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What Really Happened To Katherine & Nerissa Bowes-Lyon?

The Crown Season 4 tells the tragic tale of the Queen's "hidden" cousins.

Ollie Upton/Netflix

The Crown Season 4 highlights little-known — but just as scandalous — events from the late '70s through to the '90s. With the introduction of two prominent characters in Lady Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin) and Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), the writers weren’t short of real-life events to inspire the Netflix series, but there is one storyline that is particularly tragic: the discovery of the queen's "hidden" cousins, neglected, hidden away, and registered as dead, even. But who were Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon? And what really happened?

Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon were two of five daughters born to John Herbert "Jock" Bowes-Lyon — the Queen Mother's older brother — and his wife, Fenella. As such, they were first cousins to Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret.

Both cousins were born with severe learning disabilities. At the time, attitudes to such conditions were less progressive. Neither learned to talk, and, per The Telegraph, the two sisters were officially diagnosed as “imbeciles.” In 1941, when Nerissa was 22 and Katherine 15, the family had the sisters committed to an institution, the then-named Royal Earlswood Institution for Mental Defectives in Surrey.

Three of their cousins from their mother's side — Idonea, Rosemary and Ethelreda, the children of Fenella’s sister — had similar disabilities and were sent to the same hospital.

Netflix / The Crown

The sisters were, for all intents and purposes, abandoned by the royal family, aside from a £125-a-year fee they paid the institution for the sisters’ care. According to a 2011 Channel 4 documentary about the sisters, nobody — not even their parents — ever visited, remembered their birthdays, or sent them Christmas cards. Speaking to Thames News in 1987, a hospital representative said of Nerissa: “She was last visited, so far as I’m aware, by direct relatives in the early 1960s.”

How involved the inner circle of the royal family were in their treatment remains unclear. An entry in Burke’s Peerage in 1963, declared that both Nerissa and Katherine had died, when in fact the sisters were still alive, as depicted in Season 4 of The Crown.

Nerissa died in 1986 and was buried in Redhill Cemetery, but Katherine lived on, and when the story broke in papers in 1987, members of the public sent her flowers. At the time, Buckingham Palace said the queen was aware of the report, but had no comment on the matter. “It’s a matter for the Bowes-Lyon family,” a representative said.

In Episode 7 of the Netflix drama's fourth season, Princess Margaret grapples with her own mental health issues when she learns of her cousins' neglect and confronts her mother. “Don’t be so naive,” she tells Margaret, in response to her accusations of cruelty. “We had no choice.” Margaret (played by Helena Bonham-Carter) concludes “what my family did was unforgivable,” while the queen, apparently a religious reader of Burke’s, believes them both to have passed away.

Katherine lived to the age of 87 and died in 2014, having spent 55 years of her life at Royal Earlswood Hospital and a care home after that facility closed in 1997.