five years, a far cry from the whirlwind, months-long romances of both Edward's oldest brother, Prince Charles, and Diana, and his other brother, Prince Andrew, and Sarah Ferguson. While the couple stoutly deny it, they have been virtually living together for the past three years. Sophie spends weekends at Windsor Castle and holidays at the Sandringham and Balmoral royal estates. She has her own apartment, in the same Chelsea block of flats once occupied by Diana, but she is also in possession of a prized laminated pass to get her through security at Buckingham Palace, where she occupies a suite of rooms close to Edward's.

Nowhere is the contrast between Edward and his brothers more stark than in the ceremonies planned for the Saturday nuptials. "Sophie and Edward are making very, very sure that this wedding is different from the others," says author and journalist Wade, "almost as if they feel they have something to prove, that their marriage isn't going to end up like the others." The venue itself is not so much a break with tradition as a reversion to the earlier, smaller royal weddings favoured by Queen Victoria and nearly all of her children. St. George's Chapel, inside the grounds at Windsor Castle, 35 km west of London, is the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter, under whose brightly coloured banners Sophie and Edward will be married. Still, with a seating capacity of 600, it is not exactly intimate. But the guest list pales in comparison with the 2,700 who attended Charles and Diana's 1981 wedding at St. Paul's Cathedral and the 1,800 on hand when Andrew and Sarah wed at Westminster Abbey in 1986.

By most standards, however, the wedding is still going to be a royal extravaganza. In addition to the 600 guests inside St. George's Chapel, another 500 will attend a sumptuous post-wedding reception in the state apartments. On the express wishes of the Queen, in her drive for royal modernization, members of the public have also been "invited." Eight thousand tickets have been released free on a first-come, first-served basis to those keen to glimpse the wedding party from a grassy area outside the chapel. Afterward, the newlyweds will travel in a horse-drawn carriage procession through the streets of Windsor. The entire 45-minute service, which begins at 5 p.m. (noon eastern time) on June 19, will be televised on all major British networks, and in at least 20 other countries including Canada, where it will be seen live on CBC, CBC Newsworld and CTV News 1.

In an attempt to portray a new image, the bride and groom are departing from tradition in several key areas. There will be no military guard of honour, therefore none of the shining brass and bright uniforms so typical of most royal events. Neither will there be elaborate women's hats, the hallmarks of upper-class British weddings. Women guests in particular will be thrown into a fashion tizzy over the 5 p.m. wedding, as hats will be unsuitable for so late in the day. Glamorous cocktail and evening wear will, instead, be de rigueur.

Even the couple's wedding invitations have a contemporary twist, at least by the rigidly formal standards of the House of Windsor. Unlike Charles's wedding announcements, on which the Queen and Prince Philip invited guests "to the marriage of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales," Edward's invitation reads: "the marriage of their son Edward." It is believed to be the first time in the history of the Royal Family that the words "their son" have been used.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature will be the extraordinary diversity of those invited to share the couple's big day. Although details of the guest list have not been confirmed, it is known that the likes of Sophie's spinster cousin from London's gritty east end will be brought together with the Sultan of Brunei, Prime Minister Blair and his wife, Cherie. A smattering of famous faces from the world of show business is also expected. One notable absentee will be Charles's companion, Camilla Parker Bowles. She has not been invited. Neither has the Duchess of York.

Sophie Helen Rhys-Jones was born on Jan. 20, 1965. Her father, Christopher, is an executive with a tire import/export company. Her mother, Mary, was a secretary who took in extra typing to help put their daughter and son David, now a 36-year-old insurance executive, through private school. They now live in a Victorian farmhouse in the Kent village of Brenchley, just outside Tunbridge Wells, where Sophie grew up. The family is solid, successful middle class, with just a tinge of blue on the nether branches of the Rhys-Jones tree. On one side, there is a hint of aristocratic Welsh blood, and on the other a link with royalty. The 1st Viscount Molesworth, a 17th-century diplomat, is a distant ancestor.

By the time she met Edward, in August, 1993, Sophie had followed a path well-trodden by many middle-class English young ladies: she took a secretarial course, did a stint on the Swiss slopes for a ski company, backpacked around the world, and, before Edward, was involved with other men.

