The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain

The Prince and the Pauper book cover
Start Your Free Trial

What happens in The Prince and the Pauper?

Tom Canty accidentally switches places with Prince Edward, with whom he bears a striking resemblance. After Edward is mistakenly thrown out onto the streets, he struggles to get back to the palace before Tom can be coronated.

  • Mistaken for a beggar, Edward must struggle to survive on the streets. Meanwhile, Tom, who has no knowledge of how to be a prince, fears being mistaken for an imposter.

  • On the day Tom is to be crowned King, Edward returns. He proves his identity by leading the Lord Protector to the great seal, the exact location of which only Edward could have known.

Download The Prince and the Pauper Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Tom Canty and Prince Edward are born in London on the same day. Tom, however, is unwanted, and Edward has been long awaited. While the prince lies robed in silks, Tom grows up in the filth of Offal Court. As a small child, Tom is forced by his father to beg during the day and is beaten by him at night. Gathering a ragtag court of street urchins around him, Tom often pretends that he is a prince. Father Andrew, a priest who lives in Tom’s house, teaches Tom to read.

One day, hoping to see Prince Edward of England, Tom visits the royal precincts, but when he approaches too near, he is cuffed by a guard and ordered away. Edward, who has witnessed the incident, protects Tom and takes the young beggar into the palace. There, in the privacy of Edward’s chamber, Tom confesses his longing to be a prince. When the two boys exchange garments, they discover that they are identical in appearance. Before they can switch clothes again, Edward is mistaken for the beggar boy and thrown out of the palace. He wanders helplessly in the streets, mocked by people whom he approaches with pleas that they pay homage to him as their rightful prince.

In the palace, it is thought that the prince has gone mad because he can recall none of the royal matters that he is supposed to know. King Henry VIII issues an edict that no one should discuss the royal lapse of memory, and Edward’s half-sister, Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I); his cousin Lady Jane Grey; and his whipping boy, Sir Humphrey Marlowe, kindly try to aid the supposed prince, who by this time is too frightened to confess that he is Tom Canty, a beggar dressed in the prince’s clothing.

While he had been ill, King Henry VIII had given the great seal of the kingdom to Prince Edward for safekeeping. Henry now demands the return of his seal, but Tom reports that he does not know where it is.

The Prince of Wales is still wandering the streets as a homeless waif when King Henry dies. Edward is found by John Canty, Tom’s father, and brought to Offal Court, but during the wild celebration of the ascension to the throne of the prince of Wales, Edward escapes from his supposed father. Again tormented by crowds who laugh at his protests that he is the king of England, Edward is rescued by Miles Hendon, a disinherited knight and the son of a baronet. Thinking Edward is mad, Miles pities the little boy and pretends to pay him the homage due to a monarch.

Miles had loved a girl named Edith, who was coveted by Miles’s brother, Hugh. Hugh had gained his father’s confidence by trickery, and Miles had been turned from home. Edward declares that Miles has suffered unjustly and promises the adventurer any boon he might ask. Recalling the story of De Courcy, who, given a similar opportunity by King John, had requested that he and all of his descendants might be permitted to wear hats in the presence of the king of England, Miles wisely asks that he be permitted to sit in Edward’s presence, for the young king has been ordering Miles about like a personal servant.

Meanwhile, having had the role of king of England thrust upon him, Tom is slowly learning to conduct himself royally. Because his attendants thought him mad, he is able to be honest about his lack of training and his failure to recall events that would have been familiar to Edward. At the same time, his gradual improvement offers...

(The entire section is 1,248 words.)