Watch: The Queen addressing the nation after her mother died in 2002
An infamous royal secret about Princess Margaret’s mental health and relatives being sent to live in an institution for people with learning disabilities is one of the most interesting plotlines in the new series of The Crown. But what’s the real story?
Before Princess Diana came along, Princess Margaret was often recognised as the most human of the royals, not least because she suffered from poor mental health during her lifetime, a cause taken up by Prince William and Prince Harry as they got older.
But in season 4 of The Crown, writer Peter Morgan delves deeper into the backstory, with Margaret (Helena Bonham-Carter) seeing a psychiatrist who tells her about two of her cousins – Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon – who have been living in an institution for most of their lives.
It’s an amazing story – two of the Queen Mother’s nieces, first cousins of the Queen – seemingly squirrelled away and forgotten about – but it’s absolutely true. Well, some of it anyway.
The Queen Mother was born Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon and she had a brother John, who along with his wife Fenella, had five daughters, including Nerissa and Katherine.
They were both born with a mental disability that is thought to have been caused by a genetic disorder inherited from their maternal grandfather, leaving them with a mental age of three or less, no speech and no understanding of their royal lineage.
In the new season of the smash-hit series, the Queen Mother (Marion Bailey) explains the young women were hidden away after the last King abdicated, as they were worried that the press may pick up the story to say there was a fault in the new royal bloodline.
Unfortunately, it’s true that at the time this kind of disability was seen as shameful, or weak genes, meaning that Nerissa and Katherine’s existence could have been seen as a stain on the family in some way.
And so in 1941, the pair were sent from their castle in Scotland to The Royal Earlswood in Redhill, Surrey, an institution catering to mentally disabled people and the first facility purpose-built to look after those with learning difficulties. Katherine was 15, and Nerissa was 22.
But were they just left there? This is where the story gets a little murkier. The women’s carers said it was known at the hospital that the women had royal connections, even if the outside world didn’t.
“If the Queen or the Queen Mum were ever on television, they’d curtsey – very regal, very low,” a nurse told the Daily Mail in 2011.
Yet according to the prestigious publications which catalogue the lives of the aristocracy, both women were dead. Since 1963, Burke’s Peerage wrote that Nerissa had died in 1940 and Katherine in 1961, even though the family knew that to be false.
The Queen Mother never spoke of them publicly, despite being a patron of the Royal Society for Mentally Handicapped Children and Adults (MENCAP).
In 1987, when the existence of the two women finally came out, family members put the long-term miscommunication of their death down to a mistake – a senior moment on the part of Fenella who didn’t really concentrate when filling out the forms for Burke’s and its compatriot, Debrett’s.
So was there some kind of Royal cover-up? Well, it’s thought that the Queen Mother didn’t know that her nieces were still alive until 1982 and afterwards sent them a cheque for expenses, even if she chose not to speak about it.
Although some accused the Royal Family of ignoring Katherine and Nerissa and said that they never received visitors, Bowes-Lyon family members argued Fenella visited her daughters at Royal Earlswood until she died, while their sister Anne – later Princess Anne of Denmark – used to go and see them and bring them presents.
It should be pointed out though, that Fenella died in 1966. And when Nerissa also died in 1986, she was buried without a headstone, just a plastic marker to signal who was there. After the story broke in 1987, her niece Elizabeth Anson said she would rectify that.
True conspiracy theorists have gone one better – they say the Queen and Katherine, who were born the same year, were swapped at birth and that it’s actually Elizabeth who was sent to Royal Earlswood while Katherine became the Queen.
What happened next
Incredibly, it subsequently emerged that three other young women who were part of the Bowes-Lyon family tree were sent to the institution on the same day as Nerissa and Katherine – the Queen Mother’s cousins Idonea, Rosemary and Etheldreda, daughters of Harriet Fane, Fenella’s sister, who all apparently suffered from the same chromosomal defect.
Rosemary passed away in 1972, while Katherine died in 2014 aged 87, 28 years after her sister. Back in 1987, the hospital’s administrator said Katherine lived unrestricted on a seven-bed ward with other people her age.
But in 1997, the Royal Earlswood was shut down, with former employees saying that patients had been abused there. All the surviving cousins were moved to the Ketwin care home in 1996, while Katherine was at another Surrey home when she died.
It’s said there was a private family funeral – no-one knows who that included.
The Crown is streaming now on Netflix.
Watch: Is The Crown a true story?