Who were the Queen Mother's Bowes Lyons family?

Who were the Bowes Lyonses? Endlessly loyal and enmeshed with royalty for more than a century, the Queen Mother’s family was marked with sadness and controversy. Today there is only ONE cousin remaining, writes IAN LLOYD

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Shortly before King Charles III boarded the aircraft which would take him to Kenya to help mark the 60th anniversary of its independence from Britain, the King received a piece of sad news.

The Honourable Michael Albemarle Bowes Lyon – ‘Alby’ as he was affectionately known to friends and family – had passed away at the age of 83.

His death means that today, only one of the late monarch’s 23 maternal cousins survives: 91-year-old Sir Simon Bowes Lyon, son of the Queen Mother’s youngest brother, David.

Unlike Queen Elizabeth’s paternal cousins – the Dukes of Kent and Gloucester, Princess Alexandra and Prince Michael of Kent – the Bowes Lyon cousins remain virtually unknown to the general public.

Princess Diana and The Queen Mother share a  box at The Royal Tournament. The Queen Mother’s niece, lady-in-waiting Margaret Rhode,s stands directly behind the Queen Mother

Young Princess Elizabeth, right, Princess Margaret, left, and their Bowes Lyon cousin Margaret Elphinstone (later Margaret Rhodes) during a Balmoral stay

Jean Wills, nee Elphinstone, was the second daughter of Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Lady Elphinstone. She is pictured, left, with cousins Princess Margaret and Princess Elizabeth

Some were given positions at court. 

The Hon Margaret Rhodes was a lady in waiting to the Queen Mother, while her sister Jean Wills held the same position to Princess Margaret. Alby’s sister Lady Mary Colman was an extra lady in waiting to Princess Alexandra.

The surviving cousin, Simon Bowes Lyon, was Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire from 1986 to 2007, (the Lord Lieutenant is the monarch’s representative in lieutenancies across the UK, originally responsible for organising the local militia).

Sir Simon lives at St Paul’s Walden Bury, the Queen Mother’s childhood home near Hitchin, Hertfordshire.

Last year he allowed BBC cameras in to film his photo albums containing snaps of the future queen. The cameras also filmed the wall where his cousins, the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, were measured during each visit.

The last mark on the wall, came shortly five months after Elizabeth’s accession and against her height she had written simply: ‘The Queen, July 21, 1952’.

Such intimacy and trust are the legacy of a family relationship stretching back more than a century. The Queen Mother was then the nine-year-old Elizabeth Bowes Lyon when she noted in her diary the arrival of the first of the next generation of her clan in 1910.

Prince Charles at the service of Thanksgiving for the life of the Queen Mother, at All Saints Church, St Paul’s Walden Bury. On his right is Sir Simon Bowes Lyon. Simon’s wife Caroline is on the left

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and her mother Carole Middleton on day 1 of Royal Ascot, 2017

The honourable Patrick Bowes Lyon, uncle of Queen Elizabeth II

A 1915 portrait of Captain, the Hon Fergus Bowes Lyon, fourth son of the Earl and Countess of Strathmore and elder brother of Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, the future Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Fergus was an officer in the Black Watch and was killed at the Battle of Loos in September 1915

Princess Margaret, her train borne by Miss Iris Peake, arrives in Westminster Abbey for the 1953 Coronation of her sister. Her coronet carried by her young cousin and page Albemarle Bowes Lyon

‘I had my first nevew [sic] great excitement,’ she wrote. Her ascension to the role of Aunt had come courtesy of her older brother Patrick, who had announced the birth of his first-born son John in January of that year.

The Bowes Lyon family brought together the coal wealth of the mine-owning Bowes family from the north east of England (to which Catherine, Princess of Wales is distantly related, albeit through a poverty-stricken branch) and the Anglo-Norman Lyons family, a part of which established itself at Glamis Castle on the east coast of Scotland.

Despite its privilege, however, the family would be scarred by successive wars. Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother, lost her elder brother Fergus at the battle of Loos in 1915.

Her nephew John, known as the ‘Master of Glamis’, John had been destined to become 16th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne but was killed in Libya’s Halfaya Pass – nicknamed ‘Hellfire Pass’ – in 1941.

Both men were serving with the Black Watch.

The title fell instead to his brother Timothy, who became the 16th Earl in 1949 and lived at the ancestral seat, Glamis Castle until his death in 1972.

Sadly, Timothy died a reclusive alcoholic without an heir grieving the loss of his only daughter Lady Caroline Bowes Lyon – born to Mary Brennan, an Irish woman who had been his nurse – who died in January 1960 at less than a month old.

Alby, who has just died, was another nephew of the late Queen Mother and had remained close to the Windsors throughout the course of his life, attending both Queen Elizabeth II’s 1953 Coronation and her Platinum Jubilee Concert last year as well as her funeral in September.

Alby was some 14 years younger than the late Queen, the youngest of her maternal cousins, so they were never as close as those in her age group.

He was however a regular and popular guest of his aunt, the Queen Mother, at the Royal Lodge, her home in Windsor Great Park and at Birkhall on the Balmoral estate.

Aged 13 he was also a page to his cousin Princess Margaret at the 1953 Coronation, carrying her coronet in her procession through Westminster Abbey. This came just a month after the death of his father Michael, the Queen Mother’s older brother.

Educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, Alby spoke fluent German and had a life-long love of opera, especially of Wagner.

He became a director of Coutts Bank in 1969 a position held for almost a quarter of a century. 

