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? You have no idea how great it would be to write a book about a queen who secretly concealed the colour of her skin. That thing would market itself. But sadly, the popular theory is largely unfounded. Before anyone gets too excited, I felt compelled to list here 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 can run with this theory that there were African roots deep in Charlotte’s blood. Her features, more prominent in her youth, do suggest an African ancestry somewhere along the line (no stereotype or offense intended). Yet as Stuart Jeffries asks in the article, if this makes Charlotte black, aren’t we all? 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.

However, it’s not Valdes’ ideas I object to: it’s the claim from others that Charlotte was an illegitimate child, whose father was black, and thus earned the eighteenth-century term “mulatto”. It would take a lot of swallowing not only to believe that Charlotte’s mother was unfaithful, but that her father would agree to take on and raise such a child as his own. But then, of course, there’s the marriage to King George III. 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 – but the commenter did go on to say she had grown fat. Poor Charlotte.

If there was African ancestry, it certainly didn’t rub off on the children. The majority of Charlotte’s fifteen offspring were blonde-haired, blue-eyed dolls with porcelain skin. This would be possible if Charlotte had African descent deep in her roots, but I’m not sure this would be the case if she was half black. And what about her son, William, who spoke out loudly in favour of the slave trade? Would he really do such a thing with a mulatto mother?

I guess another possibility that has to be listed, for the sake of covering all bases, is that Charlotte was an albino mulatto. I found this very interesting article with some beautiful pictures. But it’s a stretch to believe that, as well as the unlikely illegitimate conception and cover up, Charlotte had a rare genetic condition. Anything is possible, but somethings are not probable.

My last point revolves around the make-up Charlotte would have to use in order to “paste for white”.  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.”

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. Still, in the interest of historical debate, 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.


6 Comments on The (not) Black Queen

  1. Annie
    04/12/2013 at 12:35 pm (5 months ago)

    George III may have also had to hide a secret a previous marriage.

    • lauradpurcell
      06/12/2013 at 7:54 pm (5 months ago)

      Yes it is possible – though that’s a whole other blog post! I have to admit I’m quite skeptical about the Hannah Lightfoot theory too.

  2. morongoblondblog
    05/12/2013 at 9:48 pm (5 months ago)

    There were similar theories about my French grandmother due to her coloring, which was primarily due to jaundice.

  3. Megan
    06/12/2013 at 12:03 am (5 months ago)

    Interesting post. I was wondering if you were familiar with the book, The Black Count. Its about the father of Alexandre Dumas who was half-black. There’s also a movie coming out next year, Belle ( about the half-black daughter of an English aristocrat.

    • lauradpurcell
      06/12/2013 at 7:56 pm (5 months ago)

      Megan, I knew of Dumas’ heritage but I haven’t read the book – it’s on my list. I had come across the plans for Bella movie some time ago but there wasn’t much detail back then. I’m very much looking forward to it!


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