Find out more about the two presumed-dead cousins of the queen and Princess Margaret, who were institutionalized for most of their lives because of developmental disabilities.
The Crown has spent plenty of episodes focusing on lesser-known historical events that shed light on the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, but an episode in the fourth season of the Netflix drama centered on a family scandal that the public didn’t catch wind of until the ’90s — and many Americans probably know nothing about.
In the seventh episode of the season, “The Hereditary Principle,” Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) is once again struggling with her identity and her place in the royal family. She’s doing better than she was when her marriage was crumbling, but this latest crisis of identity comes when she enters therapy (upon Prince Charles’ suggestion) following more struggles with her mental health.
Said Bonham Carter in a late-summer press conference, “Just when she’s really floundering for some kind of identity, I think coupled with being in her mid 50s — was she? I don’t know, that’s what I am, I’m over identifying — but in the middle of her life, and having a crisis. And goes to her sister and asks for more work. [At] that point, she’s told that actually she’s going to lose work and status because Prince Edward has come of age. She really has a depression, which she was very prone to in life, and she seeks therapy. And it’s in the context of the therapy room that she discovers that other cousins who had mental health issues utterly different to hers.”
In the episode, Margaret discovers that two cousins whom she and her older sister, the Queen (Olivia Colman), previously believed were dead were actually alive and living in an institution in Surrey. Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon, the daughters of the queen mother’s older brother and first cousins of the royal sisters, had been committed for decades because of a developmental disorder inherited from their mother’s side of the family.
It’s a secret that wasn’t known to the public until a tabloid report in the late ’80s, and one that plenty of Americans likely didn’t know until they saw it play out on The Crown. Said Bonham Carter, “It’s known — the press found out about it, I can’t remember when — of these Bowes-Lyon cousins who were institutionalized.”
A documentary called The Queen’s Hidden Cousins aired on the U.K.’s Channel 4 in 2011 and revealed much more about the hospitalized sisters, who died in 1986 and 2014. According to a report in the Daily Mail at the time of the film’s premiere, the last documented visit from their family came in the 1960s, and it was an open secret in the local community that the psychiatric institution was home to close relatives of the royal family.
Said Onelle Braithwaite, who worked with Katherine and Nerissa beginning as a nurse in the 1970s, “If the queen or queen mum were ever on television, they’d curtsey — 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. Today they’d probably be given speech therapy and they’d communicate much better. They understood more than you’d think.”
Jan Walmsley, a professor specializing in the history of learning disabilities, explains why the family lied about the fate of the Bowes-Lyon sisters: “The belief was if you had a child with a learning disability, there was something in your family that was suspect and wrong.”
Ultimately, the episode is a story about this lesser-known part of the royal family’s life, but it’s also about how Margaret felt about her own place in the family, said Bonham Carter. “[The episode is] a story of that and also how [Margaret] genuinely feels treated by her family and the harshness of their treatment. Although at the same time always remaining very very loyal to her sister, too — it’s complicated. It’s a sad episode, but it’s wonderful. It was a gift.”
The Crown‘s fourth season is now streaming on Netflix.