As the fifth son and sixth child of King George V, it would be a long shot for Prince John to ascend to the throne. The cherubic blond boy would never have to worry about the responsibilities that could come with the monarchy, though. Instead, Queen Elizabeth’s uncle wouldn’t see past the age of 13.
Much of Prince John’s early life took place at Sandringham, the royal family’s Norfolk, England-based country house. Although his parents treated him warmly and visitors lauded the young boy’s charm, things started to shift for John around the age of four. His family decided to leave him at Sandringham, where he would spend the remainder of his life.
The royal family has long contended that Prince John hadn’t been left at Sandringham in an effort to hide him from the public. Indeed, he did make a few appearances with his reigning parents, but disappeared from view by the time he turned 11. Consequently, it’s easy to understand why his story isn’t well known.
Prince John’s second-eldest brother, Albert, would eventually ascend to the throne of the United Kingdom in 1936. Albert would become King George VI, who became a cultural sign of strength for Britain during World War II. And, when he passed away in 1952, his daughter became Queen Elizabeth II: the current monarch and niece of Prince John.
On July 12, 1905, at Sandringham Estate, a new member of the royal family came into the world. Mary, then-Princess of Wales, gave birth to a baby boy. She and George, then-Prince of Wales, had already welcomed five other children: Prince Edward, Prince Albert, Princess Mary, Prince Henry, and Prince George.
The Prince and Princess of Wales chose an unexpected name for their baby boy: John. The royal family had veered away that name after the reign of King John, who ascended to the throne at the turn of the 13th century. A military failure, King John earned the nickname “soft sword” for his failed invasion of France. He treated people horribly too, famously starving prisoners and blinding his own nephew.
But by the 20th century, the royal family decided to try again with John, the sixth-born child to George, Prince of Wales, the heir to the English throne. The baby would be sixth in line to become king behind his father and four brothers. As such, he became formally known as His Royal Highness Prince John of Wales.
Prince John – called “Johnnie” by his family – grew up at Sandringham, the same place where he was born. All of the royal siblings lived there, reared in part by a nanny named Charlotte “Lala” Bill. Their parents had a hand in raising them, too, although then-Prince George had a reputation for being strict when disciplining his kids.
But Prince George had a soft side, too, and he treated all six of his kids with great affection. His wife went even further than that – Mary, the then-Princess of Wales, forged close relationships with her little ones. She made each one feel comfortable enough to confide in her. All of this combined made for a seemingly idyllic childhood for Prince John and his siblings.
Visitors to Sandringham, including the Dowager Empress of Russia, noted how the youngest boy, John, had a ton of personality and charm. These traits seemed to work on his parents, too. According to the 2008 documentary Prince John: The Windsors’ Tragic Secret, Prince George admitted to U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt that “all [his] children [were] obedient, except John.”
John not only exhibited mischievous behavior, but he never got reprimanded by the notoriously strict Prince George. Indeed, according to the 1959 book Queen Mary, 1867-1953, John had been a “large and handsome” little one, perhaps too cute to discipline, even for the future king of England.
But things would change for John around the time that he turned four. Although he had started life as a lively jokester, he would soon transition to a life led out of the public eye. He did so in spite of the fact that his father ascended to the throne of England, becoming King George V after his 1911 coronation.
John’s isolation began at such an early age because his temperament had begun to shift. In the 1986 book Matriarch: Queen Mary and the House of Windsor, the then-youngest royal was described as both “painfully slow” and “winsome.” Indeed, he may well have been living with a disability such as autism.
On top of that, Prince John suffered a seizure in his fourth year of life, too, which led to an epilepsy diagnosis. His parents pointed to his questionable health as a reason for their youngest not to attend King George V’s coronation. But others questioned if they did so for his health or for their own reputation. If John had an episode during the event, they may have thought it would reflect poorly on them.
That decision may sound cruel, but John wasn’t treated harshly by his family. Instead, King George always showed affection to his youngest – when he could, anyway. Soon after his ascent to the throne, England’s reigning monarch had to see the country through World War I. His and his wife’s official duties kept them away from John.
John’s siblings more or less disappeared from his life too. The youngest didn’t go to boarding school or sign up to serve in the military, as his brothers and sister had. Instead, John slipped further and further from the public eye. The papers reported that he wouldn’t attend the same academic institution as his brother, George, but that was it.
By 1916 John’s health had gotten even worse: he began suffering from more seizures than he had before. So his family decided it best that he move to Sandringham. More specifically, he would reside at Wood Farm, a secluded farmhouse on the royal family’s Norfolk property. Nowadays, the Duke of Edinburgh has retired to a quieter life at Wood Farm.
But long before the Duke of Edinburgh’s residency at Wood Farm began, Prince John made the farmhouse into his home. Queen Mary herself had chosen this new lifestyle for John. She redecorated the property to suit his tastes: she even made sure he could see the steam engines chugging along from his bedroom window.
After that, Queen Mary dropped off John at his new abode in January of 1917. At that time, according to MSN, she expressed her heartbreak at her youngest son’s decline in health. She wrote, “It is very sad to see this great strong boy, with the mind of a child of six, and makes one quite unhappy.”
Fortunately, Prince John hadn’t trekked to Wood Farm alone. He had Bill, the nanny who had raised him and his siblings at Sandringham at the start of their lives. Even with her gentle care, the youngest royal failed to progress in his private study. Soon after he moved to the family estate, his tutors were dismissed, and his time in academia officially ended.
