In Season 4, Episode Seven of the Crown, titled « The Principle of Inheritance, » creator Peter Morgan tackles a shocking Windsor family secret: the institutionalization and subsequent abandonment of two of the Queen’s first cousins who, because of their developmental disorders, have been shamefully hidden from the public and declared legally dead. When the news of Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon broke in 1987, the royal family was embroiled in a scandal and the public outraged that the royals could treat their own flesh and blood with such callousness. Decades later, the Windsors would probably prefer to leave this shameful episode to the ashes of the past, but Morgan pulled the skeletons from the royal closet and the Windsors’ shameful mystery in a tender episode about family, belief, and mental illness.
The Queen’s cousins, Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon, who were each about three years of intellectual age and had never learned to speak in their lives, were the third and fifth daughters of John Herbert Bowes-Lyon, the Queen Mother’s brother and his wife Fenella Bowes-Lyon. In 1941, when Nerissa was 15 years old and Katherine was 22 years old, they were sent from the family home in Scotland to the Royal Earlswood Hospital in Redhill, Surrey, where they would spend the remainder of their days.
Earlswood was not the luxurious accommodation members of the royal family were accustomed to. It has been criticized for hygiene issues and overcrowding. Nurses and patient relatives recalled a understaffed unit with forty patients who were only looked after by two nurses. Some reports claim that Fenella Bowes-Lyon continued to visit her daughters until her death in 1966, but there is no official record of a sister ever receiving a family visit, nor did they ever receive birthday presents, Christmas presents, or cards. Despite the royal family’s cold shoulder, the sisters apparently never forgot their legacy. In a Channel Four documentary called The Queen’s Hidden Cousins, which aired in 2011, Earlswood staff testified that the Bowes-Lyon sisters would stand up and salute or curtsey whenever members of the royal family appeared on television.
In 1963, the Bowes-Lyon family reported to Burkes Peerage, the guide of the British aristocracy, that both sisters had died, Nerissa in 1940 and Katherine in 1961. The reality was that Nerissa died in 1986, just a year before the scandal broke out, while Katherine lived until 2014. When The Sun spread the news in 1987 that the allegedly dead sisters were very much alive and covertly institutionalized the whole time, Harold Brooks-Baker, editor at Burke’s Peerage, was stunned to learn of the inaccuracy. He defended Burke’s peerage’s time-honored tradition of taking royals at their word, but expressed shock that the royals would knowingly strike their relatives from public records.
« If the Bowes-Lyon family had told us this, we would have put it in the book, » said Brooks-Baker. “It is not normal to doubt the word of members of the royal family. ”
The Queen Mother is said to have found out about the Bowes-Lyon sisters in 1982 after believing them to be dead until that year. However, financial reports suggest that someone in the royal household knew about the sisters, as the royals sent £ 125 annually for their care and storage in Earlswood. After the Queen Mother found out that her nieces were indeed alive, she sent them a check that they used to buy candy and toys. However, she did not visit her nieces or correct the public records in Burke’s Peerage. In 1986 the Queen Mother became patron of the Royal Society for Mentally Handicapped Children and Adults, which describes itself as « the leading voice of the learning disabilities ». ”
When the 1987 investigation of The Sun spread the news of the scandal, some interpreted the Queen Mother’s failure to correct the public records and her timely patronage as evidence of a royal cover-up. Buckingham Palace declined to comment, calling the matter “a problem for the Bowes-Lyon family. It also found that three other members of the Bowes-Lyon family with similar developmental disorders were housed in Earlswood on the same day as Katherine and Nerissa: their cousins, the three sisters Idonea, Etheldreda and Rosemary Bowes-Lyon. The British were uniquely outraged by the details of Nerissa’s death in 1986, after which she was buried in a poor grave at a funeral attended only by Earlswood staff. Her grave was marked only by plastic tags and a serial number until a headstone was added after public outrage. British hearts everywhere went to Katherine – so much so that she received flowers from all over the nation.
Lady Elizabeth Anson, the granddaughter of Fenella Bowes-Lyons and the niece of Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyons, has denied allegations of a cover-up. She described her grandmother as « a very vague person [who] often did not completely fill out the forms Burke’s Peerage sent her. « However, one editor of DeBrett’s, a peerage guide very similar to Burke’s Peerage, commented, » Such an oversight doesn’t happen. ”
In 1996, when Earlswood was closed, the hospital administrator, Peter Kinsey, contacted the next of kin of all patients to inform them of the shutdown and to discuss the next steps. Kinsey contacted the Queen and Queen Mother, but both declined to meet about Katherine’s future and Buckingham Palace did not publish a comment. Katherine lived the rest of her life in another care facility where she died at the age of 87 in 2014, with no royal family ever publicly acknowledging her existence.
Although little is known about the royal family’s knowledge or complicity in the development of the lives of the Bowes-Lyons sisters, Morgan paints a damned picture of a family determined to stay in power regardless of the cost. In 1987, a genetic expert found that all five Bowes-Lyons women had a genetic disorder that did not affect the queen or her heirs. Leaning on the eugenics of it all, the Crown suspects that the Queen Mother knowingly left her nieces to a terrible fate to keep the bloodline pure.
« The inheritance principle is already hanging by such a precarious thread, » explains the Queen Mother. « Throw in a mental illness and it’s over. The very idea that only one family has automatic birthright to the crown is already so difficult to justify. The gene pool of this family is better 100% pure. There were enough examples on the Windsor side alone to worry people. King George III, Prince John, your uncle. If you add the Bowes-Lyon diseases, there is a risk that it will become untenable. ”
Although the Princess Margaret’s shock and dislike of the Crown are fictional, her scathing words about the royal family’s moral bankruptcy are still true.
« Locked up and neglected », Princess Margaret rages at her mother. « They are your nieces – daughters of your favorite brother. It is nasty and cold-hearted and cruel and fully corresponds to the ruthlessness that I myself have experienced in this family. If you are not in the first place, if you are an individual character with individual needs or, God forbid, an erratic temper . . . then you will be spat out or you will be hidden or worse: pronounced dead. Darwin had nothing in you – shame on you all. ”
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Queen Elizabeth II. , The Crown, Nerissa Bowes-Lyon, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, British Royal Family, Claude Bowes-Lyon, 14th. Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, John Bowes-Lyon, Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon
World News – CA – The Queen’s hidden cousins are part of a shameful chapter in royal history
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– The Heartbreaking True Story of Queen&’s cousins, Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon
– The Queen&’s hidden cousins are part of a shameful chapter in royal history
– Queen&’s cousins Nerissa and Katherine (as seen in The Crown)
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