Fans horrified by ‘awful’ royal secret
The Crown's fourth season uncovers many secrets the royal family would no doubt prefer stay hidden - but none have shocked viewers more than the story of the Queen's two forgotten cousins.
The storyline unfolds with two sisters in an asylum lovingly staring at a TV screen and standing for the national anthem as images of the Queen arriving at the Royal Variety Performance appear.
The women, in their sixties, cradle a baby doll and proudly salute, breaking only to take pills handed to them by a nurse.
The episode goes onto to reveal the siblings are not just fans of Her Majesty, they are her cousins, Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon, and the story behind their tragic lives has left many viewers appalled.
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The Netflix drama looks at how they were registered as dead and hidden from the world in the Royal Earlswood Institution for Mental Defectives - cruelly known as The National Asylum for Idiots - in Redhill, Surrey, after being born with severe learning disabilities.
And there they stayed for most of their long lives - barely ever visited - until Nerissa's death aged 66 in 1986 and Katherine's aged 87, six years ago.
Viewers have flocked to social media to express their shock as the storyline plays out on screen:
Binge watching #TheCrown— Perpetual Student 🏳️🌈 #BlackDisabledLivesMatter (@PerpetualStu) November 16, 2020
I'm on ep 7 - they tackle the institutionalization of the Queen's disabled cousins! I'm glad this is on such a widely watched show!
The family didn't even visit them after they found out they were still alive-
They were kept hidden!
It’s the Queen’s cousins being completely isolated from the public because they suffered from mental illnesses for me 🥴🥴🥴. It’s all true you can search it up #TheCrown— Aissatou 🖤 (@khubra_xx) November 17, 2020
Oh my god, so is this real, with their cousins being ill and neglected? Cause it's awful really #TheCrown— amina 🌻😷 (@accio_dallas) November 16, 2020
So the Queen had "hidden" cousins? Neglected ...hidden and even registered as dead 🥴 #TheCrown— Joe Cole (@sameolejoe_) November 16, 2020
Just watched the episode of #TheCrown in which Princess Margaret discovers what happened to her 5 cousins. The only abdication relevant here is the complete abdication of all humanity. How utterly appalling.— Elaine Jinks-Turner (@MissJonesCat) November 19, 2020
OMG is it true about the cousins? That’s so sad...and cruel. #TheCrown— Carlotta Bosi (@imcharliethetot) November 19, 2020
Trigger warning: ableism, mental health— Humayra Hanif (@HumayraHanif) November 18, 2020
Struggling to reconcile a family, patrons of many charities with a family who secretly lock up and forget cousins in an institution because of a learning disability 🤔
As fictional Margaret said "wicked, cold-hearted and cruel"#TheCrown
Yelling at the Queen Mother, she says: "Locked up and neglected. They're your nieces - daughters of your favourite brother.
"It's wicked and it's cold-hearted and it's cruel and it's entirely in keeping with the ruthlessness which I myself have experienced in this family.
"If you're not first in line, if you're an individual character with individual needs or, God forbid, an irregular temperament … then you'll be spat out, or you'll be hidden away or worse: Declared dead.
"Darwin had nothing on you lot - shame on all of you."
The exchange may well be a work of fiction but the truth is even more shocking.
Nerissa was born in 1919 and younger sister Katherine in 1926, both daughters of minor aristocrat John Bowes-Lyon, the brother of Elizabeth, later the Queen Mum.
At the Royal Earlswood Institution they lived in stark conditions and had few clothes of their own, often having to share underwear with the 230 other residents.
But the drastic measure was deemed necessary as in 1923 their aunt Elizabeth married the future King George VI - and their cousin Princess Elizabeth would later become Queen.
In those less enlightened days, having anyone in the family with "mental deficiencies" was often a source of shame.
But for the royals, particularly in an era when monarchies had been overthrown across the world, there were fears it could be disastrous.
In The Crown, the Queen Mother, played by Marion Bailey, tries to defend the cruel steps.
She tells an angry Margaret: "I went from being the wife of the Duke of York, leading a relatively normal life, to being Queen.
"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?
"The idea that one family alone has the automatic birthright to the crown is already so hard to justify, the gene pool of that family better have 100 per cent purity.
"There have been enough examples on the Windsor side alone to worry people … if you add the Bowes-Lyon illnesses to that, the danger is it becomes untenable."
It is believed the sisters' symptoms were the result of a genetic condition not in the John Bowes-Lyon's bloodline, but that of his wife Fenella.
Katherine and Nerissa had three cousins also in the institution with the same disabilities. They were Edonea, Rosemary and Etheldreda - the daughters of Fenella's sister Harriet.
Although the core story about the sisters is true, The Crown appears to use artistic licence when it comes to exactly who knew what and when.
It suggests the Queen Mother was involved from the start, but in 1996 a newspaper claimed she did not know about their existence until 1982, when the institution's league of friends wrote to her.
The article said she then sent a four-figure sum to ensure the women were bought birthday and Christmas presents.
However, there is no evidence any of the royals ever visited.
The Crown suggests the Queen believed the line that they were dead.
When she actually found out the truth is unclear. After a Channel 4 documentary on the sisters aired in 2012, she was hurt by suggestions they had been abandoned entirely.
It is also unknown whether Princess Margaret ever found out about them or if she confronted the Queen Mother. Either way, it is unlikely she would have found out from her therapist, as suggested in the show.
In The Crown, Princess Margaret is seen asking a friend, priest Dazzle Jennings, played by Tom Burke, to visit the asylum where they live.
When he returns he tearfully tells her of the bedside trinkets they have featuring their royal cousins.
He says: "They are like children, but they know who you are and they know who your sister is.
They have pictures of the whole family, which they know is their family."
Nerissa and Katherine were 15 and 22 when they were admitted to the institute.
Staff, patients and people within the local community were aware of their royal relatives - and many commented on Katherine's remarkable likeness to the Queen.
Though the sisters wore the standard institution clothes, they were allowed to change into their own if they had visitors.
Their last known visitors were in the Sixties, when mum Fenella died. Their father had passed away in 1930 of pneumonia, aged just 44.
Speaking about the sisters in the Channel 4 documentary, Onelle Braithwaite, who was a nurse at the institution in the Seventies, recalled: "If the Queen or Queen Mum were ever on television, they'd curtsy, very regal, very low. Obviously there was some sort of memory.
"It was so sad. Just think of the life they might have had. They were two lovely sisters.
"They didn't have any speech but they'd point and make noises, and when you knew them, you could understand what they were trying to say.
In the same documentary, ward sister Dot Penfold spoke of her sadness that the sisters were not visited for years. She said: "The impression I had was that they'd been forgotten."
They were not just forgotten, but virtually wiped from history.
When Nerissa died in 1986 she was buried in a grave marked only with a name tag and serial number.
Their plight came to light a year later, and although an anonymous donor bought a proper grave for Nerissa, Katherine's situation did not improve.
It is believed she stayed in the institution until 1997, when it closed amid abuse claims, and then lived in another home in Surrey.
She died in 2014, but like her life, her death went largely unnoticed.
This article originally appeared in The Sun and was reproduced here with permission.
Originally published as Fans horrified by 'awful' royal secret