On the crisp morning of May 19, 2018, millions of devoted supporters watched in amazement as the new Duchess of Sussex entered St. George’s Chapel as a revolutionary figure of change. Her glistened skin of brown ambiance was lavishly complemented with a diamond adorned tiara thus signifying her place in the Royal family. For many, this union purported hope, reform, and most importantly inclusion.
A woman of African descent marrying into the Royal family may be an astonishing concept to present day onlookers. However, gracing the majestic walls in the East gallery of Buckingham Palace hangs an artists rendition of Queen Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.
Upon first glance, one would conclude that Queen Charlotte’s porcelain skin and dainty features were the depictions of an 18th-century queen of Anglo descent. Behind those painted blue eyes lies a narrative of racial shame that affects women of color down to this very day.
The Mint Museum in southern metropolitan Charlotte, North Carolina pays homage to its named queen with a 1762 portrait of Queen Charlotte painted by Sir Allan Ramsay. This drastically different portrayal provides observers with a queen flaunting full lips and a pronounced nose accompanied by thick and unapologetically ethnic hair. No longer suppressing her lineage, Queen Charlotte stands proudly as a symbol of bi-racial elegance.
While it’s never been confirmed that Queen Charlotte was, in fact, biracial, she still works as a symbol of multiculturalism predating Meghan Markle.
Sophia Charlotte: An Unfortunate Beginning
She married into the royal family in 1761 becoming the wife of King George III. North Africans who immigrated to Spain in the early 13th century were called Moors. Margarita de Castro y Souza was a Moor noblewoman who married into the Portuguese royal family. Historians traced Queen Charlotte’s lineage directly from Castro, making her mixed-race; something quite profound for its day.
From subjectively humble roots, Charlotte reportedly grew up in the Untere Schloss, or lower castle in northern Germany. She was born in 1744 to Duke Charles Louis Frederick of Mecklenburg Strelitz and Elizabeth Albertine of Saze-Hildburghausen; an introduction of lengthy proportions. Her father, Duke Carl, was known as the “Prince of Mirow”. In 1752, the Prince passed away, leaving eight year old Charlotte fatherless and left to jurisdiction by her half-brother. It can be noted that her level of education was less than desirable.
One could safely conclude that surely her lack of proper schooling had nothing to do with financial or economic barriers. However, Charlotte’s later obsession with ensuring that women of the royal family receive an education shed light on an issue quite prevalent today.
The hope for royal women to receive a quality education was not high on the courts priority list. Many young girls were simply not pushed to exceed their mental capabilities. During her younger years, she was taught the simplistic, yet intricate skills of embroidery. Although noble, she wished for a challenging, mental stimulation that was simply not allotted.
Through an arrangement of sorts, King George III sought after Charlotte as his new reigning queen. At the time, he was 22 years of age and living the life of a royal bachelor. An unwed King was frowned upon at the time, and he needed to immediately find a prospect. Charlotte was presented as a viable option for shameful reasons.
To begin, although the daughter of a German prince, her duchy wasn’t acclaimed nor widely respected. This lower existence meant Charlotte presumably had little to do with politics or matters of the court. In addition, she spoke only German which meant she could remain “silent and pretty” as the Kings addition.
In 1761, the union was solidified and Charlotte began her new life as, Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Only eight days after the death of her mother. King George was allegedly less than amused at the physical appearance of his new wife, and made his disdain apparent through his disappointed facial expressions.
Life as a Royal Wife
Surely, being the newly adorned Queen of a thriving empire would have been appealing for a woman of such humble beginnings. However, Queen Charlotte soon encountered the harsh realities of royal life. She quickly adopted the English language in order to properly understand her surroundings. From 1762 to 1766, the Queen gave birth to fifteen children, nine boys and six girls. She unfortunately suffered the loss of two children throughout the course of her lifetime. What’s interesting to note is that Queen Charlotte opposed the notion of having her children grow up in a traditionally royal household. Her disposition is comparable to eventual heir Princess Diana who wanted to give her boys a “normal” childhood.
Despite her strong point of view, Charlotte was unable to give her offspring the free, and spirited childhood she hoped for. In fact, she was so immersed in the responsibilities of a Queen, she couldn’t properly carry out her duties of a mother. Not one to hide her true inhibitions, she was quite vocal regarding her consistent state of being pregnant. In 1780, she quoted, “I don’t think a prisoner could wish more ardently for his liberty than I wish to be rid of my burden and see the end of my campaign. I would be happy if I knew this was the last time.”
Interestingly, there is an archived painting of the royal family that portrays Charlotte holding her youngest daughter with a very stale expression. Suffering the loss of two children and giving birth fifteen times is no doubt both physically and emotionally straining.
She made it her purpose to give her daughter the proper education they deserved. To combat her childhood of remarkable boredom, she instituted classes on language, philosophy, and electricity. She wanted her girls to be capable, intelligent young women with the ability to navigate the royal family with purpose. In a personal letter to her brother, she wrote: “If women had the same opportunities as men, they would do just as well.”
