Prince Edward Turns 60. Has His Royal Moment Finally Come?

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

Born in 1964 into the lap of luxury, and the glaring spotlight of the British royal family, Prince Edward Anthony Richard Louis Mountbatten-Windsor, or, “Sophie’s husband,” as the internet seems to know him better, dreamed as a young man of a life in the theater. All too often, however, Prince Edward, who turns 60 on Sunday, has seemed like the understudy in a play written with someone else in mind.

Prince Charles Ruthlessly Reminds Prince Edward Who Is Going to Be King

Now, however, on the eve of his seventh decade, with one brother (the king) incapacitated due to cancer, another brother (Prince Andrew) sidelined over alleged sex crimes, and his younger relatives Prince William and Kate Middleton out of the picture as well, there is a feeling, whisper it, that Edward, a spring chicken compared to his 76-year-old brother, might finally be about to get his big break.

Edward’s education was conducted, like that of King Charles, at Gordonstoun in Scotland, where it’s said he was popular and was ultimately made head boy. He then went to Cambridge University, where he majored in history.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Edward

Queen Elizabeth II with Prince Edward at Windsor in Berkshire, 1965.

Matt Green/Getty

His first major public embarrassment came when, after university, Edward enlisted in the Royal Marines. This endeavor was supposed to be his moment to shine, a chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with his peers and prove himself in the tough world of military discipline. Instead, in a turn of events more disappointing than a British summer, in January 1987 he quit the army just three months into the 12-month training program.

His father, Prince Philip, was said to have berated Edward so heartily that he reduced his son to tears.

Despite such unpleasantness, leaving behind a soldier’s life was clearly a great relief for Edward. He traded the whiff of cordite and the thunder of guns for the smell of greasepaint and the roar of the crowd, parachuting into a job as a production assistant on musicals like The Phantom Of The Opera and Cats for Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Young Prince Edward

Prince Edward at Alton Towers Theme Park in preparation for the filming of the Grand Knockout Tournament.

PA Images/Getty

Also in 1987, just six months after leaving the army, he put together the much-mocked “It’s a Royal Knockout,” a televised charity fundraising show in which he, Andrew, Sarah Ferguson, and Princess Anne (who won, of course) captained teams competing in a variety of slapstick faux-medieval games. Despite its success in terms of viewership and fundraising (it was the fourth most-watched TV program of 1987 and raised £1.5 million for charity) the show is to this day recalled as a low water mark when it comes to royal dignity.

Watching it at a distance of 35 years, it is still cringe-making, a notably peculiar intersection of royalty and pop culture. Edward came out of it worst, with his reputation for foot-stamping petulance sealed when he stormed out of a press conference screaming at apathetic and cynical journalists who grunted when he asked them if they were enjoying the show, “Thanks for sounding so bloody enthusiastic!”

In 1993, he set up his own television production company, Ardent, which, swiftly became a laughing stock in the industry and a byword for royal nepotism, as its output seemed limited to exploitative documentaries about the royal family. These reached their apogee in 2001, when, just two days after William began his four-year degree in art history at St Andrews University in Scotland, an Ardent TV crew were caught secretly filming William. The event burnished Edward’s reputation for arrogance and stupidity because the ink had barely dried on a media deal to respect William’s privacy at university in exchange for regular photo-ops.

Ardent closed down soon afterwards, and Edward announced another career change—to full time working royal.

To be fair to Edward, he never once grumbled at the dreary day-to-day business of being driven around the country and visiting local businesses, sports halls, and community centers. He became an object of some affection but could never be accused of setting the world on fire, unlike his glamorous wife, Sophie Rhys-Jones, whom he married in 1999.

Prince Edward and wife Sophie Rhys-Jones on their wedding day

Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones greet wellwishers on their way from Windsor Castle after the wedding ceremony on June 19, 1999.

Mike Simmonds/Getty

Despite an unfortunate episode in 2001, when she was tricked into revealing family secrets to a News of the World reporter and referred to Queen Elizabeth II as “the old dear” she subsequently navigated the choppy waters of royal life with considerable grace, becoming a firm favorite of the late queen.

Her facility with public engagements and her natural ease with the public made her one of the royal family’s more recognizable faces. Edward, meanwhile, despite being thrust forward into glamorous jobs such as meeting world-famous tortoises in recent months due to his brother’s illness, could probably still sit down at his local Starbucks with a newspaper without causing a scene, a testament to his unique brand of understated, if unintentional, anonymity. He and Sophie have two children, Louise, 20, and James, 16.

Prince Edward with wife and children

Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex and Sophie, Countess of Wessex pose with their children Lady Louise and James, Viscount Severn, as they take part in the Great British Beach Clean on September 20, 2020 in in Southsea, United Kingdom.

Toby Melville/Getty

Yet friends of the family say it would be unfair to cast Edward as an ineffective royal. Says one: “He has dedicated much of his life to public service and charitable work. He has always been very clear about his role which is to support the monarchy. Previously that meant doing what his mother asked, now it means doing what his brother asks. He has always been loyal and Charles likes him enormously and is very grateful to him.”

Charles made a public show of affection for his brother when he made him Duke of Edinburgh, the title previously held by their father, when he became king.

This was an important symbolic decision by Charles, as before the queen died there had been a great deal of speculation, fanned by Charles’ own camp, that the title would not be passed to Edward (despite the queen having said it would be). At about the same time as it was being suggested Edward might not be made Duke of Edinburgh, some media started carrying stories reporting, ominously for Edward, on so-called “Wessex fatigue” at the palace.

Indeed, Roya Nikkhah, the famously well-informed Sunday Times royal editor, quoted a source at the time of the strongest pushback as saying of the Dukedom of Edinburgh: “It will not go to Edward.”

In the end, however, Charles relented and passed the title to his younger brother. However, even this came with strings attached; the title is for his lifetime only and cannot be passed on to his son, James.

Still, it seems Edward has managed to walk the delicate tightrope between doing enough to justify his existence on the royal payroll, but not so much as to rouse the green-eyed monster in his famously jealous brother.

Talking to friends of the family, you get the impression that his perceived lack of ambition has become, ironically, his biggest asset. “There is no tension between Charles and Edward like there was with Andrew, who was forever hogging the limelight,” says the friend, “He is content to be a thread in the tapestry.”

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