An old family album among the effects of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, sold at auction in Paris a few years ago, brought to light a lost and forgotten royal – John, the Lost Prince – the last child of King George V and Queen Mary. John was “lost” because he died when he was only thirteen, and forgotten because it happened a long time ago, in 1919, when the survival of children, even in royal families, could not be guaranteed. Nearly eighty years after his untimely death, however, Prince John gained space in the newspapers with a photograph taken in 1915, probably by his eldest brother, then Prince of Wales and later to become Edward VIII and Duke of Windsor after his abdication in 1936. The picture showed a typical nine year-old of the time, wearing the sailor suit – practically a uniform among royal children of his generation – and bearing a close resemblance to his second brother, the future King George VI. The eyes are undoubtedly those of their father – pale, a little rheumy and heavy-lidded.
In the annals of 20th century royal history, Prince John has always been a shadowy figure. More often, he has hardly rated more than a passing mention. There is a logical, if brutal, reason for this. John was the unfortunate royal child who was “not quite right” and, being so, had to be hidden away from public view. In the scant references to him in royal biographies, John is often classed as an epileptic, but there was much more wrong with him than that. Prince John was born on 12 July 1905 and at first appeared to be a normal child. Unlike his rather nervous elder brothers Edward, Albert – the future King George VI – Henry, Duke of Gloucester and George, Duke of Kent, John possessed a happy disposition and was a plentiful source of the quaint and amusing childish sayings parents love to treasure. But, before long, it was clear that John was growing too quickly. By the time he was 12 he could be fairly described as a “monster boy”. He was already severely epileptic and was therefore subject to a frightening disorder which struck and felled its victims without warning
When his parents celebrated their Silver Wedding anniversary on 6 July 1918, six days before his thirteenth birthday, Prince John was notably absent from the family photograph taken at Buckingham Palace for the occasion. Instead, since 1916, he had lived in his own separate establishment, Wood Farm at Wolferton near Sandringham. There, he was cared for by his nurse Mrs.“Lalla” Bill and a male orderly, separated from his family and safely out of the public eye. Glimpses of John and his carers have been recorded, but they were no more than fleeting impressions of a huge boy being taken out for an airing in the woods close to Wood Farm. He was the Royal Family’s sad secret and fortunately, the media of the time – much more reverential, not to say deferential than it is today – left the tragic young prince alone. There was, in any case, nothing unusual about John’s isolated life. In the early part of the 20th century and for some time afterwards, an abnormal child did not elicit sympathy. An epileptic like John was regarded as mentally unbalanced and a shame on his family – all the more so because his was the Royal Family. At that time, epilepsy was seen as untreatable. There were certainly no drugs to control it.
John’s parents therefore faced the danger that their youngest son might have an epileptic fit in public where dozens, maybe scores of people could see his plight – and theirs – and the newspapers, however reverential they were, might report it. It is only in the world of today that shutting John away appears cruel and unfeeling. It was, in fact, the only recourse open to his parents, given the social mores of the time. Isolation also had benefits for John himself, releasing him from the rigours of being royal and therefore, in a sense, public property. His life, for however long it lasted, could be sheltered and serene and there is some evidence that his happy nature was unaffected by his condition.
He was not nicknamed “the Imp” for nothing. His favourite game was playing soldiers, with a wooden sword and a paper hat on his head. Queen Mary probably spent more time with him than she did with her other children, and John’s charm was said to lighten her distress when she visited him at Wood Farm. Queen Mary was nowhere near as cold and unfeeling as she has often been depicted and though she was always reticent about it, John’s early death struck her hard and deep.
Neither of his parents were there when John died in the early hours of 18 January 1919. Death came too suddenly. At 5.30 am, the telephone rang at Buckingham Palace. Mrs. Bill was on the line, telling the Queen that John had had a severe fit and could not be woken up. It was not unexpected. Since John turned thirteen in July 1918, the fits had grown worse and more frequent. Now, six months later, he was dead. Despite the hour, King George and Queen Mary immediately drove down to Sandringham and Wood Farm to find Mrs. Bill “heartbroken but resigned” and the dead boy lying as if asleep on his bed. “Little Johnnie looked very peaceful,” the Queen wrote later. “He just slept quietly in his heavenly home, no pain, no struggle, just peace for the little troubled spirit.”
John was buried on 21 January in the graveyard at Sandringham Church, in what his mother described as a “very private” ceremony. From there on, the lost prince passed out of royal history and public ken to re-emerge briefly eighty years later . . . a faded photograph in an old album during a house clearance. (Royalty Magazine Volume 17/07)