The Damning Ethics Bombshell In “The Crown”

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.

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Source: Vanity Fair

17 thoughts on “The Damning Ethics Bombshell In “The Crown”

    • The creation of a rift between Charles and Mountbatten (a genuine hero who was assassinated because of who he was, not what he did) is ridiculous. It’s one thing to finesse the details to keep the pace from getting dull, but making up things that never happened is historical malpractice. This ranks right up there with Pearl Harbor (making up pilots who never existed to take the place of men who actually did, plus adding a non-existent love triangle), The Finest Hours (turning a competent commander who spent a night coordinating two grueling rescues at the same time into a Wrongheaded Commanding Officer who cruelly tosses the protagonist’s love interest out of HQ instead of calling off the mission), Kingdom of Heaven (changing the hero’s background completely and making jihadist Saladin into a reluctant poet king), and Braveheart (too many inaccuracies to even talk about).

            • Why would they want him gone? The man was just shy of 80 and retired from public life. He probably wasn’t long for this world in any case (born 1900).

              That said, I just looked in the writeup on Wikipedia. I always thought of him as a hero – in action at 16, destroyer skipper, combat veteran, commander of the Burma Campaign, last viceroy of India. However, he and his wife Edwina both had multiple affairs, and after her death in 1960 he carried on several affairs with MUCH younger women. I’d say he’s tarnished the same way John McCain is, because, like charity, heroism starts at home.

  1. Similar to the justification that resulted in the lobotomization of Rosemary Kennedy – the family had an image to keep up. We could also talk about the House of Windsor breathing a collective sigh of relief when George, Duke of Kent, perished in a plane crash in WW2, and when Albert, Duke of Clarence, died of a sudden illness, opening the way for the man who became George V.

        • Perhaps apochryphal, but didn’t the Kennedy boys’ guilt about their father’s “treatment” of their sister (who evidently had the audacity to, you know, have sex and become pregnant outside wedlock) cause the Kennedy boys during their administration to champion releasing seriously mentally ill people from institutions in the name of restoring their rights, which has led to the “homeless problem,” so-called, whereby the mentally ill are now living on the streets, but exercising their Kennedy given rights. Ah, Camelot!

          • I don’t remember hearing that, but I do remember Reagan closing a lot of institutions, the theory being that these mentally ill people would just be sent back to their families. It didn’t work that way. Rosemary never got pregnant out of wedlock that I know of, but the family feared she would, since a lot of guys will have sex with any woman that they can persuade (or overpower).

            • You’re right, Steve, she didn’t get pregnant, she was just evidently the first woman of Irish descent to express an interest in wanting to have sex outside of marriage, so they had some surgeons remove her brain’s frontal lobe. Nice.

              I still think the ill-fated “free the mentally ill” and don’t make anyone take their meds thing dates from the ’60s. But I may be wrong.

  2. I trace the homeless problem not to the Kennedys but to Geraldo Rivera. As a reporter for Channel 4 News (?) he exposed the conditions at Willowbrook Hospital on Staten Island which resulted in a consent decree, making the State of New York find alternatives to Willowbrook for the mentally disable to live. As we all know New York failed and many ended up homeless and sleeping on subway grates.

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