A vintage photo of “Lost” British Prince John is going under the hammer later this month. Taken in 1909, the Royal family portrait reminds the world of an unhappy story which even now flies under the public radar.
Born in 1905, the Prince suffered his first epileptic seizure at age 4. As the disorder worsened, his parents King George V and Queen Mary (then-Prince and Princess of Wales) made the dramatic decision to isolate their son elsewhere. “John, who is also now thought to have been autistic, had spent his final two years separated from his siblings in Wood Farm, on the Sandringham Estate” writes the Mirror.
Exact details of the story are unclear, even to this day. However the unearthed photo featuring lost prince John captures a rare moment in history. 4 year old John is shown sitting on the knee of older brother Prince Edward. Also present are Princes Henry, Albert, George and Princess Mary. What makes the snap extra special is that it’s been signed by the six siblings.
UK: Rare photo of royal children showing ‘Lost Prince’ John up for auction https://t.co/3M1DQGOzRL
— Republic (@republic) July 4, 2020
The picture measures 4.5 x 3.75 inches and is currently owned by a private collector. Interest in the image is thought to be high, with £3,000 reported as a possible price. “The photo was probably given to a member of the Royal Family, someone close to it or perhaps a royal nanny” says Francisco Pinero of International Autograph Auction in Spain, quoted by the Mirror.
Prince John sadly passed away at just 13, following a severe seizure. He’d been looked after by his nanny, Charlotte “Lalla” Bill. How did the family react? King George did not attend the scene, say accounts. It’s reported that afterwards the Prince’s name was removed from family trees, such was the perceived impact on the Royals’ public image.Particularly shocking was Edward’s reaction. A letter from the future monarch found in 2015 reads: “His death is the greatest relief imaginable or what we’ve always silently prayed for. This poor boy had become more of an animal than anything else and was only a brother in the flesh and nothing else.”
Epilepsy Today says the communication “highlights intolerant attitudes towards epilepsy in the early 20th Century.” With little in the way of treatment available, John found himself ostracized, hidden away and rarely visited by his own kin. There was another relation, the Duke of Albany, who’d recovered from the disorder, so it’s speculated the family hoped the same would happen with John.
In 2003 Stephen Poliakoff made the BBC drama ‘The Lost Prince’. John was played by Matthew Thomas and Daniel Williams. Tom Hollander was George and Miranda Richardson Mary. According to the Mail it “told the tale of the fifth son of the brusque King George V and his chilly wife, Queen Mary (the present Queen’s grandparents), whose descent from happy childhood into youthful oblivion bore all the hallmarks of a classic tragedy.”
Poliakoff appears to have found research challenging. “There was no single book about Prince John” writes the Guardian. The writer/director “amassed paragraphs from biographers of bigger figures and twice visited the royal archives at Windsor before suspicion about the purpose of his research restricted his permission.”
In 2008 a documentary – Prince John: The Windsors’ Tragic Secret – spoke with Elsie Hollingsworth, who played with John as a child. An impression was gained of what the Prince was actually like from the production. The Daily Mail reports, “He loved practical jokes and would put glue on door-handles and pins on chairs. And she speaks of the time he brought her a cup of tea in bed when she was ill.”
Was he kept at arm’s length by the Palace? Not for the majority of his life apparently. For the Mail, The Windsors’ Tragic Secret “demonstrates that, far from being abandoned at birth, Prince John was, for many years, a fully-fledged member of the royal family, appearing in public with his brothers and sister, until well past his 11th birthday.” He was featured in postcards and appeared part of the Royal brand. His final years however were spent in lonely isolation as his condition worsened.
As for detachment on the parental side, that is certainly accurate. Was it borne out of cruelty, or something deeper? “Without wishing to slander the whole German race,” Poliakoff told the Guardian, “it is possible that an emotional coldness descended from George and Mary, in attitudes or genes: that Germanic severity of tone.”
Harsh treatment extended to the other children. Prince George had bandy legs, so was made to wear leg braces. He was also left handed. That was met with severity by the household, who told him to use his right nonetheless. Edward reportedly developed an eating disorder.
This disturbing saga has been brought to light all over again, through this precious image of six of the UK’s most important historical children. Was it a happy scene, or one taken for appearances’ sake only? Whoever wins the photo can ponder that for themselves. The auction takes place Jul 22nd.
Steve Palace is a writer and comedian from the UK. He’s a contributor to both The Vintage News and The Hollywood News and has created content for many other websites. His short fiction has been published by Obverse Books.