The Heartbreaking True Story of the Queen's Cousins, Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon

Emma Dibdin
·4-min read
The Heartbreaking True Story of the Queen's Cousins, Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon
The Heartbreaking True Story of the Queen's Cousins, Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon

From Harper's BAZAAR

Episode 7 of The Crown Season 4, titled "The Hereditary Principle," is a heartbreaking and startling hour that focuses on Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) as she unravels a dark family secret. During a session with her therapist, she discovers that she and Queen Elizabeth have two cousins who have been hidden from them—and from everyone.

Believed to be dead, Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon have in fact been institutionalized at a psychiatric ward since the early 1940s. The sisters are aware, and proud of, their royal connection—they keep photographs of Elizabeth and Margaret by their beds, and every time the royal family appears on television, they stand and curtsy. But as becomes clear during the episode, Nerissa and Katherine have almost no visitors and have essentially been abandoned by the royals.

Read on for a primer on the fact vs. fiction of this devastating true story.

Who are Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon?

Nerissa and Katherine are two of the daughters of John Bowes-Lyon, who is brother to the Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. This makes them first cousins to Elizabeth and Margaret.

Born seven years apart in 1919 and 1926, respectively, Nerissa and Katherine both had severe development disabilities from birth and never learned to talk. Their exact diagnosis is not clear, because in the cruel and lazy medical parlance of the era, they were simply described as "imbeciles." In 1941, when they were just 22 and 15, the sisters were sent to the Royal Earlswood Hospital in Redhill, Surrey, where they would remain for the rest of their lives.

Did the royal family really hide the Bowes-Lyon cousins?

Yes. In 1987, The Sun revealed the existence of the cousins in an article packed with horrific details that painted the royals in a less-than-flattering light. The story explained how the cousins had been secretly placed in the Royal Earlswood psychiatric hospital in 1941, and also revealed that the family had reported them dead in 1963. This tallies with The Crown's depiction, in which both Elizabeth and Margaret believe the cousins to be long dead before discovering the truth.

The "fake death" was more complicated than it appeared, however. The family reported the cousins’ deaths to publisher Burke’s Peerage, which Vogue called “the who’s who of British aristocracy.” According to SurreyLive, Burke’s claimed that there had been no attempt to cover up the cousins’ existence, and said that the mistake was caused by errors made by a family member when filling in the forms they were sent.

Did the royal family have any contact with the cousins?

It doesn't seem so. The Telegraph reported that “the Bowes-Lyon sisters seem to have been entirely abandoned by the Royal family, aside from the £125 a year they paid Earlswood.” Speaking in 1987, a hospital representative reportedly said that “[they were] last visited, so far as I’m aware, by direct relatives in the early 1960s.”

The Crown suggests that the Queen Mother has known of the cousins’ existence all along and justifies the decision to hide them. In the show, Margaret confronts her mother, horrified by the cruelty and deception. “My family, the Bowes-Lyons, went from being minor Scottish aristocrats to having a direct bloodline to the crown, resulting in the children of my brother paying a terrible price,” the Queen Mother says in response. “Their illness, their idiocy and imbecility would make people question the integrity of the bloodline. Can you imagine the headlines if it were to get out?”

In real life, according to The Daily Express (per SurreyLive), the Queen Mother only learned that Nerissa and Katherine were at Royal Earlswood in 1982, when she received a letter from the “hospital’s league of friends.” The Express also reported that the Queen Mother sent “a four-figure sum of money so birthday and Christmas presents could be given annually to the cousins.”

Where are Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon now?

Nerissa died in 1986 at the age of 67, the year before her existence became public. Since the sisters remained hidden at the time, Nerissa's funeral was attended only by hospital staff, according to The Telegraph. But when the story broke in 1987, people from all across Britain sent Katherine flowers.

Katherine was moved to a care home nearby when the Royal Earlswood Hospital closed in 1997. She lived until 2014 before passing at the age of 87.

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