The real story of Bridgerton’s Queen Charlotte: from glittering courts to tragic decline
Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz arrived in Britain as a teenager to marry King George III, and theirs would become a marriage of deep affection and domesticity, with celebrated Georgians flocking to their court. Yet hers was also a life increasingly blighted by tragedy. Following Golda Rosheuvel’s star turn as the queen consort in Netflix drama Bridgerton, Catherine Curzon shares more…
Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and King George III were married for almost six decades. Following their arranged marriage, no Georgian royals were more devoted to one another, but theirs was a love story that turned into a tragedy.
Charlotte was born to the Duke and Duchess of Mecklenburg at the Palace of Mirow, in the small principality of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (now part of Germany), in 1744. Her education was mediocre, and though she learned how to manage a household, she was kept distant from the politics of royal life. Only when her brother succeeded to the dukedom on their father’s death did 12-year-old Charlotte enter court life, but Mecklenburg’s powerplays were nothing compared to the sharkpool of Georgian England.
Charlotte’s future was decided in 1760, when the 22-year-old George III succeeded his grandfather on the English throne. This unassuming, diligent bachelor needed a queen – and an heir – as a matter of urgency. Eager to ensure the line of succession, politicians included Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz on a shortlist of eligible and suitable Protestant ladies. She was reported to have no political ambitions and to be in all regards perfectly pleasant and ‘sweet-tempered’, which was exactly what George was looking for. He chose her to be his bride, thrusting the sheltered teenager into the spotlight. Charlotte was about to become queen of a land she had never visited, alongside a man whom she had never met.
The wedding of Princess Charlotte and George III
After a proxy wedding ceremony in Mecklenburg, Charlotte arrived at Harwich on the south coast of England in September 1761. Vast crowds lined the route to St James’s Palace, eager to glimpse the new queen, and by the time she arrived in London on 8 September, she was shaking with nerves. She reportedly stumbled from her carriage towards the waiting king but, as she went to throw herself at George’s feet in supplication, he caught her. It was a promising start.
That evening was a whirlwind. After dining with the royal family, Charlotte barely had time to rest before she changed into her bridal gown (a dress she would wear again two weeks later for her coronation). But at her wedding she struggled with the acres of fabric and piles of jewels; seasickness on the voyage to England had caused Charlotte to lose so much weight that the gown constantly slipped from her shoulders under the weight of its priceless adornments. On her finger she wore a far simpler piece of jewellery: a diamond ring inscribed with the date, which George had given her on arrival. It was to remain Charlotte’s most precious treasure for the rest of her life.
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England was charmed by its young king and queen straight away. The couple quickly settled into a steady domestic routine more akin to the upper middle classes than royalty. Charlotte spent hours studying English every day, with George encouraging her efforts, and the couple entertained courtiers by giving intimate musical concerts. Best of all for King George, when he warned Charlotte that she must never meddle in politics and must be on the lookout for glory-seekers, she was happy to obey. Unlike her mother-in-law and the late Queen Caroline of Ansbach, wife of George II, Charlotte had no interest in running the country.
It was the issue of family that most dominated Queen Charlotte’s life as consort; the royal couple took the matter of their heir and spare very seriously indeed. Over the next 22 years (between 1762–83) Charlotte gave birth to 15 children, including their eldest son, the future George IV. All but two of her children lived to adulthood. The youngsters spent hours every day with their parents, whether playing rambunctious games with the king or being quizzed on the content of their daily lessons by the queen, who oversaw their education. Though Charlotte would remain deeply involved in her children’s lives as they grew older, she was not always welcome.
Was Queen Charlotte addicted to snuff?
Many viewers of Regency drama Bridgerton have been struck by a short scene in which Queen Charlotte snorts a substance during a meeting at her court. This is snuff, a finely-ground smokeless tobacco inhaled through the nostrils; the queen was so fond of it that she earned the nickname ‘Snuffy Charlotte’.
By the 1700s snuff was considered a luxury product and mark of refinement, and Queen Charlotte had an entire room at Windsor Castle dedicated to her snuff collection.
Inside Queen Charlotte’s court
At Queen Charlotte’s court, protocol was everything. 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. Although the king and queen were young, they soon developed a reputation for stuffiness. But behind the scenes things couldn’t have been more different. At home Charlotte strove to recreate her loving childhood and oversaw the creation of gardens, cottages and even exotic menageries, turning her palaces, including those at Windsor and Kew, into centres of family life as well as ceremony. Entry to her inner circle (which included novelist Frances Burney and other intellectual women of the day) wasn’t won easily, but she treated her most trusted ladies-in-waiting as old friends, creating devoted bonds that lasted for decades. Queen Charlotte’s private circle was always one of domesticity, rather than politics.
