Month: November 2013

The (not) Black Queen

Many people have been asking me if Queen Charlotte was black – or telling me that she certainly was. Wouldn’t that be an amazing piece of history? It would also be fascinating, from my perspective, to write a book about a queen who secretly concealed the colour of her skin. But sadly, the I have to say that most of my research seems to prove that popular theory is largely unfounded. Here is a list of the reasons that I believe we are still waiting for England’s first black queen.

A good starting place is this Guardian article from 2009. As it explains, there’s a historian called Mario de Valdes y Cocom who claims Charlotte was 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. Although it has some flaws, I support this theory that there were African roots in Charlotte’s blood. Her features, more prominent in her youth, do suggest an African ancestry somewhere along the line. Most of us have a rich and mixed heritage in our blood, and that’s one of the many reasons racism and xenophobia are so ridiculous.

While Valdes’ ideas give me no problems, I cannot find evidence to support the other theory: that Charlotte was an illegitimate child, whose father was black, and thus earned the eighteenth-century term “mulatto”. Going by the standards of the day, it is hugely unlikely that Charlotte’s mother, in a prominent position, would be unfaithful with a servant – even less likely that her cuckholded father would agree to take on and raise such a child as his own. But moreover, I think the marriage of King George III to the illegitimate princess would have caused huge panic in the family . Obviously, it would depend on how dark Charlotte’s skin actually was, but surely the family would have been horrified at the chance of their secret being revealed? Why would they agree to give Charlotte in marriage and not push for her elder, unmarried sister to wed the King in order to save the family name?

Even supposing all these hurdles could be overcome, there’s George himself. While certainly a sympathetic and kind man, I can’t imagine him agreeing to cover up such a secret for Charlotte. He was disappointed with her looks at first, and discovery of illegitimacy would have been a great excuse to get rid of her. Moreover, neither George nor Charlotte would have been able to hide the truth from the servants. Gossip would have spread far and wide. George’s mother Augusta would have found out – and, I verily believe, sent Charlotte packing. But in fact, there were no contemporary speculations about the Queen’s ethnicity. At a time when the royal family hovered on the brink of revolution and came in for a good deal of battering and satire in caricatures, who would let the suspicion that the Queen was half black slide? The observation that she had ” a true mulatto face” referred to in the article wasn’t followed by any questions about her ancestry. It seems the horrible person was using the term as an insult.

If Charlotte was mixed race, it seems strange that it didn’t rub off on the children. The majority of Charlotte’s fifteen offspring were blonde-haired, blue-eyed dolls with porcelain skin. I’m not sure this would be the case if she was half black. It is genetically possible, of course, but what are the chances it would happen like this fifteen times? On the topic of children, I also have to highlight Charlotte’s son, William, who spoke out loudly in favour of the slave trade? Would he really do such a thing with a mulatto mother?

An interesting possibility we can list for the sake of thoroughness is that Charlotte was an albino mulatto. I found this very interesting article with some beautiful pictures. But it’s a stretch for me to believe that, as well as the unlikely illegitimate conception and cover up, Charlotte had a rare genetic condition. Anything is possible, but some things are not probable.

If Charlotte was illegitimate and happened to veer on the side of dark skin, the amount of make-up she would have to use in order to “paste for white” would be phenomenal. Remember the tragic society beauty Maria Gunning, who died in 1760 after using too much ceruse? Well, her beauty routine would have been mild compared to Charlotte’s. Again, depending on the shade of her skin, she would have needed to cover every inch of her body day and night, for there would hardly be a moment when she didn’t have ladies in waiting in attendance.  Over-use of this paint or paste often resulted in hair loss, tooth decay and premature death. But Charlotte showed none of these symptoms and lived to a ripe age of seventy-four. In fact, talking of hair loss, we have existing specimens of her hair. They are, as George III described the one sent to him before their marriage, “light and remarkably fine.”

Here are some images of Charlotte that have given rise to speculation.

Charlotte with George and Frederick1769_Dance_QCharlotteCharlotteCh1scharlotte1And here are pictures of Charlotte’s family from Wikipedia. I don’t see anything to suggest that she was only a half-sister to these people or very different in appearance. This, in my opinion, implies that the whole family had African blood, as Valdes claimed.

