Charlotte, NC, was named for the queen consort of George III, Sophia Charlotte (name meaning wise woman?) of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, [1744- 1818]. She came to wed George from Germany at age 17, had 15 children (Victoria has only 9), 13 of which lived to adulthood. She was the grandmother of Victoria, and the 4xgreat grandmother of Elizabeth II—sometimes known as the grandmother of Europe.
I went to high school at East Mecklenburg, in Charlotte, and visited the Mint Museum where there is a huge portrait of Queen Charlotte. There’s also a sculpture of her and then the “blown away” sculpture at the CLT airport. I got very little European history, especially after 1620 CE, so I knew very little about Charlotte’s life, her children, or the incipient Industrial Revolution which began during her life in England. Below are some facts about her and a question about her ancestry: was she Black?
When George III came to the throne unmarried at the age of 22, it was decided that he needed to find a bride. Several women were suggested but Charlotte was finally decided on because of her intelligence, attractive figure and good nature. She was brought to England and met George on 7th September 1761 and the next day they were married in the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace.
Charlotte took a deep interest in women’s affairs, founding many orphanages and hospitals for pregnant women. She had her own daughters unusually well-educated for the time. However, she was also responsible for the restricted lives that her daughters led. She refused to let them out unsupervised and they were not allowed to marry until after her death, when they were all quite old, and as such, none of them had legitimate children.
Charlotte has an interest in botany, and developed this at Kew Palace, where there were vast grounds. Charlotte was also friends with Marie Antoinette, sharing many interests and keeping up a close correspondence, although they never met. They even traded letters about the political situation in France and Charlotte had apartments created for the French Royal family, in case they managed to escape. After the French Revolution and the execution of Marie Antoinette and the French Nobility, Charlotte was shocked and upset that such a thing could happen.
Charlotte faced tragedy in her marriage. Her youngest daughter, Amelia, died aged only 27. This death greatly affected the family, particularly George. In later life, George suffered bouts of madness, and Amelia’s death is thought to have added to the start of this illness. George was placed in Charlotte’s care during his illness, however she could not often visit him, as his unbalanced behavior and violent bouts upset her. George’s condition got worse with age and the bouts of madness lasted longer. Charlotte continued to be her husband’s legal guardian for the rest of her life.
Charlotte died on 17th November 1818. Her eldest son, the future George IV and current Prince Regent, was at her bedside when she died. It is unlikely that her husband ever knew of her death, as he died 14 months after her and was blind, deaf and still insane at this time.
Mario de Valdes y Cocom, historian of the African diaspora, argues that Charlotte’s features, as seen in royal portraits, were conspicuously African, and contends that they were noted by numerous contemporaries. Charles Dickens called her “plain” in a Tale of Two Cities, and others were less kind. He claims that the queen, though German, was directly descended from a black branch of the Portuguese royal family, related to Margarita de Castro e Souza, a 15th-century Portuguese noblewoman nine generations removed, whose ancestry she traces from the 13th-century ruler Alfonso III and his lover Madragana, whom Valdes takes to have been a Moor and thus a black African.
It is a great “what if” of history. “If she was black,” says the historian Kate Williams, “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. If we class Charlotte as black, then ergo Queen Victoria and our entire royal family, [down] to Prince Harry, are also black … a very interesting concept.”
That said, Williams and many other historians are very sceptical about Valdes’s theory. They argue the generational distance between Charlotte and her presumed African forebear is so great as to make the suggestion ridiculous. Furthermore, they say even the evidence that Madragana was black is thin.
But Valdes suggests that the way Queen Charlotte is depicted in Ramsay’s 1762 portrait – which US artist Ken Aptekar is now using as the starting point for a new art project called Charlotte’s Charlotte – supports the view she had African ancestors.
Valdes’s suggestion is that Ramsay was an anti-slavery campaigner who would not have suppressed any “African characteristics” but perhaps might have stressed them for political reasons. “I can’t see it to be honest,” says Shawe-Taylor. “We’ve got a version of the same portrait. I look at it pretty often and it’s never occurred to me that she’s got African features of any kind. It sounds like the ancestry is there and it’s not impossible it was reflected in her features, but I can’t see it.”
Is it possible that other portraitists of Queen Charlotte might have soft-pedalled her African features? “That makes much more sense. It’s quite possible. The thing about Ramsay is that, unlike Reynolds and Gainsborough, who were quite imprecise in their portraits, he was a very accurate depicter of his subjects, so that if she looked slightly more African in his portraits than others, that might be because she was more well-depicted.”
So there’s another mystery about a royal family. I guess DNA samples from the current royal family are out of the question, and I doubt there are remains to be tested. After all, if you go back far enough, aren’t we all descended from Lucy?