Bridgerton: the real history explained
Is your knowledge of Regency history up to snuff? As we prepare to return to the opulent world of the Ton, we present a guide to the snippets of Georgian detail that you might spot on screen in Bridgerton…
We answer the top historical questions around Bridgerton seasons one and two, with expertise from historians including Dr Hannah Greig, historical advisor to the show.
When is Bridgerton set?
The action in Netflix period drama series Bridgerton is set in a highly stylised version of Regency era London and several fictional country estates across England. The plot is largely taken from a set of eight 21st-century novels by author Julia Quinn, and the story and characters are (mostly) fictional. The main plot follows the lives and loves of the eight Bridgerton siblings, with each novel covering a new romance. But the books borrow plenty of real history from the period, including the competitive marriage market, the ambitious society mothers, and the social mores of the day. You’ll also find some real historical figures mixed into the plot, including Queen Charlotte, wife of the incapacitated king, George III.
When was the Regency era?
The Regency period strictly applies to the years between 1811–1820 in British history, when George III, King of Great Britain and Ireland, was incapacitated by illness (see more below). His son, also called George, assumed the throne in a regency. This meant that while George III was still the king in name, his son ruled as Prince Regent, and after George III’s death in 1820, the prince assumed the throne as George IV.
More broadly, the Regency period refers to a subsection of the Georgian era (1714–c1830/37) and is often extended to the death of George IV in 1830, when the crown passed to William IV (the third son of George III, and younger brother to George IV). Some extend the period further to end with the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837.
What is the Ton?
The Ton comes from the French phrase le bon ton, which roughly translates as “good manners” or “good taste”. It was the name given to elite society in the Regency period. During the early 19th-century, these were the values expected to be observed by members of the beau monde, or “beautiful world”, of fashionable society.
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As shown in Bridgerton, etiquette was rigorously observed in this world, and strict etiquette governed the social season: from which daughters were ‘out’ in society, to how many dances one person could allot to another, to the secret language of the fan.
The families of society “were at the cutting edge of fashion; they were the trendsetters,” Dr Hannah Greig told the HistoryExtra podcast. “They had the money to spend, and really were extravagant. They lived life in the fast lane.”
Who are the king and queen in Bridgerton?
The king and queen at the time Bridgerton is set are King George III and Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. However, George III is not the ruling monarch; his son is ruling Great Britain and Ireland as Prince Regent.
We haven’t yet seen the Prince Regent on screen; Bridgerton instead chooses to place his mother, Queen Charlotte (played by Golda Rosheuvel), at the centre of the drama. Her husband George III ruled from 1760, but since 1788–9 (and perhaps even as early as 1765) had suffered severe bouts of mental illness, previously widely attributed to the genetic blood disorder porphyria, and since reappraised as bipolar disorder, with symptoms possibly worsened by dementia.
“At Queen Charlotte’s court, protocol was everything,” writes Catherine Curzon. “She loved tradition and clung to it rigidly, insisting that her female courtiers wear increasingly outdated court dress, and that the rules of her drawing rooms be observed at all times.”
This sense of protocol is crucial in Bridgerton, as we see the queen dictate many of the rules of this society. She is also portrayed as central to this world of scandal and intrigue, matchmaking among her subjects; this element is largely Bridgerton’s creation, though it does reflect that attendance at court would have been expected, and that having access to royal circles was of huge significance in this world of social hierarchy.
Though Charlotte and George’s court glittered early in their reign, their union was blighted by George III’s descent into illness and mental incapacity. “His illness left a permanent blot on the marriage,” writes Curzon. “Once placid and loving, Charlotte’s demeanour had been forever changed. She began to suffer from depression and developed a furious temper, often directed against the daughters. At the merest hint of George becoming unwell she moved into a locked bedroom and declined any opportunity to see him without another person present.”
- Read more about King George III’s illness and decline
What is the ‘diamond of the first water’?