Her strong-willed spirit was perhaps unknown to the public eye. Forcing to submit to her husbands decree, she often kept her opinions hidden as that was customary at the time. However, she internally dealt with feelings of disapproval towards the royal court and often felt alone. With only her brother to communicate with through letters, she often wrote him openly expressing her frustrations.
It was quite difficult remaining silent while her husband candidly made a mockery of the royal household. Artistic portrayals and historical records describe King George as “The Mad King who Lost America”. He fought mental and physical illnesses that undoubtedly went misunderstood at the time. Charlotte was forced to care and stand by her husband despite his doubtful reputation. Naturally, the burden of misfortune weighed heavy on her personality. The once joyful young woman was now eaten alive by resentment. One can safely conclude that she suffered from a private depression as a result of her environmental challenges.
The Critique of the Queen
In 1792, a popularized caricature entitled, “Anti-Saccharites” portrays the King and Queen in a less than desirable light. The Queen in particular is portrayed with witch-like features and an ugly face. Her creepy smile and hazy eyes look intently at her audience of her either shocked or disappointed daughters. The photo, although intriguing to the eyes holds a stark political meaning. The slave-trade was infamously popularized during these early centuries and economically transformed the way Europeans were able to live. Sugar, a luxurious commodity, was one of the primary results of enslaving African people. Queen Charlotte was vocally against slavery and boycotted the use of sugar.
The photo depicts the Queen as saying, “O my dear Creatures, do but Taste it! You can’t think how nice it is without Sugar: – and then consider how much Work you’ll save the poor Blackeemoors by leaving off the use of it! – and above all, remember how much expence it will save your poor Papa! – O its charming cooling Drink!” This artists depiction truly noted how the public viewed her stance and unapologetically illustrated this. It should be noted that Queen Charlotte is the only exaggerated character in this cartoon. Her aged features reek with creepiness and she looks less than royal. On the contrary, King George is seen as blissfully ignorant while he drinks his sugarless tea. The public was outwardly harsh towards her opinion and sought to ruin her reputation.
Other renditions sought to capture Queen Charlotte in a devious and even greedy light. Artist Johann George Ziesenis illustrated the queen as regally taking flowers from an African servant. This notion emphasized her remorseless attitude and need for royal recognition. The public sought to criticize her political views by tearing down her beauty, and diminishing her character. If that wasn’t enough, her prominent features were scrutinized as they also made a mockery of her alleged African decent.
During those early years, artists were commissioned to “soften or even obliterate undesirable features in a subject’s face” according to a PBS write-up entitled “The Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Families.” Thanks to liberal artist Sir Allen Ramsay, he felt compelled to share Queen Charlotte’s authenticity with the world through his paintings. Boldly against slavery, his work posed a stark political statement to the British Empire. In fact, his stance on ending slavery in Great Britain caught the attention of judge Lord Mansfield. In 1772, the court began its process to eliminate the enslavement of African people and implement a system of equality. It’s safe to speculate that Queen Charlotte’s compliance in revealing her ethnic features in an art form influenced this systematic change.
Queen Charlotte endured the harsh critiques of the British media, but not at the expense of her self-esteem. Rather than focus on her philanthropic endeavors, her physical appearance was the root of much scrutiny. So much so, art historian Desmond Shawe-Taylor quoted “She was famously ugly.” Charles Dicken’s described her face as “plain” in the infamous novel A Tale of Two Cities. Queen Charlotte’s own doctor implied that she was “small and crooked, with a true mulatto face.” It is safe to conclude that her legacy is remembered with criticism and harsh treatment; a lifestyle quite surprising for a queen.
The concept of women being held to a higher physical standard than men is not new. In fact, women in modern times are often publicly criticized for their physical appearance as opposed to being honored for their accomplishments. When Hillary Clinton began her presidential campaign, her choice of clothing, hair, and even facial expressions were publicly analyzed. Rush Limbaugh so candidly expressed, “Will Americans want to watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?” In 2015 Kerry Washington spoke candidly about InStyle lightening her skin and contouring her prominent features as a means to diminish her ethnicity. Instead of glorifying women for their talents or efforts in social change, the public eye values vanity and an ideal image. In addition, women in power are often pushed to remain silent amongst their famous spouses. As a result, this requirement of submission pushes women into a dark, and isolated mental state.
Aside from possibly being one of the first queens with mixed lineage, Queen Charlotte contributed much to society. Mozart and Bach were both sponsored by the Queen who Mozart described as “the Genius of Music.” Her interest in intellectual matters as well as her bravery in standing up to the abolishment of slavery is of noteworthy cause. Status in both Great Britain and North America are erected in her honor. In fact, the brimming metropolitan of Charlotte, North Carolina is nicknamed the “Queen City” in her honor.
In addition, the superb Kew gardens were founded by the queen herself. Although dowdy in appearance as some would conclude, her mark in royal history is arguably the most intricate and debatable. Her mystery is elusive and conquest-able. No matter her true ethnicity, her role in the royal family demonstrates that inclusion is possible. Despite the racial separation that occurs within the world today, there is still a glimmer of hope in promise hidden in the archives of history.Sources