Like the rest of the world, I have been obsessed with Netflix’s new hit show, Bridgerton, and lusting over the Duke has helped distract me as I recover from Covid-19. My areas of interest generally stop around Elizabethan times and pick up again in the reign of Queen Victoria so I know virtually nothing of this period save what I’ve read in Jane Austen novels and seen on TV. However, I was also intrigued by Queen Charlotte – the casting of a black woman to play a regency Queen has caused some controversy and I decided to investigate how implausible this is, as well as how much power she wielded if her husband was indeed mentally ill as portrayed in the show.
Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744 – 1818) was Queen of Great Britain and Ireland from her marriage to King George III on 8 September 1761 until the union of the two kingdoms on 1 January 1801, after which she was Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland until her death. As George’s wife, she was also Electress and later Queen of Hanover.
Sophia Charlotte was born on 19 May 1744, the youngest daughter of Duke Charles Louis Frederick of Mecklenburg, Prince of Mirow and his wife Princess Elisabeth Albertine of Saxe-Hildburghausen. Mecklenburg-Strelitz was a small north-German duchy in the Holy Roman Empire. According to diplomatic reports at the time of her engagement to George III in 1761, Charlotte had received “a very mediocre education” – similar to that of a daughter of an English country gentleman. She received some rudimentary instruction in botany, natural history and language, but her education focused on household management and religious matters. It was only after her brother acceded to the Duchy that she began to experience court life.
“I don’t think a prisoner could wish more ardently for his liberty than I wish to be rid of my burden and see the end of my campaign. I would be happy if I knew this was the last time,”
When King George III succeeded to the British throne, he was an unmarried 22 year old. His family and courtiers were keen to see him married. The 17-year-old Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz seemed an appealing match to him, as she had little knowledge of courtly life and he believed she would not have a desire to meddle in political affairs. Soon after their wedding, he instructed her “not to meddle,” an instruction she was happy to obey.
On 17 August 1761, the Princess embarked on her journey to Britain, chaperoned by her brother, Duke Adolphus Frederick, and by the British escort party. The crossing was exceedingly difficult – encountering three storms. They eventually arrived in London almost a month later, where she first laid eyes on her new husband.
At 9:00 pm that same evening – a mere six hours after their first meeting – Charlotte and George were married by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Only the royal family, the party who had travelled from Germany, and a handful of guests were present – a marked contrast to the pomp and ceremony of today’s Royal Weddings. Eager to assume her royal duties, Queen Charlotte, who spoke French and German, threw herself into studying English. She hired both German and English staff for her ladies-in-waiting cohort and even adopted the very English tradition of drinking tea. She quickly picked up the language of her new homeland, and her “timidity” gave way to a chatty young queen within her chosen circle.
Less than a year after the marriage, on 12 August 1762, the Queen gave birth to her first child, George, Prince of Wales. They would go on to have 15 children, 13 of whom survived to adulthood. In the above quote, she writes of her dismay at her constant state of pregnancy. I do not envy her one bit.
St James’s Palace functioned as the official residence of the royal couple, but the king had recently purchased a nearby property, Buckingham House, located at the western end of St James’s Park. Queen Charlotte favoured this new Palace above all others, and it came to be known as The Queen’s House, where all of her children were born.
In the early years of her marriage, Charlotte’s strained relationship with her mother-in-law, Princess Augusta, caused her difficulty in adapting to the life of the British court. Augusta interfered with Charlotte’s efforts to establish social contacts by insisting on rigid court etiquette, of which Charlotte was inexperienced. Furthermore, Augusta appointed many of Charlotte’s staff, among whom several were expected to report to Augusta about Charlotte’s behaviour. Thus, Charlotte came to rely heavily on her German friends.
The King enjoyed country pursuits and riding and preferred to keep his family’s residence as much as possible in the then rural towns of Kew and Richmond. He favoured an informal and relaxed domestic life, to the dismay of some courtiers more accustomed to displays of grandeur and strict protocol. In July 1769, Lady Mary Coke was indignant on learning that the King and Queen, her visiting brother Prince Ernest and Lady Effingham had gone for a walk through Richmond town by themselves without any servants. “I am not satisfied in my mind about the propriety of a Queen walking in town unattended.” (alright, calm down Lady Whistledown). Nonetheless, Queen Charlotte endeared herself to her ladies and to her children’s attendants by treating them with kindness and warmth.
Charlotte did demonstrate some political influence through discreet and indirect conversations with her husband through whom she kept herself informed and made recommendations for council That she wanted her influence to be undetectable is notable from the fact that she asked her brother to burn one of her letters to prevent the King from finding out that she had expressed an opinion (ew). Understandably, Charlotte particularly concerned herself with German issues. She took an interest in the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778–1779), and it is possible that it was due to her influence that the King supported British intervention in 1785.
