Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon

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Royal Earlswood Hospital c.1854

Nerissa Bowes-Lyon (18 February 1919 – 22 January 1986) and Katherine Bowes-Lyon (4 July 1926 – 23 February 2014)[1] were two of the daughters of John Herbert Bowes-Lyon and his wife Fenella (née Hepburn-Stuart-Forbes-Trefusis). John was the brother of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Queen Mother, so 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 Cecilia Bowes-Lyon, Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne.[2]

In 1987, it was revealed that although the 1963 edition of Burke's Peerage listed Nerissa and Katherine as having died in 1940 and 1961,[1][3] the sisters were alive, and had been placed in Earlswood Hospital for mentally disabled people in 1941. In the terminology of the era, both were classified as "imbeciles", and neither had learnt to talk.[4] Nerissa died in 1986; only hospital staff attended the funeral[4] and Katherine died in 2014.[5] The sisters received no money from the family other than £125 paid to Earlswood each year.[4]

Suggestions of a royal cover-up were rejected in the press by Lord Clinton in 1987, who suggested that his aunt Fenella (the mother of the two daughters) had completed the form for Burke's incorrectly due to Fenella being 'a vague person'; however, Burke's included specific dates of death for both sisters.[6] 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" (a charity for people with learning disabilities). Nurses interviewed on the documentary said that, to their knowledge, the family never 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.[7] Her grave was marked with plastic tags and a serial number until her existence was revealed in the media, after which the family added a gravestone.[6][1][8]

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 Etheldreda Flavia Fane (1922–1996).[9] David Danks, then director of the Murdoch Institute,[10] thought that a genetic disease may have killed male members of the family in early childhood and caused learning disabilities in females.[11] In 1996, the surviving cousins were moved to Ketwin House care home in Surrey;[12] when it closed in 2001, they were moved to another care home in Surrey.[7]

In popular culture[edit]

The sisters were featured in the seventh episode of the fourth season of the Netflix drama series The Crown.[5]


  1. ^ a b c "The Queen's Hidden Cousins". Channel 4. Archived from the original on 21 July 2012. Retrieved 14 November 2020.
  2. ^ "Descendancy for BOWES-LYON Claude George, 14th Earl of Strathmore & Kinghorn at Family History UK Trees, retrieved 14 Nov 2011
  3. ^ Milne, Brian. The History and Theory of Children’s Citizenship in Contemporary Societies. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 978-94-007-6521-4.
  4. ^ a b c Goldsbrough, Susannah (12 November 2020). "Neglected, hidden away, registered dead: the tragic true story of the Queen's disabled cousins". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 14 November 2020. Retrieved 14 November 2020.
  5. ^ a b Young, Sarah (13 November 2020). "Who were the Queen's 'hidden cousins', Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon?". The Independent. Retrieved 14 November 2020.
  6. ^ a b "Royal Nieces Cover-up Denied By Lord Clinton", The Glasgow Herald, 8 April 1987
  7. ^ a b Kathleen Tessaro, The Debutante, Publisher HarperCollins UK, 2010, ISBN 0-00-736601-9, ISBN 978-0-00-736601-9, 384 pages ("Authors note")
  8. ^ "Books: The Debutante Archived 27 October 2010 at the Wayback Machine", at, retrieved 14 Nov 2011
  9. ^ "Hon. Harriet Hepburn-Stuart-Forbes-Trefusis" at thePeerage website, retrieved 14 Nov 2011
  10. ^ "The History of the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute Archived 11 September 2011 at the Wayback Machine" website, retrieved 14 Nov 2011
  11. ^ "Bowes-Lyon Retardation Gene May Have Killed Males‎", The Age, 9 April 1987
  12. ^ Hastings, Chris; Bamber, David; Berry, Jessica (13 August 2000). "Queen's cousin in 'sub-standard' care home". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 14 November 2020. Retrieved 14 November 2020.