Netflix’s new period drama Bridgerton gives us a Queen Charlotte who is petulant, imperious, funny, bossy, gossipy, well-dressed, bewigged, fond of Pomeranians – oh, and she’s Black. As are quite a lot of characters in this version of Regency London.
But as Nicola Coughlan recently tweeted: “If you’re seeing Bridgerton and thinking it’s anachronistic because it’s brilliantly diverse and in glorious technicolour – you are correct. We are serving you *Fantasy* Regency London. Bright, Bold, & Beautiful.”
That said, the idea of reimagining the real-life historical figure of Queen Charlotte as a Black queen didn’t come from nowhere. Here’s what you need to know:
Who was Queen Charlotte?
Queen Charlotte was born in a castle in the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (in present-day Germany) as the daughter of a Duke and a Princess. In 1761, the newly-crowned 22-year-old King George III decided that 17-year-old Charlotte would make a suitable wife.
She was conveyed off to London, where the marriage took place on the day of her arrival at St James’s palace. (This was also the first time the bride and groom had ever met.) At the time she spoke no English – but she quickly learned the language of her new home.
Less than a year later, Charlotte gave birth to her first child: the future King George IV. In all, the couple had 15 children together, 13 of whom survived into adulthood. However, their last child, Princess Amelia (aka “Emily”), tragically died aged 27.
The couple appeared to have enjoyed a reasonably close and loving relationship. But then George III began to suffer from distressing bouts of mental illness (which led to delusions and mania). This led to plenty of intrigue about whether the Queen or her eldest son would serve as Regent if the King became mentally unfit to rule, and it was a time of great uncertainty.
It also led to personal distress for the Queen. As her husband’s condition became more severe, it strained their marriage. From 1804 she slept separately, ate separately, and avoided seeing him alone – and after Emily’s death in 1810 he slipped further into so-called “insanity”, to the point where his eldest son George was named Prince Regent and ruled in his place.
Queen Charlotte died in 1818, and just over a year later her husband followed her to the grave.
Her personality in Bridgerton has very little to do with her personality in real life, as Golda Rosheuvel explains: “Yes, she is Queen Charlotte but she is Queen Charlotte in the world of Bridgerton. She is a creation of creator/showrunner Chris Van Dusen’s making… wealthy, dirty rich, addicted to snuff, devoted to her family, loves gossip and she is divinely in love with her husband who is slowly going mad.”
Was Queen Charlotte actually Black?
She almost certainly wasn’t considered Black or mixed-race at the time. But it since has been suggested that Queen Charlotte did have Black African ancestry in her family, and the creators of Bridgerton have built on this idea – by making the King’s wife a self-evidently Black woman.
Netflix tells us: “Queen Charlotte, played by Golda Rosheuvel, is widely regarded to be the first mixed-race member of the British Royal family. She descended from Margarita de Castro y Sousa, a Black branch of the Portuguese Royal House.”
And Adjoa Andoh, who stars as Lady Danbury, adds: “Queen Charlotte, as some people know and some people may not know, was the descendent of Afonso III of Portugal and his African mistress, so she was mixed race. It’s very nice to see some of that history woven in.”
The idea that Queen Charlotte is “widely regarded” as mixed-race is a bit of a stretch, but it does have some basis in fact – and it is a discussion amongst historians.
The historian Mario de Valdes y Cocom has argued that Charlotte’s ancestry can be traced back to 13th century ruler Alfonso III and his lover Madragana, who may have been a Moor (and therefore a black African). This connection to Madragana comes via Charlotte’s 15th century ancestor Margarita de Castro e Souza, a member of the Portuguese nobility, who – some assert – may have been Black.
The historian also contends that Queen Charlotte has visibly “African features” in contemporary portraits. However, this idea is also disputed, and is mired in stereotypes and racial assumptions.
Other historians have pointed out that the evidence that either Madragana or Margarita was Black is pretty thin. Madragana was recorded as a Moor by one Portuguese royal chronicler, but that claim was disputed by another; it has also been suggested that she was a “Mozarab”, a group with its own ethnic and cultural history in Europe.
And then, even if Queen Charlotte did have one Black ancestor five centuries (15 generations) ago, some have questioned whether she would accurately be described as mixed-race.
Why does Bridgerton fictionalize Queen Charlotte as a Black Queen?
Well, why not? It’s a creative choice.
As Golda Rosheuvel herself says, “This is really a period drama like you’ve never seen before because it sits itself right in the twenty-first century. I can grab hold of it, be engaged with it and how it relates to me. I think that having a Black Queen is really interesting and joyous and celebrates the modern world as well.”
Adjoa Andoh adds: “My reaction to the scripts was ‘hooray’ and ‘about time’. I think that’s particular for actors of colour because we’ve been in the history of this country since before Roman times, in all strata of society.”
And as showrunner Chris Van Dusen puts it, “Bridgerton isn’t a history lesson.”
He says: “Our show is for a modern audience, featuring modern themes and characters, so we took liberties in our re-imagining. Our take on race in the series is an example of how we mixed history within a fictional world.
“Having started my career on Grey’s Anatomy and knowing Shondaland has always cast its series in a way that reflects the world we live in, we felt from the beginning we’d have that similar opportunity with our casting here. Bridgerton is not a colourblind world. That would imply race isn’t considered.
“Race is considered, and there are many historians who believe that Queen Charlotte was England’s first mixed-race queen. That theory resonated with us hugely. What if Queen Charlotte was recognised as being of mixed-race in 1813? What would that look like? What would happen? What if this Queen of England used her power to elevate other people of colour in that society? And that’s where the fictional part came in.”
And producer Shonda Rhimes adds: “Chris took the sense of the world at the time, but allowed it to be as fictional as he needed it to be. There weren’t really Bridgertons back then, so it wasn’t like this was a docudrama. It allowed Chris to create the world that he wanted to live in. He took one possible fact, which was that Queen Charlotte was a woman of colour, he extrapolated it, and built a world from there in terms of how society ran.”
By Eleanor Bley Griffiths