The Story of Wild Peter
The walls of Kensington Palace are adorned with portraits of famous faces who called the palace their home. Some, like Queen Victoria and Princess Diana, and more recently the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, are well known. Others not so – at least not anymore. One such character is a young boy named Peter, more commonly known as Wild Peter or Peter the Wild, who was a popular presence in the court of King George l.
Upon seeing his portrait for the first time, you would likely notice that his characteristics are different to the other historical figures he accompanies. His hair is thick and untamed, and the corners of his mouth turn upwards in what looks like a mischievous smile.
What we know now that wouldn’t have been known then is that it was likely that Peter had Pitt-Hopkins syndrome, a condition which wasn’t even named until 1978 – almost 200 years after his death.
But how did this unique young lad end up in the most prestigious court of the time?
Wild Peter’s story, or what we know of it, began in the earlier half of the 18th century in Hamelin Forest, Germany – not far from King George’s own hometown of Hanover.
The year was 1724 and a posse of hunters were riding through the forest when a curious sight caught their eyes – a young lad, moving on all fours and eating foliage, unable to verbally communicate. For a couple of days, the hunting party tried to capture the boy, only to be outwitted by his familiarity with the forest. They were finally able to capture him after chopping down a tree on top of which he had escaped.
Upon closer examination, all that had remained of the boy’s previous life was the rugged remains of a shirt collar around his neck. His lower legs were tanned, but not the upper half, suggesting that he hadn’t been in the forest for too long, or his whole leg would have been tanned.
An unlikely friendship
After being ‘captured’ by the hunting party, Peter was first taken to the St Spiritus Poor House before being relocated to the Celle House of Correction.
By this time, the young man was garnering a name for himself and dubbed the ‘Wild Boy of Hamelin’. His new-found celebrity status travelled so far that King George l, at this time ruling in England, himself was curious about the young lad. When travelling back from his court in England to his hometown, he had requested that Peter join the royal court for a banquet, where the child was forced into a suit of fine clothes (much to his discomfort).
When the king returned to London in 1726, he took Peter with him.
During his time living amongst the court he struck up an unlikely friendship with Princess Caroline, the king’s daughter-in-law.
When they first met, the princess was reported as to be wearing a gold watch that chimed on the hour. The intriguing noise coming from the watch attracted Peter to the princess, where she made it chime again for his pleasure. This first meeting was the beginning of a friendship between the two and he took up residence with her, although Peter was always regarded as more of a commodity than a person.
While taking up residence at the palace, Peter’s care was entrusted to Doctor John Arbuthnot, a Scottish physician, polymath and friend to writer Jonathan Swift. Dr Arbuthnot was highly regarded within the palace and he is depicted next to Peter in the famous painting. The doctor took his responsibility of looking after the young man seriously, teaching him how to say his own name and what could be made out as King George. Peter was also taught how to bow and kiss the hands of gentlewomen under the instruction of Doctor Arbuthnot.
So big was Peter’s celebrity status that he became the focus in a selection of writings of Swift and Daniel Defoe, with the former calling him “the most wonderful wonder that ever appeared to the wonder of the British Nation”.
Peter’s lifetime coincided with the Age of Enlightenment, a period of intellectual and philosophical thinking throughout Europe. Defoe was a prominent voice during this time, and Peter was the topic of his pamphlet – “Mere Nature Delineated” – in which he offered his opinion on Peter’s condition.
Despite gallant efforts, Peter never fully climatized to life as a royal courtier. He was known for his pranks, refused to sleep in a bed and would eat raw vegetables and acorns as opposed to the cooked food that the rest of the court would enjoy. One story claimed that when Peter caught a courtier removing his stockings, he screamed, believing that the man was removing his skin.
To Hertfordshire and beyond
It would be a nice notion to think that Peter spent the rest of his days in the palace, but there were many more chapters to his story.
Having outlived his captors, Peter was sent to live in rural Hertfordshire where he worked for a farmer called James Fenn. Being in a more rural setting, it is reported that Peter felt more comfortable on the farm. Peter would soon have to move again however when James died. Fortunately, he only moved to live with James’s brother, also a farmer, on Broadway Farm in Northchurch, near Berkhamsted.
Although he may have been in his element more, this didn’t stop him from running away. While it was common for him to wander, he would always return. During one of his expeditions though, he didn’t return and roamed all the way to Norfolk. Upon him not returning, the farmer put out notices for Peter’s whereabouts.
When in Norfolk, Peter was committed to the Bridewell House of Correction in Norwich, until he got a lucky escape when it burned down one October morning. After the fire, somebody linked him to the notice of a missing “wild youth”. As a result of these wanderings, Peter would henceforth have to wear a collar branded: “Peter the Wild Man of Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr Fenn at Berkhamsted shall be paid for their trouble”. This little piece of history can still be seen at Berkhamsted School.
It was at this farm that Peter would see out the rest of his days. From a forest in Germany, to the royal court, and then to a country farm, Peter lived an extraordinary life before passing in 1785. His final resting ground would be beneath a simple stone in a church in Northchurch. His grave, now a grade two listed monument, is regularly adorned with flowers to this day. His memory is immortalised in the church, where you will find a plaque that tells of his journey.
While the beginning of his life may have been uncertain, Peter ultimately lived a fascinating life. We might never know his roots, but recent scholars have suggested that he had been living with Pitt-Hopkins syndrome. This would explain a lot of characteristics, both physically and developmentally. His life could have been worse, but if he was living in this time and age then you can’t help but wonder how much more support and understanding he would have received.
Words by Aaron McDonald