In Bridgerton, it is the job of Queen Charlotte to name a debutante as the pick of the social season, a so-called ‘diamond of the first water’. Did this term exist?
While the phrase ‘diamond of the first water’ was never used to single out any one young woman who would top the season, explains Greig, it is true that certain women were marked by the press of the day as great beauties. Their names would appear in newspapers, they would be written about and publicly celebrated, becoming celebrities of the season; on occasion, they were ranked, with scoresheets.
As for the status of the ‘diamond’: “It's a very nice narrative device,” says Greig, “because it helps us identify particular characters whose stories are going to evolve in a particular way.”
Were there gossip sheets like Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers?
Lady Whistledown’s scandal sheet underpins almost all the action in Bridgerton. It is true that magazines of the day ran series – in some cases, decades-long – that exposed the romances, adulteries, and scandals within high society.
A key difference, explains Greig, is that in the real scandal sheets and magazines of the day, the subjects of gossip would not have been named. “Their identities might have been very loosely disguised,” she says. “Someone might have just printed their initials, like the Duke of H instead of the Duke of Hastings. But it was so obvious who they were talking about. It was a way to get around libel laws. There would have been no point in having these columns if we didn’t know who they were talking about.”
As viewers will know, little escapes the notice of Bridgerton’s Lady Whistledown, who is not afraid to name and shame. And, as in the show, the stakes were high in real life. “It’s not always quite as thrilling as Bridgerton sometimes is, but there was certainly the opportunity for scandal to break a family,” explains Greig. “If [a scandal] hit the press, then quite often it would lead to a woman having to remove herself from society to take a period in exile. The press had significant power in terms of people's reputation management in Regency society.”
Did people travel to Regency London from elsewhere in the British empire?
The new series of Bridgerton introduces us to Kate and Edwina Sharma (in the books, the characters are called Kate and Edwina Sheffield) who we soon learn have travelled from the city that was then called Bombay (present-day Mumbai) in India, which was then part of the growing British empire.
As seen in seasons one and two, the choices made by Bridgerton’s creators to include characters from diverse historical backgrounds offer audiences a chance to see and imagine what history might look like under different circumstances. “It draws on what we know to be historical reality, but also asks the audience to think more carefully about their expectations of what a period drama should look like, and also what it might be like if history was slightly different,” Greig told the HistoryExtra podcast.
“Of course, there is a lot of travel and more diverse communities in London than period dramas often reveal,” exlplains Greig. “They might not all be living in the West End and always hanging out at the court of Queen Charlotte, but there’s certainly a lot of people from different backgrounds in different places in London, whose stories are still to be told in histories and need to be recognised.”
While Bridgerton doesn’t claim or attempt to tell rigorous histories of such individuals living in Regency London, “sometimes it is the dramas that make us ask the questions and the historians then need to answer them,” says Greig. And there are historical parallels for Kate and Edwina’s journey. Three such women, writes Professor Durba Ghosh are Kitty Kirkpatrick, Helene Bennett and Elizabeth Ducarel.
“At the turn of the 19th century,” writes Ghosh, “elites of Asian descent circulated through London, socialising with those who gathered in the city that would become the heart of empire. Considered aristocratic because of their status at ‘home’ on the Indian subcontinent, the women who moved through tea parlours, salons and ballrooms would have been educated, fluent in English and Persian, and used to living among Europeans.
“Even though women of Asian lineage are typically not known for being free to travel or socialise with members of the opposite sex, the histories of Kitty Kirkpatrick, Helene Bennett, and Elizabeth Ducarel suggest otherwise.”
- Read more about the real South Asian women in Regency-era England
Where is Rotten Row?
Rotten Row is a broad track running down the south side of Hyde Park in London. During the Regency period it was a popular place to promenade, and for notable families of the day to socialise and be seen. Members of the Ton also indulged in ‘hacking’ along the track; that is, riding horses or horse-drawn carriages for pleasure. This wasn’t a place for racing though; strict rules required that horses and carriages should be driven at a sedate pace, no wild or high-speed riding or driving was allowed.
