by Brenda Ralph Lewis
An old family album among the effects of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor sold
at auction in Paris last February, brought to light a lost and forgotten royal
- Prince John, 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
half a page in the newspapers with a photograph of him taken in 1915, probably
by his eldest brother, Later King Edward VIII and afterwards Duke of Windsor.
The picture showed a typical 9-year old of the time, wearing the sailor suit
which was 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
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
Prince John was born on 12 July 1905 and at first appeared to be a normal
child Unlike his rather nervous elder brothers Edward, the future King Edward
VIII , 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 in Norfolk. 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 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 reverentially they might report it.
To the touchy-feely, care in the community, equal rights for the disabled
world of today, 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 though only as a faded photograph in an old album found during a
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