220px-1742_Ernst220px-1748_Georg_August220px-Adolf_Friedrich_IV,_Duke_of_Mecklenburg-Strelitz220px-Elizabeth_Albertine_of_Saxe-Hildburghausen220px-ZiesenisKarlMecklenburgHaving said all that, history is not a science. The great thing is that we will probably never know for sure. A kind research friend has made me aware that the University of Virginia and the town of Charlottesville are doing some amazing work about Charlotte, George and their role in abolishing slavery. A letter has been discovered in the Georgia Historical Society Archives from George Baille, a slave owner objecting to the British raids and liberation of slaves in 1812. He gives us a clue to how the rumour may have started:

‘It is well known that they seduced & carried off with them the greater part of the Negroes . . . They were seduced by the most absurd & fallicious tales . . . they were informed that the Queen of England was a Negro woman – that in England, whither they were to about to be carried, the Ladies preferred Negro Men as husbands, and the Gentlemen Negro Women as wives.’

There is also a fascinating portrait by Alan Ramsey of a beautiful mixed race woman that appears in Alastair Smart’s biography of the painter. It is not available to public view. Like so many paintings, the sitter cannot be proven, but there are suggestions that it could be Charlotte. She is certainly not dissimilar. This painting is in the Earl of Seafield’s private collection, with no clear path of how it got there. We can, however, trace back the ancestory of the Earl and find a lady connected to the family who was bridesmaid to Charlotte. Could this picture of the ‘true’ Charlotte have been a private gift?

I truly hope we will have a black queen one day. But much as I would like Charlotte to be the one to carry that torch, the evidence doesn’t stack up for me. I am, however, very willing to be convinced if some good concrete evidence shows up!

Sophia and Ernest

Princess Sophia (1777-1848) by Anne Mee 1800-1806One of the reasons Sophia, fifth daughter of George III, attracts attention is that she probably bore an illegitimate child. Although some historians still dispute the idea, I am convinced by the evidence. There is too much smoke for there to be no fire. According to Flora Fraser, author of the biography Princesses a letter Sophia wrote to her old nurse in 1805 “shows plainly” that she was a mother –  although frustratingly, Fraser doesn’t quote the correspondence. But if an illegitimate birth wasn’t scandalous enough, Sophia earned another slur against her name: the suggestion that her child’s father was in fact her brother, Ernest, later King of Hanover.

What could give rise to such a shocking rumour and could it be true? It is within the realm of possibility; Ernest’s close relationship with Sophia was noted, and he present at Windsor in the winter of 1799, when Sophia would have conceived. But so was the other candidate for the father of Sophia’s child: General Thomas Garth.

The story of Sophia’s baby starts in July 1800, when she and her sister Amelia set off for the annual trip to Weymouth a day before the rest of their family, staying at a trusted servant’s house along the way. Sophia was so ill that the royals extended their usual holiday all the way until early October. Legend has it George III believed his daughter was suffering from dropsy, a common complaint in the family, and was informed she had been cured by eating roast beef. Her real complaint may have been the late stages pregnancy.

The doctor in attendance, Millman, received a baronetcy for his care of the princess – a nice gesture, but also one that could be viewed as a bribe to keep certain facts secret. In the same August, Mr and Mrs Sharland, tailors living on the Weymouth esplanade, adopted a newborn foundling “Thomas Ward, stranger” to nurse alongside their own baby son. It is this little Thomas, or Tommy, who Sophia supposedly bore.

I’ve recently finished reading A Humble Companion by Laurie Graham, a historical fiction novel told from the point of view of Sophia’s companion. I was interested to find that Graham, rather bravely, chose to run with the incest theory. I’ve never found the idea convincing, but I have to say Graham gave me food for thought. After all, wasn’t Sophia’s son Tommy a reckless womanizer, very much like Ernest in character? Well, that could happen if Ernest was just his uncle, I suppose. But then, if General Garth was the father, how was it he stayed in favour with the royal family? Queen Charlotte treated the lovers of Princesses Amelia and Augusta with disdain, yet she was always cordial towards Garth, as was the Prince Regent, who gave him a place in his daughter’s household. Would they really treat a seducer with such respect?

