(This guest post is by Julie Miller, Historian in the Manuscript Division. Translation assistance provided by interns Keara Mickelson and Molly Smith, European Division)
“Bridgerton,” the Netflix miniseries based on Julia Quinn’s romance novels and set in Britain’s Regency period, is an exercise in what-if. What if Queen Charlotte, consort to King George III, was Black and used her influence to grant titles and positions to other Black Britons? What if she was able to magically erase racism? Actor Golda Rosheuvel plays an imposing queen who livens her life at court by meddling in the lives of her subjects and is privately heartbroken about the King’s madness. Is her Queen Charlotte anything like the real one?
Many of the real Queen Charlotte’s letters, diaries, and household accounts are at the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle in England, and they have been digitized by the Georgian Papers Programme. The Library of Congress formed a partnership with the Georgian Papers Programme in 2016. In addition to these, the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress has microfilm containing letters in Charlotte’s old-fashioned, German-inflected French that she wrote to her brother, Charles, the Duke of Meckenburg-Strelitz, the small German principality where she was born in 1744. The originals of these letters are in the state archives at Schwerin, Germany.
For more than a century, the Library’s Foreign Copying Program has been sending representatives to archives around the world to locate and copy papers documenting American history. In 1930 the Manuscript Division, guided by an earlier Carnegie Institution project, microfilmed these letters in Germany. Because the focus of the project was American history, Library agents copied Charlotte’s letters from the years 1775-1785, a span that covered the American Revolution. They hoped to find the Queen’s perspective on the war, and they weren’t disappointed – but more on that later.
These archival sources, along with others both primary and secondary, reveal a Charlotte who was both like and unlike the Charlotte in Bridgerton. The marriage of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle led to speculation about whether or not Queen Charlotte had an African ancestor. Did she? The jury is still out. She did not, in any case, choose to identify with people of African descent or with the plight of the enslaved in Britain’s colonies. In 1788, as Britain’s abolitionist movement gained steam, Olaudah Equiano, a former slave who had been stolen as a child in Africa, pleaded with the Queen: “I supplicate your Majesty’s compassion for millions of my African countrymen, who groan under the lash of tyranny in the West Indies.” Her response? Silence.
Bridgerton’s Lady Danbury describes the marriage of the King and Queen as a love match. But, to paraphrase Tina Turner, love had nothing to do with the arranged marriage that brought the 17-year-old German princess across a stormy sea to marry the young King of England sight unseen. Over time, however, the marriage became a genuine partnership that produced 15 children, 13 of whom lived to adulthood. It was also durable – at least until it was threatened by the King’s madness. The novelist Fanny Burney, who served as Keeper of the Robes between 1786 and 1791, described in her journal the Queen’s distress as her husband’s madness threatened their marriage, similar to the reaction we see from the Netflix Queen.
In Charlotte’s Britain, abolitionists protested slavery by boycotting sugar, a product produced by the labor of slaves. Cruikshank uses the theme of the sugar boycott to poke fun at the royal family, who were not abolitionists. Queen Charlotte, grotesquely depicted, says: “Now my dear’s only an ickle bit, do not tink on de Negro girl dat Captain Kimber treated so cruelly ha, Madam Swelly & rum too.” “Madam Swelly” was the Queen’s keeper of the robes Juliana Schwellenberg. Cruikshank depicted Captain Kimber’s vicious torture of a slave in another cartoon.
Like Bridgerton’s Charlotte, the real Charlotte was not always content at court. In 1797 she complained to her husband that she was exhausted by the public assemblies she had to attend: “I found the Fatigue almost too much for me,” she wrote. Her letters to her brother were another outlet for these and other feelings. They also reveal the attachment she developed to her adopted country and the evolution of her own interests.
One of these was America’s revolution against Great Britain. Not surprisingly, the German-born Queen took an interest in the King’s use of German mercenary soldiers – Hessians – in America. Her letters to her brother Charles include her views on the recruitment of these soldiers and news about German generals. The Queen’s interest in the war also reflects her identification with Britain. In October, 1776 she sent her brother a copy of a newspaper containing “nos nouvelles si long attendue,” our long-awaited news, probably the capture of New York by General William Howe. Howe’s letters printed in the paper, she assured her brother, were the same as the ones she had seen and read herself. In 1778 she told Charles that she was possessed with the war, neither speaking, feeling, reading, or even dreaming about anything else. Despite her husband’s wish that she keep away from politics, she confided to her brother: “Je deviendray politique malgré moi”: I am becoming political despite myself.
Charlotte sent her brother books and family news, and gossiped with him about the aristocratic families they knew. While the Bridgerton Queen mentions her children only a few times, the real Queen was involved in the lives of her six daughters. After the death of his wife, Charlotte advised Charles on the upbringing of his daughters. In 1782 she sent him a “plan of instruction” that she had used with her girls, adding that they would soon be taking a course in electricity and pneumatics. Like the King, Charlotte was interested in the scientific discoveries that characterized the Enlightenment. She was also interested in women’s education.
Bridgerton entertains without pretending to be an accurate representation of history. Now that you’ve whetted your appetite, why not explore the real thing? Investigate the reading list, or contact Library of Congress reference staff through Ask a Librarian.
Read More About It:
Queen Charlotte’s letters to Charles, Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, 1775-1788, microfilm, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
Burney, Frances. “The Court Journals and Letters of Frances Burney.” Edited by Peter Sabor. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2011-2019.
Equiano, Olaudah. “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African.” New York: W. Durell, 1791.
Fraser, Flora. “Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III.” New York: Knopf, 2005.
Hadlow, Janice. “A Royal Experiment: The Private Life of King George III.” New York: Henry Holt, 2014.
Hedley, Olwen. “Queen Charlotte.” London: John Murray, 1975.
Learned, Marion Dexter. “Guide to the Manuscript Materials Relating to American History in the German State Archives.” Washington DC: Carnegie Institution, 1912.
Marschner, Joanna, ed. “Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte and the Shaping of the Modern World.” New Haven: Yale Center for British Art; London: Historic Royal Palaces, 2017.
Orr, Clarissa Campbell. “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.” (Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, 1744-1818). Oxford University Press, 2009.
_______ ed. “Queenship in Britain, 1660-1837: Royal Patronage, Dynastic Culture, and Court Politics.” Manchester, UK; New York: Manchester University Press, 2010.
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