Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon, daughters of the Queen Mother’s brother John Bowes-Lyon, received no money from the family aside from the £125 they paid to Earlswood Hospital each year for their care. The sisters were believed to have a genetic condition that caused their learning disabilities, and they had three cousins ‒ daughters of their aunt Harriet on their mothers side ‒ who were also admitted to the hospital. Their names were Ideonea Elizabeth Fane, Rosemary Jean Fane, and Ethelreda Flavia Fane.
Nerissa and Katherine, born in 1919 and 1926, were reported in the 1963 Burke’s Peerage as having died in 1940 and 1961.
When Nerissa died in 1986, only hospital staff attended the funeral.
She was buried in Redhill Cemetery and her grave was only marked with plastic tags and a serial number until her existence was revealed in 1987.
The year after Nerissa’s death, the hush up about the sisters came to light, and the family decided to add a proper gravestone.
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Katherine later died in 2014.
The treatment of the sisters is especially noteworthy when it is considered that the Queen Mother was actually a patron of MENCAP, a charity for people with learning disabilities.
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”.
Nurses interviewed on the documentary said that, to their knowledge, the family never even sent the sisters a birthday or Christmas card.
The Queen Mother insists that it was “complicated” and that the five cousins “paid a terrible price” due to the abdication of King Edward VIII.
She argues that after she became the Queen, it meant her family had a direct bloodline to the monarchy and that if people knew about the mental disorders of her family, they would “question the integrity of the bloodline”.
The Queen Mother said: “Can you imagine the headlines if it got out? What people would say?
“The hereditary principle already hangs by such a precarious thread. Throw in mental illness and it’s over.
“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, it better have 100 percent purity.”
She claimed that there was already enough cause for concern on the Windsor side, with King George III famously suffering from mental illness, and the Queen’s uncle Prince John suffering from epilepsy and potentially autism.
When the story of Nerissa and Katharine was uncovered in 1987, Lord Clinton rejected the idea of a royal cover-up, claiming that the sisters’ mother ‒ his aunt Fenella ‒ was “a vague person” and may have accidentally completed the form for the Burke’s incorrectly.
However, this is considered unlikely as Burke’s included specific dates of death for both sisters.