How Accurate is that Historical Drama?

The Lost Prince
2003
BBC/WGBH biopic of Prince John.

Even for those people with an interest in the British royal family, Prince John is a shadowy figure. Not the ‘evil’ brother of Richard the Lionheart, whose barons made him sign the Magna Carta in 1215, but the youngest child of King George V and Queen Mary.

John was born in 1905 at York Cottage on the royal family’s private Sandringham estate, in west Norfolk, and here too he spent much of his early childhood, until his father succeeded to the throne in 1910. His early childhood was uneventful, but by age four he was described as ‘painfully slow’ by Queen Mary’s biographer Anne Edwards. Later, Queen Mary would write to a friend, saying John ‘a great anxiety to us for many years, ever since he was four years old.’

A seizure some point in his fifth year led to a diagnosis of epilepsy, but other behaviours, especially a repetition of actions and an inability to learn from consequences have led to a posthumous diagnosis of autism. As a result, and typical of the times and social class, John was removed from the public eye, to live quietly with his governess Lalla at Wood Farm (then Marsh Farm), one of the farms on the Sandringham estate.

Wood Farm (the red arrow in the map below) is isolated, even by Norfolk standards. At the end of a long private track which itself runs off the public lane that circles the hamlet of Wolferton, it is five kilometers away from Sandringham House itself. Overlooking flat farmland out to The Wash, and on private land without footpaths, it would have been indeed a quiet, private life. Although, in the years John lived there, the train from King’s Lynn to Hunstanton ran very close to Wood Farm, with a station at Wolferton for the royal family. Perhaps it provided some excitement.

But quiet and private did not mean neglected or forgotten, even as his seizures worsened. Along with his nanny, local children were chosen to play with John, and among those children was my father’s first cousin Mary. Her father was an estate employee, as was his father (my great-grandfather). Two years younger than John, she remembered this vividly in the last years of her life; it was one of the stories she loved to tell us when we visited her in the 1990s. I spoke to the last surviving member of that generation of cousins, Anne, last week; she’s in her 101st year, with a memory clearer than mine. I had been under the impression that the estate children were taken out to Wood Farm for their ‘playdates’ with the prince, but that wasn’t the whole story. John was also brought to the village, and Anne told me of her grandmother’s exasperation after Mary and the prince had made themselves horribly muddy jumping in the stream of water that ran down the side of the lane my great-grandparents’ house stands on.

John died in 1919 at Wood Farm. My cousin Mary died in 2001, before The Lost Prince was made. I would have loved to have known her reaction to it. Like me, she would have to have first get past the landscape: it was filmed in Buckinghamshire, which does NOT look like the flat coastal landscape of west Norfolk; nor did the house they used bear much resemblance to Wood Farm. But those details aside, and allowing for dramatic flourishes and emphases, my overall reaction was one of a reasonably fair portrayal of a child whose neurology did not allow him to adapt to the demands and changes of the early twentieth century, ones that also nearly destroyed the royal family. An allegory as much as a biography, perhaps.

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