Posted on December 30, 2020

Bridgerton’s Big Question: Was Queen Charlotte Really Our First Black Royal?

Alex Diggins, The Telegraph, December 23, 2020

It’s starting to become a habit. Netflix has found itself caught in another controversy over historical accuracy, this time over its romping Regency drama, Bridgerton.

At first blush, it seems the bodice-busting show has plumped for colour blind casting. It’s an established practice in theatre – and is starting to become more popular in films, such as Armando Iannucci’s recent Dickens adaptation, The Personal History of David Copperfield.

But the casting of black British actress Golda Rosheuvel, 49, as Queen Charlotte appears to have been a deliberate nod to a tenuous historical theory – that George III’s consort was Britain’s first black queen. {snip}


Nonetheless, the idea that Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was black has proved tenacious. It was brought to widespread attention by the historian Mario de Valdes y Cocom; his argument rests partly on historical portraits, including Sir Allan Ramsay’s famous depiction, which show her with stereotypically African features.

But the critic and historian Lisa Hilton has pointed out that this portrait is far from conclusive.

“The Ramsay portrait shows a reddish-haired woman with blue-grey eyes, a large nose, heavy chin and full lips,” she says. “Such features were considered unattractive according to the standards of beauty of the age and since royal portraiture is not known for its harsh realism, these features may certainly have been softened by other painters, without any necessary disguising of the colour of Charlotte’s skin.”

She also notes: “None of the other considerable body of portraiture, for example works by Zoffany and Gainsborough, is suggestive of ‘mulatto’ blood. It seems unlikely that in an age when cartoonists depicted the royal family in the most scurrilous of situations (having sex, defecating), there should be no other visual reference to what, after all, would have been a fairly startling feature.”

Cocom untangles a cat’s cradle of bloodlines to argue for Charlotte’s African heritage. Though the queen was German, he claims she was directly descended from a black branch of the Portugese royal family. This ‘black’ inheritance can be traced back to the 13-century ruler Alfonso III and his lover Madragana, who was a Moor and thus – by Cocom’s reckoning – black.

“Moor”, though, was not synonymous with African descent. In fact, argues Hilton, it was “a general term for the inhabitants of the Moorish empire in North Africa and Spain. Moreover, the 500 years between Mandragana and Charlotte would suggest any African bloodline would have been significantly diluted.”

Cocom marshalls two further pieces of evidence. The first is that Queen Charlotte’s physician, Baron Stockmar, described her at birth as having “a true mulatto face”. But Stockmar’s eyewitness statement becomes less convincing when it’s recalled that he was born in 1787 – 43 years after Queen Charlotte was born in May 1744.

Second, Cocom cites a poem composed for her wedding to George III and his coronation:

Descended from the warlike Vandal race,She still preserves that title in her face.Tho’ shone their triumphs o’er Numidia’s plain,And Andalusian fields their name retain;They but subdued the southern world with arms,She conquers still with her triumphant charms,O! born for rule, — to whose victorious browThe greatest monarch of the north must bow.

The Vandals were a conquering tribe, though; their presence on “Numidia’s plain” speaks to itchy-footed expansionism, not native African descent. {snip}