As for where the road got its name, it’s likely nothing to do with any ‘rotten’ folk who wandered it; some say the name ‘Rotten Row’ comes from the French phrase La Route du Roi, or “King’s Road”, while another source of the name might be the surface of the road. Designated in the 1730s in the reign of George II as a public bridleway, its surface was a mix of gravel and crushed tree bark to create a suitable surface for riding.
Did Queen Charlotte keep zebras?
Yes, Queen Charlotte really did keep a succession of zebras, and the animal became an important symbol in the late Georgian court. She received her first zebra, the sole survivor of a pair brought back from Southern Africa by Sir Thomas Adams, in 1762 as a wedding present.
It was kept in a paddock at Buckingham House, which had been bought by George III for his wife, and later became Buckingham Palace.
Crowds flocked to see the animal. The zebra, wrote one observer, “was pestered with visits, and had all her hours employed from morning to night in satisfying the curiosity of the public”.
As well as gaining great fame in a painting by artist George Stubbs, the zebra was also used in the satire of the day that mocked the royals, as “the Queen’s she-ass”. It even spawned several bawdy lyrics of the day, such as:
Through Buckingham Gate, as to Chelsea you pass,
Without Fee or Reward, you may see the Q---'s A--.
What is the game Pall-Mall?
The game of Pall-Mall is essentially croquet, a lawn game in which competitors hit a ball around a lawn with a wooden mallet. It features as a prominent plot point in both Julia Quinn’s second Bridgerton novel, The Viscount Who Loved Me (published in 2000), and the new series of Bridgerton.
Lawn games, hunting and horse riding were, in fact, all popular pursuits of the Regency era. “I think the stereotype is that women were just sitting around all day on their sofa, passing the time,” Greig told HistoryExtra, “doing needlework and things like that, whereas actually there is a much greater degree of physical activity than we might think.
“Riding horses for exercise was very common. But also participation in some sports. We see women playing cricket in images from the late 18th and early 19th century.”
Did cousins really marry cousins in Regency society?
In season 2 of Bridgerton, one character declares: “It is not odd to marry one’s cousin, it is regal. Just look at the royal family.”
It’s true that the Prince Regent, who was ruling in his father’s stead at the time Bridgerton is set, had married his first cousin, Caroline of Brunswick. Caroline was the daughter of George III’s elder sister Princess Augusta Frederica.
The marriage of the future George IV and Caroline was not a happy one, but it was common practice, particularly in nobility, for first cousins to marry during the Regency period. Such relationships were often fostered and even encouraged by parents, as it enabled families to keep property and wealth within a single branch.
It was also legal. The laws of consanguinity and affinity were governed by the Church of England at the time. These laws limited the unions between more fraternal connections; for instance, under the laws of affinity a brother couldn’t marry his brother’s widow, nor could a sister marry her sister’s widower. However, they could marry first cousins. And though the relationship between first cousins might seem a close familial connection today, during the early 19th century it was common for cousins to be separated by both distance and situation. In many cases, children of middle nobility might be removed from their parents to be raised by another notable family or relation, in the hope that this would better their station or secure a fortuitous match. As a result, it would have been more common for first cousins to meet as adults, increasing the possibility that relatives could see each other in a romantic light.
There are also examples of such unions in the contemporary writing of the day, for instance in Jane Austen’s 1814 novel Mansfield Park, which sees the union of Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram, first cousins who have been brought up as brother and sister. Austen’s other novels are also full of fraternal connections; heroines Emma Woodhouse and Elinor Dashwood both marry the siblings of their brother or sister-in-law.
As for the royals, the tradition of marrying cousins continued well beyond the Regency era. In 1840, Queen Victoria married her first cousin Prince Albert (they both shared a set of grandparents), her son the future Edward VII married his third cousin Alexandra of Denmark in 1863, while the future George V and Mary of Teck, married in 1893, were second cousins.