The True Story Of The Queen's Hidden Cousins In 'The Crown'

Tom Nicholson
·3-min read
Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

From Esquire

In a season of The Crown in which the Royals reach new heights of icy heartlessness, probably the most callous episode involves Katherine and Niressa Bowes-Lyon.

After chancing upon their existence through her therapist, we see Princess Margaret roping her old pal Dazzle into visiting the sisters in an institution after discovering that they aren't, in fact, dead, and then raging at the coldness of her mother. But how much of it is actually true?

Katherine and Niressa were the third and fifth daughters of John and Fenella Bowes-Lyon, and connected to the royal family through their dad, who was the Queen Mum's big brother. That made them first cousins with the Queen and Princess Margaret. Both Niressa and Katherine were born with severe developmental disabilities, and neither learned to talk. In 1941, with Niressa 22 and Katherine 15, the sisters were sent to the Royal Earlswood Hospital in Redhills, Surrey.

It was founded back in the 1840s, back when words like "idiot" and "imbecile" were still part of the medical vocabulary, and moved from Highgate in North London to its purpose-built Redhills site in 1855. Ironically enough, the Royal family were heavily involved in getting Earlswood going: Queen Victoria subscribed 250 guineas in her son the Prince of Wales' name, and Prince Albert laid the foundation stone of the new buildings.

With that they were effectively expunged from the Royal family. Nobody visited, and the Royals didn't give them any money beyond the £125 per year it paid to Earlswood. In the 1963 edition of Burke's Peerage – a kind of genealogical who's who of the uppermost crust of the British aristocracy – Katherine and Niressa were suddenly declared to have died.

Photo credit: Ollie Upton - Netflix
Photo credit: Ollie Upton - Netflix

The Associated Press reported in 1987 that Katherine had been listed as dead since 1961, and Niressa since 1940. "We have no comment about it at all," said Buckingham Palace at the time. "It is a matter for the Bowes-Lyon family."

In 1987 Lord Clinton – related to Niressa and Katherine through his great-aunt Fenella – said it was probably all just a big misunderstanding, or possibly an accident caused by his great-aunt being "a vague person".

"I don't think there is any more to it than that," he told the Glasgow Herald in 1987. "It was forgetfulness. I really don't know. I don't think anybody will ever know. I don't think it was a cover-up."

The idea that this was a simple oopsy-daisy would be easier to believe if there had been any evidence that the two women had been cared for by their family before their deaths. A hospital representative told Thames News in 1987 that nobody had visited the sisters since the early 1960s. When Nerissa died in 1986, she was buried in a pauper's grave marked with plastic tags.

Quite whether Katherine and Nerissa were hidden away because of worries that their conditions could undermine the Royal family is unknown, but their treatment isn't inconsistent with how people with learning disabilities were treated by society at large.

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