With her withering looks and colossal wigs, Queen Charlotte has become a beloved character in the first two seasons of Bridgerton, the torrid Netflix hit series set in an alternate, racially diverse take on Regency-era Britain. Played by Golda Rosheuvel, she’s a hard-line matriarch with an ear for gossip and an eye for beauty.
Now she is the subject of her own six-part Netflix prequel series, Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, which tells the story of young Charlotte (India Amarteifio) as she begins her rise to power. Viewers witness her tumultuous marriage to King George III, meet her delinquent children, and better understand their motivations and loneliness. Of course, they also get numerous insights into the royal bedchamber.
“‘The love of Queen Charlotte and King George united the nation’ — that’s a line in ‘Bridgerton,’ and for me it told a whole world,” said Shonda Rhimes, the series’ creator, in a phone interview last week . “We tell the story of how their love united the world in tiny ways.”
In keeping with the franchise’s overall approach to cast diversity, the “Bridgerton” Charlotte is also portrayed as having African and European descent – although in her case the decision was based in part on speculation by some historians that the real Charlotte was biracial, a subject of much debate .
But what do we know about historic Charlotte? What are the terms of the debate? And is that debate irrelevant to what Rhimes himself describes as a fantasy story? We spoke to Rhimes and several historians about the series, which has been Netflix’s most-watched series worldwide since its debut last week.
Who was Charlotte?
The basic facts of Charlotte’s life are well documented: The real Princess Sophie Charlotte was born in 1744 in Mecklenburg-Strelitz, now part of Germany. At the age of 17 she married King George III, six hours after arriving in London. The couple had their first child, George IV, in 1762, followed by 14 more children.
The first 25 years of their life together seem to have been happy and pleasant. Together they attended plays, put on concerts and in 1764 invited a young Mozart to perform for them. In 1788 King George III suffered. a severe bout of mental illness and his manic, violent behavior worsened over time. In 1811 his son George IV took over the management duties as prince regent. George III was often kept in isolation and he and Charlotte increasingly led separate lives. She died in 1818; George III died two years later.
The prequel remains largely true to these details. As with others, the series demands an uncompromising creative license – indeed, this license is central to its premise.
From the beginning of the “Bridgerton” series, Rhimes and her team have embraced the idea held by some historians that Charlotte was a woman of mixed ancestry, a descendant of a Black branch of the Portuguese royal family. Many other historians disagree with this theory. But in developing the new series, Rhimes was less concerned with the debate than with staying true to the world she had already created: a fictional story with historical elements, in which a black Queen Charlotte, richly adorned in jewels and corseted robes, reigns valiantly while tending to the king.
“It was being allowed to really dream about telling the character’s story that intrigued me the most, and that was an easy starting point for me,” said Rhimes. “It’s not a history lesson. It really is the story of Queen Charlotte as we know her from Bridgerton.”
Why the controversy?
The idea that historical Charlotte might have been biracial via a black branch of the Portuguese royal line was prominently put forward by historian Mario de Valdes y Cocom in 1997 for PBS Frontline. But many historians have denied this claim or argued that any potential African heritage had been so removed as to be virtually untraceable.
Rhimes said she had no opinion on Queen Charlotte’s true legacy, although she found it “interesting how vehemently people have to say she’s not a person of color.” Arianne Chernock, a professor at Boston University who said specializing in British and European history, argued that questions about Charlotte’s potential blackness miss the point that being British, regardless of skin color, is not a fixed thing.
“We know Queen Charlotte had Portuguese ancestry,” Chernock said. “She was a German princess, a duke’s daughter,” she continued, noting, “When Charlotte arrived in Britain in 1761, she spoke no English.”
“In order to ingrain this multicultural past in the family, people have to think about what Britons are,” she added.
Nonetheless, the prequel also drew other criticisms for its handling of the race, particularly for showing the enslaved people of the British colonies during the reign of George III. does not recognize. the pinnacle of Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.
Brooke Newman, a history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies the British royal family, noted that Britain was the main trader for enslaved people in the mid to late 18th century. Newman, believing the queen was not black, reiterated other critics who say the show is effectively helping to whitewash British racism.
“She benefited from the expansion of slavery and empire,” Newman said of the historical Charlotte, “so I think rehabilitating her into a more sympathetic, historical figure is extremely problematic.”
Rhimes noted that the prequel does not ignore race. White characters comment on Charlotte’s “very brown” skin and she experiences racial microaggressions. In an early scene, Charlotte’s teeth and physique are examined by the king’s mother, Princess Augusta.
“It felt like someone was being sold,” Rhimes said.
A “great experiment”
Rhimes said her vision of Charlotte was driven by her desire to offer viewers new images of powerful, autonomous Black women on screen.
“Even in historical drama, it was necessary for me to really portray the strength and elegance of these black women,” Rhimes said.
She was also more interested in creatively fleshing out the early beginnings of her multicultural kingdom – as in her invention of the “Great experiment“, a government order redistributing titles to non-white aristocrats – rather than just focusing on an interracial couple.
As fictional as the Great Experiment is, the importance of black figures in London society at the time is rooted in historical fact. For her role as historical advisor on the series, Polly Putnam wrote historical accounts of Queen Charlotte, King George III and what black life was like in 18th-century London. Some became hired servants, abolitionists, successful businessmen, and even aristocrats.
“We have this quite interesting group of people, but we know a lot of black London activists have been,” Putnam said. “Many of them were involved in the abolition of slavery. From there things really took off in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.”
These facts helped Rhimes create the kind of Charlotte she envisioned – a young black woman who could be as powerful as any character she would create.
“People always say, ‘You write smart, strong women,’ but I don’t know any stupid, weak women,” Rhimes said. “So I don’t write them. I am writing the kind of woman I know and am surrounded by.”