50 pages 1 hour read

Mark Twain

The Prince and the Pauper

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1881

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Summary and Study Guide


The Prince and the Pauper: A Tale for Young People of All Ages is Mark Twain’s first historical fiction novel, published in 1881 in Canda and in America the following year. Set in 16th-century England during the reigns of King Henry VIII and Edward VI, the novel revolves around two identical boys: Henry’s heir, Prince Edward, and Tom Canty, a London beggar. After a chance meeting, the two decide to exchange roles, leading to a series of humorous and thought-provoking events. Presented as a children’s novel, The Prince and the Pauper is both satirical and didactic, using its historical setting and imaginative premise to question the legitimacy of social status.

This study guide uses the Dawson Brothers 1881 edition of the text available online.

Content Warning: This guide discusses violence, child abuse, and alcohol addiction that appear in the original text. The text frequently uses the term “mad” to mean that someone has lost touch with reality. It does not refer to a specific psychiatric disorder.

Plot Summary

The Prince and the Pauper begins on a fall day during the mid-16th century. Two boys are born that day. The first is Tom Canty, an unwanted child born to a poor London family. The second is Edward Tudor, Henry VIII’s son and heir to the throne of England.

The book skips ahead to when the children are nine years old. Tom’s life has been one of hardship: He lives in poverty in a squalid area of London called Offal Court, where he is forced to beg and is abused. He takes comfort in his caring mother and older sisters, and a priest named Father Andrew, who educates him. Through this education and the stories Father Andrew tells him, Tom begins to fantasize about living the life of a royal.

Tom develops the desire to see a real prince, a desire that grows until he decides to explore outside his neighborhood for the first time. He wanders into London’s upper-class neighborhoods and finally finds himself at the royal palace at Westminster. At Westminster, young Prince Edward notices Tom and invites him to the royal apartments.

Edward reveals that he is ignorant about the life of his subjects, and Tom says he wishes to experience the life of a prince. This leads to them agreeing to swap clothes, at which point they realize that they are physically identical. Edward hides the Great Seal—the king’s official stamp—and goes to reprimand a guard at the gate who hassled Tom. When Edward leaves the royal residence dressed as a beggar, the palace guards and crowds are rude to him, mock his claims to royalty, and do not let him back inside the palace.

From here, both Edward and Tom are unable to convince the people around them of their true identities, and they become stuck in their new roles. The novel first briefly follows Edward as he is harassed by mocking crowds and beaten at a church until John Canty, Tom’s father, assumes that Edward is his son and takes him to Offal Court. Tom’s point of view shows that his attempts to convince court officials he is not Edward have led to the rumor that Edward is “mad.” King Henry orders that the issue of Edward’s “memory” not be discussed by anyone, and many try to help Tom navigate the complexities of court life, including his half-sister Elizabeth, cousin Lady Jane Grey, and his uncle, the Earl of Hertford. Tom is repeatedly questioned about where the Great Seal is, but he is unable to answer, and all take this as further proof of his affliction.

At Offal Court, Edward’s claims to royalty lead Tom’s father and grandmother to abuse him. The Canty family assumes that Tom’s fascination with royalty has become “madness.” Eventually, Edward escapes from John, at which point he is saved from a further mob by Miles Hendon, the son of a baronet and a knight exiled from his home due to a malicious brother. Miles assumes that Edward is “mad” when he claims to be king but decides to honor his pretensions, hoping to protect Edward until he regains his grip on reality again. Edward and Miles stay at an inn for a night, but the next morning, Edward is lured out and kidnapped by John Canty, who is seeking to escape London. Miles sets off in pursuit of them.

Henry VIII dies, leading to Tom’s acclamation as King Edward VI of England. Tom is forced to act as the king; while initially bored, he soon adapts to the role. He uses the royal whipping-boy, Humphrey Marlow, to gain information about what he is supposed to do. While king, Tom weighs in on several proposed executions and asks astute questions to the accused until he can confirm their innocence and pardon them, impressing the court with his common-sense wisdom. As Tom’s time as king progresses, he grows more comfortable in his role and hardly misses his old life.

During Tom’s reign, Edward experiences the life of the poor, interacting with the fringe members of society and gaining knowledge of his subject’s lives. Once John has taken him, Edward is forced to join a band of thieves and vagabonds who are leaving London. Many treat him poorly, but others reveal how the English justice system has wronged them. Edward escapes from this group and gains further experiences of life in England, with various people being kind or cruel to him as he travels.

Once Miles meets up with the prince again, they travel to Miles’s family home. Here, Hugh Hendon, the younger brother who exiled Miles, has taken control and married Miles’s childhood love. Edward promises that he will restore Miles’s rightful holdings to him once he regains his throne, a claim that Miles still does not believe. Nevertheless, he is thankful for Edward’s support. The pair works their way back to London, arriving in time for Tom’s official coronation ceremony.

During the procession toward Westminster Abbey, Tom’s mother recognizes him and tries to approach. He denies that he knows her but feels guilty immediately afterward. When Edward appears at the ceremony, Tom tells everyone that Edward is the true king, and Edward proves by describing where he hid the royal seal.

Tom, Miles, and many of those who were kind to Edward throughout his adventure are rewarded by the new king. Edward dies several years into his reign, but it is marked by his mercy and just laws.