At the time of this writing, the world’s attention is on the events surrounding the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the ascendency of King Charles III to the throne. One can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be born into royalty and what that life would be like.
It doesn’t take the death of a monarch to trigger such thoughts. How many girls have pretended to be princesses? How many boys have imagined themselves to be the heir to a powerful kingdom?
It is the rarity of royalty that makes the prospect so intriguing. Although most of us have entertained the notion of being descended from a king, just a handful of people know what that’s like. It’s fine to play “Let’s Pretend” once in a while as a child. To hold on to that fantasy outside of playtime is strange, at best. It’s delusional, at worst.
“Strange” is a good way to describe John. We’re not trying to be cruel in saying this. It is a simple fact that he was not ordinary. First of all, there was his appearance. Again, we’re simply reporting the indisputable evidence. He was always tall and thin for his age. His hands and feet were too big for his already-disproportioned body. He had a massive nose. His ungainly appearance led many to compare him to a stork.
Although we’re not trying to be cruel in describing John, the same can’t be said of his classmates. Children can be cruel when it comes to pointing out unusual physical features, and John’s appearance gave his classmates ample targets.
If your childhood was typical, you went through a stage where you were exceptionally self-conscious about your body and appearance. John was no exception. Add to this the fact that his appearance was quite unusual, to begin with, and you begin to see some of the reasons for his personality quirks.
This birdlike boy was downright neurotic He was afraid of dogs. He was terrified of eating pork, out of fear that he might acquire a parasite. He was preoccupied with the horrifying prospect of being buried alive. This fear led him to the habit of leaving a note next to his bed as he slept that read, “I only appear to be dead.”
His phobias and quirkiness only made him stand out more, guaranteeing that his childhood would be one of constant bullying and ridicule.
That’s probably why he retreated into his make-believe world where he was a prince. When the other boys and girls taunted him, he reminded himself that he was born with royal blood and was destined for greatness.
If he told that to anyone, he ran the risk of being mocked all the more. John clearly didn’t live in a palace. He grew up in abject poverty. His parents had to make their furniture out of any scrap they could find. Their bed, for example, was built out of the remnants of a coffin that still retained scraps of black cloth attached to it. His father was a cobbler. His mother washed clothes for neighbors for a few coins. She had a bit of a reputation as a “fallen woman,” having had one child out of wedlock. They lived in the poorest part of town — a community that had a reputation for producing the worst sorts of human debris.
It’s understandable that John would create an imaginary world in which to live. In his mind, his real father was the crown prince of a kingdom who fell in love with Elise, the daughter of an aristocrat. They wanted to be married, but the decision was out of the prince’s hands. His was to be an arranged marriage for political purposes. He and Elise continued their romance in secret, however. When 17-year-old Elise became pregnant, it created the potential for a royal scandal. The child was born and given to Anna Maria Andersdotter, one of the housekeepers at the palace. This woman and her husband raised John as their own while safeguarding the secret of John’s true lineage.
It’s a nice story. A fairy tale, really. This is the sort of fantasy that allowed this funny-looking, strange-acting boy to believe that he was destined to outgrow his awkwardness and become a man of significance. The fact that we are telling you this story will already have given you a clue that he did, indeed, do exactly that.
As he aged, John stopped talking about his supposed royal bloodlines. In fact, he almost seemed to over-emphasize his humble origins. The more famous he became, the more he tended to exaggerate his origins and rise from poverty. If anyone remembered the strange claims of his youth, he would have laughed them off as fairy tales.
Yes, John’s stories of his childhood were fairy tales. But not the version you might have thought.
Some two hundred years later, historians have made some startling discoveries. Consider, for example, the following:
- Despite John’s life of abject poverty, he attended a prestigious high school.
- To enroll in the school, students had to produce a birth certificate. John didn’t have one, but was somehow accepted by the administration.
- The only birth certificate John ever had was issued when he was 17 years old.
- The school’s records show that John paid twice as much tuition as the other students.
- The tuition payments didn’t come from John’s parents. They were, in fact, traced to the royal family.
- John was born on April 2, 1805 — just two months after John’s supposed parents were married. His mother would have been 40 years old, and his father would have been 22.
- April 2, 1805, was also the date that, according to oral tradition, an illegitimate son was born to Crown Prince Christian (the future King Christian VIII) of Denmark “and was given to good people.”
- The baroness of the royal castle was Edel Marie Kjier. She was known to have a close friendship with a 17-year-old girl named Elise Ahlefeldt Laurvig. Elise was known to have been pregnant around this time.
- Records show there was a woman employed at the castle at that time as a housekeeper. Her name was Anna Marie Andersdotter. After 1805, there is no further mention of the housekeeper in any of the records.
- Despite his lowly origins, John struck up a friendship with Prince Christian’s son Frederik. He was invited on many occasions to the castle to play with Frederik.
- John’s father, despite his training as a cobbler and without ever showing any particular skills in theater or music, was inexplicably employed by the Royal Theater of Copenhagen for three years.
- Letters written by John’s neighbors have been discovered that express utter astonishment at how many visits Prince Christian made to their community — then a quiet town of about 5,000 inhabitants.
- John’s middle name was Christian.
It would seem that the make-believe world of John’s imagination was the one he told later in life. He didn’t create an imaginary identity as a member of royalty to escape his life of poverty. It seems that he invented an imaginary life of poverty to disguise his true royal origins.
By the time he was an adult, John was very good at making up stories. It is for those stories that we remember him. He wrote so many tales of fantasy and imagination that we sometimes forget that one of his most famous stories was, he always insisted, somewhat autobiographical.
That story was about a strange, ungainly little duckling who was mocked by the other ducks. Their taunting and cruelty drove the little duckling into despair and isolation. Only later in life, when the bird outgrew his awkwardness, did everyone marvel at the fact that the “ugly duckling” in their midst was actually a beautiful, graceful, and noble swan.
Now we know that whenever John — or, as we remember him by his Danish name, Hans Christian Andersen — told his fairy tale of the Ugly Duckling, he was having the last laugh at all those who made fun of the weird, awkward boy that he once was.
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