“You will have the benefit by Your voyages to put Spirit in every Body, to be more known by the World, and if Possible more beloved by the People in general. That must be the case, but not equal to the love of her who subscribes herself Your very Affectionate Friend and Wife Charlotte.”
This letter was written by Charlotte to her husband after 17 years, showing the affection that came to pass between them. When the King had his first, temporary, bout of mental illness in 1765, her mother-in-law and Lord Bute kept Charlotte unaware of the situation. The Regency Bill of 1765 stated that if the King should become permanently unable to rule, Charlotte was to become Regent. Her mother-in-law and Lord Bute had unsuccessfully opposed this arrangement, and Charlotte was never made aware of it as the King soon returned to health.
The King’s next episode of physical and mental illness in 1788 distressed and terrified the Queen, who was heard wailing “What will become of me?” She was clearly fearful of her husband, for when he collapsed one night, she refused to be left alone with him and successfully insisted that she be given her own bedroom. She was not allowed to speak to his doctor, and was not even informed that he had been summoned. However, when her son asked her to take up a separate residence, she insisted that she accompany her husband to Kew. However, she and her daughters were taken to Kew separately and lived secluded from him throughout his illness. They regularly visited him, but the visits tended to be uncomfortable, as he had a tendency to embrace them and refuse to let them go.
During the 1788 illness of the King, a conflict arose between the Queen and the Prince of Wales, who were both suspected of desiring to assume the Regency should the King’s illness render him unfit to rule. The Queen suspected the Prince of Wales of a plan to have the King declared insane with the assistance of Doctor Warren, and to take over the Regency. Likewise, the Prince of Wales and his followers accused the Queen of scheming to have the King declared sane so that he could appoint her as Regent, and then have him declared insane again and assume the Regency. According to Doctor Warren, he had been pressured to declare the King sane on the orders of the Queen.
In the Regency Bill of 1789, the Prince of Wales was declared Regent should the King become permanently insane, but it also placed the King himself, his court and minor children under the guardianship of the Queen. The Queen used this Bill to refuse the Prince of Wales permission to see the King alone, even well after he had been declared sane again in the spring of 1789. The conflict around the regency led to a serious rift between the Prince of Wales and his mother. In an argument he accused her of having sided with his enemies, while she called him the enemy of the King. Their conflict became public when she refused to invite him to the concert held in celebration of the recovery of the King, which created a scandal. Queen Charlotte and the Prince of Wales finally reconciled, on her insistence in March 1791.
As the King’s madness became gradually permanent, the Queen’s personality also changed. She developed a terrible temper, sinking into depression and no longer appearing in public even at her beloved music concerts. Her relationship with her children became increasingly strained. From 1804 onward, as the King’s health declined, she slept and ate separately, and avoided seeing him at all costs.
King George III and Queen Charlotte were music connoisseurs with German tastes, who gave special honour to German artists and composers such as Handel and Bach.
In April 1764, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, then aged eight, arrived in Britain with his family as part of their grand tour of Europe and remained until July 1765. The Mozarts were summoned to court on 19 May. Bach, then the queen’s music master put difficult pieces to Mozart, who played them all from sight. Afterwards, the young Mozart accompanied the Queen in an aria which she sang. In October, the Mozarts were invited to court to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the King’s accession. As a memento of the royal favour, Leopold Mozart published six sonatas composed by Mozart that were dedicated to the Queen on 18 January 1765, a dedication she rewarded with a present of 50 guineas.
Queen Charlotte was also amateur botanist who took a great interest in the gardens of her palaces. In an age of discovery, when explorers were constantly bringing home new species and varieties of plants, she ensured that the collections were greatly enriched and expanded. She even had a South African flower, the Bird of Paradise, named Strelitzia reginae in her honour.
The King and Queen also patronised craftsmen and artists Among the royal couple’s favoured craftsmen and artists. Charlotte herself founded many orphanages and became the patron of the General Lying-in Hospital, a hospital for expectant mothers. It was subsequently renamed as the Queen’s Hospital, and is today the Queen Charlotte’s and Chelsea Hospital. The education of women was of great importance to her, and she ensured that her daughters were better educated than was usual for young women of the day. She did however insist that her daughters live restricted lives close to her, and she refused to allow them to marry until they were well-advanced in years, as a consequence of which none of her daughters had surviving legitimate issue.
Up until 1788, portraits of Charlotte often depict her in maternal poses with her children, and she looks young and contented; however, in that year her husband fell seriously ill with what is now believed to have been porphyria. Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of her at this time (above) marks a transition point, after which she looks much older in her portraits.
