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‘Queen Elizabeth Had Two Severely Disabled First Cousins Who Were Publicly Pronounced Dead In 1940 and 1961 Respectively …’

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"Fun royal family fact: queen elizabeth had two severely disabled first cousins who were publicly pronounced dead in 1940 and 1961 respectively, but they both actually lived in a care home with no visits or support from the royal family until their actual deaths in 1986 and 2014[.]"

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Queen Elizabeth II’s death on September 8 2022 led to significant discussions both off and on social media about her reign, including a viral tweet about her “two severely disabled first cousins,” and the purportedly callous way that their existence was virtually ignored by their families:

No links or additional information was included with the tweet. It read:

fun royal family fact: queen elizabeth had two severely disabled first cousins who were publicly pronounced dead in 1940 and 1961 respectively, but they both actually lived in a care home with no visits or support from the royal family until their actual deaths in 1986 and 2014[.]

Three additional tweets appeared in the thread, the final a link to Wikipedia entry with the title, “Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon.” The second and third threaded tweets provided additional details about the cousins’ lives in institutions:

the [royal] family never sent the girls a birthday or christmas gift or card. when one [cousin] died in 1986, none of her family attended the funeral. her grave was marked with plastic tags and [a] serial number until her existence was revealed in the media, after which the family added a gravestone[.]

the women received no money from the family other than £125 paid to their hospital each year. just unbelievably cruel[.]

Details of the linked entry matched those provided in the tweet, indicating “the two [women] were first cousins of Queen Elizabeth II.” Another section said:

In 1987, it was revealed that, despite the 1963 edition of Burke’s Peerage listing Nerissa and Katherine as having died in 1940 and 1961, respectively, the sisters were alive, and had been placed in Earlswood Hospital for mentally disabled people in 1941. In the terminology of the era, both were classified as “imbeciles”, and neither learned to talk. Nerissa died in 1986, aged 66, with only hospital staff attending the funeral, while Katherine died in 2014, aged 86. The sisters received no money from the family other than £125 paid to Earlswood each year.

A section titled “In popular culture” noted that Netflix’s The Crown addressed Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon in 2020:

The sisters were depicted in the seventh episode of the fourth season, “The Hereditary Principle”, of the Netflix drama series The Crown, which premiered in 2020.

In June 2022, a meme with similar details was shared to Reddit’s r/oddlyterrifying (and a top comment compared the women to Rosemary Kennedy):

Windsor lore from oddlyterrifying

In November 2020, British news organization The Independent published an article about the women, after the television series The Crown renewed interest in their stories:

Katherine, born in 1926, and Nerissa, born in 1919, were the daughters of John Herbert Bowes-Lyon – the brother of the Queen Mother – and his wife, Fenella.

The ties to the royal family mean they were first cousins of Queen Elizabeth II.

The sisters were born with severe learning difficulties and, following the death of their father in 1930, they were admitted to a mental health institution, the Royal Earlswood Hospital in Redhill, London, in 1941.

[…]

Nerissa died aged 66 in 1986 and was buried in a grave marked only with a name tag and serial number. Katherine stayed in the hospital until 1997, when it closed amid abuse claims, and then lived in another home in Surrey. She later died aged 87 in 2014.

An archived summary of a 2011 television program about Katherine and Nerissa Lyon referenced the claim that they were “[declared] dead.” It was published three years before the actual death of Katherine Lyon:

In 1963, Burke’s Peerage, the guidebook to aristocratic lineage, recorded the sisters as having died in 1940 and 1961. Nerissa actually died in 1986, and Katherine was moved into a home in the community when the Royal Earlswood was closed down in 1997.

An April 1987 Associated Press article, “Burke’s Peerage Given Faulty Facts : Queen’s ‘Dead’ Cousin Alive in Mental Hospital,” supported the claim that the public ony learned of the women’s fate that year, after a tabloid disclosed the information upon Nerissa Lyon’s passing. That reporting indicated that Lady Elizabeth Anson, the niece of the Lyon women, asserted that they were visited by “many family members”:

A first cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, listed in a leading social register as having died in 1961, is a long-term patient at a hospital for the mentally disabled, the hospital acknowledged [on April 6 1987].

It said Katherine Bowes-Lyon, 60, a niece of Queen Mother Elizabeth, has been in Royal Earlswood Hospital in Redhill, south of London, since 1941.

Her sister, Nerissa Bowes-Lyon, who died last year at the age of 67 after spending much of her life as a patient in the same hospital, also has been listed as dead in every edition of Burke’s Peerage since 1963.

The 160-year-old reference book to the nation’s aristocracy lists her as dying in 1940, said Publishing Director Harold Brooks-Baker.

On September 8 2022 (the day Queen Elizabeth II died), a viral tweet claimed that the recently deceased monarch “had two severely disabled first cousins who were publicly pronounced dead in 1940 and 1961 respectively, but they both actually lived in a care home with no visits or support from the royal family until their actual deaths in 1986 and 2014.” Primary details of the tweet were accurate, and the women were depicted in Netflix’s The Crown in 2020. When the information came to light in 1987, a relative of the women claimed their institutionalization was not an attempt at “a cover-up,” claiming they were visited by “many family members.” However, archival 1987 reporting noted that their survival was deliberately concealed with false death dates.