The Real History of Queen Charlotte, and the Problem With Netflix’s Bridgerton Spinoff
The first time I heard someone call Charlotte, Queen Consort to King George III, the “first Black queen of England,” I thought they were taking the piss. But even though the evidence for Charlotte’s Black heritage is weak, many do genuinely believe it. And now, millions more will believe it too.
The premiere of Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, a Shondaland production based on the romance novels by Julia Quinn, tries to cement the public image of the monarch as an undeniably Black woman. The prequel series gives Queen Charlotte (India Amarteifio in youth and Golda Rosheuvel in her later years) the spotlight. Here, she is a Black teenager whose interracial marriage to the mentally ill King George III (Corey Mylchreest in youth; James Fleet as the older version) led to an event called “the Great Experiment.” In Queen Charlotte and the original Bridgerton series, the Great Experiment refers to Britain’s (clearly fictional) decision to fully integrate Black people and other people of color into their society, including the noble class. In Queen Charlotte, the stakes of the Great Experiment are most vocally echoed by Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh in her later years and Arsema Thomas as a young woman), who is revealed to be African royalty with wealth that exceeds that of most of the British nobles but has to fight to be accepted among British nobility.
Most people know this didn’t happen. It’s common sense that Black people were not accepted into all levels of British society in the 18th and 19th centuries. And, if Meghan Markle’s experiences as part of the royal family are any indication, they’re not accepted among British nobility now. Although people widely understand this element of the story is fantastical, many do consider the real Queen Charlotte to be Black. And Netflix and Shondaland are fanning that flame. Netflix even threw a royalty-themed event with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to celebrate the premiere. The messages Queen Charlotte sends about the politics of wealth, interracial relationships, representational politics, and empire are dangerous. At the core of its danger is the choice to double down on the likely false idea that Queen Charlotte was Black.
The weak evidence for Queen Charlotte’s Blackness
Although Charlotte and George did not have an interracial relationship that changed the course of history, there was public debate about Charlotte’s appearance. Some accounts and portraits of her suggested that she had fair skin and “European” features, others showed her having slightly darker skin and “African” features. She was also often called ugly and plain. In A Tale of Two Cities, referring to George and Charlotte, Charles Dickens wrote: “There was a king with a large jaw, and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England.” Her physician reportedly described her as “small and crooked, with a true mulatto face.” Sir Walter Scott wrote that she was “ill-colored.” A prime minister once said: “Her nose is too wide and her lips too thick.”
The show reconstructs the vague reports of her appearance into Charlotte experiencing both racism and ties of kinship with other Black people; King George III’s mother Princess Augusta (Michelle Fairley) complains about Charlotte’s skin being “very brown” and a minister meekly replies, “I told you she had Moor blood.” Her brother admits that no one who “looked like” them had ever married into the British royal family (even though Charlotte and George in real life were related), wedding guests murmur in shock at Charlotte’s jewel-encrusted Afro, and Lady Danbury has a wide-eyed look of joy upon seeing the new Queen is “on our side.”
Portrait of Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, later Queen Charlotte, from 1762.
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Even though Queen Charlotte’s contemporaries made it clear that they thought her face didn’t meet their beauty standards, there are almost no records of anyone explicitly saying that Charlotte, born into the royal family of the northern German duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, had Black parents, Black siblings, Black cousins, or Black ancestors on either side. In 1997, historian Mario de Valdes y Cocom claimed his research showed she was descended from the “illegitimate son of King Alfonso I of Portugal and his Moorish mistress [Madragana].”
However, King Alphonso I was born in 1109 or 1111, and Queen Charlotte was born in 1744. That’s more than 600 years of distance between Queen Charlotte and her rumored African ancestor Madragana — who cannot conclusively be proven to be Black or related to Queen Charlotte, as art historian Amanda Matta explains on her podcast, Art of History. Some amount of inbreeding might account for these features to endure for a few generations, but not enough to be significant. And with King George III and Charlotte sharing close ancestors, it’s poor logic because it would mean that swaths of British and European royalty, including Prince Harry and Mary, Queen of Scots, would now have to also be considered Black. Are we prepared to say that Charles, who will be crowned King on May 6, is also Black? Should we say that any royal with full lips or wide nostrils is presenting evidence of Madrigana’s endlessly enduring genes? It sounds ridiculous, but that’s the road that race science and faulty genealogical methods lead us down.
Also, while both Madragana and Queen Charlotte were called “Moors,” the word had a vast range of meanings. Originally, it meant the Muslim inhabitants of the Maghreb, the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, and Malta during the Middle Ages. But it also meant someone with darker skin, sometimes referring to people who would be considered Black today and sometimes referring to people who would be considered European, Middle Eastern, South Asian, or Latinx today. Steven Pincus, historian of the Global British Empire and professor of history at the University of Chicago, tells Vox that the term “Moor” as a static racial or ethnic category “is subject to much dispute,” adding that Sephardic Jews were sometimes also called Moors.
Even though the real Charlotte was, at best, ludicrously removed from Blackness, Queen Charlotte leans heavily into representational politics while still making egregious errors of substance. It’s especially hard to feel good about shallow representation when we spend three episodes watching Lady Danbury be raped by the husband she was forced to marry as a child, sometimes multiple times in a single episode. This means that the only characters to have been raped in Netflix’s Bridgerton universe are both Black.
