Royal Scandals: Prince John
The hidden prince
If you've heard of Prince John, it may well be that what you know about him is incorrect. John was the youngest son of King George V and was, by many accounts, cruelly abandoned and locked away by his parents. The 'crime' that brought about this 'abandonment' was that he had epilepsy. The story is often cited as an example of the cruelty and lack of feeling shown by the British Royal family.
Conditions such as epilepsy are so much more understood today. Thank goodness.
The problem is that this story has passed into legend and 'common knowledge' and yet the truth is very different.
Today we know that epilepsy is nothing more that a short-circuit in the wiring of the brain but the legend of Prince John tells how his family were so ashamed of his condition - which to them suggested mental instability - that they virtually abandoned him, locked him away in a remote location and wiped his memory from history.
This is now known to be far from the case.
Images from Wikimedia Commons and copyright free.
Who was Prince John?
John was born in 1905. His father had not yet ascended to the throne but was in fact the heir. As is the tradition in the British Royal Family, his parents were then known as the Prince and Princess of Wales.
He was born on the Sandringham Estate but the family home wasn't the grand house - it was a small villa called York House within the grounds.
You can see from the photograph on the left that John was an impish child and, as the baby of the family, his natural mischievousness was tolerated more by his parents than the older boys, who were brought up under a stricter regime laid down by their father.
After all, as the fifth son of the heir to the throne, he was unlikely to play a major role in the future monarchy.
The princes and princess
The Prince and Princess of Wales were proud of their family. They were often photographed and John, despite being the youngest, was always included in family portraits and events.
When he was four years old he was diagnosed with epilepsy.
All parents are naturally concerned when their child is ill and the prince and princess were no exception. However, it wasn't something that unduly worried them; John's great-uncle (one of Queen Victoria's sons) had also had the condition and had led a normal life.
The young prince continued to play a normal role in the life of his family
In common with all royal and aristocratic children of the day, John was largely cared for by his nanny, Charlotte. She became known to the family by the pet-name, Lala.
The very use of paid professionals taking care of children has been widely criticised and today we applaud the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge for not employing a nanny.
But a busy couple, with working lives, with six children and the financial means to do so, were expected to employ outside help in those days. (And still do - except nowadays they are called 'au pairs' or 'mother's helps'.)
Far from being the draconian figure of legend, Lala loved John deeply and until her death kept a letter from him saying 'dear nanny, I love you'.
It's always difficult to reenact the lives of real people.
I'm certainly not convinced that this is a completely accurate portrayal (how could it be?) but it gives us a great insight into the times and of course, into the boy himself.
Queen Mary isn't portrayed in the way that I'd hoped (although the acting is fabulous) but she was a very complex character who is impossible to capture.
A fascinating film, if not always completely accurate.
Two years later, when John was eleven, it became obvious that his medical problem had worsened. His parents decided that perhaps being largely alone with just Lala for company wasn't the best situation for the boy.
With his beloved Lala to take care of him, he moved to a separate household at Wood Farm. Although the rumours still persist that he was 'sent away', the farm was on the Sandringham Estate and just two miles from his parents' home.
His parents, in particular his mother, felt that he needed other children to play with rather than live the somewhat isolated life with just his nanny as company. At Wood Farm, there were several children - the offspring of estate workers - who provided him with company and playmates.
In later life, these children described the prince as a charming, lovely boy with a happy and fun-loving demeanour.
The First World War
John was nine years old when the First World War began in 1914. By this time, his parents were the king and queen and their country needed them to keep up morale.
It was a busy time for the monarch and his wife as they traveled throughout Britain performing official duties.
By this time, John had been the only child in the household for two years,as his brothers and his sister were either serving in the armed forces or had been sent to boarding schools.
Far from being 'abandoned' by his parents, as is suggested by the legend, John's life continued as normal, living in the family home being cared for by Lala, as always.
The king and queen still lived at York Cottage. Alexandra, the king's mother and the widow of the previous king, lived alone in the grand house. Every week, Prince John would be taken to spend the day with his grandmama.
She gave the boy a new hobby. She set aside a part of her garden that became his. Here, he grew flowers and tended to them. He would press the flowers and send them in letters to his mother and father.
His parents frequently visited John at Wood Farm, although his brothers rarely did because they were away at school or in the army. But whenever there were family occasions and they gathered at York House, John would make the short journey to stay with the rest of the family. An example was the Christmas holiday of 1918.
Just a couple of weeks later, John suffered a severe seizure, after which he died in his sleep. He was thirteen years old.
The conspiracy theory
How did the story of the cruel king who locked away his son first begin?
- One of the reasons was that it was claimed that there were very few photographs of John and that he had not been shown publicly. This turned out to be nonsense. In the late 1990s, two old photograph albums, belonging to John's brother Edward (later the Duke of Windsor), were discovered.They show many photographs of John with his family from early childhood and right up to just before he died.
- Although it was Edward's albums that 'broke' the legend, he was also partly responsible for it. He was twenty-four when John died. Famous for his affairs with married women, he wrote a letter to one of his mistresses after John had died. In the letter, he was dismissive and somewhat insulting about his young brother. He apologised profusely to his mother later.
- Later family trees showed that the king had five children and not six. After John's death, he no longer appeared on these documents. This was seen as being his parents' attempt to remove the boy from history. However, it is beyond the realms of belief that these family trees were drawn up by the king himself!
- The conspiracy theorists point out that there was never any news about John in the newspapers during the last years of his life. This, they say, indicates a cover-up and that the family were trying to deny John's existence. The fact of the matter is that,particularly in those days, there was little reason for any young member of the royal family to be mentioned in the press.It's not as if they were dashing all over the country opening supermarkets...
- In addition, John's last years were during the First World War. The country had other things on its collective mind. And it wasn't just Britain. Due to the trouble brewing in Russia, the king's cousin along with his wife and children were massacred in the same year John died.
- Far from being sent away in isolation, John lived in his own household within just a couple of miles away from his parents and his grandmother. And far from 'spending his life locked away' he lived at Wood Farm for two years with devoted nanny and local playmates.
© 2014 Jackie Jackson