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The lost prince

It’s in the middle of the night and I couldn’t sleep, so I thought for myself, why not write? Sitting in front of my window and looking out on the clear sky with the moon illuminating the snow outside. Sitting alone made me think about loneliness. Then I remembered the story about a little boy who was hidden away from public eyes because of his illness. How difficult it must have been for a child in this age to be isolated to prison life when his father was King of England. What did he think? Did he at all understand why he was placed at the farm with only the staff as friends?

When Prince John died in 1919 only 13 years old, many British people didn’t remember that he had ever existed even if he was the son of the royal couple, King John and Queen Mary. He lived such a mysterious life that, after his death, very few people could tell his story. The reason was that the royal couple’s son suffered from epilepsy which in those days was considered as shameful. When King John was crowned as King George V in 1911, John was about 6 years old and did not participate in the ceremony.

Prince John was born at York Cottage, on the Sandringham Estate, Norfolk, England. His father was then Prince George, Prince of Wales (later King George V), the eldest living son of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. His mother was The Princess of Wales (later Queen Mary), the eldest daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Teck. At the time of his birth, he was sixth in the line of succession.

As the years past, the little Prince got more and more ill. He was so ill at one point that his mother, Queen Mary considered to send him to a mental institution, but was persuaded by the Prince’s old nanny, Charlotte “Lalla” Bill to let her take care of him.

The illness

Prince John had his first epileptic seizure at age four and at age 12, his condition was deteriorated. He was looked after by his nanny, Charlotte Bill, known in the family as “Lalla”, Thomas Haverly, a coachman from Windsor Castle, chosen to drive John because he was known to be reliable and would take the Prince on outings in the country or to the sea and to the “big house” at Sandringham when any members of the family were in residence. Wood Farm also had its own cook and a live-in maid. John had a tutor, Henry Peter Hansell (1863–1935), as well. An area of the garden was set aside for him with a plaque, “Prince John’s garden”, and gardeners who helped him tend it. Indoors, he had his books, a pedal car and a ride-on train. Family photos show him riding a bicycle and a horse without assistance.

In 1916 he was moved to Wood Farm on the Sandringham estate. Some say he lived a lonely and isolated life there, and that Queen Mary kept a cool distance. Other sources tell of experiences and journeys to the sea, and that he had company in Winifred Thomas, niece of coachman at Sandringham. Winifred was the same age as Prince John, and was sent to live with her uncle and aunt in the country because of her asthma problems. Soon after Winifred’s arrival, the Strattons received a visit from Queen Mary and the nanny (a role Victorians referred to as a nurse), who were looking for a friend for John. Winifred’s delicacy probably recommended her to them and after the visit she played with the Prince almost every day. When he was ill, she sat by his bed while the nanny read to them. They went on nature walks together and worked in the garden. No date is given for Winifred’s arrival but it must have happened long before the move to Wood Farm in 1917.

Winifred Thomas remembered John’s mother, Queen Mary, as a loving and interested parent who spent a lot of time with her son. A passage of the Queen’s diary, written some days after John’s death reads: “Miss the dear child very much indeed.”

The Prince’s death

Neither of John’s parents was present at the Wood Farm when the little Prince passed away suddenly January 18th, 1919 only 13 years old. He got a powerful attack and never woke up again.

Later Queen Mary wrote:

Lalla Bill called from Wood Farm and said that our poor darling Johnnie had died suddenly after one of his seizures. The news came as a shock, but for that poor little boy, death came as a relief.

The Queen wrote that she told the news to George, and that they were then driven by car to Wood Farm. Little Johnnie looked very peaceful out there he lay, Mary writes, adding that she believes it was a relief for her son, who had experienced getting increasingly powerful attacks the older he became. He was spared much suffering.

Prince John was buried in a private ceremony at the church at Sandringham January 21, 1919. Queen Mary wrote; 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. She was genuinely moved by their loyalty and went further than thanking them. Thomas Haverly’s daughter was given John’s blackboard, which in time passed on through her own family, and Winifred was given a number of his books with Queen Mary’s own hand-written inscription, “In memory of our dear little Prince.” The Queen also treasured photographs of him, her own diary notes of their time together, and letters. One of these, written by John to Winifred’s uncle who had broken his arm in a riding accident, reads: “Dear Mr. Stratton, I hope your arm is better. Are you going to church? With my love from John.”

In 1935 the celebrated King George had spent 25 years on the throne but he was killed by his own doctor later.

Award-winning film
The British filmmaker Stephen Poliakoff made a few years back of interest for Prince John’s story, and completed in 2003 toepisoders television series – “The Lost Prince.” Poliakoff has said that he almost gave up the project. “There really is very little source material, and much of what is written is incorrect. I had to puzzle together the pieces I found,” he said. The film received three Emmy awards, and Poliakoff gained praise from various quarters for his portrayal of the prince, who in addition to epilepsy, suffered from learning disabilities, speech difficulties and possibly autistic traits.

The name John

The name “John” has been considered unlucky by the royal family and its use avoided since the death of the prince. The popularly negative historical view of the only English monarch to bear the name — King John (reigned 1199–1216) — especially his fictionalization as the villainous Prince John in the Robin Hood stories has no doubt compounded concerns about the name. It was reported that Diana, Princess of Wales, wished to name her elder son John after her own father, but was prevented from doing so by royal tradition.

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