Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon were two of the daughters of John Herbert Bowes-Lyon and his wife Fenella (née Hepburn-Stuart-Forbes-Trefusis). As John was the brother of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon the Queen Mother, the two daughters were first cousins of Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret, sharing one pair of grandparents, Claude Bowes-Lyon, 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne and Nina Bowes-Lyon, Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne.
In 1987, it was revealed that Nerissa and Katherine had been placed in Earlswood Hospital for the mentally disabled in 1941. Although Nerissa died in 1986, and Katherine in 2014, both had been listed in Burke’s Peerage as being dead since the 1963 edition. Suggestions of a royal cover-up were rejected in the press by Lord Clinton, who thought that his aunt Fenella (the mother of the two daughters) had completed the form for Burke’s Peerage incorrectly due to Fenella being ‘a vague person’; however, Burke’s Peerage included specific dates of death for both sisters. According to a 2011 television documentary about the sisters, “throughout their time at the hospital, there is no known record that the sisters were ever visited by any member of the Bowes-Lyon or royal families, despite their aunt, the Queen Mother, being a Patron of MENCAP” (the charity for people with learning disabilities). Nurses interviewed on the documentary said that, to their knowledge, the family never even sent the sisters a birthday or Christmas gift or card. When Nerissa died in 1986, none of her family attended the funeral. She was buried at Redhill Cemetery. Her grave was only marked with plastic tags and a serial number until her existence was revealed in the media, after which the family added a proper gravestone.
Three other mentally disabled cousins also lived in Earlswood Hospital. Harriet Hepburn-Stuart-Forbes-Trefusis (1887–1958), sister of Nerissa and Katherine’s mother Fenella, married Major Henry Nevile Fane, and 3 of their 7 children lived in Earlswood Hospital: Idonea Elizabeth Fane (1912–2002), Rosemary Jean Fane (1914–1972), and Ethelreda Flavia Fane (1922–1996). Prof. David Danks, then director of the Murdoch Institute, thought that a genetic disease may have killed male members of the family in early childhood. In 1996 the surviving cousins were moved to Ketwin House care home in Surrey when it closed in 2001, they were moved to another care home in Surrey.
The five girls were all sent to the same institution on the same day in 1941. They ranged in age as follows: Nerissa was twenty two, Katherine was fifteen, Idonea was twenty nine, Etheldreda was nineteen and Rosemary was twenty seven.
As you can see, far from being ‘hidden away’ they were cared for at home until they were grown women (Katherine being the youngest at fifteen) so why was the decision made to move them to the institution?
Their grandfather, Lord Clinton, had started thinking about the girls’ futures several years before. It was obvious that as their parents grew older and eventually died, other arrangements would have to be made for his granddaughters. The eldest girl was approaching thirty years old after all. All five were in good physical health and would probably live to be elderly women. But they were all said to be ‘like mischievous five year olds’.
And then along came the Second World War. It’s reasonable to assume that the two families had staff. Some of those staff members would have been there to care for the girls. But by 1941, male staff would have been called up to fight in the army and women encouraged to enter war work. If ever there was a time to have the girls enter an institution, this was it.
It is often said, erroneously, that the girls were sent to a state-run facility. This is not the case. The British National Health Service was not established until 1948 and the Royal Earlswood Hospital where the girls went to live was not absorbed by the NHS until 1958. Lord Clinton paid for the girls’ care.
Really, there was bound to be a conspiracy theory. Sometimes these theories can be fun but this one is completely bonkers.
Katherine Bowes-Lyon (pictured) was born in the same year as the queen – 1926. The conspiracy theorists say that the queen’s parents realised that she was ‘mentally defective’ and that when Katherine, who was born ten weeks later, arrived on the scene the two babies were swapped.
They claim that it is actually Katherine Bowes-Lyon who is on the throne today and that the real queen was the one who spent her life in the asylum. (Katherine died in 2014).
This crazy theory goes no way towards explaining a) how anyone could possibly know that a tiny baby was ‘mentally defective’ or b) how the Bowes-Lyon parents could have been induced to agree to the swap.
Criticism of the queen
When the story of the five girls was revealed in 1987, journalists frantically contacted Buckingham Palace to get a statement from the queen about her cousins, Nerissa and Katherine. A spokesman said ‘It is a matter for the Bowes-Lyon family’. Which of course, it was. Take another look at the family tree.
But as recently as 2011, the story reared its head again when a television documentary was made about the five Bowes-Lyon girls. A new generation of people were outraged by the situation as the documentary strongly suggested that the girls had been treated callously by the royal family.
To quote just one example, the documentary claimed that the father of Katherine and Nerissa never once visited them in the care home. This is true but it’s hardly surprising as the girls entered the facility in 1941 and their father had died in 1930.
The documentary also claimed that the women received no visitors, cards or gifts. The daughter of their sister Anne (born 1917) says that this is completely untrue. Anne, who married and became Princess Anne of Denmark, often visited Katherine and Nerissa and took and sent them gifts. They had no idea who she was. The girls’ mother, Fenella, was the only visitor they recognised and she visited regularly until her death in 1966. At first, other family members would visit too but because the girls didn’t recognise them, staff diplomatically suggested that their visits were disruptive.
Mentally, the women were young children. They could not speak. They did not have any understanding of concepts such as family relationships.When Nerissa died in 1986, her sister Katherine was apparently quiet for a couple of days and then back to her usual self. Yet the sisters had been together night and day for their entire lives. They had no understanding of concepts such as death, family, visitors and gifts.
Rosemary died in 1972, aged 58
Nerissa died in 1986, aged 67
Etheldreda died in 1996 aged 74
Idonea died in 2002, aged 90
Katherine died in 2014, aged 88