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Before they were royal: The life of Sarah, Duchess of York

Although Sarah, Duchess York is no longer married to Prince Andrew she remains a familiar face in royal circles. Once described as “the breath of fresh air” of the Royal Family, this Duchess was once a tomboyish country girl. Here, we take a look at the early years of Sarah Ferguson.

Sarah Margaret Ferguson was born in London on 15 October 1959 to parents Susan and Major Ronald Ferguson.

Sarah spent her early years at Lowood House in Berkshire, about 40 minutes outside of London. Along with her older sister, Jane, Sarah loved horses from a very young age and spent most of her free moments riding and watching horse shows – and as she grew older, competing in them.

Horses were a massive part of family life, and how her father made a living. So was the Royal Family.

Because of her father’s job as polo manager for the Prince of Wales, Sarah was used to being around members of the Royal Family.

This included her future husband Prince Andrew, who used to play tag with her while they watched their respective fathers play in polo matches.

The Fergusons certainly weren’t poor, but unlike the family of her fourth cousin Diana, Princess of Wales, they were not titled aristocrats. Although, as Sarah said in her autobiography, My Story, she’s descendant from “four dukes and at least three mistresses of Charles II.” Because of her royal ties, Sarah is actually a distant relative of Prince Andrew.

Sarah’s grandfather had been commanding officer of the Life Guards, The Queen’s Household Calvary. Her father, an excellent polo player, met the Duke of Edinburgh and his son, Prince Charles, through the sport, which is how he ended up as manager of the Princes of Wales’s polo team.

After her grandfather died in 1969, Sarah’s father inherited his dairy farm, Dummer Down. The family moved from Berkshire to the expansive property in Hampshire, surrounded by a tiny village with thatched roof cottages. Now she had 800 acres to explore and much more room for her beloved pastime of riding.

Sadly, not everything in Hampshire was picture perfect. Sarah’s parents’ marriage had been failing for years, but they officially split after her mother met polo player Héctor Barrantes in 1972. The Fergusons divorced in 1974, and Sarah and her sister were left to be raised by their father after their mum moved to Argentina and married Barrantes in 1975.

Sarah attended Daneshill School in rural Hampshire and later Hurst Lodge School in Ascot, where she was named the head girl and captain of the netball team.

She graduated from Queen’s Secretarial College in 1977 and moved to London to work at a PR firm. In 1980, she spent six months living abroad with a friend. They visited her mother and stepfather in Argentina, then travelled to Rio and San Francisco, working odd jobs to raise the money to travel to other cities around the United States.

After moving back to London, Sarah worked as an assistant in an art gallery for four years. But life as a single girl in London was expensive, and she struggled to make ends meet, working on weekends at a maternity shop.

She started dating Paddy McNally, an extremely rich British motor-racing manager, who was more than 20 years older and had two children. Through a friend of Paddy’s, she got a new job, starting in 1984 as an acquisitions editor for a publisher.

Although Sarah had known Prince Andrew since they were kids, it wasn’t until spring 1985 that they connected romantically. Sarah was invited to The Queen’s house party at Windsor Castle for Royal Ascot week. Thanks to the matchmaking of her friend Diana, Princess of Wales, Sarah and Andrew were seated next to each other on the first day. The two hit it off that week, and she was invited to Balmoral in the summer.

Sarah was still dating Paddy McNally at the time but ended her relationship with him that autumn. Her relationship with Prince Andrew started to become more serious, with Andrew inviting Sarah to Sandringham for New Year’s, where she spent time with his entire extended family.

In February 1986 Prince Andrew proposed to her at Floors Castle, and on 19 March 1986, the engagement of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson was officially announced. The couple married on 23 July 1986 at Westminster Abbey.

Photo © Elke Wetzig/CC-BY-SA

Although their marriage was not to last, the Duke and Duchess of York still live together to this day and maintain a close friendship. Many royal watchers believe a re-marriage isn’t out of the cards.

For now, she remains a devoted mother to Princess Eugenie and Princess Beatrice, and as patron of many organisations, she often appears at charity functions around the world. In recent days, she’s been in attendance at royal events such as her nephew Prince Harry’s wedding and Royal Ascot, perhaps indicating she’s once again being welcomed back into the royal fold.

About author

Kristin is Chief Reporter for Royal Central and has been following the British royal family for more than 30 years. Kristin has appeared in UK and U.S. media outlets discussing the British royals including BBC Breakfast, BBC World News, Sky News, the Associated Press, TIME, The Washington Post, and many others.