Here’s What to Know About ‘Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story’

The show’s creator, Shonda Rhimes, and a few historians spoke about the facts, fantasy and controversy surrounding Netflix’s new prequel series to “Bridgerton.”

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By Kalia Richardson

With her withering glares and colossal wigs, Queen Charlotte has become a treasured character in the first two seasons of “Bridgerton,” the steamy hit Netflix series set in an alternate, racially diverse version of Regency Era Britain. As played by Golda Rosheuvel, she is a hard-line matriarch with an ear for gossip and an eye for beauty.

Now she is the subject of her own six-episode Netflix prequel series, “Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story,” which tells the tale of young Charlotte (India Amarteifio) as she begins her rise to power. Viewers witness her whirlwind marriage to King George III, meet her delinquent children and come to better understand her motivations and loneliness. They also get plenty of glimpses, of course, into the royal bedchamber.

“‘The love of Queen Charlotte and King George united the nation’ — that’s one sentence in ‘Bridgerton,’ and to me that told a whole world,” Shonda Rhimes, the show’s creator, said in a phone interview last week. “We are telling the story of how their love united the world in a very small way.”

In line with the franchise’s overall approach to diverse casting, the “Bridgerton” Charlotte is also presented as being of African and European heritage — though in her case, the decision was rooted partly in speculation by some historians that the real Charlotte was biracial, a subject of much debate.

But what do we know about the historical Charlotte? What are the terms of the debate? And is that debate beside the point for a story that Rhimes herself describes as fantasy? We spoke to Rhimes and several historians about the series, which has been Netflix’s most-watched show globally since it debuted last week.

Who was Charlotte?

The basic facts of Charlotte’s life are well documented: The real Princess Sophie Charlotte was born in 1744 in Mecklenberg-Strelitz, which is now part of Germany. At age 17, she married King George III, six hours after her arrival in London. The couple had their first child, George IV, in 1762, followed by 14 more children.

The first 25 years of their life together appear to have been happy and pleasurable. Together they attended plays, hosted concerts and invited a young Mozart to perform for them in 1764. In 1788, King George III experienced a serious bout of mental illness, and his manic, violent behavior worsened over time. In 1811, his son George IV took over leadership duties as prince regent. George III was often kept isolated, and he and Charlotte led increasingly separate lives. She died in 1818; George III died two years later.

To these details the prequel is largely faithful. With others, the series takes unapologetic creative license — indeed, that license is central to its premise.

Since the start of the “Bridgerton” franchise, Rhimes and her team have worked from the idea, put forth by some historians, that Charlotte was a woman of mixed racial heritage, a descendant of a Black branch of the Portuguese Royal family. Many other historians disagree with that theory. But in developing the new series, Rhimes was less interested in the debate than in staying true to the world she had already created: a fictional story with historical elements, in which a Black Queen Charlotte, richly adorned in jewels and corseted gowns, ruled valiantly while caring for the king.

“It was permission to really fantasize about telling the story of the character I was most fascinated by, and that was an easy jumping off point for me,” Rhimes said. “It’s not a history lesson. It’s really the story of the Queen Charlotte as we know her from ‘Bridgerton.’”

Wherefore the controversy?

The idea that the historical Charlotte might have been biracial, by way of a Black branch of the Portuguese royal lineage, was put forward prominently in 1997 by the historian Mario de Valdes y Cocom for PBS Frontline. But many historians have disputed that claim or argued that any potential African heritage would have been so removed as to be virtually untraceable.

Rhimes said she had no opinion on the real Queen Charlotte’s heritage, though she found it “interesting,” she said, “how vehemently people need to say that she’s not a person of color.” Arianne Chernock, a professor at Boston University who specializes in British and European history, argued that questions over Charlotte’s potential Blackness miss the point that Britishness, whatever the color, is not a fixed thing.

“We know that Queen Charlotte had Portuguese ancestry,” Chernock said. “She was a German princess, the daughter of a Duke,” she continued, noting that “when Charlotte arrived in Britain in 1761, she didn’t speak English.”

“To place this multicultural past within the family, it forces people to think about what Britishness is,” she added.

Still, the prequel has received other criticism over its handling of race, in particular for not acknowledging the enslaved people in British colonies during George III’s reign, the peak of Britain’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Brooke Newman, a history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies the British royal family, noted that Britain was the primary trader of enslaved people in the mid-to-late 18th century. Newman, who believes the queen was not Black and had no links to Portuguese nobility, echoed other critics who have said the show effectively helps whitewash British racism.

“She benefited from the expansion of slavery and from the Empire,” Newman said of the historical Charlotte, “and so to rehabilitate her into a more sympathetic, historical figure, I think it’s deeply problematic.”

Rhimes noted that the prequel does not ignore race. White characters comment on Charlotte’s “very brown” skin, and she experiences race-based microaggressions. In one early scene, Charlotte’s teeth and build are examined by the king’s mother, Princess Augusta.

“It felt like someone being sold off,” Rhimes said.

A ‘Great Experiment’

Rhimes said her vision of Charlotte was driven by her desire to offer viewers new images of powerful, autonomous Black women onscreen.

“Even in historical drama, it was necessary for me to really portray the strength and the elegance of these Black women,” Rhimes said.

She was also more interested creatively in fleshing out the early beginnings of her multicultural kingdom — as with her invention of the “Great Experiment,” a government mandate that redistributes titles to nonwhite aristocrats — than in merely focusing on an interracial couple.

Fictional though the Great Experiment may be, the prominence of Black figures in London society of the period is rooted in historical fact. For her role as the show’s historical adviser, Polly Putnam wrote historical reports on Queen Charlotte, King George III and what life was like for Black people in 18th century London. Some became paid servants, abolitionists, successful businessmen and even aristocrats.

“We have this quite interesting group of people, but we do know that many Black Londoners were activists,” Putnam said. “Many of them were involved in the abolition of slavery movements. From there, this really took off in the late 18th century and through to the early 19th century.”

These facts helped provide a basis for Rhimes to create the kind of Charlotte she envisioned — a young Black woman who could be as empowered as any character she might create.

“People always say ‘You write smart, strong women,’ but I don’t know any dumb, weak women,” Rhimes said. “So I don’t write them. I write the kind of woman I know and I am surrounded by.”

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