Despite their dislike of show, Charlotte and George’s court glittered. The most celebrated Georgians flocked to see them and amid the rustle of silk court dresses and the flash of the most fashionable jewellery, courtiers sought to make a splash. Whether at St James’s or Buckingham House, the king and queen performed weekly musical concerts and gave entertainments, whilst official levées were held twice a week, with a third day added later. On Thursdays and Sundays, the king and queen received courtiers at Drawing Rooms, where they showed off their family. On one such occasion Charlotte dressed her infant sons in their robes of state and her little daughter in a Roman toga and had them host the Drawing Room instead. Though loyal courtiers professed to be charmed, caricaturists savaged the event. Charlotte would never repeat her playful experiment.
Queen Charlotte’s heritage
Not only was Charlotte an unpolitical queen, but it has been suggested that she may also have been England’s first (and so far, only) queen of African heritage. Historian Mario De Valdes y Cocom claims that he can trace Charlotte’s genealogy back through nine generations to Margarita de Castro y Sousa, a 15th-century Portuguese noblewoman, whom he posits was black. He notes that Charlotte’s doctors occasionally used racially pejorative terms to describe her features, illustrating his claims with portraits in which her skin tone is notably darker than that usually seen in 18th-century portraiture.
Valdes’s research has been disputed by some historians, who argue that the nine generations that divide Margarita and Charlotte render such connections moot. Some also suggest that Valdes has misinterpreted the historical evidence regarding Margarita’s ethnicity, which has implications for his theories regarding Charlotte’s heritage too. Nevertheless, it’s a subject that will no doubt continue to fascinate. Charlotte was recently played by Golda Rosheuvel, a Guyanese-British actress, in Regency drama Bridgerton.
- Read more | Bridgerton: the real history explained
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Queen Charlotte and the illness of George III
The happy status quo of the royal marriage was violently shaken in 1788, when George experienced his first bout of mental illness. Sleepless and often violent, he made lurid accusations of adultery against Charlotte and lascivious comments about her attendants. Charlotte’s ladies-in-waiting watched in horror as their queen stopped eating and slept only a few hours a night. She tore at her hair, which began to grey prematurely, and paced back and forth for hours on end, desperately wondering what would become of her. For the first time she locked her bedroom door against the king and kept her youngest children in her chambers at night, afraid for their safety after George physically assaulted his adult son, the Prince of Wales. With court physicians apparently powerless to help, a desperate Charlotte called in the doctor Francis Willis, who had been credited with curing the madness of a courtier. It was a fateful decision.
- Read more | George III: why his reputation as the mad king who lost America needs to be re-evaluated
Willis’s treatment of the king has been well documented, but Charlotte was suffering too. George was her best friend and without him, her nerves frayed to breaking. With the king straightjacketed at Kew, Charlotte was dragged into parliamentary arguments over who should rule as Regent during his illness. Her resistance to the appointment of the dissolute Prince of Wales led to an estrangement between mother and son that would last for years. Once an unpolitical queen, she suddenly found herself the target of accusations that “the Queen is really King”.
Though George experienced a recovery, his illness left a permanent blot on the marriage. 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. Yet she still protected and loved the king as much as she ever had. When his final mental breakdown occurred in 1810, and the Prince of Wales came to power as Prince Regent in 1811 at the head of a glittering, glamorous court, Queen Charlotte became her husband’s devoted guardian. Yet she never visited him alone again.
The wide-eyed bride of years earlier was gone, worn down by decades of trauma. Charlotte had grown hard, forcing all but one of her six daughters to remain at home to act as her unwilling companions and coming to rely on only a few very close confidantes. She was left distraught by visits to George, who railed at her for having appointed the unyielding Dr Willis, spitting that he loved her dogs more than he had ever loved her.
For the last decade of his life the king was secluded at Windsor, where Charlotte oversaw his care and watched him fade away until he no longer recognised her. The queen’s last public appearance was in London in April 1818, after which she was set on travelling to Windsor to join her spouse. Instead ill health confined her to Kew. Robbed of the ability to walk, Charlotte could merely lay in bed and gaze out at her beloved gardens.
On 17 November 1818, as the Prince Regent and her children gathered around her, Queen Charlotte died. Only now did she make her longed-for journey to Windsor, where she was interred in St George’s Chapel. She was reunited with her beloved husband little more than a year later, when George III was laid to rest beside her.
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Catherine Curzon is a historian of the eighteenth century. She has appeared on Radio 4's PM and her work has been featured online by BBC News, BBC History Extra and The Daily Express.