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The sword and the King’s son

Prince Octavius was born 23 February 1779, the thirteenth child and eighth son of King George III, and his father doted on him. In 1782 the artist Thomas Gainsborough was commissioned to paint the whole royal family, but the following year the King also employed Benjamin West to paint Octavius in a separate portrait, where his youth and innocence sit oddly within the context. The young prince grips an adult-sized, basket-hilted military officer’s sword; a cocked hat and shoulder belt lie discarded on a chair; and Horse Guards Parade is visible through the window. The four-year-old Octavius is clearly playing at soldiers, but at the same time, his own military heritage looms large.

An 18th-century prince in a blue hat holding an adult sword

Prince Octavius (1779-83) Signed and dated 1783. Benjamin West (1783-1820) Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

And he had big boots to fill. His grandfather George II had personally led troops into battle and presided over seemingly endless imperial wars with France. When Octavius was born, his father’s armies were deployed in the American colonies, struggling to suppress a rebellion against British rule. Octavius’ older brother Frederick had trained as a soldier, and in 1783 had just been gazetted (appointed) colonel of the 2nd Horse Grenadier Guards. Did the King envisage a similar future for his youngest surviving son?

Childish things

We know that the King took, for the time, an unusually personal and direct interest in how his children were brought up. Most Georgian aristocratic families farmed their young out to wet nurses and tutors before sending them off to become soldiers or churchmen, or in the case of daughters, wives — all of which forms the backdrop to many a Jane Austen novel. But King George III and his queen Charlotte regularly visited Kew Palace, where most of their fifteen princes and princesses were raised, to ask after their health and even play with them. They bought them educational toys, including card games, puzzle maps, dolls’ houses, and in Octavius’ case, a small-sword that is still in the Royal Armouries’ collection.

Highly decorated small-sword for a boy

Court or small-sword of Prince Octavius, Son of King George III. English with French blade, about 1775 (IX.2171)

The small-sword was so called because of its slender construction by comparison with bulkier, military swords. At 18 inches the blade of Octavius’ sword is about 12 inches shorter than a typical adult version, so properly speaking this is a small small-sword. But any small-sword was none the less deadly for its proportions. And while it was worn as a fashion accessory by 18th-century gentlemen, learning how to use it was a standard part of a gentleman’s education. Octavius was a little young for such training, but the gift seems to indicate his father’s aspirations for his son as a gentleman, and as a royal prince.

two 18th-century gentlemen practising their fencing

Engraving showing an evasion or subterfuge. From ‘The School of Fencing’, by Monsieur Angelo (1787). Domenico Angelo taught King George, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York. Read more about Domenico Angelo’s fencing manual, ‘The School of Fencing’.

The unkindest cut?

In the end, the Prince never got the opportunity to wield a sword for sport or in battle. An even smaller blade put paid to his and his royal father’s dreams and aspirations. Octavius was inoculated for smallpox, a process which at the time involved a lancet (a small, broad two-edged surgical knife or blade with a sharp point) and ‘wet matter’ from a sufferer. The four-year-old died from an infection two days later on 3 May 1783. The King was devastated, and years later, in his ‘madness’, was convinced that the infant prince was still alive, roaming the palace with his small-sword at his side.

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