The Netflix drama returns to our screens this weekend and offers its take on the shameful scandal that saw sisters Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon – the Queen Mother’s nieces – neglected and forgotten about for decades.
At the ages of 15 and 22 respectively, the pair, who were unable to speak due to their condition, were secretly placed in the Royal Earlswood Institution for Mental Defectives in Redhill, Surrey by their parents in 1941.
They remained at the institution, cruelly dubbed The National Asylum for Idiots, for the majority of their lives and, according to reports, were barely ever visited and registered as dead.
Although the Queen Mother knew the statement in Burke’s Peerage that both women were deceased (published after false information had been supplied by their mother) was untrue, she never visited either of them, and apparently saw no contradiction in her patronage of Mencap, which campaigns against families placing their mentally challenged relations in state care.
Nerissa passed away aged 66 in 1986 and Katherine died six years ago aged 87.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that it’s Helena Bonham Carter‘s character, feisty Princess Margaret, who passionately expresses her disgust at their harrowing treatment.
Flying into a rage at the Queen Mother (played by Marion Bailey), she cries: ‘Locked up and neglected. They’re your nieces – daughters of your favourite brother.
‘It’s wicked and it’s cold-hearted and it’s cruel and it’s entirely in keeping with the ruthlessness which I myself have experienced in this family.
‘If you’re not first in line, if you’re an individual character with individual needs or, God forbid, an irregular temperament… then you’ll be spat out, or you’ll be hidden away or worse: Declared dead. Darwin had nothing on you lot — shame on all of you.’
The Crown does appear to use artistic licence in its fictional retelling of the saga as it implies the Queen Mother was involved from the start.
However, a newspaper claimed in 1996 that she was unaware of their existence until 1982, when she received a letter from the institution’s league of friends.
Afterwards she reportedly sent a four-figure sum to fund Christmas and birthday presents for the pair – but there is no evidence the royals visited them.
The Netflix drama also suggests the Queen swallowed the line that the sisters were dead. It’s not clear when she discovered the truth, but following a Channel 4 documentary in 2012 she was upset by suggestions they’d been abandoned.
It’s also unknown whether Princess Margaret found out about her cousins and confronted her mother; it’s certainly unlikely she was told of their plight by her therapist, as is the case in The Crown.
Nerissa was born in 1919, and Katherine in 1926. Their father was John Bowes-Lyon, one of the Queen Mother’s older brothers and a son of the Earl of Strathmore. John died in 1930 and was survived, until 1966, by the girls’ mother, Fenella.
The sisters were unfortunate to have been born in an era when mental disability was seen as a threat to society and linked to promiscuity, feckless breeding and petty crime, the characteristics of the underclass; associations encouraged by popular belief in the science of eugenics, soon to be embraced by the Nazis.
For the Bowes-Lyons, this was a stigma that could threaten their social standing and taint the marital prospects of their other children. Nerissa and Katherine’s beautiful and healthy sister Anne became a princess of Denmark by her second marriage; by her first marriage, she was Viscountess Anson and mother of the society photographer, the late Lord Lichfield.
Their admission to the asylum was also deemed necessary when, in 1923, their aunt Elizabeth married the future King George VI.
The shocking story of their incarceration came to light shortly after Nerissa’s death, when journalists discovered she was buried in a grave marked only by a plastic name-tag and a serial number.
The ensuing scandal, which prompted an anonymous source to provide a gravestone for Nerissa, made little difference to her sister’s life.
Katherine received no visitors at the asylum, and as her aunt, the Queen Mother, lived on into cosseted old age, she did not possess even her own underwear – at least until her final years there – and had to dress from a communal wardrobe.
In The Crown the Queen Mother attempts to defend the cruel steps, telling Princess Margaret: ‘I went from being the wife of the Duke of York, leading a relatively normal life, to being Queen.
‘At the same time 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.
‘Their illness, their imbecility – their professionally diagnosed idiocy and imbecility – would make people question the integrity of the bloodline.
‘Can you imagine the headlines if it were to get out? The idea that one family alone has the automatic birthright to the crown is already so hard to justify, the gene pool of that family better have 100 per cent purity.
‘There have been enough examples on the Windsor side alone to worry people… if you add the Bowes-Lyon illnesses to that, the danger is it becomes untenable.’
It’s thought the sisters’ symptoms were due to a genetic condition from their mother’s bloodline, not that of the Bowes-Lyon.
Katherine and Nerissa had three cousins in The Royal Earlswood – Edonea, Rosemary and Etheldreday, the daughters of Fenella’s sister Harriet – who shared their disabilities.
When Charles and Diana wed in July 1981, Katherine and Nerissa are said to have watched the ceremony excitedly on TV.
Years later Onelle Braithwaite, one of the nurses who cared for them, remarked: ‘I remember pondering with my colleague how, if things had been different, they would surely have been guests at the wedding.’
Speaking in the Channel 4 documentary, she added: ‘Today they’d probably be given speech therapy and they’d communicate much better.
‘They understood more than you’d think. It was so sad. Just think of the life they might have had. They were two lovely sisters.’
The Royal Earlswood was closed in 1997; at least one former nurse has alleged patients were abused.
The grandiose building has since been converted into luxury apartments.