Obit of the Day: Queen Elizabeth’s “Hidden Cousin”
People knew there was something wrong with Katharine Bowes-Lyon. She and her sister Nerissa suffered from what we now know to be severe developmental disabilities. But in 1941 experts would have classified the sisters as “morons,” “imbeciles”, or “idiots”* and were considered a social embarrassment. The women, Katharine at age 15 and Nerissa at 22, were placed in the Royal Earlswood Hospital, which was the first institution of its kind to deal learning and developmental diabilities. Prior to the opening of Earlswood in 1847, patients such as the Bowes-Lyon sisters, were grouped together with those suffering from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.
Nerissa and Katharine Bowes-Lyon would spend the rest of their lives apart from their families under supervision at Earlswood. According to a controversial documentary produced by Channel 4 in England in 2011, the two sisters were never visited by family and rarely received cards and presents for their birthdays or holidays.
Why such an interest in the Bowes-Lyon sisters? Because their aunt was the wife of King George VI and the mother of Queen Elizabeth II. Called Queen Elizabeth’s “hidden cousins,” there was widespread belief that the condition and identities of Nerissa and Katharine were purposely kept under wraps to prevent any shame befalling the Royal Family. Queen Elizabeth denied the allegations, but the actions of the sisters’ immediate and extended families belie this denial.
It did not help the Royal Family’s case when it was discovered in 1987 that Burke’s Peerage, England’s definitive guide to the geneaology of historical families, listed Katharine Bowes-Lyon as dead beginning in 1940 and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon beginning in 1961. The fact that the sisters lived for years after those dates was only discovered after Nerissa’s death in January 1986. The problem was compounded when journalists learned that no one attended her funeral and her grave was only marked with a plastic tag and serial number. (Her family would add a traditional gravestone after the story became public knowledge.)
It was also noted that the Queen Mother did not visit her nieces even when she was patron of “Mencap” the leading charity in the United Kingdom for those with learning and developmental disabilities.
Katharine Bowes-Lyon, who spent 56 years in the Earlswood hospital before she was transferred to a private facility, died on February 23, 2014 at the age of 87. Interestingly three more cousins on their mother’s side would be committed to Earlswood hospital leading some medical specialists to believe that there was a genetic cause for the disabilities.
Sources: The Daily Express and Wikipedia
(Undated image of Katharine Bowes-Lyon is courtesy of The Daily Mail)
*Those three terms, now generic insults, were considered legitimate psychological diagnoses in the early 20th century. They were later replaced by the term “mentally retarded,” which has also fallen out of favor in recent years.
- Always say yes to seeing friends
- Eat breakfast every day
- Recognize that positive change rarely happens overnight
- Accept the fuck-ups, but try not to let them happen again
- There is a song to remedy every situation on the planet
- Appreciate the people in your life
- Look for the good in everything
- Try new things and try them often
- Treat yourself as well as you treat others
The Sea by John Banville.
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—Famous Blue Raincoat
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