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The Queen's Cousins: Royal Scandal or Family Tragedy?

Updated on October 21, 2015
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BritFlorida loves to track down historical stories, especially scandals and mysteries from the UK.


Queen Elizabeth's cousins: Their story

The story was first revealed in 1987.

The world heard that two sisters, first cousins of Her Majesty the Queen, had been incarcerated in what was then referred to as 'an asylum for mental defectives' for many years.

The story was splashed all over the newspapers and regarded as a serious royal scandal. But was it?

It was further revealed that three other women from the family - and of the same generation - had also suffered the same fate.

The newspapers slammed the royal family, accusing them of a coverup and questioning the feasibility of British monarchy in general.

How could this family - the most aristocratic people in the land - treat their family members this way? Why was this covered up? What was the story?


Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon

Here you see Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the mother of the Queen. She was born into a noble family and was one of ten children. She married the then king's younger son.

Famously, when the old king died, the new king abdicated a year later due to his love for the American divorceé, Wallis Simpson, thus making Elizabeth the queen consort.

Some of Elizabeth's siblings died young, which wasn't unusual in those days, but her brother, John Bowes-Lyon, married Fenella, the daughter of Baron Clinton, and had five daughters. Thus, Elizabeth's children and John's children were cousins.

Here endeth the history lesson...

Nerissa and Katherine

It was Nerissa and Katherine, two of John's five daughters, who were sent to the facility. The press had two major concerns. They were:

  • That there was mental instability in the British Royal Family. Did this mean that other members of the family were not as they seemed? Were other members of the family 'mad'?
  • That the women were in an institution and not being kept privately in the lap of luxury. How could the Queen, they asked, be so cruel to members of her own family?

Mental health organizations, said the press, were horrified that the two women's very existence had been 'swept under the carpet.' When the story broke in 1987, people were more enlightened about learning difficulties - did the royal family hide the girls away because of embarrassment?

The scandal erupted even further when it was revealed that three more of the Queen's female cousins were in the same care facility. They were:

  • Idonea
  • Etheldreda
  • Rosemary

The members of the press were now making the world wonder if every member of the royal family was mentally unstable. There were sensational headlines. Was the Queen Mother passing down seriously defective genes that would be passed to British monarchs of the future? Who were these other three women?

You'll remember that Nerissa and Katherine were the daughters of the Queen Mother's brother and his wife, Fenella. She has a sister, Harriet, and the three were her daughters. The press at the time made little, if any, mention of the fact that the genetic problem was not with the Bowes-Lyons family, but with the sisters Fenella and Harriet - there was no bloodline.


What happened in 1941

Further investigation shows that the five girls were sent to the facility you see above on the same day in 1941. What's more, where had they been until then? When they entered the facility:

  • Nerissa was twenty two
  • Katherine was fifteen
  • Idonea was twenty nine
  • Etheldreda was nineteen
  • Rosemary was twenty seven

A family tragedy

Doesn't this suggest that the girls had been cared for at home by their families until 1941? If not, where were they? I'm inclined to believe that they had been with their families.

In 1941 the Second World War was having a huge impact on Britain. It's likely that the girls had been living with their families - no doubt with servants caring for them - but now, those who had been in charge of their care were required to either fight or take part in war work. Staff was a luxury that even the most aristocratic families couldn't justify when there was valuable war work to be done.

Couldn't their families cope and look after them without staff? Think about it - one of the families had two damaged girls. The other family had three. Whatever the genetic problem they had was, they were apparently 'like mischievous five year olds'. But they were in women's bodies.

Could the average family, especially aristocratic families who were accustomed to staff, really cope? As far as I can ascertain, the five women had no physical problems or disabilities and were therefore completely normal in that respect. Can you imagine?

The care for all five girls at the facility was paid for by their grandfather until the National Health Service took over many years in the future.

The Queen

The Queen was now derided by the press because her comment was that the issue was a matter for the Bowes-Lyon family. I believe she was correct.

Imagine that your mother had a brother, your Uncle John. He married and had daughters. His wife's sister also had daughters. Five of those daughters have a health issue but are well-cared for. Would it really be your place to interfere in another family?

