Historical figures in popular media are always a blend of fact and fiction – and when it comes to Netflix’s Bridgerton and spinoff Queen Charlotte, fact is definitely a jumping off point for telling an engaging story about then and now. So what’s the real history behind this fascinating woman and how does it line up with the series?
QUEEN CHARLOTTE’S CASTING
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Charlotte’s portrayal in “Queen Charlotte” and “Bridgerton” is the casting of a Black actress in the role, sparking conversation about the racial dynamics of the period. It is possibly true that Charlotte was biracial. Some historians, notably Mario de Valdes y Cocom, argue that Queen Charlotte descended from noblewoman Margarita de Castro e Sousa, who traced her ancestry to the Portuguese royal family, specifically King Alfonso III and his concubine Madragana, who was Moorish. But the claim that Queen Charlotte had African ancestry isn’t universally accepted. Claims that she had “moor blood” could refer to White North African heritage, and apart from debate around the nuances of her features in portraits (which generally portray her as white-skinned) there’s little concrete evidence. Further complicating the matter is the fact that societal conceptions of race and racial categories have changed significantly since Queen Charlotte’s lifetime, making it difficult to apply modern racial categories to historical figures. Back then, the concept of race was tied less to physical characteristics and more to nationality, religion, and social class. Either way, the show’s choice has inspired significant debate about race, representation, and history. And this portrayal offers an intriguing “what if” scenario, imagining how her influence might have shaped society if she had been black and openly acknowledged her heritage.
THE GREAT EXPERIMENT
The show’s “Great Experiment” is much more clearly fiction. The slave trade was abolished in 1807 in Britain, so in the time period of the show’s earlier plot black people in England would still be enslaved. Queen Charlotte creatively reimagines history by presenting Queen Charlotte’s ancestry as a catalyst for social change, and making her a champion of that change. The real Queen Charlotte was a patron of charities and orphanages, showing concern for societal welfare, but she certainly did not spark the kind of radical social change these fictions are exploring to talk about historical “what-ifs” and our present opportunities.
THE ROYAL WEDDING:
At 17, German-born Sophia Charlotte journeyed to England to marry King George III, whom she had never met, and become the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland. Like the show references, her parents had died (her mother only a few months before), and the journey over was very hard – but while in the show she complains about her corset; in reality the downside to the trip was the terrible storms.
The show is accurate in that the two got married on the very day they met. George III met his bride for the first time a mere several hours before the ceremony. The King, eager to see his betrothed, went to St. James’s Palace where Charlotte had been lodged. In the show, Charlotte’s wedding gown is white and silver – in reality, she also wore a purple velvet mantle over this. Interestingly, the tradition of a bride wearing only white for a wedding actually began later around the time of Charlotte’s granddaughter, Victoria.
Charlotte spoke no English, so she required the assistance of her German entourage to understand the Anglican rites. That evening, the royal couple traveled by state coach to their wedding night lodgings accompanied by a grand procession of over 1,000 people. And according to royal tradition, the couple’s wedding night was a public event.
A LOYAL WIFE
Charlotte’s and George’s union was a strategic marriage as she was a princess with little political interest at the time, which made her malleable. But – like we see onscreen – it’s true that it developed into a loving and affectionate partnership. Queen Charlotte’s love for her husband, King George III, is palpable. Despite his bouts of illness, she is portrayed as a devoted wife, caring for him and longing for his lucid moments. Accounts suggest this is pretty accurate. They had a whopping 15 children, 13 of whom survived to adulthood. And when King George III suffered from recurrent episodes of mental illness, it’s documented that Queen Charlotte was a steadfast companion throughout those trials. Publicly, this strong family bond helped to portray a wholesome, familial image of the monarchy, contrasting with the scandals associated with previous royals.
It’s also accurate that George bought Buckingham palace for Charlotte and it became known as The Queen’s House, as well as the spot where 14 of their children were born.
WHAT WAS GEORGE’S MENTAL ILLNESS?
King George III was notoriously known as “Mad King George” due to a series of health battles that greatly affected his mind and body. The cause of these symptoms has been the subject of much debate, with theories ranging from porphyria, a group of rare genetic disorders that affect the nervous system, to more recent suggestions of chronic manic episodes associated with bipolar disorder and dementia in his later years. The show leans toward this recent theory.