Graham suggests that Garth was a loyal servant who placed Sophia and Ernest’s child with a good family and later agreed to adopt and raise him, at the request of the Queen. In A Humble Companion, it was Garth’s duty and good nature that kept his mouth shut. But this overlooks a very important fact: Princess Sophia had certainly fallen in love with General Garth.

One of the Queen’s ladies records Sophia’s violent passion for the equerry in 1798, which was visible to the whole court. “She could not contain herself in his presence”, we are told. At the same time, Sophia’s sister Mary wrote about Garth and “the purple light of love”. A letter from Sophia to Garth still exists, in which she mentions rings they exchanged as gifts and addresses him with wild terms of endearment. “Your calling me your S makes me as proud as Lucifer…I love you more and more every day. God bless you, my dearest dear General.” It seems to me that Garth must have been Tommy’s father. The child was named for its father,  and Garth later adopted the child, raising him with his correct surname and referring to him as “mine, if there is faith in woman”.

But while there is, in my opinion, stronger evidence for Garth’s claim, the Ernest theory is not without basis. While I consider Ernest rather harshly treated by history, there is no pretending he was a pleasant person. He had a dry, cruel wit and seduced across the Continent. Neither nuns nor married women were safe from his attentions. The husband of one of his lovers  committed suicide. In the course of his life, Ernest leant his name to rumours of sodomy and murder. Controversy could have been his middle name. His sisters made it clear from correspondence that they didn’t like to be left in a room alone with him, but whether this was due to his scathing humour or something more sinister, we are not told. Sophia’s words were these: ” Dear Ernest is as kind to me as it is possible, rather a little imprudent at times, but when told of it never takes it ill.” Who will ever know what his imprudence was?

220px-Ernest_Augustus_by_Fischer_1823Glenbervie states in his diary that the court “in a manner admitted” that Sophia was Tommy’s mother, “as the story generally goes by General Garth… the Queen thinks Garth the father”. But he also records “the Princess of Wales told Lady Sheffield there is great reason to suspect the father to be the Duke of Cumberland (Ernest)”.  I don’t set much store by this. Caroline, Princess of Wales, was famous for tall and wild tales. In her life she tried to convince people she was pregnant when she wasn’t, spoke of past lovers she didn’t have and pretended her ward, Willy Austin, was the son of a foreign prince smuggled over to England for safety. She isn’t one to stake your hopes on for truth. Having said that, it does seem remarkable that Caroline would start such a vicious rumour against Sophia, who was always kind to her.

Sophia was prone to fantastic adoration of all her brothers. In later life, Frederick Duke of York became her whole world. Yet the rumour of incest only haunted Ernest. It could well be that the ultra-Tory, abrasive Ernest earned more political enemies than the other brothers, leading to malicious gossip. It’s certainly a hard stretch of the imagination to picture Sophia, often timid, sheltered and raised with devout religion, consenting to an incestuous relationship. But the other theory, which paints Ernest in an even darker light, is that she was raped.

Could this be possible? I think not. Many of Sophia’s siblings knew about Tommy, but their attitude towards Ernest didn’t change. Would they have been able to love him and Sophia, as they continued to do, if they had committed incest? Would Sophia be able to speak of Ernest with affection and receive his visits if he’d put her through such an ordeal? Would Queen Charlotte or the Prince Regent tolerate him in England? It seems highly unlikely.

200px-Princess_Sophia_portraitThe answer to our questions lies a box of documents, which Garth gave to Tommy, revealing the truth about his birth. Conveniently, the box was “lost” at the bank, disappearing into a great black void. Obviously the royal family wanted the documents suppressed, but this would be true whether Garth or Ernest were the father. Newspapers suggested the box contained letters from Sophia to Garth, complaining about Ernest’s “attempts on her person”. If these letters did exist, they raise another dramatic possibility: that Sophia and Garth were lovers but her brother raped and impregnated her, leaving Garth to adopt the child for the sake of his princess.