Her stress was also worsened by The French Revolution of 1789. Queen Charlotte and Queen Marie Antoinette of France had maintained a close relationship. Despite being a decade older than Marie, they shared many interests including music and the arts. Marie Antoinette confided in Charlotte upon the outbreak of the French Revolution. Charlotte had organized apartments to be prepared and ready for the refugee royal family of France to occupy, and so was wildly distraught when she learned that the King and Queen of France had been executed.
After the onset of his permanent insanity in 1811, George III was placed under the guardianship of his wife in accordance with the Regency Bill of 1789. She could not bring herself to visit him frequently owing to his erratic behaviour and occasional violent reactions. It is believed she did not visit him again after June 1812. However, Charlotte remained supportive of her spouse as his illness progressed. While her son, the Prince Regent, wielded the royal power, she was her spouse’s legal guardian from 1811 until her death in 1818.
During the Regency of her son, Queen Charlotte continued to fill her role as first lady in royal representation because of the estrangement of the Prince Regent and his wife. As such, she functioned as the hostess by the side of her son at official receptions. She also supervised the upbringing of Charlotte of Wales. During her last years, she was became increasingly unpopular and was often jeered in public, at which she expressed her dismay given her “long service” to the country.
The Queen died holding the hand of her eldest son, the Prince Regent. She was buried at Windsor Castle. She is the second longest-serving consort in British history (after the present Duke of Edinburgh), having served as such from her marriage to her deat, a total of 57 years and 70 days.
On the day before her death, the Queen dictated her will to her husband’s secretary, Sir Herbert Taylor. She bequeathed all her vast wealth (over £10million) to her husband and her children, with some preserved as Hanover heirlooms.
It is highly unlikely that her husband ever knew of her death. He died blind, deaf, lame and insane 14 months later.
One can only imagine how difficult it must have been for Charlotte, married to a stranger with whom she could not even exchange a few words before she had even turned 18. Then to have been constantly pregnant, losing two children, only for her eldest son to scheme against her and attempt to keep her from any tangible power. Then, to be tied to a husband who was increasingly insane, violent, and unaware of your presence and loyalty, and who even at his peak wanted a wife who was submissive and unopinionated. Bridgerton gives some insight into the difficulties she faced, and feels like a fairly accurate depiction of a woman who had grown cold and stern as her troubles took their toll.
The most interesting question about Queen Charlotte however remains her ethnic heritage. While she is played by a black actress in Bridgerton, some historians believe that certain artists whitewashed their portraits of Queen Charlotte to comply with beauty standards of the time. It is commonly known that British royals attempted to protect royal “purity” by only marrying other royals.
In 1996, a PBS documentary investigating Queen Charlotte discovered that her lineage could be traced back to black members of the Portuguese royal family. Historian Mario de Valdes y Cocom believes that Queen Charlotte, known as a German princess, was actually directly related to Margarita de Castro y Sousa, a 15th-century Portuguese noblewoman nine generations removed. Margarita de Castro e Souza descended from King Alfonso III of Portugal and his concubine, Madragana, a Moor. However, this would make Queen Charlotte 15 generations removed from her closest black ancestor — if Madragana was even black, of which there is no certainty. Ania Loomba, a professor of race and colonialism at the University of Pennsylvania, highlights that the term “Blackamoor” was mainly used to describe Muslims, and did not necessarily denote black skin.
However, although Queen Charlotte may not have possessed close genealogical ties to Africa, she may have still been perceived as a descendant of African people by contemporaries. Baron Christian Friedrich Stockmar, the royal physician, described Charlotte as “small and crooked, with a true Mulatto face.” There was also the unflattering description by Sir Walter Scott, who wrote that she was “ill-coloured.” One prime minister even went as far as saying that her nose was “too wide” and her lips “too thick.” These were all common racist tropes of the time. Supporters of this theory also point to the royal portraits of the queen, some of which depict her African features quite strongly. However, most portraits of the queen depict her as your typical light-skinned royal with no inkling of African blood.
However, it is no secret that royal painters didn’t always truthfully depict their royal subjects. Indeed, artists typically erased features that were deemed undesirable at the time. As African people were associated with slavery, painting Britain’s queen as someone from Africa would have been taboo. De Valdes y Cocom says the case is different with one painter, Allan Ramsay, who was known to paint with more accuracy than most artists and was a well-known abolitionist. Thus de Valdes y Cocom suggests that Ramsay may have been less inclined to diminish any “African characteristics” of Queen Charlotte — rather he may have emphasized them for political reasons.
Thus, while it is unlikely that Queen Charlotte was black as we would understand it today, it is not impossible. The reluctance of many historians to accept the possibility is perhaps symptomatic of British history’s uneasiness with its colonial past and the enduring racist tendencies of academia today. Thus, if you hear any racists slating Bridgerton as inaccurate because of its racial diversity, please be quick to tell them that the truth may be a lot closer than you think!