Royal romance first blossomed at a charity tennis match organized by the public relations firm for which Sophie then worked, and attended by Edward. When a celebrity player failed to turn up, Sophie gamely stepped into the breach, afterward posing for a now-famous photograph with the prince, her arm draped comfortably over the regal shoulder. Won over by her down-to-earth nature and easy smile, Edward asked Sophie for a date. Soon, he was making regular telephone calls to her west London offices, under the code name Richard, one of his middle names. Few were fooled, particularly when he began wooing her with deliveries of lavish bunches of flowers. Sophie's father was so overwhelmed he knocked back a gin-and-tonic before 10 a.m.

Within a year, in a telling demonstration of her place in Edward's affections, Sophie was invited to spend a weekend with the Royal Family, including the Queen and Philip, onboard the Britannia. It was a terrifying make-or-break few days for a commoner with no experience of dealing with royalty. But Sophie evidently passed the test. The Queen found her charming, despite famously remarking: "You wouldn't notice her in a crowd." But it was Princess Anne's approval that won the day. As she observed Sophie learning how to windsurf, she admired her as a "doer," and was impressed with her tales of bungee-jumping. Those close to the royals talk of the appealing freshness of Sophie's approach.

Writer Wade claims the main reason for Sophie's acceptance by the Royal Family is that she poses no threat. "They like her, frankly, because she's quite boring as far as the public is concerned. They know she's not going to overshadow them." Not everyone in the royal household has been won over, however. Charles is said to be cautious about the impact she will have on the family's public profile. "She has become very grand all of a sudden," confides a source close to the prince's office, "and there is concern about that."

When she was alive, Diana refused to take Sophie's calls, apparently, according to royal watchers, because the young woman seemed to be such a physical clone of the Princess of Wales, herself. Sophie has recognized the problem. "I've been likened to Diana from the day I stepped into the public eye," she acknowledged in a 1997 interview, before Diana's death later that year. "But I honestly do not try and emulate the way she looks or dresses." In another interview at about the same time, she ruefully confessed that she could never compete with Diana because of her own "sturdy, not quite firm, Welsh legs."

Despite working her way into the Royal Family's affections - even the notoriously hard-to-please Philip likes her - Sophie's courtship by Edward was interminable. Initially happy to take the relationship slowly, Sophie later despaired that Edward would ever pop the question. "What can I do?" she asked a friend tearfully, soon after her 30th birthday, when she had been dating Edward for just shy of two years and was living with him under his mother's roof at Buckingham Palace. "What does he want?"

Many royal watchers wondered as well. The relationship was unusual, not least because the Queen was turning a blind eye to their close quarters. For some, the long courtship rekindled gossip about Edward's sexuality. The former theatre production assistant had angrily rejected suggestions he was gay when directly asked by a journalist almost a decade ago. But other observers suggested the Queen encouraged the lengthy engagement to ensure that this marriage would not fail because of a bride who was unable to cope with the pressures of royal life.

As well, there was speculation Edward may have delayed popping the question because he was keen to first establish his financial independence through his television company, Ardent Productions. Last year, however, Edward finally got down on bended knee in the soft sand of the Bahamas, asking Sophie to marry him. "I was slightly stunned for a minute," Sophie recently recalled. "Then I suddenly realized that I should actually answer the question. I said, 'Yes, yes please.' "

Bagshot Park, a sprawling estate with a $23-million mansion and extensive gardens 50 km south of London, is where the couple plan to live once they are married. Although the newlyweds will be leasing, it is easily the most lavish home of any of the Queen's children. In royal terms, it is also likely to be the most unusual in that Sophie, as far as professional earnings are concerned, is the major breadwinner. The thriving Mayfair public relations firm she co-owns, R-JH Ltd., employs eight people and has revenues of more than $2 million annually. In contrast, Edward's production company has yet to turn a profit, accumulating losses of more than $2.3 million over the past five years. But he has an Ardent salary of about $300,000 per year and receives almost as much from his mother to pay for the office that handles his royal engagements.

Money, however, is likely to be least of the worries confronting the future Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the titles that most royal watchers expect the Queen to bestow upon her youngest son and her new daughter-in-law. For Sophie and Edward, the problem is history. They are going to have to demonstrate that not all members of the House of Windsor are bad at marriage.

The Failed Royal Marriages

Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones: married in 1960, marriage lasting 18 years, 18 days.

Princess Anne and Capt. Mark Phillips: married in 1973, marriage lasting 18 years, 5 months, 9 days.

Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer: married in 1981, marriage lasting 15 years, 30 days.

Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson: married in 1986, marriage lasting 9 years, 10 months, 7 days.

Maclean's June 21, 1999