I’m currently reading The Golden Prince by Rebecca Dean, which is about a doomed fictional romance between the young Prince ‘David’ of Wales (the future Edward VIII) and Lily Houghton, the divinely pretty artistically minded youngest granddaughter of a peer. It’s a great book actually – the eldest sister, Rose is a Suffragette and chums around with the Pankhursts and gets very impassioned about forced feeding in Holloway; the next sister, Iris, is the Lady Edith of the family and the third sister, Marigold is the slutty one who turns up to the Coronation ball dressed up as the Queen of Sheba and has affairs with politicians.
Anyway, there’s mentions of David’s youngest brother, Prince John and his impish ways and it got me thinking about the unfortunate prince and his life – was it as tragic, lonely and unloved as some people would have us think? I’m not convinced.
Prince John, the youngest child of George V and Mary of Teck was born in York Cottage, Sandringham on the 12th of July 1905. It became clear relatively quickly that the small prince had some problems, such as seizures. We will probably never know exactly what was wrong with Prince John but epilepsy and possibly some high functioning form of autism, such as Aspergers may have been involved.
George V and Queen Mary are often regarded as strict, unloving, cold parents who made their children’s lives miserable. It’s true that they didn’t exactly inspire affection in their elder offspring but Prince John seems to have been an exception to this with even King George once wryly commenting that all of his children were well behaved, with the exception of Prince John, who was known for his jolly sense of humour, love of practical jokes, tendency to take comments absolutely literally and habit of making disconcerting comments about members of the court and his family. It’s also been noted more than once that the youngest Prince got away with things that his elder siblings would have been severely punished for…
There are still rumours that John was separated from his family and packed off to live in the countryside to live a lonely, sad existence, forgotten by everyone. In actuality he remained with his family until the age of twelve when, after his seizures became worse and his parents were advised that he may well not attain adulthood, a separate household was set up for him at Wood Farm, a comfortable house on the Sandringham estate. Also, twelve is the age that his brothers were sent away to attend naval college so it’s likely that, it being clear that Prince John wouldn’t be able to cope with such rigours, their parents opted instead to give him a separate establishment while at the same time keeping him close.
Although he wasn’t able to attend huge events like his father’s coronation (which took place when he was five years old and had just started having seizures – I would suggest that his age as much as his perceived infirmity was a reason for his much discussed non-attendance) he was still considered very much a part of the family with frequent visits from his parents, siblings and doting grandmother, Queen Alexandra (who also used to send her car to pick him up for visits to her house, where they would play together) to his house as well as return visits to Sandringham House when his family were in residence. He was apparently particularly close to his elder brother Prince George, the nearest to him in age. He features in family photographs and his companions have memories of him playing with visiting royal children just as normal rather than being kept away, out of sight.
In fact, in comparison to the rigid, rather miserable and very strictly monitored life of his elder siblings, Prince John seems to have had the happiest life of all – away from the court and the formal rituals that everyone else hated and with the love of the devoted family nanny, Charlotte ‘Lalla’ Bill and a group of companions – local children who were recruited by his mother to be his friends so that he wouldn’t be lonely and who enjoyed normal childhood games, nature walks and bike rides around the huge Sandringham estate with the Prince. Their memories are of a happy, friendly, confident boy, surrounded by love, passionate about his private garden and not at all the lonely, abandoned child of popular mythology.
Some of Prince John’s letters have recently been discovered in the possession of the descendant of one of the Prince’s companions and amongst them there are sweet letters sent to King George: ‘Dear Papa, I’m sending you a box of snowdrops for you which I have picked… these two daisies I have picked out of my garden. ‘ and ‘My dear papa, I’m sending you in a box some lilies out of Wolferton Woods. The garden is very nice here. I am very busy here. Best love from your devoted son, Johnnie.‘ I can’t imagine Princes David or Bertie sending their forbidding, distant father a gift of flowers and wonder if perhaps the youngest Prince’s special position within his family as a uniquely private and protected person meant that he was able to feel more affectionately towards his parents.
Certainly, Queen Mary appears to have been extremely fond of him, seemingly more so in fact than her other children with whom she could be rather distant, and was genuinely devastated after his premature death, which occurred in the early hours of the 18th of January 1919, when he was just thirteen years old.
‘Lalla Bill telephoned from Wood Farm, Wolferton, that our poor darling Johnnie had died suddenly after one of his attacks. The news gave me a great shock, though for the little boy’s restless soul, death came as a great release. I brought the news to George & we motored down to Wood Farm. Found poor Lalla very resigned but heartbroken. Little Johnnie looked very peaceful lying there… For him it is a great release as his malady was becoming worse as he grew older and he has thus been spared much suffering. I cannot say how grateful we feel to God for having taken him in such a peaceful way, he just slept quietly… no pain, no struggle, just peace for the poor little troubled spirit, which had been a great anxiety for us for many years ever since he was four.‘ — excerpt from Queen Mary’s own diary.
‘Dear little Johnnie was laid in the churchyard next to brother John‘ — excerpt from George V’s diary after his funeral.
Prince John’s funeral at Sandringham Church was well attended by most of his family, including his parents, grandmother, sister and two younger brothers. Amongst the flowers that covered the grave there was a floral cross from his parents with a card saying: ‘For our darling little Johnnie, from his sorrowing parents‘ and one from his grandmother saying: ‘In remembrance of my darling little Johnnie, Grannie’s precious grandson, whose memory will never fade. May he rest in peace for ever with the Lord, though we shall ever miss him sorely here on earth. From poor old Grannie, Alexandra.‘ So sad.
Afterwards, Queen Mary wrote in her diary: ‘Tuesday, January 21st 1919. Canon Dalton & Dr Brownhill conducted the service, which was awfully sad and touching. Many of our own people and the villagers were present. We thanked all Johnnie’s servants, who have been so good and faithful to him.‘
It’s not all great though – his eldest brother, David, is known to have been extremely unsympathetic about John’s death, referring to him as ‘an animal’, stropping about having to go into mourning and so on, which is really horrible. However, I wonder if perhaps, David, who always felt himself to have had a really miserable childhood and faced his royal destiny with misgiving felt envious of the little brother who had been allowed friends, a private life and escape from the tiresome and uncomfortable formalities of Royal life as well as, most crucially, the affection and lack of expectation of his parents who kept the rest of their children to almost impossibly high standards.
I’d always heard that John had a sad and lonely life so I’m very relieved that it seems that quite the reverse was true and that his tragically short existence was actually a happy and very much loved one.
‘Miss the dear child very much indeed‘ — Queen Mary, after John’s death.