The Crown tells story of Queen's cousins who were locked in an asylum

Tragedy of Queen’s secret cousins: The Crown will tell the story of Queen Mother’s nieces with severe learning disabilities who were locked in an asylum and neglected after being registered as DEAD

  • Fourth series of Netflix historical drama released this weekend on November 15
  • Episodes feature Queen Elizabeth II’s cousins Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon
  • Drama reveals they were incarcerated in the Royal Earlswood Institution for Mental Defectives in Redhill, Surrey due to their severe learning disabilities
  • Helena Bonham Carter’s Princess Margaret rages when she discovers plight 

The Crown returns to our screens this weekend and promises a royal roller-coaster of drama as it delves into Charles and Diana’s marriage and the late princess’ battle with bulimia.

But this isn’t the only scandal which caught the eye of scriptwriters for the latest series of the Netflix hit. 

This season, set in the Eighties, also tells the tragic story of the Queen’s ‘hidden’ cousins, who were locked up in an asylum and neglected.

The Queen Mother’s two nieces, Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon were both born with severe learning difficulties rendering them unable to speak. 


The fourth season of The Crown tells the tragic story of the Queen’s ‘hidden’ cousins Katherine (left) and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon (right), who were locked up in an asylum and neglected

At the ages of 15 and 22 respectively, they 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.  

The sisters were secretly placed in the Royal Earlswood Institution for Mental Defectives, cruelly dubbed The National Asylum for Idiots, in Redhill, Surrey (pictured) by their parents in 1941

The pair remained at the institution for the majority of their lives and, according to reports, were barely ever visited and registered as dead. Pictured: Katherine Bowes-Lyon

In an episode of The Crown, the pair are seen in their sixties adoringly watching their cousin Queen Elizabeth II arrive at the Royal Variety Performance on TV. 

Cuddling dolls, they stand for the national anthem and salute before being handed medication by a nurse. 

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.


It’s perhaps unsurprising that it’s Helena Bonham Carter’s character, feisty Princess Margaret, left, who passionately expresses her disgust at their harrowing treatment, flying into a rage at the Queen Mother, played by Marion Bailey (right)

Katherine and Nerissa’s admission to the asylum was deemed necessary when, in 1923, their aunt Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (pictured with her daughters Elizabeth and Margaret in 1937) married the future King George VI

‘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 Elizabeth I 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. 

The Netflix drama suggests the Queen (pictured on Sunday) 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.

The Duke of York, later King George VI, with his wife Elizabeth, then Duchess of York, and their daughters Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) and Margaret

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. 

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

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. 

History of the Royal Earlswood Hospital 

The Royal Earlswood Hospital, formerly The Asylum for Idiots and The Royal Earlswood Institution for Mental Defectives, in Redhill, Surrey, was the first establishment to cater specifically for people with developmental disabilities. Previously they had been housed either in asylums for the mentally ill or in workhouses.

Ann Serena Plumbe took an interest in the plight of the learning disabled, or ‘idiots’ as they were termed at the time, and began to discuss what could be done to assist them in 1847.

In discussion with Dr John Conolly (of the Hanwell Asylum) and Rev Dr Andrew Reed (a philanthropist and founder of several orphanages) they determined to educate such people.

A building known as Park House, in Highgate, was bought in March 1848 and its first patients were admitted the following month, but it soon became too small and a purpose-built facility was commissioned, with Queen Victoria donating 250 guineas in the name of the Prince of Wales, who became a life member.

The hospital was designed by William Bonython Moffat and built by John Jay, with Prince Albert taking a special interest and laying its foundation stone in June 1853, opening it two years later.

It was given a Royal charter in 1862 and renamed The Royal Earlswood Institution for Mental Defectives in June 1926.

John Langdon Down (after whom Down’s syndrome was named) was medical superintendent of the hospital from 1855 to 1868.

The hospital joined the National Health Service in 1948 but went into a period of decline following the introduction of Care in the Community and closed in March 1997.

The site was redeveloped for residential use and is now known as Royal Earlswood Park. 

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. 

Source: Read Full Article