Whether it was over Ernest or not, Sophia and Garth did quarrel and separate. They never married, even after Queen Charlotte died, when the indulgent George IV may have permitted it. The subject of disagreement was the thing that should have bound them together: Tommy himself. “It is very, very desirable that some check should be put to the odd conduct of a certain person…” wrote Sophia to Mrs Villiers from Weymouth. “That person is very difficult to manage”. A proud father, Garth paraded Tommy up and down the Esplanade at Weymouth and forced him on the attention of Princess Charlotte when she visited – actions that suggest, again, Tommy was not the product of incest. But Garth couldn’t understand Sophia’s reluctance to see her child. She writes “…what hurt me the more was the indelicacy this year of knowing it so near to me and that I never could go through the town without the dread of meeting what would have half killed me, had I met it.” Once more, there are two ways we can interpret the letter. The first is that Sophia was resolved to keep Tommy secret and George III’s state of mind intact by distancing herself. She was so overcome with emotion she didn’t want to see him, lest she broke down, and she didn’t refer to him by name or even gender in her letters to preserve the secret. Then again, you could say Sophia was in dread of an unnatural, incestuous child who reminded her of an attack, and referred to him as “it”.

What does Sophia herself have to say? In the early days of the scandal, when even her sister Elizabeth didn’t know the truth, Sophia wrote to Lady Harcourt. She denied the rumours about Tommy, but acknowledged “I have partially myself to blame for them”. In other letters, she also agrees her behaviour was at fault. But the most striking sentence is this: “It is grievous to think what a little trifle will slur a young woman’s character forever”. Surely if she had borne an illegitimate child – much lest an incestuous one – she wouldn’t consider it a little trifle?

In my novel about Sophia, I chose Garth as Tommy’s father. Since I was writing from Sophia’s point of view, I didn’t make Ernest a villain. Whether he really raped her or not, he was always a dear brother in her eyes. Not only was it easier for me to write, it was easier for me to believe a naive, sheltered girl could fall in love with an “ugly” equerry twice her age. The Sophia in my mind would never consent to an incestuous relationship with her dashing, dangerous brother. But as for the truth – I’ll let you make up your own minds.

Duke of Cumberland from Duke of York memoirs by Watkins

Molly Lepell

220px-Mary_HerveyWhen writing about the courts of the Hanoverian monarchs, I often come across women whose lives would make fascinating stories all on their own. In the course of my career, I hope to branch out and give these lovely ladies a novel for themselves. The one uppermost in my mind at present is Molly Lepell, later Lady Hervey. The darling of George II’s court, wife to a handsome wit, she seemed to have it all. But if you scratch beneath the beautiful surface, you find a very different story.

Right from her birth in 1700, Molly was placed in the role of courtier. Her father was Nicholas Wedig Lepell, who had come over to England with Queen Anne’s husband Prince George of Denmark. Mr Lepell, although partial to King James II, managed to survive the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and stay with the court all the way to the end of the Stuart reign, having won the highly prized favour of Queen Anne’s bosom pal, Sarah Churchill. The friendship of this important lady, along with Lepell’s German blood, ensured that when George I came to the throne in 1714, Molly secured a place in the royal household as Maid of Honour to the Princess of Wales, Caroline.

Nowhere could be more exciting to a teenage girl than Caroline’s witty, fashionable court. The Maids of Honour were known trouble makers, waking up in the night to rattle on windows, involving themselves in endless scandal and even flirting with the young men of the court throughout divine service, forcing Caroline to build a screen over their pew! Although they were all young and beautiful, the two stars were Molly and her friend Mary Bellenden. Molly’s court nickname was the Schatz, which is German from Treasure. Thanks to their friendship with poets such as John Gay and Alexander Pope, Molly and Mary were immortalized in verse at this time, described as the perfect nymphs. Indeed, Molly was once suspected of being mistress and spy to George I, although these claims are largely unfounded.

Beneath the gaiety, Molly was prone to bouts of depression. But it seemed she had put lonely times behind her when, in April 1720, she secretly married John Hervey, second son of the Earl of Bristol. Femininely pretty, full of wit and ability, Hervey was considered the perfect match for such a beautiful star of the court. The couple told their families but did not formally announce the wedding until October of the same year, presumably in fear of royal anger.

Lord HerveyAt first the couple were very much in love, embarrassing other courtiers with their affection. Lord Bristol wrote to tell Molly that his son “loves you so much above himself”. However, the marriage was not to be everything Molly hoped.