He spent much of his childhood at Glamis and is buried there – pipers played at his funeral. He never married.

The late queen never met two of her first cousins, Nerissa and Katherine Bowes Lyon, who had for many years been listed in the society bible Burke’s Peerage as having passed away in 1940 and 1961, respectively.

In 1987 however, it was revealed that the sisters were alive, and had been placed in Earlswood Hospital for mentally disabled people in 1941, where, in the terminology of the era, both were classified as ‘imbeciles’.

Glamis Castle has been owned by the Lyon – now Bowes Lyon – family since it was built in the 14th century. Shakespeare’s Macbeth lives at Glamis but the historical Macbeth had no connection 

Mrs Bowes Lyon – formerly Fenella Hepburn-Stuart-Forbes-Trefusis – who was aunt by marriage to the late Queen Elizabeth II. Fenella was married to Lord Strathmore, brother to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Fenella is pictured with her two eldest children, Anne (1917-1980) and Nerissa (1919-2014). Nerissa, along with another younger sister Katherine, who was born in July 1926, was mentally disabled. Both girls became residents of Earlswood Hospital in 1941 and were never seen in public.

Nerissa, who with her sister Katharine Bowes Lyon, was a cousin to the late Queen Elizabeth II on her mother’s side

Katharine Bowes Lyon. With her sister Nerissa, she lived away from the public gaze

The sisters lived at the Royal Earlswood Mental Hospital in Redhill, Surrey

Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose play at the home of their mother’s family, St Paul’s Walden Bury in Hertfordshire

An early photograph of the Queen Mother, then Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon,, taken at Glamis Castle

Suggestions of a cover up were robustly rejected by family, and a subsequent 2011 documentary by Channel 4 documentary called The Queen’s Hidden Sisters, was labelled as ‘cruel’ and ‘intrusive’ by their niece, Lady Elizabeth Shakerley, who as party planner to the Queen was close to the late monarch.

Far from being a taboo subject, she insisted, Katherine and Nerissa were ‘very much part of the family as sisters of her mother, the late Princess Anne of Denmark.’

This sentiment was underlined by the Queen Mother’s official biographer, William Shawcross, who wrote that the Queen Mother had sent her nieces presents every year. The Queen herself, meanwhile, was said to be ‘hugely distressed’ by the broadcast.

While not close to all their cousins young Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth had as girls enjoyed spending time at Glamis with their maternal grandparents, Claude, 14th Earl of Strathmore and his wife Cecilia.

In 2022 members of the Bowes Lyon family and others with connections to the Glamis estate were asked to select a treasure from the castle for a book marking the 650th anniversary of Sir John Lyon becoming Thane of Glamis. His descendant Queen Elizabeth II chose, as her treasure, a much-loved photograph of the entire family gathered to mark her grandparents’ golden wedding.

Of all the cousins, it was the Elphinstones, children of the Queen Mother’s older sister Mary, to whom the late Queen and her mother were closest.

In 1910, Mary had married Sidney, 16th Lord Elphinstone, and as a child, each summer, the future Elizabeth II would stay with the Elphinstones at their Carberry Tower mansion near Edinburgh.

As they got older, their daughters Jean (later Jean Wills) and Margaret became close friends with their royal cousins: Margaret and the princesses were together on the Balmoral estate when war was declared and six years later they were together, this time dancing arm in arm through the streets of London, on VE Night.

Carefree photographs from after the war show the two young princesses dining at a London club with her Elphinstone cousins, while the bond between the princesses and their cousins was cemented when Jean was appointed lady in waiting to Margaret and Elizabeth was became Godmother to Margaret’s first daughter Victoria Rhodes, born in in 1953 after Margaret married writer Denys Rhodes.

The late queen was also godmother to other Bowes Lyon descendants, among them Rosemary, daughter of Andrew Elphinstone and Fergus Leveson-Gower, the son of the Queen Mother’s sister Rose.

Margaret Rhodes, along with Diana Bowes Lyon, daughter of the Queen Mother’s brother John, had also been bridesmaid at the then Princess Elizabeth’s November 1947 wedding to Prince Philip.

Honorable David Bowes-Lyon, brother to the Queen Mother,  with Lady Anne Egerton at the Lanark races

Princess Margaret is shown leaving the Kinnerton street home of  her cousin, Jean Wills following a dinner party she attended with group captain Peter Townsend

The King and Queen Consort celebrate VE Day with their two daughters

Princess Elizabeth, the Duke of Edinburgh, Princess Margaret and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu

The royal party gathers on the balcony after the Coronation of the Queen. Her cousin Albemarle Bowes Lyon, page to Princess Margaret, is obscured by the Queen Mother, who is prominent on the right 

Margaret Rhodes, first cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, pictured with her children, from left, Simon, Victoria, Annabel and Michael in a living room at Uplowman House in Devon

Diana Bowes Lyon, the niece of Queen Elizabeth and cousin of Princess Elizabeth

The Queen regularly corresponded with both cousins. In one early letter to Diana from 1945, Elizabeth had touchingly revealed that she had a crush on one of the royal security officers, a devastatingly handsome young giant called Roddy Macleod and that he had caused her sister Margaret’s heart to flutter a bit too.

Inevitably, contact between the Windsors and Bowes Lyon branches of the family has lessened with the passage of time.

Yet there is no doubt that the affection remains. As one royal source put it.

‘In terms of loyalty to the crown the Bowes Lyon cousins have never out a foot wrong. That, and the many shared memories, means that the bond will always be there.’

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