For some Black women, this all makes the series feel emotionally manipulative. “Shonda [Rhimes] is probably playing very heavily into the correlation between what’s currently happening with Harry and Meghan Markle, and what she would like us to envision was happening back then, even though it’s not historical,” says April Morris, editorial director of Off Colour magazine.
What it means — and meant — to force a narrative of Blackness onto Queen Charlotte
So, if Charlotte most likely wasn’t Black, why did the theory become so popular? The rapid expansion of the slave trade in the late 17th century through to the end of the 18th century plays a role. Pincus says of this time period, “Slavery became a much more prominent feature of the British empire. It was also increasingly the source of unbelievable accumulation of wealth.”
Slavery is notably absent from the world of Bridgerton, although vague mentions of “the colonies” are peppered in so quickly that you’d likely miss it. In the Bridgerton universe, none of the Black people are concerned about human or civil rights. Rather, they want to host balls and be invited to hunts. They want to marry white people without sassy comments from the ton and be given noble titles and more land. They don’t even want money — they just want the opportunity to be treated like the monied people they already are. For Morris, these questions of wealth and assimilation are part of “parallels that [Shonda Rhimes] is trying to draw for the Black upper-middle class of today.” Pincus, although he says he enjoys the show as a relaxing watch, points out that “it is clearly a show which is targeted to the wealthy.”
This is perhaps the most salient and cohesive political framework undergirding the Bridgerton universe: the love of money. And the love of money is also what defined the British Empire’s relationship to Black people. By the time Queen Charlotte became consort, the British Empire was struggling with slave revolts in all its colonies, and economic concerns (which outweighed the moral arguments) pushed more people to become interested in ending the slave trade. The heightened discussion of slavery, slave rebellions, and abolition fueled debate about Queen Charlotte. “In the time period in which she was Queen, there was increasing concern regarding abolitionism,” Harris explains. “And one of her portrait painters [Allan Ramsay] was a noted abolitionist who may well have been interested in exploring these ideas that she had African ancestry within the context of discussing and debating slavery.”
Couples, inspired by Charlotte and Charles, dance together at a ball.
When Lady Danbury finally wins her battle to host the ball of the season, it takes a while for the crowd to thaw, with white people on one side and Black members on the other. Then, after seeing Charlotte and George dance, more and more interracial dancing pairs join the floor, to the tune of Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You” on the violin. After the ball, George and Charlotte are in her bedroom and George declares in wonder, “With one evening, one party, we have created more change, stepped forward more, than Britain has in the last century,” adding that with Charlotte by his side, he can do anything. And of course, in the original Bridgerton show, interracial marriages are now so commonplace due to George and Charlotte’s example that no one even considers race or ethnicity something worth mentioning.
Again, even though the series is obviously ahistorical, these messages we receive matter; they stick with us. Viewers may logically know that this scenario didn’t occur, but it functions as a nod toward an incredibly deep-seated belief, one that says Britain and King George III ended slavery out of moral concerns and altruism. When really, it was the resistance of slaves and colonized people that led to abolition and the withdrawal of British troops from the colonies.
According to Gerald Horne, professor of history and African-American Studies at the University of Houston, slave rebellions were rising during the Georgian and Regency eras, which had a tremendous impact on Britain finally ending slavery in 1834. “The Haitian Revolution was decisive in abolition’s fortunes ... London felt they could either move to circumscribe the slave trade in 1807, three years after Haiti’s triumph, or ... [run] the risk of having enslavers liquidated physically. Wisely, they sought the option of delimiting the slave trade, then abolition by the 1830s.”
This is a rich and complicated history. Reducing it to “interracial love saved the world,” even for a romance, feels cheap and intellectually bankrupt. It’s necessary to point out that Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton novels — save the one she questionably decided to write about Queen Charlotte post-Netflix series — feature white people only. During a panel, Quinn once said she only wanted to write happy stories and chose not to have Black characters because their “unhappy” stories weren’t the kinds she wanted to tell. Given that she and other writers on the show evidently couldn’t tell Lady Danbury’s story without a shocking amount of marital rape proves perhaps she should have steered clear.
To not want to write about racism is not a morally depraved stance or even an illogical one. To not write about people with identities you can’t relate to is perhaps a wise choice. But to refuse to write Black characters for most of your career because you can’t imagine them happy, and then rake in momentous amounts of money by emotionally manipulating Black people with shallow representation years later does feel morally bankrupt. If Netflix and Shondaland wanted to portray Black people being happy during the Regency era, Beverly Jenkins is just one example of an author of steamy, loving Black romances set in the 17th-20th centuries. Why do studios not invest in developing her stories for the screen?
The answer is clear, if depressing. Queen Charlotte was never about representation for Black people or telling Black stories. It was about money, and about reifying empire and wealth, and placating Black people by claiming that we too can have a place among the most powerful. To recast a queen who — whether she was sympathetic toward enslaved people or not — presided over a vast empire and lived a life built on genocidal labor as a Black woman fighting for her people is a coherent and abhorrent neoliberal political statement. It seeks, above all, to protect the institution.
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