The Crown’s episode seven of season four, “The Heredity Principle,” begins with what at first seems like a non-sequitur: two women in a mental health hospital, watching Queen Elizabeth wave to crowds on television. When the broadcast begins, they stand up, with one of them even saluting the screen. Throughout the first 25 minutes of the episode, scenes of these aging, disabled women are interwoven with those of Helena Bonham Carter’s Princess Margaret, who begins to see a therapist for the first time. Then, it’s all connected. “Are you aware of anyone else in your immediate family struggling with mental health issues?” the therapist asks Margaret. “I only ask because I am aware, through professional colleagues, of the sisters.”
The sisters, as it turns out, are the two frail mystery women we’ve seen all along: Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon. First cousins of Margaret and Queen Elizabeth, they’ve been forgotten by even their own family: “But they’re long dead!” the queen exclaims to Margaret over lunch after she mentions their names. Together, they search through a copy of Burke’s Peerage, the who’s who of British aristocracy. Indeed, it lists both as deceased. An incognito Margaret drives up to Royal Earlswood Hospital in Surrey and sends her friend in on a reconnaissance mission. When he comes back, he confirms what Margaret suspects: Nerissa and Katherine are there, along with several other relatives.
Later, Margaret confronts her mother—and Nerissa and Katherine’s aunt—about their institutionalization. “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,” the queen mother says. “Their illness, their idiocy and imbecility, would make people question the integrity of the bloodline. Can you imagine the headlines if it were to get out?”
Like most of The Crown’s plotlines, the episode is based in a sad reality. Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon were indeed sent away to Royal Earlswood Hospital in 1941. At the time, Nerissa was 22 years old and Katherine just 15. Although their exact diagnosis was unknown—at the time, they were just called imbecile—the sisters were said to be severely handicapped and nonverbal and have a mental age of six. They remained in hospital care until both of their deaths. (Nerissa in 1986 and Katherine in 2014.)
However, as The Crown points out, they were actually presumed dead by the aristocratic world long before they actually were. Burke’s Peerage admitted they erroneously reported the sisters as deceased. How did such a mistake get made? It turns out that their mother, Fenella Bowes-Lyon, was extremely vague when filling out her responses, leaving several fields blank. “She often did not fill out forms completely that Burke’s Peerage sent her,” her granddaughter, Lady Elizabeth Anson, explained to The Guardian in 1987. The registrars at Burke’s assumed that meant they’d passed away. Harold Brooks-Baker, publishing director of Burke’s Peerage, told the Associated Press they were “thunderstruck” when it came to light they were, in fact, still living.
Baker found out, with the rest of the world, in April 1987. Sometime before her death, a man posing as a relative of Katherine’s visited her at the Surrey hospital. In reality, he was working for the British tabloids. He snapped the picture of a frail Katherine sitting in a chair, looking confused. Soon after, it was splashed across the Monday morning front page of The Sun: “Queen’s Cousin Locked in Madhouse.” Immediately, there were cries of a cruel cover-up:The royals locked their own away! The lack of humanity! Buckingham Palace declined to comment, saying it was a private matter for the Bowes-Lyon family. Meanwhile, the Bowes-Lyons publicly insisted it wasn’t some sort of imprisonment. The sisters were free to move around the hospital and its grounds as they wished, and they were visited at Earlswood by relatives. (Although it had been a while—”Both sisters had regular visits from their families up until the early 1960s when one of their closest relatives died,” a general manager for the East Surrey Health Authority told the Associated Press in 1987. “Since then, they have had few visitors. My understanding is that Katherine had no regular visitors.”)
The Crown spins this into a story of the Windsors cruelly protecting the purity of divine power: “The hereditary principle already hangs by such a precarious thread,” Marion Bailey’s queen mother tells Helena Bonham Carter’s Princess Margaret. “Throw in mental illness, and it’s over.” There’s a lot of creative liberty taken with that line of thinking. In real life, the queen mother said she didn’t know about her nieces’ situation until 1982. A report at the time wrote that, after she found out, she sent them a check to pay for sweets. In addition, Nerissa and Katherine were committed nearly five years after the abdication of Edward VIII. Their admittance to Royal Earlswood was likely not a direct reaction to the then queen consort’s sudden change in status but a thought-out choice. There’s also no evidence that Princess Margaret ever secretly visited her cousins in Surrey, let alone confronted her mother on it.
Yet the story does touch a societal factor that’s perhaps sadder: the shameful stigma surrounding mental illness at the time. Sure, maybe forgetfulness was at fault for Fenella’s failure to fully fill out Burke’s Peerage form. But maybe it was about the protection of privacy and reputation. The Bowes-Lyon family had, for centuries, been accused of madness; in the 1800s, rumors spread that they had a deformed heir. They said they’d faked his death and locked him away in Glamis Castle, where he lived for 100 years. Fast forward to 1941: What would people say about their ancestral line now? Meanwhile, a similar story was playing out across the pond. That same year, Joe Kennedy made his daughter Rose get a lobotomy for her violent mood swings and seizures. The procedure left her unable to speak and severely incapacitated. She was institutionalized for the rest of her life, and, just like with Nerissa and Elizabeth, many family members didn’t know what happened to her for years.
So perhaps the story here isn’t the cruelty of the crown or the British aristocracy but instead how people felt, for so many centuries, that mental illness had to be hidden—to the devastating detriment of those afflicted by it.