The Queen's cousins Nerissa and Katherine (as seen in The Crown)

Jennifer Savin
·3-min read
Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

From Cosmopolitan

To say the newest season of The Crown is explosive is probably an understatement at this point. The Netflix drama, which is partially based on known facts (and part imagined) about the British royal family, has seen the characters' real-life counterparts have a mixed response. Watching the show has certainly got us Googling a whole tonne of storylines, from Charles and Diana's doomed relationship, to whether or not Diana and Camilla were really friends.

Now, we're eager to find out the truth about The Queen's first cousins, Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon, who appear in episode seven. Princess Margaret, played by Helena Bonham Carter, is shocked to discover via a therapist that she has two relatives, previously recorded as dead, who've been confined to life in a mental hospital, the Royal Earlswood, in Redhill, Surrey. She then confronts the Queen Mother, who says they were hidden so that the public didn't question the strength of the royal bloodline. But how accurate is this storyline?

Well, we do know that Nerissa (1919–1986) and Katherine Bowes-Lyon (1926–2014) certainly did exist and that they were the children of John Herbert Bowes-Lyon (the Queen Mother’s brother) and his wife Fenella. Tatler reports that they were placed in a hospital for mentally disabled people in 1941, after their father's death, and that their senior royal family members (e.g. The Queen, Margaret or the Queen Mother) never visited.

Photo credit: James Cutler/Shutterstock - Getty Images
Photo credit: James Cutler/Shutterstock - Getty Images

While their exact diagnosis hasn't been confirmed, medical terminology during their time denoted them to be "imbeciles" – both women are believed to have been significantly handicapped and unable to communicate, with the mental age of a six-year-old child.

In reality, Princess Margaret did not discover her cousins were alive and The Queen Mother herself only learned of the sisters' being admitted into the institution in 1982. Following that, she then sent them money to buy sweets, but still refrained from ever visiting her nieces. Given that the women were institutionalised some five years after the abdication of Edward VIII (which then saw The Queen's father take the throne), it's unlikely the decision was made with the future of the monarchy in mind too.

Later, it also transpired that three further cousins were also patients at the Royal Earlswood Hospital (Idonea Elizabeth Fane, 1912–2002, Rosemary Jean Fane, 1914–1972, and Etheldreda Flavia Fane, 1922–1996). These women, however, were not the Queen's first cousins, but the Queen Mother's.

Photo credit: James Cutler/Shutterstock - Shutterstock
Photo credit: James Cutler/Shutterstock - Shutterstock

In the face of accusations of cruelty, the Bowes-Lyon family commented publicly that neither Nerissa or Katherine were treated badly and stressed that they could move freely as they pleased around the hospital.

A general manager for the East Surrey Health Authority told the Associated Press in 1987: "Both sisters had regular visits from their families up until the early 1960s when one of their closest relatives died… Since then, they have had few visitors. My understanding is that Katherine had no regular visitors."

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