The series shows King George III voluntarily going to a house in Kew for treatment, but in reality, he was forced. The show mainly hints at his suffering, but under Dr. Francis the King had to undergo treatments that are now considered inhumane—like being restrained in a straightjacket and tied to a chair for hours at a time. He was given “medicines” like sedatives and others that induced vomiting. The treatments were not only harsh but also ineffective, and they likely contributed to the deterioration of the king’s physical health right up until his death.
As showrunner Shonda Rhimes discussed, the show also emphasizes other factual aspects of George; quote, “They called him Farmer George back then, and Farmer King. And also the idea that he’s very into astronomy.”
Arts, Fashion, and Influence
Queen Charlotte was indeed a patron of the arts, with a particular love for music.
Like in Queen Charlotte, Mozart really did play for her as a kid. Charlotte supported various musicians, notably Johann Christian Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel. Her court was a center for musical performance and she herself was an accomplished harpsichord player. Meanwhile, Charlotte was thought to be less concerned with fashion; she preferred a simple style and was often depicted in modest attire in her portraits.
“Bridgerton” and “Queen Charlotte” present Queen Charlotte as a woman of significant influence and authority, a puppet master pulling the strings behind the scenes of London society. She is depicted as the ultimate arbiter of social norms and conventions, orchestrating the season’s matchmaking with a keen eye and strategic mind. In reality, Queen Charlotte did have influence, but it was more subtle than political. Her primary influence was in her promotion of the arts and education, turning Buckingham House into a cultural hub, which later became the famed Buckingham Palace. She helped to establish a sense of decorum and propriety in the royal court. She was known for her keen interest in botany, which led to the expansion of Kew Gardens, and she played a crucial role in the education of her children, particularly her sons, who would later become King George IV and King William IV. Queen Charlotte’s tenure was marked by significant political changes, including the loss of the American colonies in the Revolutionary War and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. However, she holds the record for longest-serving queen consort at 57 years, using this time to carefully shape the monarchy.
THE BABY RACE
Like in Queen Charlotte, the real Charlotte did have her children compete in a “baby race.” This was due to a succession crisis following the death of Princess Charlotte, who the show’s costume designer told People was like the Princess Diana of her time; her death caused a similar public uproar since she was carrying the royal heir.
But in truth, there’s no evidence to suggest that Queen Charlotte, who was in her final year of life and grieving for her granddaughter, orchestrated this succession rush. As Shonda Rhimes acknowledged, “Queen Charlotte was much older when it occurred, and so did not live to see the child who would become Queen Victoria be born.”
While Queen Charlotte certainly takes artistic liberties, it also sheds light on the significant role she played in English history. The real Queen Charlotte, while perhaps less dramatic than her on-screen counterpart, was a woman of influence and strength.
Queen Charlotte died on November 17, 1818, at the age of 74, though her legacy lives on. Her life was marked by her dedication to her family, her patronage of the arts, and her subtle influence on the monarchy. Reimagined, onscreen today, she’s having a new impact through her fictional reincarnation inspired by her facts.
Gibson, Kelsie. “‘Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story’ : What’s Fact and What’s Fiction” People, 5 May 2023 https://people.com/tv/queen-charlotte-a-bridgerton-story-fact-vs-fiction/
Ngimbi, Emmanuella. “Shonda Rhimes admits she ‘took liberties’ with Queen Charlotte baby’s race” Express, 3 May 2023 https://www.express.co.uk/showbiz/tv-radio/1765714/Shonda-Rhimes-Queen-Charlotte-baby-race
“QUEEN CHARLOTTE OF THE UNITED KINGDOM (1744-1818)” Royal Collection Trust, https://www.rct.uk/collection/people/queen-charlotte-of-the-united-kingdom-1744-1818#/type/subject
Coke, Hope. “Queen Charlotte: The Real Story Behind the Royal’s Life and Romance With King George” Glamour, 4 May 2023 https://www.glamour.com/story/queen-charlotte-real-life
Blakemore, Erin. “Britain’s first Black queen? The real story of Queen Charlotte” National Geographic, 10 May 2023 https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/queen-charlotte-british-royal-history