Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon: The Queen's Hidden Cousins

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Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon: The Queen's Hidden Cousins

Katherine Bowes-Lyon, pictured some time in the early 21st century.


Today we largely accept that those with mental disabilities are best served by living as far as possible a normal life within the community. While care for them is often sporadic and beset with problems, the stigma attached to having disabled relatives is largely a thing of the past and those with such problems often live in sheltered housing within the larger community or with relatives who have the time and resources necessary to care for them themselves.

However, this is a recent trend. Lingering contempt, suspicion and fear still exists and for some the subject is still tainted by shame. Within living memory, Britain was served by a series of (often huge) "insane asylums" where those with such troubling conditions were treated in a strange borderland between palliative care and quasi-imprisonment. Often, people committed to these institutions were quietly forgotten about.

Remarkable as it may seem, two of the Queen's own cousins were committed to the institute system. Until 2014 - Katherine Bowes-Lyon - lived still; within a more humane setting perhaps, but still denied her part in the official genealogy of the Queen and studiously omitted from the public record.

Birth and Background

The two girls were born into immense privilege. As the daughters of John Herbert Bowes-Lyon the person they called 'auntie' was no less than Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon who would one day become the Queen Mother and one of Britain's best-loved figures in the monarchy.

Early in their life it became clear that the two girls were beset by mental problems. Their father died of pneumonia at Glamis Castle in 1930 leaving their mother to care for them and their 3 sisters alone.

Many fingers have been pointed at the family for their treatment of the girls, but it is worth noting that their mother continued to look after them until 1941 - the date in which the two were committed to the Royal Earlswood Asylum. At this stage Nerissa was 22 and Catherine 15 so it must be allowed that they were hardly abandoned at birth. Their mother, born in 1889, was then 52 and providing the full time care needed for the girls would have been a daunting prospect for a woman entering late middle age, regardless of wealth and privilege.

In the context of the time and social mores it must also be remembered that the principles of hereditary were still strongly believed in - even more so in the upper classes where families traced their birthright back for many centuries. By all accounts, the girls were kept away from public events and once they entered the asylum system became officially denied.

Stricken from the Record

In the establishment, the girls were treated no differently to any other patients but nursing staff and fellow inmates recall that they never received visitors or greetings cards for birthdays or Christmas. The two were well aware of their relationship to Royalty and would wave and salute the Queen whenever she appeared on television. The 1963 edition of Burke's Peerage listed them as 'dead' - and even included dates for their deaths. After 20 years in the institutional system, they had effectively been stricken from the official records.


When Nerissa died in 1986, her grave was marked only by plastic tags and a serial number until her fate became public knowledge and the family finally added a proper gravestone. That their aunt, The Queen Mother, was a patron of MENCAP added to the sense of indignation that the girls had been treated in the way they had.

That thousands of similar people from more humble backgrounds were part of the same system without so much as a peep being raised is probably a signifier of the magnificent emotional humbug that the British people often display around matters of royalty.

Katherine Bowes-Lyon followed her sister into death on February 23rd 2014, aged 87. Her death, however, went unannounced for some weeks until being confirmed in March. This was said to have been because of the sensitivities involved but in death, as in life, it seems the facts of her existence were hidden from public view.

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Author: Ian Freud   |  Last updated: 16th October 2014 | © Weird Island 2010-2020
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