In the early 20th century autism was not a diagnosis. Was Prince John, youngest son of King George V, autistic?
While quarantined in the house this week, I had the opportunity to watch the Masterpiece Theatre production The Lost Prince, a 2003 miniseries directed by Stephen Poliokoff which portrays the life of Prince John (informally known as Johnnie), the youngest son of King George V of Great Britain.
In other films that I have watched, including My Boy Jack and The King’s Speech, I had previously heard Johnnie referenced as a prince who died young, but I did not really delve into studying his life. Reading about Prince John while watching this miniseries, I learned that in addition to suffering from epilepsy (which brought about his death at the age of thirteen), he is also believed to have had autism, which intrigued me and therefore inspired me to write a review of the show’s portrayal.
The miniseries opens with young Prince John (portrayed by Daniel Williams) in the company of his family as they spend time with King Edward VII (portrayed by Michael Gambon) and Queen Alexandra (portrayed by Bibi Andersson) at the Sandringham estate in December 1908. During this early point, it is made clear that Johnnie is markedly different from his siblings in terms of his demeanor and behavior.
Prince John frequently displays a dreamy expression on his face, as well as a lack of inhibition when speaking his mind. For example, after his grandfather expresses his frustration over an unsuccessful hunt for fowl, Johnnie states very bluntly, “Maybe it’s because you’re so old, grandpapa,” in the presence of the other family members and guests. On another occasion, when their father, the future King George V (portrayed by Tom Hollander), catches Johnnie and his brother Prince George playing with tin soldiers representing France against Britain (something that has been strictly forbidden), Johnnie answers truthfully, prompting an outburst of George V’s temper while Edward VII displays admiration for his grandson’s scrupulous honesty.
Johnnie’s behavior at this early stage in the production is consistent with some aspects of autism. His dreamlike gaze and his eccentric view of the world are commonly found among many individuals on the autism spectrum due to their differently functioning neurology, which enables them to see things from a different angle than neurotypical individuals.
In addition, the lack of inhibition that Johnnie displays in speaking his mind directly is another common aspect of autistic behavior. Many people have seen this as proof of autistic individuals’ scrupulous honesty, but the tendency to speak their minds directly stems from the neurological wiring of their brains, with the result that they often do not have the inhibitions that neurotypical individuals might have. Sometimes this can lead autistic individuals to make offensive remarks, as Johnnie does on a number of occasions throughout the miniseries, even if they are not being intentionally offensive.
Johnnie spends much of his time with his devoted nanny Charlotte Jane “Lalla” Bill (portrayed by Gina McKee), who dotes on him with significant maternal love, in many ways to a deeper extent than his mother Queen Mary (portrayed by Miranda Richardson) who must conform to the expectations of formality as befitting her position. Things take a turn when Johnnie experiences a severe epileptic seizure while the extended royal family are all gathered downstairs for Edward VII’s funeral. See the video below:
Following this episode, Prince John displays learning challenges when the doctors instruct him to identify animals and insects in order of size, answering instead that he used to keep a spider. As Johnnie fails to respond when Lalla throws a ball to him, the doctors inform Queen Mary that his brain is severely impaired due to some unspecified traumatic damage; that his symptoms are consistent with epilepsy; and that his life expectancy may be cut short. This news is devastating for the queen, who protests that Johnnie is not an “imbecile,” but they insist that complete isolation is necessary to ensure the boy’s protection and to spare the royal family any public embarrassment.
At this point in the early 20th century, the word “autism” was unknown in the medical field, and individuals who exhibited developmental challenges were widely regarded as “imbeciles” or mentally deficient. Treatment for children with these symptoms included isolation from family by keeping them in seclusion, sending them to remote country locations, or even committing them to institutions.
