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Prince John (1905-1919): The British Royal Who Most People Don't Know Existed

The future King Edward VII (Dirty Bertie's) multiple affairs are well known but was he innocent in the scandalous Mordaunt divorce case?

Ernest Brook's 1913 portrait of Prince John.

Ernest Brook's 1913 portrait of Prince John.

HRH Prince John of Wales

Prince John (1905-1919) was the youngest son of King George V (1865-1936) and Queen Mary (1867-1953.) He was born on 12th July 1905 at York Cottage on the Sandringham estate and christened on the 3rd August at the nearby St. Mary Magdalene Church by Reverend Canon John Neale Dalton. Given the names John Charles Francis, he was known as Johnnie to the family. He was titled His Royal Highness Prince John of Wales at birth.

When King Edward VII (1841-1910,) his grandfather, died in May 1910, his father became monarch and John was placed fifth in the line of succession to the British throne after his siblings David (Edward VIII,) Albert (George VI,) Henry, later Duke of Gloucester and George, later Duke of York. His sister Mary, later Princess Royal, was below them in the line of succession although she was older than Henry, George and John, thanks to the rule of primogeniture. Today’s fifth in line to the throne, Prince Louis of Cambridge is familiar to us so why do so many people not know that John existed?

York Cottage on the Sandringham Estate.

York Cottage on the Sandringham Estate.

Prince John, Retired From Public Life

In 1909 the royal family discovered that John, who was developing less quickly than expected, suffered from epilepsy. Autism and learning difficulties have also been speculated upon. Although George and Mary acted as parents in that era would have done by shielding him from public view, this has frequently been interpreted as cruelty on their part.

The king and his consort realised that John's condition, which deteriorated over time, meant that he could not play the role of a royal in the public eye, scrutinised and bearing the stress of ceremonies and the constraints that being the son of the king inevitably brought. Their solution was to give him peace and “normal” life. As he was prone to misbehave and did not bow willingly to discipline, this seemed a practical and compassionate decision. The public was not made aware of his illness until after Prince John passed away. They simply stopped seeing John in public after the age of eleven.

The criticism that has followed through the decades led The British Epileptic Association to comment that, "There was nothing unusual in what [the King and Queen] did. At that time, people with epilepsy were put apart from the rest of the community. They were often put in epilepsy colonies or mental institutions. It was thought to be a form of mental illness."

Part of the Royal and Sandringham Families

Privately, he was included in family occasions, and Princess Mary and Prince George were particularly caring towards their little brother. The king was a rigid disciplinarian but indulged John. One incident was related by Princess Alice of Athlone (1883-1981): “ evening when Uncle George returned from stalking he bent over Aunt May and kissed her, and they heard Johnny soliloquize, 'She kissed Papa, ugly old man!'” None of the other children would have been spared the king’s anger. In this, John was probably envied by his siblings.

Unlike them, he was not sent to school and his education was eventually abandoned. In 1916, the king and queen installed John in his own household at Wood Farm, again on the Sandringham estate, in the care of the trusted and sympathetic governess Charlotte “Lala” Bill (1874-1964) who was a devoted mother figure to him.

He was not held in the cottage as a prisoner or shunned and reviled by those nearest to him as has been suggested by commentators. He became friendly with several of the children with parents who worked on the estate and he was visited regularly by his relations. He also tended his own garden with a local girl named Winifred Thomas who suffered from asthma and was in Norfolk to improve her health. She remembered John fondly and was his main companion.

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Prince John with Charlotte "Lala" Bill, his governess.

Prince John with Charlotte "Lala" Bill, his governess.

A Life Cut Short

With the pressures of World War One, John saw his parents infrequently between 1914 and 1918. His seizures worsened as time progressed and as his brothers and sister were upset by his deterioration they chose to see him less often.

He spent Christmas Day 1918 at Sandringham House, celebrating with the family. Little did anyone know that this was his last season of goodwill. On the 18th January 1919, the thirteen-year-old John suffered a severe seizure and died in his sleep hours later.

He was buried at St. Mary Magdalene Church on 21st January 1919. He was greatly mourned by his parents and the wider royal family with one notable exception. David, the future Edward VIII, considered that his youngest brother was like an animal and that his death was “little more than a regrettable nuisance.” He even wrote a vile and tactless letter about John to Queen Mary which he was presumably rebuked for, but not by his grieving mother who chose not to reply to his missive.

David was forced to apologise but how genuine this was is debatable. The letter has been lost. Lala Bill had long before accepted that John might die young but was still heartbroken. Lala kept a portrait of John above her mantelpiece until she died in 1964. Winifred Thomas received some of John’s books from Queen Mary which the queen inscribed for her.

In 2003 Stephen Poliakoff’s drama The Lost Prince focused on John’s short life. Whilst it is a little romanticised, it is also a good way to spend a few hours. You can't help thinking at least someone remembered him.

The Lost Prince Ending


© 2021 Joanne Hayle


Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on July 27, 2021:

I never knew he existed. Thank you for the lesson in history

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