Poor old Peter the Wild Boy – article in The Telegraph

Here’s an article about Peter the Wild Boy which appeared in the Telegraph a little while ago.  He also has his own page here, an extract from my book about him and his colleagues in the royal household called Courtiers, The Secret History of the Georgian Court.

National Treaures Live: Peter, the feral child who captivated King George

In a new BBC One series, National Treasures Live, historian Lucy Worsley tells the tale of a ‘Wild Boy’ from the woods.

Just the name “Peter the Wild Boy” is enough to capture the imagination. Peter was a feral child, discovered “naked and wild” and surviving only on acorns, in a German forest in 1725. News of this bizarre boy spread to the nearby summer home of the German-born George I, who decided to invite Peter to live at his court as a curiosity. This was the beginning of a small but intriguing episode in British history, which I explore in a pre-recorded film as part of the new BBC One history series on our hidden past, National Treasures Live, which begins on BBC One tonight.

I first came across Peter through my work as a curator at Kensington Palace. My book Courtiers tells the story of the 45 court servants shown in an 18th-century painting on the palace staircase, and Peter is one of them. He was a striking child, with green eyes, bushy hair and full, Cupid’s bow lips. Luckily, there were plenty of historical sources available to satisfy my curiosity about Peter, who caused something of a sensation in Georgian society.

When Peter, at the age of about 12, was first introduced to a bustling gathering at St James’s, his behaviour was decidedly odd. For a start, he seemed not the least “embarrassed at finding himself in the midst of such a fashionable assembly”. He scuttled about using his arms, like a chimp, and scampered right up to the king. And he could not speak, only howl and laugh. The courtiers were both charmed and scandalised by his antics.

Peter, who often giggled and had to be wrestled into his clothes every day, became a court pet; but he also sparked off engrossing philosophical debates. His story fascinated the intellectuals then exploring the questions raised by the Enlightenment. If he possessed no speech, did he therefore possess no soul? Was he really just an animal? Or was he an admirable and “noble savage”, who’d lived a life untainted by society?

Jonathan Swift remarked that the subject of the Wild Boy had been “half our talk this fortnight”, and Daniel Defoe joined in with his own wild cadenza of speculation. It would be a terrible indictment of the present age, Defoe argued, if the Wild Boy had actively chosen his previous way of life, to “converse with the quadrupeds of the forest, and retire from human society”. He was really suggesting that Peter was in fact the only truly sensible person alive.

For all their lofty ideas, Georgian intellectuals lacked one crucial key to understanding Peter: modern medical science. As part of my research, I contacted Professor Philip Beales, an expert in genetic disorders. From considering Peter’s distinctive physical characteristics – in particular his lips, and his unusually curly hair – the professor came to the conclusion that Peter suffered from Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome, a rare condition involving autism and learning difficulties.

I was thrilled to have discovered an explanation for Peter’s strange condition, but I also found myself feeling terribly sorry for him. He was probably abandoned by his mother, and lived his life as something of a freak, being looked at and laughed at rather than loved.

George I, exasperated by Peter’s wild ways, put him under the care of the eminent medical doctor, John Arbuthnot, to be taught to speak “and made a sociable creature”. Arbuthnot gave Peter daily lessons, but progress was slow as the Wild Boy had “a natural tendency to get away if not held by his coat”. When Peter misbehaved, he was beaten on the legs with a “broad leather strap to keep him in awe”.

There was, however, a happy ending for the Wild Boy. Once the court tired of him, Peter was sent to live in retirement at Broadway Farm near Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire. There he lived a long and quiet life, remaining “exceedingly timid and gentle in his nature”, fond of gin, and of onions. He liked to watch the flames of a fire, and loved “to be out on a starry night”. In autumn he would still show “a strange fondness for stealing away into the woods” to feed upon acorns. Local people were so fond of him that they paid for a gravestone when he died.

I’ve often visited Peter’s grave in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Northchurch, which is still regularly laid with flowers. Researching the story of the poor bewildered Wild Boy filled me with both wonder and pity, and I hope that people watching our short film will also feel moved.

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