The real history behind Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story
Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story fictionalises the early life of one of the most beloved characters in Bridgerton, the fierce and formidable Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Polly Putnam, the show’s historical advisor, discusses the real history behind the show, and why the Georgians remain so relevant to us today
Period drama fans will be glued to their screens this week as Netflix releases their latest show set in the Bridgerton universe – Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story. Created by showrunner Shonda Rhimes, the series acts as a prequel exploring the early life of one of the main season’s most-loved characters – the formidable Queen Charlotte.
It fictionalises the real story of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, a young woman who is shipped off to marry the king of England, George III, and comes to realise that things are not as they first appear in the royal household. Polly Putnam, Collections Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, acted as a historical advisor on the series, and she spoke to Ellie Cawthorne on the HistoryExtra podcast about the real inspirations behind the show.
The show opens with a message that reads: “Dearest Gentle Reader, this is the story of Queen Charlotte from Bridgerton. It is not a history lesson. It is fiction inspired by fact, and all liberties taken by the author are quite intentional.”
What is it like to be a historical advisor on a show that that knowingly and intentionally moves away from real history?
It was fascinating! My first task was to write a series of reports for showrunner and creator Shonda Rhimes on Queen Charlotte, George and George’s period of mental and physical illness. As our conversations continued, she referred to this as her “canon”. But she was very clear from the off that because the series is set in “Bridgerton-land” and not the real past, that this was going to be a work of fiction. I like to think of it as historical fan-fiction, because it's been written with a lot of respect and love for the history and great empathy for the characters.
One of my main jobs was to give Shonda information that was inspiring. In an early scene we see the wedding of George and Charlotte, so for reference I showed Shonda a sketch of the ceremony by Joshua Reynolds, which today hangs in Kew Palace. The fact that that scene is so obviously inspired by a picture is really lovely, and there are details throughout which are informed by historical material I provided to Shonda. But she's also had fun with it, and I think that's something that you can't be snobby about. You just have to take it for what it is.
What do you think the series captures well about the real history?
In my job as a Collections Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, I look after Kew Palace, the home of George and Charlotte. It's been amazing to see these characters brought to life, and to be introduced to people like the king’s mother Princess Augusta, who I think we’re seeing on screen for the first time here.
One of the most exciting things has been to see a version of George III that we've never seen before. We’ve only really seen him on screen as an infirm old man, but the George we meet in this depiction is active, young and with a love of science. Probably my favourite fact I gave to Shonda was that he was known as ‘farmer George’ due to his love of agriculture. I told her to feel free to include some sexy topless farming!
So apart from the sexy topless farming, what makes the story of George and Charlotte such great material for a drama?
There’s a shadow of mental illness cast over this story, which I think is often the only fact that people know about George III, and the rest remains unknown.
I think it feels quite relevant too. In the previous two series of Bridgerton, we met Charlotte as this amazing strong woman who has to take care of her husband. Despite the fact these figures are royal and elevated, that's compelling because it feels familiar. A lot of people today care for loved ones, or live with mental health issues themselves.
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What was their marriage like before George's bouts of mental illness – they had 15 children, but do we know if they had an intimate and affectionate relationship?
I think so. Within days of Charlotte arriving, George wrote how thrilled he was with his new wife, and one of the things that brought them together was music. Queen Charlotte brought two harpsichords across to England with her, and George played the flute. Music became one of their great shared passions, and in the early days of marriage they were at concerts the whole time.
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Queen Charlotte was, of course, a real person. What do we know about the real Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz?
She was not quite as cool as the Bridgerton Charlotte, I'm afraid. But they do have some things in common. The real Charlotte was very successful in her role as queen. At the time that meant being a passive character. You couldn't speak your mind about politics. Your job was to support your husband. One of her main jobs as queen was having children, and she was absolutely brilliant at that – she had 15.
The real Charlotte was also an incredibly intelligent woman. She had an interest in botany from a very young age, and created an amazing series of geometric drawings. That’s why we see her flipping through a book of geometry in one of the scenes in the drama.
There’s an interesting private note she wrote to her best friend, Lady Onslow, where Charlotte essentially said that if women were afforded the same education as men, they would be able to rule just as well. Bridgerton gives us a depiction of Charlotte that explores that idea – what if she had been able to take control in a way that she was never allowed to in reality and become the real power behind the throne?
Although Charlotte had 15 children, in the series we see her struggling to get them married off, and further the royal line of succession. Does that reflect reality?
Yes, there were tremendous difficulties furthering the line of succession. One of the drama’s early scenes depicts the death of the Princess Royal [George and Charlotte’s granddaughter, also called Charlotte]. Princess Charlotte was a much-loved character, and the hopes of the nation – and the future of the royal line – rested on her shoulders, so her death was a national tragedy.
