It was just a few days before Prince Edward was due to marry Sophie Rhys-Jones at Windsor Castle in 1999 when his father Prince Philip unexpectedly popped in for a cup of tea.
As the soon-to-be newlyweds recalled later, they were completely taken aback when he suggested to his youngest son that it was his express wish he should become the next Duke of Edinburgh.
Queen Elizabeth II would later confer on Edward and Sophie the title of Earl and Countess of Wessex. But as the monarch’s only son without a dukedom, it was with the promise that he would be elevated up the House of Windsor hierarchy when the time came.
As Buckingham Palace announced in a statement on their wedding day on June 19 1999: “The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales have also agreed that the Prince Edward should be given the Dukedom of Edinburgh in due course, when the present title held now by Prince Philip eventually reverts to the Crown.”
Edward was particularly touched by the gesture because “technically”, the title should have passed to the Duke of York, his older brother, upon their father’s death as the more senior royal brother in the pecking order.
As the then Earl of Wessex told me in an interview for The Telegraph magazine in June 2021, two months after his father died: “It was a lovely idea; a lovely thought.”
Yet then came a degree of unexpected consternation over whether the King would actually confer the prestigious Scottish title, which had only been created three times since 1726.
A month after our interview at the Wessexes’ Berkshire home, Bagshot Park, reports emerged that Charles, the Prince of Wales at the time, was not set on the idea of granting his father’s wishes.
A source was quoted in The Sunday Times saying: “The Prince is the Duke of Edinburgh as it stands, and it is up to him what happens to the title. It will not go to Edward.”
Another source close to the Prince added: “Edinburgh won’t go to them [the Wessexes] as far as the Prince is concerned.”
Edward never thought inheriting the title was a done deal, telling the BBC in an interview to mark what would have been Philip’s 100th birthday in June 2021 that the idea was “a pipe dream of my father’s”.
He added: “Of course, it will depend on whether or not the Prince of Wales, when he becomes king, whether he’ll do that, so we’ll wait and see. So yes, it will be quite a challenge taking that on.”
But Charles’s sudden change of heart did raise eyebrows among royal watchers, not least after the Wessexes had taken on a more prominent role within the Royal family since Prince Andrew stepped back from public life in 2019, and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex quit royal duties in 2020.
Edward had taken on several of his father’s patronages and, along with his wife, has carried on the mantle of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, founded by Philip in 1956 to help young people develop life and work skills.
The couple and their children Lady Louise Windsor, 19, and James, Viscount Severn, 15, had also always been incredibly close to “Granny and Grandpa”, regularly popping in to see the couple at weekends.
Their outdoor visits were a mainstay during coronavirus. As the Countess told me in our interview: “We used to see them stand on the balcony, which was about 20 feet up in the air. We’d see them waving. We’d shout at them and they’d shout back at us. It always seemed to be windy, so we could barely hear each other.
“Proximity certainly helped. Windsor is 15 minutes down the road for us, so it’s not difficult, and, of course, because the children were interested in ponies and things – it was a natural draw for us to be there. We were very lucky that the children did have so much contact.”
Nevertheless, Clarence House did not push back on the suggestion that Charles was in two minds, with a spokesman telling reporters: “No final decisions have been made.”
Behind the scenes, royal aides were grappling with a dilemma. When Philip offered his title to Edward 24 years ago, his son was seventh-in-line to the throne. But a great deal had happened since then.
Following the births of William and Kate’s children Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis; Harry and Meghan’s children Prince Archie and Princess Lilibet; Princess Beatrice’s daughter Sienna; and Princess Eugenie’s son August, Edward had been nudged to 14th in the pecking order – arguably too far down the line of succession to hold a title of such constitutional (and political) significance.
Another thing had also happened in the intervening period: the rise of the Scottish National Party.
With the Union hanging in the balance, was it really the right decision to give the Edinburgh dukedom to someone descending fast down the royal ranking? Why not confer the title on the Princess Royal, a trusted royal trouper whose love of Scotland is well known?
Last November, it then emerged that the palace powers-that-be were considering saving the title on Princess Charlotte “to honour the line of succession”.
As a source told The Mail on Sunday: “Charlotte’s position is historically significant because she is the first female member of the Royal family whose place in the line of succession will not be surpassed by her younger brother.
“So it is constitutionally significant that Charlotte should be given such a corresponding title, because it is not beyond the realms of possibility that she will accede the throne if, for example, Prince George does not have children.”
The King’s decision, therefore, to confer the title on Edward for his lifetime only – is a cake-and-eat-it canny one. Not only can he fulfil his late father’s wishes and reward the Wessexes for their hard work, but it also gives William the option of conferring it on one of his own children when the time comes.
It should not go unnoticed that this announcement came just weeks after Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, announced her resignation.
With the prospect of Scottish independence now looking less likely, there is far less risk in making the trusty Wessexes the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh for now, if not forever.