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Still loyal to her royal

Prince Andrew may be engulfed by scandal, but Sarah, Duchess of York, won’t hear a bad word about her former husband. Maybe that’s because she has been no stranger to controversy herself, writes Jane Graham

Many might regard loyalty as the single most important quality in a partner. If you’re one of them it stands to reason that Sarah Ferguson is your ideal woman, or, if you’re a woman yourself, your number one role model.

The notion might catch you by surprise but it’s unavoidable and you’d be better off accepting it; the fact is, you simply can’t get any more loyal than the ex-wife who responds to yet another sex scandal humiliating her ex-husband with a cheerful, unhesitating declaration that he is “the greatest man there is”.

And she didn’t stop there. Her loyalty, her enthusiasm for defending her man in the face of a thousand put-downs, rolled eyes and shaking heads, rose up like a lioness protecting her cubs. “It was the finest moment of my life in 1986 when I married him,” she announced, with a formidable staunchness which dared anyone to contradict her. “He is a great man, the best in the world.”

Since her divorce in 1996 Fergie, as the British like to call Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York (she retains the title until she marries again — unless, of course, it’s to the Duke of York, a move which would give her back that crucial royal article ‘The’) has never wobbled in her loyalty to Prince Andrew. Indeed, it seems likely that even when she was having her toes sucked by her “financial adviser” while they were still married, she was, in her heart, still resolutely loyal to Andrew. And there are many who speculated that if it weren’t for the ruling law of protocol and the power of frowny-faced curtain twitchers, such casual misdemeanours would never have led to divorce in the first place. Long after their conscious uncoupling, they still call themselves “the world’s happiest unmarried couple”.

There can be little argument that it was unswerving folk like Fergie that the great moral philosopher Confucius had in mind when he said: “The scholar does not consider gold and jade to be precious treasures, but loyalty and good faith.” Confucius would have liked Fergie — she could have taught him a thing or two about loosening his tie. After a couple of drinks, he’d have enjoyed the Dionysian parties, the dressing up, the (literal) poking of aristocratic bums that Fergie persuaded Princess Diana to join in with at Ascot. How much enlightenment he’d have got from the collected stories of Budgie the Little Helicopter, Fergie’s first foray into children’s fiction, remains a topic for debate. 

It’s a tired old term but Fergie is the absolute example of a Marmite celebrity (and of all the royal exes, she is unquestionably the biggest living tabloid celebrity). No member of the Royal family within the last 100 years has divided opinion quite like her. Even the Queen and Prince Philip can’t agree. The Queen is said to have been immediately charmed by the woman who threw herself with gusto into everything from the family Christmas game of charades to Prince Edward’s 1987 TV production of It’s a Royal Knockout (in which Fergie’s flushed happy face so vividly countered her own daughter Princess Anne’s lemon-sucking pout). 

The Queen also believes Fergie is a very good mother — and certainly, Sarah and her daughters Beatrice and Eugenie do present a lock-tight team — and still invites her to the odd Palace gathering. Philip, on the other hand, allegedly “won’t have her in the house”. In August, after enjoying a few days with the Queen, Andrew and their daughters in Balmoral, Fergie reportedly had to cut short her visit in order to be gone before Philip arrived.

It is to the Queen’s credit that she is said to like having fun with Fergie. Her Majesty’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for big smiles is often commentated upon, but it seems it was Fergie’s bouncy exuberance, her bold, bald eagerness to stick a pin into the balloon of propriety, which appealed to her mother-in-law from the start.  There are opposing views on just how close the young Sarah was with her royal cohort, Princess Diana. Some believe Fergie’s “humble” middle-class upbringing, a fun-on-the-farm childhood of horsey frolics and jolly hockey-sticks, was too far from the Princess’ upper class experience for them to truly bond, and that Diana was secretly jealous of the ease with which her sister-in-law made people laugh, pulled them up to dance, and shook off aide whispers about her “vulgarity”. 

But there’s no question that Fergie provided many much needed breathers for Diana, most famously persuading her to dress up as a policewoman before they crashed Andrew’s stag night at an exclusive London club. Even when notable weight gain saw her dubbed the “Duchess of Pork” by the tabloids, Fergie continued to enjoy her life in the limelight, gleefully toying with the Royal reputation by having secret parties with the footmen where she handed out “risque” gifts. 

“She kept saying to me: ‘You mustn’t worry, everything is going to be fine,’” said Diana later. “I couldn’t understand it, she was actually enjoying herself, whereas I was fighting to survive.” But Diana struggled with a lot of relationships, particularly among those who exhibited the happy self-confidence she didn’t have herself during those years. It’s no surprise she wasn’t entirely comfortable alongside this loud, bossy, bawdy blow-in. Or perhaps it was the difference in their marriages which marked the real distinction; the Yorks’ was clearly build on affection, attraction and love. The Wales’ — not so much.

In the end, of course, it couldn’t last. The Establishment isn’t built like that and it wasn’t capable of constraining her. One royal official said trying to squeeze Fergie into royal life was like “catching a wild animal and caging it up”. She was garnering all the wrong kinds of headlines and running up ferocious debts with her carefree holidays in the sun. She had a fling with Texan oil tycoon Steve Wyatt while she was pregnant with her second daughter. That, alongside the infamous toe-sucking incident, were too much to take; she and Andrew announced their separation in 1992, and were divorced four years later.

If she did have the rumoured “jump pact” with Diana (she allegedly sent the Princess a DVD of The Great Escape as a jokey reference to their mutual plans for their marriages) she was eventually parted from the Windsors without the solidarity of her sister-in-law, who clung on for a few more miserable months.

Since then, Fergie has bumped along through a series of tribulations — debt crises, weight gains and losses, an international arrest warrant for secretly filming a Turkish orphanage for a documentary — hey, no biggies. Nothing seems to have bothered her too much, although having to be bailed out by Andrew in 2010 after admitting she was financially desperate (she was filmed by the News of the World offering access to her ex husband for £500,000) must have been embarrassing. And not being invited to Kate and William’s wedding, which both of her daughters attended, certainly didn’t go down well. But the fiery redhead is still grinning, and if the rumours are right, could even be planning her re-marriage to her “handsome Prince” if Philip would lighten up a bit.

There’s plenty of life in the old girl yet. 

A life so far

Born: Sarah Margaret Ferguson, London, October 15, 1959

Education: Daneshill School, Hampshire, then Hurst Lodge School, Ascot

Position: Charity patron, spokesperson, writer

Status: Married to Prince Andrew, Duke of York from 1986 to 1996. Mother of Princess Beatrice of York (26) and Princess Eugenie of York (24)

She says: “The Queen and I always got on well, still do; I uphold everything Her Majesty represents, has given up her life for. It’s her duty. For her country, she’s selfless to the grave.”

“(Princess) Diana was one of the quickest wits I knew; nobody made me laugh like her.”

“(Prince Andrew) and I both wish we’d never got divorced, but we did. I wish I could go back and be the bride again, but I can’t.”

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