It's been a tumultuous year for the Queen and her official birthday yesterday came as the royals still face pain and upheaval.
Against the backdrop of the pandemic, Her Majesty has lost her beloved husband Prince Philip, while the fallout from “Megxit” rumbles on.
Even the birth of Prince Harry and Meghan’s second child, Lilibet, has become a row over who knew what and when about the baby’s name – chosen in honour of her great-gran.
Then there is the ongoing issue of her son Prince Andrew’s friendship with paedophile Jeffrey Epstein, who killed himself while in custody.
So the support and comfort from the Queen’s youngest son and his wife – the Earl and Countess of Wessex – has never been more timely.
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Prince Edward, 57, and his devoted wife Sophie, 56, were once way down the royal pecking order.
Seldom seen or heard by the wider public.
But that has all changed, say royal commentators.
And the Wessexes are key members of the so-called Magnificent Seven – royals the Queen can rely on to usher in a new era for the monarchy.
Since Megxit, Her Majesty, 95, has pinned her faith in Prince Charles and wife Camilla, Prince William and Kate, Princess Anne and, ever growing in stature, Edward and Sophie.
The Queen’s former press secretary Dickie Arbiter says of the couple: “They have worked hard for many years and play an important role in the Royal Family, but no one has paid them as much attention until now.
“Now The Sussexes have decamped to California and Prince Andrew is lying low at Royal Lodge, the Royal Family has somewhat diminished – and Sophie and Edward are really coming out into their own.
“They are the younger jewels in the crown, in much the same way that Kate and William are.
“They are supporting the Queen and the rest of the family, to unite the family when the going gets tough.”
In a recent joint interview, the modest duo were quick to play down rumours of a seismic rift between the royals and Harry, 36, and Meghan, 39, over their decision to quit “The Firm”.
“Oprah, who?” Edward joked, when asked about Harry and Meghan’s infamous tell-all US interview with the chat show queen.
While Sophie laughed: “What interview?”
Though Sophie was quick to stress: “We are still family. No matter what happens, we always will be.”
Royal expert Penny Junor says there is no brashness or self-promotion about Sophie, despite her PR background. She adds: “The Queen has always got on incredibly well with her.
"Sophie wasn’t an aristocrat, was from a very normal background and I don’t think she’s ever lost that. There’s a genuine love there with Edward, Sophie and the Queen.
“Before they married, the Queen allowed Sophie to stay at Buckingham Palace so they had the chance Charles and Diana never had, to really get to know one another away from the spotlight. Sophie is not grand but she’s very genuine.”
The Queen’s first meeting with baby Lilibet “Lili” Diana – in a video call to California – is a bittersweet reminder of the long-distance relationship she is likely to have with Harry and his kids.
In contrast, the Wessexes live 15 minutes away at Bagshot Park with their children Lady Louise Windsor, 17, and James, Viscount Severn, 13 – reported to be a particular favourite of his gran.
Sophie has told previously how her children are fortunate to live so close to the Queen “because they can go over and have tea with her on a regular basis”.
Lady Louise is said to have had a special bond with Prince Philip.
“Sophie’s daughter is very much into carriage driving and was being taught and trained by Prince Philip,” adds Dickie.
“It’s rather lovely that she has taken over the carriage and ponies that he used.
“The geographical closeness has helped. It’s a lot easier for them to visit Windsor than for the Cam-bridges, mainly based in London, and other family members. The Prince Of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall are in London or Highgrove.”
The Duke of Edinburgh’s death at the age of 99 in April signalled the emerging significance of the Countess of Wessex. Driving out of the grounds of Windsor Castle a day later, Sophie leaned tentatively towards an open window.
She told a reporter the Queen had been “amazing”.
Next day, Sophie delivered an intimate account of the Duke’s final moments. He would leave a “massive hole” in the family’s lives, she told wellwishers.
His exit had been “so gentle,” she said, adding: “It was just like somebody took him by the hand and off he went. Very, very peaceful and that’s all you want for somebody, isn’t it?”
Dickie said: “Sophie has really taken a leap forward, particularly on the death of Prince Philip. There was only one thing you could say and Sophie said it. She said it incredibly well. It was very moving.”
At the funeral on April 17, the countess was given a prime position in St George’s Chapel, diagonally opposite the Queen.
The day before, a picture taken by Sophie – of the Queen and Philip at Balmoral – was shared with the world. More evidence of the bond they shared.
It hasn’t always been so harmonious though. Two years after marrying Edward, in 2001, the Countess found herself in hot water after a sting by a reporter posing as a PR client.
Sophie also spoke candidly about the royals.
Buckingham Palace said at the time that there were “wholesale inaccuracies” in the story.
After the scandal, Sophie and Edward became full-time working royals.
He had already suffered the humiliation of the Royal Family’s version of It’s a Knockout.
Dickie says: “It was excruciatingly naff.
“When Edward asked the media ‘What do you think?’ you could hear a pin drop.
“He stormed out and the next day’s headline was ‘It’s a walkout’.”
In 1993 Edward launched a TV company called Ardent Productions. It was beset by failed projects and a documentary about Prince William reportedly prompted a call from a furious Prince Charles.
Despite their bruised reputations, Edward and Sophie dedicated their lives to royal duties.
Dickie adds: “Things got off to a shaky start but the Queen will see Sophie for what she is now – very loyal and hard-working, a reliable pair of hands and a great contributor. They have both done incredibly well.”
In 2019, Sophie carried out 236 royal engagements, highest of any royal spouse, and more than William.
Penny Junor adds: “Kate is probably the biggest jewel in the crown but a crown should have many jewels.
“Sophie and Edward are up there among them. They have gone under the radar for years. But they deserve, without a doubt, to shine brightly.”