December 08, 2003 12:00 PM

The scene at Frimley Park Hospital in Surrey was enough to soften even the most jaded observers of Britain’s scandal-worn monarchy: members of the royal family grinning, not with gritted teeth or starched upper lips but from pure joy. On Nov. 23 Countess Sophie Wessex and her husband, Prince Edward, the Queen’s youngest son, brought home their first child, a still-unnamed daughter born a month premature on Nov. 8. Declared Sophie: “It’s the best day ever.”

All the more so because, as a Palace spokeswoman put it, “no baby was more wanted.” After trying to conceive for several years, Sophie, 38, suffered an ectopic pregnancy—when the embryo grows outside the womb—in 2001. This time everything went smoothly—until Nov. 8 when the countess was stricken with painful stomach cramps at Bagshot Park, her home southwest of London, while Edward, 39, was 6,000 miles away on an official visit to Mauritius. Sophie was rushed to nearby public Frimley Park Hospital with what British papers described as a ruptured placenta. At 11:32 p.m. she bore, by emergency C-section, a 4-lb. 9-oz. girl—eighth in line for the throne. When Edward arrived the next evening, their child had been transferred to the neonatal unit at London’s St. George’s Hospital, staying for a week before reuniting with Mum at Frimley Park.

While mother and child were separated, the prince “took lots of photos of the baby and put them all around Sophie’s bed,” says her friend Sian Miletich. He’s expected to be a hands-on dad, who “will get stuck in with everything,” said the Palace spokeswoman, “including changing nappies.”

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