April 12, 2011
Found living ‘wild’ in the woods near Hamelin in northern Germany, in 1725, Peter was brought to London at the behest of King George I the following year (the king had heard of his plight while visiting his Hanoverian homeland and had initially had him taken to his summer palace at Herrenhausen). Peter subsequently spent time at the court of the king as well as those of the Prince of Wales, the future King George II, and his wife, Caroline of Ansbach.
On his arrival in London, Peter, believed to be about 15 or 16 years old when he was found, quickly acquired celebrity status – Daniel Defoe wrote a pamphlet, Mere Nature Delineated, in which he mused about his nature and Jonathan Swift wrote a satire on the excitement surrounding his arrival in London while a wax figure of him was exhibited in the Strand and along with other palace courtiers, he appears in a now famous painting by William Kent which still hangs on the king’s grand staircase in Kensington Palace.
Treated by the royals as something of a ‘pet’, efforts were made to educate Peter but later abandoned due to his apparent lack of progress. Many were also said to have been shocked at his lack of manners – something that may have helped contribute to his eventual departure from court.
When the king died in 1727, his daughter-in-law, now Queen Caroline, granted a yeoman farmer in Hertfordshire, James Fenn, a pension in return for looking after Peter. He is recorded as having wandered off on a couple of occasions and, after one incident involving a fire in 1751, was fitted with a collar to prevent further escapes (the collar is still in the keeping of the Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire).
Peter subsequently spent the remainder of his life in rural England (where he was known to have developed a love for gin but was generally remarked upon as being timid). Meeting him a few years before his death, Scottish philosopher and judge James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, recorded that while Peter could understand what was said to him, he could only say the words ‘Peter’ and ‘King George’.
Peter died in 1785, when he was at least 70-years-old. He was buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s Church in Northchurch, Hertfordshire.
It is now believed that Peter may have been affected by the chromosomal disorder Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome, thanks to the work of Historic Royal Palaces historian Lucy Worsley who, while researching the lives of courtiers at Kensington Palace for her book Courtiers, noted features such as Peter’s “cupid bow lips”, coarse hair and drooping eyelids in Kent’s portrait and passed on a description to a professor of genetics.
It is thought such a diagnosis may help explain why Peter ended up living alone in the German forest where he was found.