The Tragic Life of Queen Elizabeth's Uncle, Who Was Hidden Away From the Public
The tale of Prince John of the United Kingdom, born John Charles Francis to King George V and Queen Mary in 1905, has often been used as an example of the Royal Family’s cruelty to its own
Dramatized retellings of his story, particularly in 2003’s The Lost Prince and 2008’s Prince John: The Windsors’ Tragic Secret, only served to fuel more scandal. Prince John was depicted as being made to walk around the garden with a tether attached. He was never visited by his mother. Family visits were limited to Christmas dinners, after which the child was hastily driven back to his cottage in Wood Farm, Sandringham. In at least one official family tree submitted by the Windsors themselves, Prince John was omitted.
A letter written by Edward VIII, Prince John’s elder brother, seemed to confirm suspicions that the Royal Family saw the boy as nothing more than a nuisance who was better off forgotten. In it, Prince Edward VII wrote that his brother “had become more of an animal than anything else” and that he was a “brother in the flesh and nothing else.”
It must be kept in mind, however, that the Royal Family in the 1900s lived significantly more private lives than they do in modern times, and that most news of what happened within the walls of their homes was based on hearsay and conjecture. Societal norms were also very different back then, and what may be seen as cruel today could very well have been the proper thing to do in Prince John’s time. From the facts—and only the facts—this is what we know about England’s “Lost Prince”:
His condition was approached in, at the time, the best way.
Prince John suffered his first epileptic seizure at the age of four. Prior to this, his uncle, the Duke of Albany, had also been diagnosed with epilepsy and had survived to full adulthood. It had been believed that Prince John’s condition would likewise improve over time. His seizures continued to worsen, however, so the family decided to send the Prince to Sandringham in 1916, after 12 long years of hoping the symptoms would get better.
According to the British Epileptic Association, sending epileptics away was typical in the early 1900s. In fact, most patients were either placed in epileptic colonies or locked away in mental institutions. It would take 20 more years of research for experts to discover more humane ways of treating the condition. Housing Prince John on a family estate, where he could be cared for by his trusted nanny Bill, might have been a greater mercy than was afforded most epileptics.
Considering that the child had also started exhibiting signs of what might have been autism—he was once described as “winsome” and “painfully slow”—it would have been much more likely that Prince John would have been institutionalized, if not for the privilege his lineage afforded him.
His siblings loved him—even Edward.
Rumors that his family found him to be nothing more than a nuisance may have been unfounded as well. While it is true that visits from his siblings were few and far between, this was done upon the recommendation of Nanny Bill, who saw how distraught the children were upon witnessing their brother’s worsening condition. To see a boy who had once been so wonderfully robust succumb to debilitating seizures might have been too much for the other children to handle.
Prince John was a playful boy and quite the prankster. According to an account by Elsie Hollingsworth, one of the Prince’s playmates at Wood Farm, he enjoyed putting glue on door handles and lining seats with pins. His reputation as “the naughty one” even reached former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt; King George V once told him that all his children were obedient, “except for John.”
Even Prince Edward VIII, who in written accounts had referred to Prince John as an animal, may have been taken out of context one too many times. The complete line from his infamous letter went as follows:
The rest of the letter, however, described how he felt Prince John’s death had been a foregone conclusion, and the “relief” that he wrote about the boy’s passing to be may have been in reference to the prolonged worry they had felt over his condition.
It should also be added that the letter was written when Prince Edward VIII was a brash 24-year old, busy visiting British troops in the grip of World War I. The war had taken time away from his mistress—the letter’s addressee—and had taken its toll on his health. It’s highly likely that he wrote the letter with the same raw emotion and lack of forethought that plagues all stressed-out twentysomethings. He later wrote an apology to the Queen for his words, and stressed how dear the young Prince truly was to him:
“[I felt] like such a cold hearted and unsympathetic swine for writing all that [I] did ... No one can realize more than [you] how poor little Johnnie meant to [I] who hardly knew him ..."
He was not alone in Sandringham, nor was he in exile.
Prince John did not suffer in seclusion, as some stories describe. Aside from Nanny Bill and the occasional family visit, he was also permitted to have local playmates come over to Wood Farm. This was, by all accounts, a major deviation from royal tradition. It was highly unlikely—even frowned upon—for royal children to fraternize with commoners, but we know of at least two who were allowed to spend significant amounts of time with Prince John: Elsie Hollingsworth, Winifred Thomas, and Leslie Saward
His grandmother, Queen Alexandra, also saw fit to maintain a garden for his enjoyment. Some of the happiest moments of Prince John’s time at Wood Farm
The family mourned his death.
The Royal Family is often criticized for their use of the word “relief” to describe Prince John’s passing, but they were quoted to have seen his death as more of a mercy than anything else. In a letter to her friend Emily Alcock, Queen Mary wrote:
“…it is a great relief, as his malady was becoming worse as he grew older, & 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 into his heavenly home, no pain no struggle, just peace for the poor little troubled spirit which had been a great anxiety to us for many years, ever since he was four years old."
King George, on the other hand, simply described his passing as “the greatest mercy.”
While it is possible that shame was one of the reasons the Royal Family sent Prince John away to Sandringham, they didn’t fall short in mourning his death. The staff at Sandringham House and nearby villagers were invited to a private funeral, allowing them to say goodbye to the troubled young boy they had spent three years with.