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As Meghan departs, the Queen's favourite Sophie steps into the limelight

She enjoys the Queen's encyclopaedic expertise of historical events and the two women will often disappear for hours in the royal archives at Windsor, says Caitlin McBride

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Sophie, Countess of Wessex

Sophie, Countess of Wessex

Sophie, Countess of Wessex with Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge

Sophie, Countess of Wessex with Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge

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The Countess of Wessex with the Queen

The Countess of Wessex with the Queen

Sophie, Countess of Wessex

The royal year may have got off to a tumultuous start with the resignation of Harry and Meghan from The Firm, but the gap they leave in their wake creates a ready-made opportunity for other members of the family.

Step forward Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, who looks set to have a great 2020. After a couple of years when Kate, Meghan and to a lesser degree Camilla dominated Press coverage, the wife of Prince Edward now finds herself propelled into the public spotlight again.

And reliable, personable and - when the occasion demands it - glamorous Sophie is set to prove quite an asset to The Firm.

For years, Sophie was the most senior female member of the royal family after the Queen. In the early days of her relationship with Prince Edward - Her Majesty's youngest son - she made a positive impression on the monarch that would last decades and earn her the reputation of 'the Queen's favourite'.

But Sophie started to dropped off the reporters' radar as other developments unfolded...

Prince Charles' decision to marry Camilla (now Duchess of Cornwall) in 2005 set the wheels in motion for the next phase of the royal news cycle, much of which involved allowing the public to familiarise themselves with 'the other woman' and adjust to the idea of her now-defined fate as Queen Consort.

Charles' children Princes William and Harry were growing up, and more attention was diverted towards the good-looking young boys and their youthful exploits, and eventually to their wives.

So it's easy to forget that for several years before that Sophie (nee Rhys-Jones) enjoyed huge access to her mother-in-law. The pair began to spend a great deal of time together. They were regularly photographed out riding and both share a keen interest in military history. At family gatherings the two are often locked in conversation and some courtiers believe that Sophie filled the gap left by the late Princess Margaret and the Queen Mum. On non-official occasions, the Queen often asks Sophie to share her car.

Perhaps, then, it's not surprising that HM has come to regard the ordinary girl from a working family in Kent (her dad was a retired tyre salesman and her mother was a secretary) as one of the royal family's greatest assets - and undoubtedly the Queen's support and affection for her have boosted Sophie's confidence.

For Sophie, just like Meghan, marrying into the Windsors made sustaining the career she had built prior to her marriage all the more problematic. Before her 1999 wedding (the first of the resurgence of royal nuptials at St George's Chapel in Windsor), Sophie had built a successful CV in public relations and launched her own eponymous firm in 1995. Two years after her wedding, however, she left her independent work after she and Edward had been accused of profiting from their royal titles in what became known as the 'Sophie tapes'.

In 2001 the now-defunct News of the World ran a transcript of tapes in which they said she was exploiting her Buckingham Palace connections for personal financial gain. The fall-out from the scandal prompted the Wessexes to quit their 'day jobs' (at the time Edward was trying to carve out a role as a film producer) and instead, focus on being full-time royals.

Since then, Sophie has played by the rules and discreetly got on with building a fulfilling life for herself in the monotonous palace system. Motherhood followed, albeit after she almost lost her life when she suffered an ectopic pregnancy in December 2001. She was airlifted to hospital for surgery to remove the foetus from a Fallopian tube.

Two years later, in December 2003, Sophie had a daughter - not without difficulty, again, as she nearly died in childbirth and the baby, Lady Louise Windsor, remained in intensive care for several weeks. Four years later, James, Viscount Severn, was born, and Sophie's family was complete.

In some senses it could be argued that Sophie has been preparing for two decades for what will become the role of her life. The void left by Meghan and Harry's departure means there is a vacancy for a qualified person who isn't planning their exit and is prepared to endure the laborious nature of royal work, coupled with the immense attention that comes with it.

Last week, Sophie stepped to the fore alongside the Duchess of Cambridge at an event in Buckingham Palace, shunning her 55th birthday celebrations that same day in favour of work. Shortly after that she headed to Sierra Leone as part of a two-day diplomatic visit and the trip has attracted significantly more coverage than usual as interest in her amps up.

Of course, Sophie is already familiar with the highs and lows of being such a public figure, having learned her lesson from that fall from grace in front of the world 18 years ago.

"(The Countess) is probably the best example of an outsider coming into the family and learning on the job," royal biographer Robert Jobson told the Daily Telegraph in 2017, in a piece which advised Meghan to take a steer from Sophie's experience as an outsider entering the fold.

The commonalities between Sophie and Meghan are many: both had independent careers before becoming royals and Edward was similarly protective of his wife in the Nineties, writing to newspaper editors asking them to stop "destroying our private life and, more importantly, Sophie's life".

When faced with a similar dilemma and only two visible options, the Sussexes made the decision to leave their titles and tiaras behind for a new life in Canada, while the Wessexes packed in their day jobs and committed to a royal life and all the confines within it.

Sophie manages her public duties with 70 private patronages including women's and children's charities, all of which will enjoy a higher profile now that their patron is being primed for a more central role within the family.

She takes a particular focus on issues through which she has personal experiences, like Kate Middleton's early start mental health campaign and previously Meghan's work with women's organisations and animal welfare.

Suddenly, profiles and fashion analysis around her have emerged of her appearances in recent days and she is front page news instead of the more low-key way in which she would have been reported on even just a few weeks ago.

Interest in the royal family is at a new peak, thanks in no small part to the decision by Meghan and Harry to quit - now that they will be operating independently, there's a need to satiate the public appetite for reports on royal goings-on.

The positioning of Sophie in a more prominent role will likely be part of The Firm's strategy to ensure its relevance into the next generation.

Behind the scenes, considerable time and money has been invested in Harry's professional role as a prince and now that plans have changed, it's imperative they show their adaptability.

And the fact that at 55 Sophie is being heralded as a new generation style icon can only help the devoted royal fashion watchers, who spend hours analysing the outfits and changing hairstyles of duchesses.

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