The truth behind Queen Elizabeth’s ‘hidden’ cousins: who were Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon, the forgotten British royal family members confined to a psychiatric hospital?
- Season four, episode seven of The Crown shed light on the queen’s estranged first cousins, who were admitted into an institution for ‘mental defectives’ in the 1940s
- Despite incorrect reports of their death, the palace had no comment about the sisters when approach in 1987, while a Bowes-Lyon relative denies a royal family cover-up
Every family has its secrets, and in the case of the British royal family, this is especially true. A season four episode of The Crown, entitled “The Heredity Principle” delved into one particular shocking family secret. The story which follows is a sad one, and perhaps more of an indictment of the times in which it took place, rather than the people who played a role in it coming about.
Born in 1919 and 1926 respectively, Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon were two of the daughters of John Herbert Bowes-Lyon and his wife Fenella. John was the brother of the queen mother, and so Nerissa and Katherine were first cousins of Queen Elizabeth. Sadly, though, they were never able to be a part of the royal family.
In the medical terminology of the early 1940s, the sisters were diagnosed as “imbeciles” and never learned to speak. In 1941, they were admitted to the now-closed Royal Earlswood Institution for Mental Defectives, and were, allegedly, treated by their family as though they never existed.
In fact, a 1963 edition of Burke’s Peerage (a definitive referencing and listing of the peerage and titled aristocracy) of Great Britain, listed Nerissa as having died in 1940, and Katherine passing in 1961.
It wasn’t until 1987 that the story of the sisters’ sad existence was published. In fact, as was reported, Nerissa had died only the year before, and Katherine was still alive! She only passed away in 2014.
A scandal instantly erupted when it emerged the royal family would apparently erase two of its members from their lives – although accusations of a cover-up were denied. According to Los Angeles Times, a member of the Bowes-Lyon family said that the misleading entry was a result of the sisters’ mother, Fenella, “a very vague person who often didn’t fill out the forms that Burke’s Peerage sent her, either properly or completely”, adding that many family members had visited the sisters over the years.
In the 2011 documentary The Queen’s Hidden Cousins, nurses and staff at Earlswood interviewed confirmed that, to their knowledge, the family never sent the sisters a birthday or Christmas gift, or a card.
The documentary also claimed that there was no evidence that any member of the royal family had visited. In fact, when Nerissa died, none of the family was in attendance at the funeral. Her grave was marked with plastic tags and a serial number until her existence was revealed in the media, after which the family added a tombstone. Following the revelation, Katherine, the surviving sibling, was reportedly sent flowers from all corners of the United Kingdom.
According to a report by the Associated Press, when Buckingham Palace was approached on the matter in 1987, a statement was released that said the queen was aware of the report, but also said, “We have no comment about it at all. It is a matter for the Bowes-Lyon family.”