Prince John was the youngest child of George V and Queen Mary, the young prince diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of four.
He was eventually sent away from the palace to Sandringham House where his governess looked after him until his death at the age of 13, following a severe seizure.
But his condition was kept secret from the public and because such little information about John was released, over the years people suspected he was mistreated due to his condition.
These days, new information confirms that he was loved and well looked after, but for years there was mystery surrounding the life of the boy many refer to as “the Lost Prince.”
The first four years
John Charles Francis was born on July 12, 1905, as the fifth son and youngest of the six children born to King George V and his wife, Queen Mary. If John had lived, he’d be the uncle to Queen Elizabeth II, our current monarch.
Above him in age was Prince George, Prince Henry, Princess Mary, Prince Albert (the current Queen’s father, who became King George VI) and Prince Edward, (later Edward VIII).
John was said to be a bright, vibrant, healthy child in the first four years of his life and there were no signs of epilepsy. He was very cheeky and loved practical jokes, such as reportedly putting glue on door handles, and once famously referred to his father as the “ugly old man.”
Above all, Prince John was part of an incredible royal dynasty. He was related to 20 reigning monarchs in Europe; his grandfather was King Edward VII, who reigned over an empire that was at its most powerful.
But life wasn’t exactly easy for John and his siblings as they grew up under the incredibly strict guidance of their father, the future King George V, who was said to have put enormous pressure on his children to behave more like adults than children.
According to royal biographer Sarah Bradford: “Lord Darby had a famous anecdote, that George V said to him ‘I was frightened of my father and I’m doing to make damn sure my children are frightened of me.’”
Another aspect of the children’s home life which has been written about countless times was that Mary and George were very inhibited about expressing emotions. And, while historians have evidence that the couple loved each other dearly, they only seemed to express their love for each other via letters.
While the family home was a massive estate, George insisted the family live in the smaller “York Cottage,” which was crammed full with six children, several servants, equerries, nannies and governesses.
The children only saw their mother for an hour a day, and they rarely saw their father. And yet the house was said to be always dominated by his intimidating personality and, by all accounts, George was a scary father figure with an explosive temper.
Edward VIII biographer Phillip Ziegler claims while Mary was detached in her relationship with her children, George V was very much a bully.
“He was constantly setting ridiculous standards in regards to dress and behaviour. He didn’t mean to be cruel but it offended him if in any way they stepped below what he felt to be the immutable, essential standards for members of the royal family, above all, for future kings,” Ziegler told UKTV.
Prince Edward remembered his childhood as being “wretched”, but little John was apparently insubordinate and unafraid of his father.
The harsh home life was to have negative consequences for all the children. But it was the most dependent child, John, who was eventually removed from the family
In 1909, John began having seizures and was discovered to have epilepsy. When his condition deteriorated, he was kept away from the public eye and sent to live at Sandringham House, under the care of his nanny and governess, Charlotte Bill, known by the children as “Lala.” Apparently, all the children adored Lala, who had nursed them all as babies.
When Edward VII died in May 1910, Prince John joined the family to watch the funeral procession from the balcony, in full view of the crowds below, outside Malborough house.
But with John’s parents now the King and Queen, John was still rarely seen in public, though the general populate didn’t know why. In fact, his epilepsy was only disclosed to the public following his death in 1919.
This led to endless speculation that John had been mistreated, or cast aside as an embarrassment. According to royal biographer Christopher Wilson, some of the official House of Windsor family trees have omitted John’s name entirely.
“If they feel they have somebody that isn’t up to scratch, they want to write them out of the history books and this happened in the case of Prince John, the moment that he died, we hear no more about him,” Wilson told UKTV documentary Prince John, the Windsor’s tragic secret.
The royal family, if you read the newspapers, is a family with five children and not six and it’s easier to forget the child that died in his teenage years.”
At the time John was alive, there was a great lack of understanding of epilepsy and no effective treatment. Patients were often treated as though they were insane and the word “epileptic” was used as a derogatory term.
For more than 80 years, Prince John was rarely mentioned until 1998 when London’s Independent newspaper reported on the discovery of a photo album that once belonged to Edward, the Duke of Windsor. In the photo album, found in an attic in Paris, were photos of John as a little boy.
These photos showed a child who appeared to be much-loved and living a full life. The discovery led to the creation of TV movie The Lost Prince, which was written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff, who found evidence that John was “very lovable and rather delightful, but different.”
He also found plenty of evidence that, even though John had been removed from his family, he was allowed to have visitors and formed childhood friends.
A short life
Doctors had told the King and Queen that John wouldn’t survive to adulthood, so it was not a great shock to them when he died following a severe epileptic seizure on January 18, 1919. Following John’s death, Mary wrote to a friend that she and George arrived to “Woodfarm” where John was living to find Lala distressed, and John lying “peacefully still.”
King George described his son’s death to a friend as “the greatest mercy possible.”
But it was the lack of information about John in the aftermath of his death that led to historians and journalists speculating about his short life.
Royal historian Charlotte Zeepvat says this resulted in people imagining the very worst.
“The ways in which Prince John has been remembered have taken on some bizarre and cruel turns,” Zeepvat told UKTV.
“There’s one theory that says he was a sort of monster, too big for his age and anyone who looks at a photo knows that’s not true. One book describes him as having long hair because it couldn’t be cut and his fingernails couldn’t be cut, and that’s just ludicrous,.”
We’ll never know whether John’s life was written out of royal history due to embarrassment or whether the grief the family carried was too much to deal with. Perhaps, it was easier for everyone if he was simply allowed to disappear.