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.
And 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.
Having 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!