30 January 2021
Queen Charlotte’s portrayal
asks us why Black people
are written out of history
I am half-way through the Netflix series Bridgerton and enjoying the drama, the sets, the music and the casting.
I am not a monarchist, by any measure or meaning of the term. But I have also enjoyed The Crown. Criticism of the historical details in both series is ridiculous, and shows how many critics fail to understand historical drama as a genre, mistaking it for the historical documentary.
But all history, however it is presented, challenges us to consider how our present priorities and values have been shaped and developed. When some viewers react negatively to the casting of Bridgerton, they display how, in so many different ways, subliminal racism remains in society, and how it has been conditioned by our interpretations of the past and what we decide is history.
There was a popular story – although it may be apocryphal – among journalists that markings in the newsroom in the Sun listed the British royal family as ‘The Germans.’
The European mixture in that family must certainly challenge many ‘Brexit’ ultra-nationalists today, in a way that they are never challenged by the fact that Boris Johnson was born in New York and is of mixed Turkish and Russian background, or that Nigel Farage is of mixed German and French descent and that his wives have been born in Ireland and Germany.
The cast of Bridgerton has revived the memory that many members of the British royal family were German, including Queen Charlotte and King George III. But it has also reignited the debate about whether Queen Charlotte was actually Black.
Queen Charlotte (1744-1818) was born Princess Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in Germany, and many historians and genealogists say she was indeed descended from African ancestors.
The television historian Mario de Valdes y Cocom has traced Charlotte’s ancestry through six separate lines back to Margarita de Castro e Souza, a 15th-century noblewoman whose own lineage leads back to Ouruana or Madragana, a mistress of King Afonso III of Portugal who he says was a Moor of north African descent.
Some art historians have suggested in recent years that the models for the black magi in Flemish paintings were members of the Portuguese de Sousa family, and that family members travelled to the Netherlands when their cousin, the Princess Isabella, went there to marry the Grand Duke, Philip the Good of Burgundy in 1429.
Chris Van Dusen is said to have been largely influenced by this version of Queen Charlotte’s history while seeking out actors in the series Bridgerton, including casting Golda Rosheuve as Queen Charlotte and Regé-Jean Page as the ficticious Duke of Hastings.
But, almost 12 years ago, Stuart Jeffries also asked in the Guardian in 2009 whether Queen Charlotte was black.
Although Queen Charlotte was married to the British monarch at the time of the American War of Independence, she is still celebrated over 200 years after her death in Charlotte, the city in North Carolina that she gave her name to.
There is a large, monumental bronze sculpture of her in the city, and street after street is named after her, giving Charlotte the nickname of the ‘Queen City.’ The city’s Mint Museum displays a 1762 portrait of Queen Charlotte by the Scottish portrait painter Allan Ramsay.
In Britain, she is remembered in Charlotte Square in Edinburgh’s New Town and in London at Charlotte Street in Fitzrovia and Queen’s Square in Bloomsbury. In Ireland, Charlotte Street in Dublin was levelled in the 1970s, but her name is still recalled in Charlotte Quay, Dublin, and there is a Charlotte Street in Wexford, Carlow and Sligo, and Charlotte’s Quay in Limerick.
Charlotte Street, running from the Quays to the Ulster Bank on North Main Street in Wexford, was previously known as Custom House Lane may may have also been called Courthouse Lane, according to local historian Nicky Rossiter. There was an attempt to rename Colbert Street, but this name-change was rejected in a plebiscite in 1932, and so the name of Queen Charlotte remains on a Wexford street.
Queen Charlotte founded Kew Gardens, was the mother of 15 children, a patron of the arts and is said to have commissioned Mozart. But Sir Walter Scott described her and her siblings as ‘ill-coloured, orang-outang looking figures, with black eyes and hook-noses.‘ In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens dismissed her in the second paragraph: ‘There was a king with a large jaw, and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England.’ Her personal doctor, Baron Christian Friedrich Stockmar, is said to have described her as ‘small and crooked, with a true mulatto face.’
Queen Charlotte was played by Helen Mirren in the film The Madness of King George. But Desmond Shawe-Taylor, surveyor of the Queen’s pictures, told Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian, ‘She was famously ugly.’
Mario de Valdes y Cocom argues that her features, as seen in royal portraits, were conspicuously African. He claims that although she was German by birth, she was directly descended from a black branch of the Portuguese royal family, related to Margarita de Castro e Souza, a 15th-century Portuguese noblewoman nine generations removed, whose ancestry is traced back to the 13th-century ruler Alfonso III and his lover Madragana, whom Valdes takes to have been a Moor and so a black African.
Of course, many historians are sceptical about Valdes’s theory. Apart from the generational distance, they say the evidence that Madragana was black is thin.
Indeed, some would say, Charlotte may not have been the first black queen in England. There is a theory that suggests that Philippa of Hainault (1314-1369), consort of Edward III, had African ancestry. There are perennial debates on social media about whether King Charles II was black. In his time, he was sometimes referred to as ‘the black boy,’ although this may simply have described his dark hair and a complexion that was darker than most northern Europeans. When Prince Harry married Meghan Markle, whose mother is black, some people hailed her as Britain’s first black royal.
Whatever Queen Charlotte’s background may have been, history and drama both challenge us to think why we continue to be reluctant to question inherited presumptions and prejudices. Why are some people regarded as beautiful or ugly because of their looks and not because of their character? And, if she was not black, why were black people excluded from European society for so long?
The very fact that she was German, like so many members of the British royal family, and that Charles II’s mother was French, his grandmothers Danish and Italian and his wife a Portuguese princess who brought Tangier as her dowry, make me wonder about the crazy mindset of monarchists who continue to argue in this post-Brexit time that Britain should continue to distance itself from Europe.