Today, the idea of being able to hide away a Royal child is unthinkable – not just because of our more refined sense of morality in the 21st century, but because of the sheer unlikelihood of being able to keep anything of such a magnitude hidden from the unrelenting gaze of the modern media.
In 1905, however, George V and Queen Mary had just had their sixth child. His name was Prince John and he would die before his 14th birthday; he would, sadly, have been almost forgotten several years before then.
In 1909 it was discovered that Prince John had epilepsy, a disease that had made itself known in the Royal Family before, in the boy’s uncle – the Duke of Albany – who had survived into adulthood with the condition. At first, it was hoped this would be the case for John too; that his condition would improve.
Prince John (right) on a Royal shopping trip with Prince George
Contrary to popular opinion, Prince John was treated just as his brothers and sisters were for much of his early years, remaining in the public eye for the majority of his very short life. He was included in family photographs with his siblings, and developed a reputation as the most mischievous of the bunch – reportedly enjoying practical jokes like putting glue on door handles and booby-trapping chairs with pins.
There was, however, a growing friction between Prince John’s role as a Royal and the potential embarrassment of his making public appearances. When his father ascended to the throne in 1910 to become King George V, John was granted the title ‘His Royal Highness The Prince John’, to reflect his new status. He was not, however, permitted to attend his parents’ coronation on June 22nd 1911.
As World War I broke out, Prince John became increasingly alienated from his family. With his parents often away on Royal duties, and his siblings enrolled in the military or boarding school, John remained at home – the decision had been taken not to enrol him in school. His annexation from the family became complete in 1916, when his condition worsened, and he was sent to live at Wood Farm on the Sandringham Estate, where he passed entirely into the care of his governess Charlotte ‘Lala’ Bill.
This was the decision upon which many subsequently judged the Royals to have been cruel; a sad episode that underlines what some claim to be an inherent lack of warmth in the Royals’ treatment of their children. But this is perhaps too simplistic a judgement, and one possibly not borne out by the facts.
He may not have been included in family portraits from 1913 onwards, and lived in relative isolation for the last few years of his life, but the evidence suggests that he still occupied the thoughts of his parents and siblings. Queen Mary broke Royal protocol by taking the unusual step of inviting local children to play with John at Wood Farm, in the hope of somewhat mitigating his loneliness. The fact that John was still able to form close friendships – in particular with a young girl named Winifred Owen, with whom he often took nature walks – suggests that his sweetness of character remained intact, despite his worsening seizures and suspected autism.
Most damning of all for the Royals, however, was a letter written by John’s brother Prince Edward VIII – who would some time later abdicate the throne – to their mother. One line is famously ill-judged, but often quoted without the first clause to make it seem particularly callous:
“No one wld. be more cut up if any of other 3 brothers were to die than I shldbe, but this poor boy had become more of an animal than anything else + was only a brother in the flesh and nothing else.”
Yet despite this, John’s brothers were known to have visited John at Wood Farm and played with him; one account describes Prince Edward propelling John around in a push-cart, as the two disappear into the distance. That Edward later apologised profusely in another letter to his mother for his comments should indicate that John was far from forgotten or disliked by his family – rather, they felt the pain of his condition keenly.
Prince John spent Christmas Day with his family at Sandringham in 1918, and was driven back to Wood Farm later that night. Less than a month later, on 18th January 1919, John died in his sleep after a seizure. He was 13 years old.
When the Daily Mirror reported his death two days later, it was revealed to the public for the first time that Prince John was epileptic. Ironically, it was in death that the public could know the truth of John’s life, but the claims that he was forgotten or unloved by his family deliberately overlook the warmth that was very clearly felt towards him.
You can learn more about the first Windsors, George & Mary and their children here.