Conspiracy theory

Of course, a royal scandal wouldn't be the same without a conspiracy theory and this story is no exception. Katherine Bowes-Lyon, the youngest of the women, was born in the same year as the Queen. Conspiracy theorists point out that Katherine bore a remarkable resemblance to Her Majesty.

They claim that it was Elizabeth who was born with the mental problems and that the two were switched; that the lady who is now on the throne is Katherine and that it was Elizabeth who lived - and died - in an institution.


If you want to see the image of Katherine, it's on this page.

Royal Babylon: The Alarming History of European Royalty
Royal Babylon: The Alarming History of European Royalty

European royalty was largely interspersed with the offspring of Queen Victoria. Find out more about their strange history.


The royals

The lives of the members of the royal family are rather like a soap opera, thanks to today's media. Whether they are royalists or not, people are fascinated by the lives of these privileged few.

Although we had several scandals in the twentieth century, the royals have always led the most interesting - and sometime rather naughty- lives.

The Queen Mother: The Untold Story of Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, Who Became Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother
The Queen Mother: The Untold Story of Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, Who Became Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother

This is a bizarre book with a remarkably strange story about a scandal involving the Queen Mother. Fascinating indeed.



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    • BritFlorida profile imageAUTHOR

      Jackie Jackson 

      4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Brite-Ideas: Crazy, isn't it? Secretly fun though :)

    • BritFlorida profile imageAUTHOR

      Jackie Jackson 

      4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Lozola: Thank you!

    • Brite-Ideas profile image

      Barbara Tremblay Cipak 

      4 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      this was extremely interesting! Had no idea - I think that conspiracy theory is nonsense too!

    • Lozola profile image


      4 years ago

      Another very interesting lens, loving these topics, keep up the good work!

    • BritFlorida profile imageAUTHOR

      Jackie Jackson 

      4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Merrci: Thank you so much! I can't stop thinking about that poor grandfather who had five mentally disabled granddaughters. The media called it a scandal - I think it was more of a tragedy.

    • Merrci profile image

      Merry Citarella 

      4 years ago from Oregon's Southern Coast

      More and more interesting! Strangely large number, which is very sad for the family. I have to admit the conspiracy theories on some of them are very appealing. Enjoy your articles very much.

    • BritFlorida profile imageAUTHOR

      Jackie Jackson 

      4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @aka-rms: Thank you Robin - I don't think I CAN stop now :)

    • BritFlorida profile imageAUTHOR

      Jackie Jackson 

      4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Corrinna-Johnson: If I find out more, I'll write about it, for sure :)

    • BritFlorida profile imageAUTHOR

      Jackie Jackson 

      4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Nancy Hardin: I think that you are definitely an HONORARY Englishwoman, Nancy :) As you say, some people have too much time on their hands, especially the media.

    • BritFlorida profile imageAUTHOR

      Jackie Jackson 

      4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @junecampbell: I agree very much. The implication was that the parents of the girls had locked them away because of the stigma. The fact that they were all grown women (with the exception of Katherine who was nearly grown at 15 years old) indicates that far from being hidden, they had lived openly for many years.I think it was the war that led to them being hospitalised.

    • aka-rms profile image

      Robin S 

      4 years ago from USA

      I'm totally enjoying your niche. Keep 'em coming.

    • Corrinna-Johnson profile image

      Corrinna Johnson 

      4 years ago from BC, Canada

      Very interesting story! I have never heard of this scandal before and I would love to learn more!

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 

      4 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      That conspiracy theory is just utter nonsense. Why don't people make better use of their time than to make up stories about someone else, especially when it's someone who is in the world spotlight. I love your "inside" stories, because of course, I've always been fascinated with anything British. I think I was an Englishwoman in a former life, HA! I really enjoyed this story, would love to hear more about these ladies. Thanks for sharing.

    • junecampbell profile image

      June Campbell 

      4 years ago from North Vancouver, BC, Canada

      I had not heard of this scandal before now. If true, I don't see why it should be considered a scandal. The fact that this story became a scandal simply reflects the fact that far too many people stigmatize mental illness rather than regarding it as an illness like any other.


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