The Netflix series The Crown, which had its 4th season debut over the weekend, is a terrific historical soap-opera featuring some superb acting by its regulars and walk-ons. It is also historical fiction involving living people, notably Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, and other members of Great Britain’s royal family. This is an ethically problematic area that Ethics Alarms has delved into before. There are legitimate ethical objections to a work of fiction misrepresenting the actions of any historical figure to that individual’s detriment and damage to his or her reputation. The ethical breach is worse when the fictional version of reality involves those who are still alive, and worse still, at least in the eyes of many Brits, when the dubious narratives put into vivid dramatic form involve the current head of state. This is an issue in part because such works of artistic license are too often accepted as fact by viewers who are too lazy to check Google, Wikipedia, or a history book.
“The Crown’s” scriptwriter, Peter Morgan, has said, “Sometimes you have to forsake accuracy, but you must never forsake truth,” whatever that means. The four seasons of his series have made sensational use of some genuinely disturbing chapters of British royal history that the monarchy would like to forget—this infamous cover-up of a Communist spy in Buckingham Palace is particularly stunning— but Morgan has also been justly criticized for making up events out of gossamer and parallel universe annals.
In the current season, for example, a lot of time is devoted to a rift between Prince Charles and Lord Mountbatten that Morgan admits never happened. The problem is that when complete fantasy is mixed in with real events, public understanding of what is fact and what is fiction becomes blurred. (See “Titanic” and “JFK”)
This may allow the Royals to wiggle out of the implications of the astounding scandal revealed in one of Season 4’s episodes, “The Hereditary Principle.” Some of the details are fudged—the horrible truth was not, as far as we know, uncovered by Princess Margaret (played by Helena Bonham Carter)—but it is true that five of her and Queen Elizabeth’s cousins were secretly committed to a mental hospital in 1941 and declared dead.
In real life, The Sun broke the news in 1987 that two of Queen Elizabeth’s first cousins, Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon (above), had been secretly locked away in the Royal Earlswood mental hospital in 1941 when Katherine was 15 and Nerissa was 22. Their family reported the sisters dead in 1963 to Burke’s Peerage, a publisher of books on British aristocracy. Nerissa, however, lived until 1986 and Katherine was still alive when the story broke. An editor for Burke’s told the media that he was stunned that the Bowes-Lyons would have purposefully claimed their relatives were dead, and exonerating his publication by saying, “It is not normal to doubt the word of members of the royal family.” The Bowes-Lyon family is that of the late Queen Mother and the widow of King George VI.
Katherine and Neriss both had a mental age of around three. They were secretly committed by their mother, who reportedly was not exactly firing on all cylinders herself. The hospital had no records of the sisters receiving visits from any members of the Royal Family. When Nerissa died in 1986, she was buried in a pauper’s grave marked by a plastic marker, after a ceremony attended by a few nurses.
The Queen Mother, who, embarrassingly, was the patron for the Royal Society for Mentally Handicapped Children and Adults, learned of Katherine and Nerissa’s confinement to the hospital in 1982, but kept her family’s secret. The Queen Mother sent them a check, but did not visit her nieces nor correct the public record.
After the story broke, Buckingham Palace declined to comment and called the matter an issue for the Bowes-Lyon family.
It was later discovered that Katherine and Nerissa were placed at Royal Earlswood on the same day that their cousins, sisters Idonea, Etheldreda, and Rosemary, were also admitted. All five women suffered from a rare genetic disorder that did not affect the queen or her heirs. To what degree, if any, the Windsors were complicit in their realatives’ exile, and whether the Queen or other members of the Royal Family besides the Queen Mother and her family knew of their fate, remains a mystery.
Morgan’s hypothesis, which certainly seems plausible, is explained in the episode by the Queen Mother after she is confronted by Princess Margaret.
“The hereditary principle already hangs by such a precarious thread,” she says. “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 better have 100% purity. There have been enough examples on the Windsor side alone to worry people. King George III, Prince John, your uncle. If you add the Bowes-Lyon illnesses to that, the danger becomes untenable.”
“My family—the Bowes-Lyons—went from being minor Scottish aristocrats, to having a direct bloodline to the crown, resulting in the children of my brother [Katherine and Nerissa] and their first cousins [Idonea, Etheldreda, and Rosemary] paying a terrible price,” she continues. “Their professionally diagnosed idiocy and imbecility would make people question the integrity of the bloodline…can you imagine the headlines if it were to get out? What people would say?”
It doesn’t matter what the rationalizations were for locking away five members of one of the richest families in the world, pretending they were dead, and leaving them unloved and unacknowledged for nearly half a century. There can be no excuse or justification for such cruel conduct.
Source: Vanity Fair