Something that did differ in real history is that, despite living with their parents into their 30s, Queen Charlotte’s own daughters really did want to marry. The fact they didn’t was partly due to circumstance – they were reaching marrying age just as George hit his worst bout of mental health issues and war was kicking off.
- Read more | Was the Regency era a good time to be a woman? The truth not seen in Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story
It's quite difficult to make alliances when you're at war with half of Europe. But I also think that George and Charlotte just really wanted to keep their daughters and family around them. They knew that getting married as a princess was a big risk – just look at what happened to Charlotte herself. So I can imagine why that you wouldn't necessarily want that for your own children, but I think that trying to keep their children close was also a big blindspot for George and Charlotte.
What do we know about the real George III’s bouts of mental illness?
Trying to diagnose specific conditions from historical sources is always really tricky, but what we do get from all these accounts is the sense of a man who is suffering greatly. We know the king had episodes of mania and would speaking incessantly for hours, rambling from when he woke up to the middle of the night, by which time the doctors would bind him to his bed.
There was a physical illness which went alongside the mental illness too – his legs started swelling. And according to the theory of humours which dominated at the time, the doctors would aim to purge him in various ways: by bleeding him, making him vomit, or applying caustic acid to his legs.
We have several surviving sources that tell us about George’s mental health issues and their severity, including accounts from the king’s equerry Robert Fulke Greville and novelist Fanny Burney, and of course, doctors’ reports. But it’s important to remember that these reports are far from unbiased. For example, Dr Anthony Addington was appointed by George IV [George III’s son].
- Read more | George III: why his reputation as the mad king who lost America needs to be re-evaluated
Obviously that gave him an agenda, because if his father was deemed incurably insane, George IV would be made regent and all his debts would be paid off. Addington’s diagnosis infers that the king is as mad as anything, a total goner. On the other hand, there is the report of Dr Francis Willis. Success is good for business, so Willis is keen to stress that the king was getting better under his care.
We know the king had episodes of mania and would speaking incessantly for hours, rambling from when he woke up to the middle of the night, by which time the doctors would bind him to his bed
While the king clearly had a terrible time, this was an incredibly distressing time for Charlotte too. In his bouts of mania, George would talk about the women he preferred to her. For 25 years, being a good wife to the king was the purpose of Charlotte’s life, and now that purpose had been made void, which was devastating. It’s said that during the famous period of George’s illness between 1788 and 1789, the toll on Charlotte was so great that her hair went white overnight.
From the glittering costumes and sumptuous palaces to the gravity-defying wigs, the series looks sensational. Can you tell us about the work that goes into a drama like this?
The thought and the effort that goes into the production is huge. Take, for example, when the production team came to Hampton Court Palace. They put up these incredible awnings and filled the palace with carriages. They even recreated George III’s state stagecoach in miniature.
As someone who works there and knows the rich history, it was exciting to see the place come alive with all the horses and pomp and ceremony. These palaces are places designed for parties and are always best at night-time, so seeing them lit by naked flames was really special.
This series explores the idea of a “great experiment”, in which Charlotte’s marriage heralds in a wave of people of colour being welcomed into the British aristocracy. This didn’t happen in reality, but why do you think it’s an interesting idea to explore in a period drama?
There were about 15,000 black people living in 18th-century London, and it’s interesting to imagine what it might have been like if these people could have had great places in society. But also, there were amazing real characters to draw inspiration from.
People like Julius Soubise, who was in the household of the Duchess of Queensberry where he was elevated and given all the money and potential of a gentleman, and became part of the entourage around the Prince Regent. Or we can think of someone like Dido Elizabeth Belle, who lived at Kenwood House under the care of Lord Mansfield.
The “great experiment” would have really benefited someone like her, so it’s interesting to imagine a scenario in which she could have held her place comfortably in society, in a way she couldn't in real life. There’s an amazing portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle that shows her as part of the aristocratic household, but not quite on a par with it.
Why do you think people have fallen in love with the Bridgerton universe?
Because it’s opened up the Georgians to us, and made them human. As someone who studies the Georgians, I think they feel like people we could know today. There was a certain sexual freedom and glamorous allure about the era that is captured so well in Bridgerton, and I think that’s one of the reasons it’s so popular.
- On the podcast | Hannah Greig, etiquette advisor to Bridgerton, talks about how the show ripped up the rulebook on Regency romance
Another is that it’s so different from other period dramas. There’s so much colour in it! So many period dramas only use these tasteful muted colours, but that’s not what the Georgian era was like. George III, for example, had leopard print curtains in his bathroom. It was a gaudy era, so the fact that Bridgerton is so wonderfully gaudy warms the cockles of this Georgian lover's heart.
Polly Putnam is collections curator at Historic Royal Palaces, responsible for Hampton Court Palace and Kew Palace, and historical advisor for Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, which is now available on Netflix
Polly Putnam, historical advisor on Netflix’s new series, delves into the real royal history that inspired Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story. Listen now.