Furthermore, the eugenics movement enjoyed legitimacy among many medical professionals and political leaders in the United Kingdom and the United States. Eugenicists believed that individuals who exhibited deficient behavioral traits ought to be prevented from procreation and passing on their perceived mental or moral deficiencies, and therefore sterilization was widely accepted and sanctioned as a “humane” form of controlling undesirable populations, which included individuals with mental impairments. Hitler and the Nazis took eugenics to its ultimate extreme through the T-4 Euthanasia Program, in which mentally handicapped individuals were systematically murdered.
Following the doctors’ advice, Queen Mary sends Johnnie to Sandringham to be looked after by Lalla, with strict instructions that he is not to be allowed any visitors except the closest members of his family and that Lalla must keep a careful eye on Johnnie at all times. In spite of this isolation, Johnnie continues to enjoy a close relationship with his brother Prince George, who seems to be the only family member who displays deep affection for Johnnie throughout the miniseries and promises to protect him. However, as Johnnie frequently escapes Lalla’s watch at Sandringham, on one occasion disrupting a meeting between the royal family and the prime minister, and suffers more epileptic seizures, it is decided to move him and Lalla to Wood Farm, a remote country farm where he is forbidden from seeing *any* visitors despite Lalla’s protests.
This rigid isolation would seem extremely cruel by today’s standards, although it may be argued in the royal family’s defense that they did not know how to truly deal with Johnnie’s condition since our contemporary understanding of autism did not exist at that time. Nonetheless, Johnnie (now played as a teenager by Matthew Thomas) maintains an optimistic attitude and immerses himself in his own world, planting a garden and imagining his cousins, the Tsar’s family, staying with him following their overthrow during the Russian Revolution.
While the monarchy becomes increasingly preoccupied with World War I, Prince George (portrayed as a teenager by Rollo Weeks) becomes closer to Johnnie, visiting Wood Farm while returning to the Naval Academy. During this visit, a tumultuous argument erupts between him and Lalla, as George lashes out at her for living in isolation with Johnnie and maintaining the royal family’s pretense that Johnnie does not exist. This is a stinging rebuke for Lalla since she personally disagrees with the idea of keeping Johnnie isolated, as she has seen him make significant learning progress over the years in spite of his developmental challenges. On a number of previous occasions, Lalla has insisted that he not be kept in isolation and that he should be allowed to thrive in public like other children, but nonetheless she continues to obey the queen’s instructions out of love for Johnnie and a sense of duty to the royal family. Although initially provoked by George’s accusation, this realization prompts her to hold him a tearful embrace.
As the miniseries draws toward its conclusion, Johnnie displays signs of precociousness that are often found among many autistic individuals. These include an eidetic memory – he recites the numerous capitals of Europe by name during a follow-up examination by the doctors – and a remarkable musical aptitude. During his final visit with the royal family, Johnnie delivers a masterful trumpet performance which moves everyone to tears, as the family members realize how much they have missed out on his growth over the years.
This realization likely stirs feelings of regret on the part of the king and queen, knowing that they have failed to see what a truly gifted child their youngest son is. Tragically, this scene proves to be the last time that Johnnie sees his parents alive, as he suffers a fatal seizure soon afterward while in the company of his brother George.
The Lost Prince is a sensitively crafted biographical production, characterized by superb performances from the cast members. Daniel Williams and Matthew Thomas portray the young and adolescent Johnnie, respectively, in a very convincing and sympathetic light, and Gina McKee brilliantly captures Lalla’s extremely close bond with Johnnie.
Furthermore, the miniseries reveals much about the limitations of the medical field’s understanding of neurology in the early 20th century and how far it has progressed since then. Although individuals with severe developmental disabilities are sometimes placed in group homes where they can receive specialized care, the advances in contemporary medical science have played a significant role in helping people with autism and other disabilities to lead successful lives as fully integrated members of society.
Hopefully one thing that viewers may take away from watching Johnnie’s story is a greater empathy and determination to support their own disabled family members in achieving success and independence.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I’m now working on a secondary Master’s in Library Science. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.