'The Crown' Season 4 Episode 7: Who were Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon? Sisters had severe development disorder
Spoilers for 'The Crown' Season 4
Today, the members of the British royal family -- especially Princes William and Harry, and their wives, Princess Kate Middleton and Megan Markle — are well-known for being outspoken about mental health issues, due to the precedent set by the late Princess Diana. But at the time that Diana had just entered the family, the royal family were responsible for some heinous deeds as we see in Episode 7 of Season 4 of 'The Crown'.
When Prince Edward comes of age, Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) decides to take a more active role in her royal duties after an illness. However, because Edward is of age, she is more knocked down the order of precedence, and further under-employed. On Prince Charles' (Josh O'Connor) suggestion, Margaret decides to see a therapist and learns that she has cousins who were mentally ill.
Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon were Margaret's first cousins on their mother's side. When Margaret talks to her sister, Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Coleman), the latter believes them to be dead as recorded in Burke's Peerage. However, as Margaret discovers later on, her cousins were very much alive.
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 and had severe developmental disorder. At the time, attitudes to such conditions were less progressive. Neither of the sisters learned to talk and in 1941, when Nerissa was 22, and Katherine was 15, the family had the sisters committed to The Royal Earlswood Institution for Mental Defectives in Surrey, as it was called.
Three of their cousins from sisters' mother's side – Idonea, Rosemary, and Ethelreda, the children of Fenella’s sister – had similar disabilities and were sent to the same hospital.
According to a 2011 Channel 4 documentary about the sisters, nobody 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.”
Nerissa died aged 66 in 1986 and was buried in a grave marked only with a name tag and serial number. Katherine stayed in the hospital until 1997 when it closed amid abuse claims and then lived in another home in Surrey. She later died aged 87 in 2014.
On the other hand, Nerissa and Katherine's sisters, Anne and Diana, were still involved with their cousins and the royal family. Anne went on to become the Princess of Denmark when she married Prince George Valdemar of Denmark on 16 September 1950.
According to Macleans, genetic experts had claimed that the mental instability of the cousins evidently passed through their common maternal grandfather, Baron Clinton, and that the illness was not associated with the royal family. Experts blamed a defective gene for the problem and they said that it affected only females in the line.
'The Crown' Season 4 is now streaming on Netflix.