Biography of Queen Charlotte

Charlotte may have been England's first multiracial royal

Queen Charlotte portrait

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Queen Charlotte (born Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz) was the Queen of England from 1761–1818. Her husband, King George III, suffered from mental illness, and Charlotte ultimately served as his guardian until her death. Charlotte is also known for the possibility that she possessed multiracial heritage, which would make her England's first multiracial royal.

Fast Facts: Queen Charlotte

  • Full Name: Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz
  • Known For: Queen of England (1761–1818)
  • Born: May 19, 1744 in Mirow, Germany
  • Died: November 17, 1818 in Kew, England
  • Spouse's Name: King George III

Early Life

Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was born in 1744, the eighth child of Duke Charles Louis Frederick of Mecklenburg and his wife, Princess Elisabeth Albertine of Saxe-Hildburghausen, at the family castle in Mirow, Germany. Like other young ladies of her station, Charlotte was educated at home by private tutors.

Charlotte was taught the basics of language, music, and art, but much of her education was focused on domestic life and household management, in preparation for future as a wife and mother. Charlotte and her siblings were also educated in religious matters by a priest who lived with the family.

When Charlotte was seventeen years old, she was sent from Germany to marry George III, five years her senior. George had ascended to the throne following the death of his father, George II, and was as yet unmarried. Since he would soon need an heir of his own, and Charlotte was from a minor duchy in the northern part of Germany that had no political machinations, she must have seemed like a perfect match.

Charlotte arrived in England on September 7, 1761, and the next day, met her prospective groom for the first time. She and George were married that evening, just a few hours after meeting.

Charlotte the Queen

Although she spoke no English at first, Charlotte learned the language of her new country quickly. Her heavy German accent and tumultuous relationship with George’s mother, Princess Augusta, made it difficult for her to adapt to English court life. Although Charlotte attempted to expand her social circle, Augusta challenged her every step of the way, even going as far as to replace Charlotte’s German ladies-in-waiting with English ladies of Augusta’s choosing.

Portrait Of Princess Charlotte Of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744-1818)
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Over the years, Charlotte and George had fifteen children together, thirteen of whom survived to adulthood. She was pregnant regularly, yet still managed to find time to organize the decoration of a lodge in Windsor Park, which was where she and her family spent most of their time. In addition, she educated herself about diplomatic matters, and exercised a quiet and discreet influence over her husband’s political affairs, both foreign and domestic. In particular, she became involved in English-German relations, and may have had some influence in British intervention in Bavaria.

Charlotte and George were avid patrons of the arts, taking a particular interest in German music and composers. Their court hosted performances by Bach and Mozart, and they enjoyed the compositions of Handel and many others. Charlotte was also an active gardener, with a scientific interest in botany that led her to help expand Kew Gardens.

The Madness of King George

Charlotte’s husband suffered from intermittent bouts of mental illness throughout his adult life. During the first episode in 1765, George’s mother Augusta and Prime Minister Lord Bute managed to keep Charlotte completely unaware of what was happening. In addition, they made sure she was kept in the dark about the Regency Bill, which stated that in the event of George’s full incapacity, Charlotte herself would become Regent.

Two decades later, in 1788, George became ill again, and this time it was much worse. By now, Charlotte was well aware of the Regency Bill, but still had to battle against the Prince of Wales, who had designs of his own on the Regency. When George recovered the following year, Charlotte deliberately sent a message by refusing to allow the Prince of Wales to attend a ball held in honor of the King's return to health. Charlotte and the prince reconciled in 1791.

Gradually, over the next few years, George descended into permanent madness. In 1804, Charlotte moved into separate quarters, and seems to have adopted a policy of avoiding her husband entirely. By 1811, George was declared insane and placed under Charlotte's guardianship, as per the Regency Bill of 1789. This scenario remained the same until Charlotte's death in 1818.

Queen Charlotte
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Potential Multiracial Heritage

Charlotte's contemporaries described her as having an "unmistakable African appearance." Historian Mario de Valdes y Cocom contends that although Charlotte was German, her family was distantly descended from a 13th-century black ancestor. Other historians take issue with Valdes' theory, arguing that with a black ancestor nine generations back, it's nearly impossible to consider Charlotte multi-racial.

During her reign as Queen, Charlotte was the subject of racially-charged insults about her appearance. Sir Walter Scott said that her relatives from the House of Mecklenburg-Strelitz were "ill-colored, orang-outang looking figures, with black eyes and hook-noses." Charlotte's physician, Baron Stockmar, described her as having “a true mulatto face.”

Conclusive evidence of Charlotte's ancestry has likely been lost to history. Nevertheless, it remains important to reflect upon this element of her story, as well as to consider how the concepts of race and royalty play out in society today.

Sources

  • Blakemore, Erin. “Meghan Markle Might Not Be the First Mixed-Race British Royal.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, www.history.com/news/biracial-royalty-meghan-markle-queen-charlotte.
  • Jeffries, Stuart. “Stuart Jeffries: Was the Consort of George III Britain's First Black Queen?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 12 Mar. 2009, www.theguardian.com/world/2009/mar/12/race-monarchy.
  • “Philippa of Hainault.” Charles II., www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/plantagenet_35.html.
  • Waxman, Olivia B. “Is Meghan Markle the First Black Royal? Why We Don't Know.” Time, Time, 18 May 2018, time.com/5279784/prince-harry-meghan-markle-first-black-mixed-race-royal/.