Was Queen Charlotte Great Britain’s First Multiracial Royal?

In Netflix’s Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, the young version of the eponymous Queen is played by mixed-race actor India Ria Amarteifio. While the Shonda Rhimes series is known for its color-blind casting, in Queen Charlotte, the character’s ethnicity is very much of the plot. “I did say she had Moor blood, ma’am,” a courtier tells Princess Augusta, the mother of Charlotte's husband-to-be King George III, who expresses concerns about her skin tone. (The term “Moor” was initially used in the medieval period to describe a variety of North African groups, later becoming an amorphous term for non-white inhabitants of Europe that does not reflect any specific ethnicity.) It’s the first time a person of color, the viewer learns, has held such a high position in the royal court. The fate of Charlotte, and the fate of the ’Ton, are inexplicably intertwined as a new multicultural order emerges.

Queen Charlotte is, yes, very much a television drama. (“This is the story of Queen Charlotte from Bridgerton,” reads the opening credits of the show. “It is not a history lesson. It is fiction, inspired by fact. All liberties taken by the author are quite intentional. Enjoy.”) However, Rhimes does take inspiration from a theory pertaining to the real-life Queen Charlotte, who was married to King George III from 1761 to 1818.

Nearly 25 years ago, Mario de Valdes y Cocom, a genealogist from Boston, traced Charlotte’s ancestry back to the fifth King of Portugal, who had a child with his “Moorish” mistress, Madragana, in 1249. Due to royal inbreeding, said de Valdes y Cocom, the physical characteristics associated with Madragana’s ethnicity stayed within the family’s gene pool. “Although she is chronologically distant from Afonso III and his mistress, there is a surprising genealogical proximity between the two women, and six lines of descent can be traced between them,” he told The Sunday Times in 1999. “What also contributed to the perceptibility of her African heritage was the highly inbred pattern of princely German marriage alliances.” 

De Valdes y Cocom backed up his research with a historical portrait of the Queen by the 18th-century artist Allan Ramsay, which he believed illustrated her multiracial background. (At the time, a Buckingham Palace spokesperson said they weren’t able to comment with certainty on Queen Charlotte’s bloodline: “This has been rumored for years and years. It is a matter of history, and frankly, we’ve got far more important things to talk about.”) De Valdes y Cocom also discussed the matter with Frontline.

A number of historians hold skepticism about de Valdes y Cocom’s theory, saying that the centuries-long generational difference makes such a definitive heritage unlikely. And, since no one has been able to test Queen Charlotte’s DNA, it is impossible to prove. Historian Kate Williams told The Guardian in 2009 she has doubts about the claim. However, “if she was Black,” Williams said, “this raises a lot of important suggestions about not only our royal family but those of most of Europe, considering that Queen Victoria’s descendants are spread across most of the royal families of Europe and beyond.”

While the world will likely never know for sure, the fact that the very question exists does suggest that the royal family might be far less homogeneous than believed. Such an idea intrigued the creative team behind Queen Charlotte: “Many historians believe that Queen Charlotte was of mixed cultural heritage,” executive producer and director Tom Verica said. “We wanted to take that in a different direction than what the history books have said happened—which was basically to bury that and not deal with it. We wanted to shine a light on that element.”

Originally Appeared on Vogue

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