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In 'Bridgerton,' Shonda Rhimes explores royalty and race

In 'Bridgerton,' Shonda Rhimes explores royalty and race

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In “Bridgerton,” the new Shonda Rhimes period drama on Netflix, the lords and ladies of early 19th-century Britain are depicted as Black as well as white.

Why? Washington Post television critic Hank Stuever explains it this way: “A Black character stops to explain, grandly, how and why this society came to be integrated. (Answer: because the queen is a person of color.) Not only does it not make much sense, but it seems like an unnecessary wrench thrown into a completely sensible and revisionary romp: People of color are here because they should have been here all along. Isn’t that reason enough?”

Excellent point. But the queen in question is Charlotte, who married King George III (yes, that King George) six hours after arriving in London and meeting him for the first time on Sept. 8, 1761. And some historians do believe she was Britain’s first Black queen, and that her descendants, including Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II, have African ancestry.

Charlotte, who was born May 19, 1744, was the youngest daughter of Duke Carl Ludwig Friedrich of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and Princess Elisabeth Albertine of Saxe-Hildburghausen.

She was a 17-year-old German princess when she traveled to England to wed George, who later went to war with his American colonies and lost badly.

Historian Mario De Valdes y Cocom argues that Charlotte was directly descended from a Black branch of the Portuguese royal family: Alfonso III and his concubine, Ouruana, a Black Moor.

In the 13th century, “Alfonso III of Portugal conquered a little town named Faro from the Moors,” Valdes, a researcher on the 1996 Frontline PBS documentary “Secret Daughter,” told The Washington Post in 2018. “He demanded (the governor’s) daughter as a paramour. He had three children with her.”

According to Valdes, one of their sons, Martin Alfonso, married into the noble de Sousa family, which also had Black ancestry. And, thus, Charlotte had African blood from both families.

Valdes, who grew up in Belize, began researching Charlotte’s African ancestry in 1967, after he moved to Boston.

He discovered that the royal physician, Baron Christian Friedrich Stockmar, had described Charlotte as “small and crooked, with a true mulatto face.” He also found other descriptions, including Sir Walter Scott writing that she was “ill-colored.” And a prime minister who once wrote of Queen Charlotte: “Her nose is too wide and her lips too thick.”

In several British colonies, Charlotte was often honored by Blacks who were convinced from her portraits and likeness on coins that she had African ancestry.

Valdes became fascinated by official portraits of Charlotte in which some of her features, he said, were visibly African.

“I started a systematic genealogical search,” said Valdes, which is how he traced her ancestry back to the mixed-race branch of the Portuguese royal family.

In a portrait by Sir Allan Ramsay, Charlotte is featured wearing a pink silk gown and holding two children. Her dark brown hair is piled high.

Ramsay, Valdes said, was an abolitionist married to the niece of Lord Mansfield, the judge who ruled in 1772 that slavery should be abolished in the British Empire.

In 1999, the London Sunday Times published an article with the headline: “REVEALED: THE QUEEN’S BLACK ANCESTORS.”

“The connection had been rumored but never proved,” the Times wrote. “The royal family has hidden credentials that make its members appropriate leaders of Britain’s multicultural society. It has black and mixed-raced royal ancestors who have never been publicly acknowledged. An American genealogist has established that Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, was directly descended from the illegitimate son of an African mistress in the Portuguese royal house.”

After the Times story, the Boston Globe hailed Valdes’s research as groundbreaking. Charlotte passed on her mixed-race heritage to her granddaughter, Queen Victoria, and to Britain’s present-day monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.

Some scholars in England dismissed the evidence as weak — and beside the point.

“It really is so remote,” the David Williamson, former co-editor of Debrett’s Peerage, the guide to Britain’s barons, dukes and duchesses, marquises and other titled people, told the Globe. “In any case, all European royal families somewhere are linked to the kings of Castile. There is a lot of Moorish blood in the Portuguese royal family and it has diffused over the rest of Europe. The question is, who cares?”

Charlotte’s ancestry became the subject of public fascination when Britain’s Prince Harry married American actress Meghan Markle, whose mother is Black and whose father is white. Some people hailed her as Britain’s first mixed-race royal, prompting a re-examination of Queen Charlotte’s heritage.

Now “Bridgerton” and Rhimes are doing it again.

So who was Queen Charlotte? She spoke no English when she arrived in London after a difficult journey by sea.

The teenaged princess was introduced to the 22-year-old king and “threw herself at his feet,” according to the book “A Royal Experiment: The Private Life of King George III” by Janice Hadlow. The two were married just six hours later.

On Aug. 12, 1762, she gave birth to the couple’s first child, the future King George IV, according to Buckingham Palace. Fourteen more children followed.

The royal couple’s official residence was St. James Palace. “But the King had recently purchased a nearby property, Buckingham House,” according to the Royal Encyclopaedia. “In 1762 The King and Queen moved into this new house, making it Buckingham Palace. Charlotte loved it — 14 of her children were born there, and it came to be known as ‘The Queen’s House.’”

Charlotte was an amateur botanist and a connoisseur of music. She especially liked German composers, including Handel. But her long marriage had an unhappy ending when the king began to suffer bouts of mental illness.

“After the onset of George III’s permanent madness in 1811,” according to Buckingham Palace, “The Prince of Wales became Regent, but Charlotte remained her husband’s guardian until her death in 1818.”

This story is adapted from earlier Washington Post reporting on Queen Charlotte.

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