March 18, 2002 12:00 PM

The youngest of Queen Elizabeth’s brood, Prince Edward, and his wife, Sophie, were once cheered for representing a modern breed of royals. The Earl and Countess of Wessex, as they are known, had adjoining rooms in Buckingham Palace before marrying in 1999. They held honest-to-goodness jobs too—in part to help pay the $356,000 annual upkeep of Bagshot Park, their $5 million estate. But that was before the real world got really uncomfortable. First, public relations executive Sophie was caught gossiping about her in-laws to a newspaper reporter posing as a potential client. Then Edward’s Ardent production company provoked royal anger when one of its TV crews stalked his nephew Prince William at college. Most recently the press feasted on reports that Edward had allegedly asked a livid Prince Charles to discuss his relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles on TV. With the blunders mounting, Edward, 38, announced last week that he and Sophie, 37, would quit their jobs to attend to royal duties in the Queen’s Golden Jubilee year and beyond. Running a business was “enormous fun, immensely rewarding,” Edward said in a speech on March 2. “Yet I always knew in the back of my mind that one day things would have to change.”

With a welfare net like the royal family’s, why wait? The couple will lose a combined income of $185,000, but the Queen will up their annual allowance from $200,000 to an estimated $356,000—paid from her own pocket—and Edward will continue to receive another $213,000 a year from his $4.3 million trust fund. Whatever the couple’s public rationale, observers believe the Palace pressured the pair into royal service partly to avoid further embarrassments. “It has been a long misadventure really,” says royals author Robert Lacey, who notes that the departure of Princess Diana and the Duchess of York left a charm void in the royal ranks. “There is a great deal of irritation inside Buckingham Palace that Sophie didn’t buckle down straightaway.”

Of course Sophie, who suffered an ectopic pregnancy last December, has had other issues to contend with. “With the clock ticking, they were so excited about the possibilities of being parents,” says Jack Cassidy, the CEO of R-JH, the firm Sophie cofounded in 1997. Friends of the couple’s say they timed their departure from the working world to concentrate on starting a family. But her expertise may still end up serving the Windsors well. Says Majesty magazine editor-in-chief Ingrid Seward: “They have a lot of PR to do to make themselves more personable. They’ve got to rejig their image.”

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