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Queen’s ‘hidden’ cousins erased from Royal Family in shameful scandal

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Queen Elizabeth II’s historic 70-year reign was celebrated across the country this weekend. The festivities came to a close on Sunday with the Platinum Jubilee Pageant which saw thousands of performers take part in a three-mile procession from Whitehall to Buckingham Palace. It honoured Her Majesty’s dedicated service, told the story of her 70 years on the throne and paid special tribute to the country and the Commonwealth. 

However, while there have been a number of highs throughout the long life of Queen Elizabeth II, there have of course been lows. 

The Queen famously deemed 1992 her ‘annus horribilis’ in reference to numerous royal relationship breakdowns and a fire at Windsor Castle, and more recently, 2021 was dubbed the sequel to the historic year of royal scandal.   

But perhaps a lesser known Royal Family scandal was the alleged institutionalisation and subsequent abandonment of two of the Queen’s cousins. 

Born in 1919 and 1926 respectively, Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon were two of the daughters of John Herbert Bowes-Lyon and his wife Fenella. 

John was the brother of the Queen Mother, making the sisters first cousins of the Queen.  

However, neither were ever able to be a part of the Royal Family.

Both Nerissa and Katherine were born with severe learning difficulties and, following the death of their father in 1930, were admitted to a mental health institution. 

They were reportedly sent from the family home in Scotland to Royal Earlswood Hospital at Redhill, Surrey, where they lived out the rest of their days.

Their exact diagnosis remains uncertain as in the medical terminology used at the time, Nerissa and Katherine were cruelly deemed ‘imbeciles’.

After their admission in 1941, the sisters were allegedly treated like they never existed by their extended family. A claim that has been denied by their family. 

A 1963 edition of Burke’s Peerage (a definitive referencing and listing of the peerage and titled aristocracy) of Great Britain, listed Nerissa as having died in 1940, and Katherine passing in 1961.

However, when the story of the sisters’ existence was published in 1987, it was reported that Nerissa had died only the year before, and Katherine was still alive. 

Nerissa was aged 66 at the time of her death and was reportedly buried in a grave marked only with a name tag and serial number.  

Katherine, meanwhile, stayed in the hospital until 1997, when it closed amid abuse claims, and then lived in another home in Surrey, later dying aged 87 in 2014.

A scandal instantly erupted when it emerged the Royal Family had apparently erased two of its members from their lives — although accusations of a cover-up were denied. 

In the 2011 documentary ‘The Queen’s Hidden Cousins’, nurses and staff at Earlswood confirmed that, to their knowledge, the family never sent the sisters a birthday or Christmas gift or card.

The documentary also claimed that there was no evidence that any member of the Royal Family had visited the sisters. 

When Nerissa died, reportedly her funeral was attended only by hospital staff.

Following the revelation, Katherine, the surviving sibling, was reportedly sent flowers from all corners of the UK.

According to a report by the Associated Press, when Buckingham Palace was approached on the matter in 1987, a statement was released that said the Queen was aware of the report, but said: “We have no comment about it at all. It is a matter for the Bowes-Lyon family.”

The Bowes-Lyons publicly stressed that the two women were not imprisoned, but were well-treated and able to move freely around the hospital and its grounds. 

Lady Elizabeth Anson, a niece of the two sisters, also issued a statement to the BBC on behalf of the Bowes-Lyon family saying that “there was no attempt at a cover-up” and that many family members had visited the sisters.

The sisters’ tragic story was portrayed in the fourth season of the popular Netflix series, The Crown. 

It was suggested that the Nerissa and Katherine were kept hidden because there were fears that the sisters’ condition could have threatened the social standing of the Royal Family.

In the series, the Queen Mother, played by Marion Bailey, tries to defend the decision to fake their deaths, telling Princess Margaret that Nerissa and Katherine paid a “terrible price” as she went from being the wife of the Duke of York to Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.

She said: “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?”

However, the royals were reportedly not pleased with the show’s depiction of Nerissa and Katherine being abandoned by the family.

David Bowes-Lyon, whose father was the Queen Mother’s first cousin once removed, told The Telegraph at the time that the royals are “frustrated” with The Crown’s portrayal.

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