But the focus that John lacked in his studies came to him as he observed the world around him. He wanted to engage with this aspect of his life. Indeed, the young boy could speak and express himself too. But life at Sandringham left him isolated from his family and the outside world to the point where his grandmother, Queen Alexandra, noted it to his mother in a letter.
The 2003 book The Lost Prince shared an excerpt of Queen Alexandra’s letter to her daughter-in-law: Queen Mary. She wrote, “[John] is very proud of his house but is longing for a companion.” With that, the reigning monarch made the decision to break royal protocol to give her son what he so desperately wanted.
Queen Mary allowed outsiders into Sandringham so that Prince John could have playmates his own age. Winifred Thomas was among the children chosen to pal around with the royal. She herself had come to the monarch’s country estate because of her ailing health. Her uncle oversaw the stables, and her family thought that the fresh country air could cure her asthma.
Prince John and his new friend, Thomas, had met before too. They had become acquainted before the start of World War I. Reunited, their friendship blossomed into a close relationship. They often strolled through the countryside together, or they tilled the land in Queen Alexandra’s on-site garden. Still, she wasn’t the only playmate brought in to get to know the young royal.
Another of Prince John’s pals was Leslie Saward Heath. Her father, Leonard Saward, oversaw the train station at Wolferton for four decades. As a consequence, Leslie helped the young prince to connect with one of his greatest interests: trains. Namely, her father allowed John to come to the station and sweep the platforms.
Along with Thomas and Leslie, Prince John always had his siblings – at least, when they came to Sandringham. Prince Edward – who, by then, had become the Prince of Wales – would whisk his younger brother around in a push-cart. It was this jovial way of living that had endeared John to the people who lived near the family estate too.
Perhaps in the same push-cart, John would trek to villages near Sandringham. He’d fill the container with apples and share them with the locals. They grew to know him as a green thumb too. His affinity for working in Queen Alexandra’s garden was well known to his neighbors as well.
For every positive stride he made, though, Prince John’s happy life at Wood Farm couldn’t heal his epilepsy and other health issues. In fact, his seizures continued to get worse and worse. Soon enough, his fits grew so intense that John once again had to be kept from his siblings, according to the 2008 Prince John documentary.
As John’s seizures worsened, his nanny, Bill, wrote, “We dared not let him be with his brothers and sister, because it upsets them so much, with the attacks getting so bad and coming so often.” He did have some final moments to share with his siblings, however. For one, John attended the family’s Christmas celebration in 1918 at Sandringham, retiring to Wood Farm after the festivities ended.
Ultimately, that would be John’s last Christmas celebration – and perhaps the last time he saw his family. On January 18, 1919, the young prince suffered from a particularly intense seizure. And, at 5:30 p.m., he was pronounced dead, having passed away while he slept. His beloved nanny, Bill, was by his side until the end.
In fact, it was Bill who informed Queen Mary that her youngest son had passed away. Soon enough, the public found out about the 13-year-old royal’s untimely death. They flooded the royal family with condolences, but they simultaneously criticized the King and Queen’s seemingly callous handling of their son’s passing.
While Queen Mary’s behavior was deemed “unfeeling,” according to MSN, the public saw King George as the typical Victorian father. He seemed both “indifferent” and “irritat[ed]” by his children. Behind the scenes, though, the royals mourned the loss of their youngest boy, who had spent nearly a decade dealing with his terrifying seizures.
The 2012 book George VI revealed a bit of Queen Mary’s diary entry after her son’s death. She deemed the news “a great shock, though for the poor little boy’s restless soul, death came as a great relief.” She went on to write, “The first break in the family circle is hard to bear, but people have been so kind [and] sympathetic, [and] this has helped us much.”
While Queen Mary privately mourned Prince John’s death, it seemed that her eldest son, Prince Edward, had a different view of the situation. MSN shared an excerpt from a letter he wrote in the wake of the youngest royal’s passing. The message began, “His death is the greatest relief imaginable… but to be plunged into mourning for this is the limit just as the war is over.”
Prince Edward’s heartless letter continued, “No one would be more cut up if any of my other three brothers were to die… but this poor boy had become more of an animal than anything else and was only a brother in the flesh and nothing else!” In another now-lost message, Edward shared similarly emotionless thoughts with his grieving mother: Queen Mary.
Queen Mary never replied to Edward’s message, which prompted him to send her an apology. In it, he seemed to soften up on the subject of John’s death. According to the 1991 book King Edward VIII: The Official Biography, he wrote, “No one can realize more than [she] how poor little Johnnie meant to [him] who hardly knew him… I feel so much for you, darling Mama, who was his mother.”
Along with Queen Mary, Prince John’s nanny, Bill, also mourned the loss of the boy for whom she cared. She hung a portrait of the young royal on her mantel alongside a message that he had penned to her. According to the 2008 Prince John documentary, the letter said, “Nanny, I love you.”
As time has gone on, people have come to view Prince John’s short life – and his family’s treatment of him – to be a prime example of the Windsors’ callous nature. Nevertheless, many details about him cannot be confirmed because of the royals’ private nature. Much of what afflicted the youngest of King George V’s children was never disclosed to the public.
Indeed, the way that King George V and Queen Mary handled Prince John’s epilepsy was just how things were during their time. In a 1998 piece in The Birmingham Post, the British Epileptic Association stated, “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… It was thought to be a form of mental illness.”
Nevertheless, Prince John’s story has come to light, thanks to the royal family portraits released in 1998 that reminded the world of his brief life. Since then, documentaries, books and movies have shared the details of his childhood and untimely death. Yet, according to the 2008 documentary Prince John, it’s open for interpretation as to whether Prince John’s life should be classed as a “tragedy or conspiracy.”