The real story of Katherine and Nerissa: The Queen’s secret cousins who were institutionalised

The sisters are discovered by Princess Margaret in The Crown

Whilst everyone has been talking about the portrayal of Princess Diana in The Crown and the love triangle between her, Charles and Camilla, two of the lesser-known members of the Royal Family have got everyone talking: The Queen’s cousins Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon.

In episode seven, Princess Maragaret uncovers the truth that her cousins were secretly put into a mental hospital in 1941 and publicly declared dead when they were not.

Whilst The Crown has been known to create storylines that are false or exaggerated, the story of the Bowes-Lyon sisters is in fact true. The Queen’s cousins were discovered in the late 1980s by the media, however their story is still largely unknown.

Who were the Queen’s cousins, Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon?

Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon were sisters and first cousins to the Queen and Princess Margaret on their mother’s side.

They were the daughters of John and Fenella Bowes-Lyon. John was the Queen Mother’s brother.

Queen cousins

Is the storyline in The Crown true?

The Crown is a drama rather than a documentary and therefore a lot of the conversations and storylines may not actually be true, however the story of the Queen’s cousins is true.

Katherine and Nerissa were both born with developmental disabilities and in 1941, at the ages of 15 and 22, they were both secretly placed in the Royal Earlswood hospital for people with developmental disabilities. Their father had died by this point, so it seems their mother was the one responsible.

The sisters were thought to have a mental age the same as that of young children.

Did the Royal Family visit the Queen’s cousins?

No, none of the Royal Family ever went to visit the Queen’s disabled cousins. Their mother, Fenella, continued to visit them until her death in 1966 and other members of the Bowes-Lyon family went to visit them as well.

Were Katherine and Nerissa the only members of their family to be placed in the hospital?

Katherine and Nerissa weren’t the only members of their family in the institution. Their mother’s nieces Idonea, Ethelreda, and Rosemary Fane were placed into the institution on the same day as the Bowes-Lyon sisters. The Fane sisters were not directly related to the Queen.

In 1987, genetic experts determined that all five women suffered from a genetic disorder.

Katherine Bowes-Lyon and Idonea Fane were said to be inseparable, but Idonea was sent to another care home before her death in 2002.

Was The Crown the first time the public knew about Katherine and Nerissa?

No, in 1987 The Sun broke the news about the sisters and their secret placement into the Royal Earlswood mental hospital.

The Sun provided details such as how they were secretly placed in the institution and hidden from the public. The story even revealed how their family had reported the sisters had died in 1963, however, Nerissa lived until 1986 and Katherine died in 2014.

Queen cousins

Buckingham Palace declined to comment on the story and said it was a matter for the Bowes-Lyon family. Lady Elizabeth Anson, daughter of a first cousin to the Queen, was left to explain.

Why were the Queen’s cousins kept secret?

The Crown argues that the sisters were kept secret to save the Royal Family from unwanted questions.

Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Princess Margaret in the show, said: “…the sad thing is the Royal Family were not the only people to lock up or put away people who were disabled. It was in the 1940s, it was during the war and their mother was overwhelmed. You could argue they had the care they needed.

“At that time there was a huge amount of shame and lack of knowledge associated with brain damage or disability and in a religious sense it was associated with sin.”

Did Princess Margaret discover her cousins?

In episode seven of The Crown, The Hereditary Principle, Princess Margaret uncovers the truth that Katherine and Nerissa are still alive in the 1980s. She enlists Derek Jennings to visit the hospital and find out the truth. She confronts her mothers who defends the family’s decision to hide the girls.

Queen cousins

However, Princess Margaret did not discover her cousins were alive. The Queen Mother only found out about the sisters’ admittance to the institution in 1982 and sent them money to buy sweets and toys. She did not visit her nieces.

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