Although she had little fortune, Molly managed to win over Hervey’s devoted father, Lord Bristol. The two remained close until his death. She did not succeed in the same way with Hervey’s fractious mother. Before long the two were arguing like Billingsgate fishwives, though one is tempted to side with Molly in every squabble. Lady Bristol was, by all accounts, a most unreasonable woman. Hervey once described his mother as being like Mount Vesuvius, throwing out fire and rubbish.

The two ladies argued about the upbringing of Molly’s children. Molly was forced to send her first son, George, to the Hervey estate of Ickworth to be with his over-protective grandmother long before she was recovered enough from childbirth to make the journey with him. It isn’t surprising that, with a throb of possessiveness, Molly wanted to at least have some influence over her first daughter by calling her Lepell. Lady Bristol objected strongly – she was the girl’s godmother, and should be her namesake. At last Molly carried her point and managed to call her daughter Lepell, but it was a hard won victory and left a taint of bitterness.

Before long, Hervey’s health problems drew him to Europe. Rather than taking his devoted wife with him, he chose as a companion Mr Stephen Fox. Hervey had a long standing close relationship with both Fox brothers, but his relationship with “Ste” rapidly turned into something more. It is hard to tell whether Molly knew her husband had fallen in love with another man, but I believe she did. It is immensely to her credit that, despite the jealousy she must have felt, she remained on good terms with the Fox brothers even after their common link, Hervey, had passed away. It is tragic to see Molly’s needy correspondence from this time, as she writes to Stephen to beg for news that Hervey will not send her. After a long entreaty for information about the state of his health, she finishes by telling Stephen, “I beg my lord mayn’t know about this letter”. Indeed, in his voluminous correspondence, Hervey barely refers to his wife at all, as if she was a thing of no consequence.

Back in England, marooned in Ickworth with her husband’s family, Molly had few comforts. Her friends all accused her of taking on her husband’s affected mannerisms. If they had known the whole story, they might’ve realised Molly’s attempts to be witty and scathing like Hervey were a desperate woman’s tactics to win back his love. Books were her only companions in the long days she spent nursing Hervey’s sickly sisters. “My spirits,” she wrote to Henrietta Howard, “which, as you know were once very good, are so much impaired that I question if even Hampton Court breakfasts could recover them or revive the Schatz, who is extinguished in a fatigued nurse, a grieved sister and a melancholy wife.”

The death of Hervey’s elder brother, Carr, in 1723 made Molly Lady, rather than Mrs Hervey, and her husband heir to the title and estate. Despite this, and the fact that Hervey became Vice-Chamberlain to Queen Caroline in 1727, Molly didn’t get much chance to return to court and find out if Hampton Court suppers could indeed revive the Schatz. She spent some time in her husband’s chambers when he was in London and visited court to greet Prince Frederick from Hanover in 1728. But after playing second fiddle to Stephen Fox for so long, it became clear that she was now expected to come second best to her former mistress, Queen Caroline. Whenever there was an emotional void in Hervey’s life, he didn’t turn to his waiting and ready wife – he found someone else.

Caroline in later yearsTo top it all off, Hervey continued to take mistresses, such as Anne Vane, and other male lovers. It is hardly surprising that Molly grew to resent him, finding solace instead in gossip at Bath, fashionable saloons and her children. As the end of Hervey’s life approached, their marriage deteriorated rapidly. Molly was at Ickworth trying to nurse her husband in his final days, but he refused to have her near him. As a further slap in the face, he cut her out of his will, leaving all the money to her younger children “born in wedlock”. This implies Molly had been unfaithful to him (and I for one wouldn’t blame her!) but there is no gossip or evidence from the period I have found yet to suggest a lover. Could it be that it was all in the ill and crotchety Hervey’s drugged mind? Either way, he also sought to separate Molly from her youngest daughter Carolina, who he wanted to be raised by a Mrs Horner. Luckily for Molly, sense prevailed and Mrs Horner refused to obey Hervey’s will.

Considering all of this, it must have been some relief for Molly when her once beloved husband finally passed away on 5 August, 1743. She was to outlive her spouse by 28 years, although she never married again – once bitten, twice shy, I presume! Molly spent her widowhood traveling, gossiping, flirting and caring for her wayward children.

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