Royalty, Race and the Curious Case of Queen Charlotte

Main image: Princess Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, by Johann Ziesenis, c.1761. Kew Palace. Royal Collection.

by Jill Sudbury

Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s wedding day, 19 May 2018

On a gloriously sunny May day in Windsor, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle exchanged vows in a ceremony that embraced the bride’s heritage and the pomp of British monarchy. For those alert to the symbolism of the occasion, there was a certain irony in watching an American mixed-race bride gliding elegantly over the tomb of George III, buried in the vault below, under whose watch the American colonies were lost. In a vivacious sermon, unlike any other heard at a royal venue, the Reverend Michael Curry cited Martin Luther King, slavery, race, and, of course, love.

Much has been made of Meghan Markle’s ‘mixed’ heritage, namely her blackness. As the new Duchess of Suffolk negotiates the subtle nuances and depths of royal protocol, and finding the right shade of stockings, there are claims that African blood already flows through the British royal family, albeit much diluted.

In Remi Kapo’s Torrents of Fire, Jonas Guinea returns from his momentous journey to Pertigua. As they bump along in the carriage towards Deptford, Mister Pridmore, the shipping agent, regales Jonas with news of the recent marriage of King George III to “some German woman”. That was, of course, Queen Charlotte (1744-1818). As the campaign for the abolition of slavery gathered pace, had a woman of colour quietly become the wife of the most powerful man in the empire?

Queen Charlotte’s bedroom, Kew Palace © Jill Sudbury

This year marks the bicentenary of her death, with various celebrations taking place to remember the life of a remarkable woman who was the royal consort for 57 years – she is second only to the Duke of Edinburgh as Britain’s longest-serving royal consort. She died sitting upright in a low black chair in her bedroom at Kew Palace, struggling to breathe as she succumbed to pneumonia. The chair still remains at the foot of her bed as a memorial to her. Kew Palace, within the grounds of Kew Gardens, was a favourite bolthole for the royal couple. With access to the remarkable holdings of Royal Collection and its enthusiastic staff, it also provides visitors with a wonderful opportunity to study a selection of paintings from across her long life, and a visit is highly recommended.

On 8 September, 1761, Princess Sophia Charlotte married King George III, having met him for the first time just six hours previously. She was from the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in northern Germany, a quiet backwater of the German aristocracy. Contemporary accounts of her wedding day paint a forlorn picture of a young bride far from home, speaking no English, and with her ill-fitting, heavily-embellished wedding dress slipping off her, not helped by the terrible bouts of seasickness  she had suffered on her storm-wracked journey to London.[1] In a rather telling detail, it was customary that a set of a young royal bride-to-be’s stays, or corsets, would be sent ahead so that clothes could be made for her arrival, but this young bride only possessed one set, so her measurements had been sent on instead.

King George III in coronation robes. Workshop of Alan Ramsay, c.1761-62

That the marital net had been cast so far was revealing in itself. With the death of his grandfather, George II, the previous year – George’s father, Frederick, Prince of Wales, had died some years earlier – and with his coronation looming, George was much in need of a wife. The court and George’s mother, the formidable Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales, began scouring the aristocratic houses of Germany for a suitable bride – Protestant, of course – and alighted on the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The family’s aristocratic lineage was both ancient and impeccable. It had links to most of the royal families of Europe and indisputable Hanoverian credentials, which the royal court was so keen to reinforce.[2] However, it is the links to Portuguese royalty which now attracts the most interest, but we shall return to that shortly. The Duchy’s remoteness also meant that his wife would be far removed from the dangerous intrigues of the major European royal courts, which suited George perfectly – he famously wanted a wife who wouldn’t ‘meddle’. He announced to his Council his intention to marry her, and a royal delegation was quickly despatched to seal the deal. Whilst he awaited her arrival, it is said that he carried around a small portrait of her that he was so enamoured of, that he would show it to no-one – possibly this one. Meanwhile, at the palace at Mirow, Charlotte’s marriage contract was agreed by her eldest brother, the reigning duke, and George’s emissary, the Earl of Harcourt.

The 17-year-old bride who greeted George on their wedding day was poorly educated, unworldly and rather docile. She was also not conventionally pretty, at least by English standards. George was, according to some accounts, rather shocked by his new wife’s ordinariness. Descriptions of her during her lifetime suggest a rather plain and slight woman, with a nose that was wider and longer than desirable, and lips that were not the rosebud ideal of the time. As the court became accustomed to her, however, it was generally agreed that her hair was a pleasing light brown, her eyes were a fine feature, she was chatty once she overcame her shyness, and that she had good teeth.

During her long life, a huge number of images of her were produced, ranging from quick pencil sketches through to formal state portraits by way of caricatures and prints. Much of the imagery that has fuelled claims of Charlottes’s possible African ancestry is from the first few years of her time in England.

The politics of portraiture is discernible in our first glimpse of Charlotte. This portrait is dated from the year of her marriage, whilst she was still at the old palace of Mirow, by Johann Georg Ziesenis (1716-1776), a German-Danish portrait artist who painted the Mecklenburg-Strelitz family numerous times.  As was the intention of such paintings, it displays status, wealth and the young princess’s marriageability. Framed by opulent drapes and a touch of ermine, the young princess looks demurely and prettily at the viewer, wearing an elaborate dress, albeit a rather old-fashioned one by the standards of London court fashionistas of the time. The ducal crown of Mecklenburg-Strelitz casually rests on a side table, and the family estate can be seen in the background. She is attended to by a young black servant kneeling before her, resplendent in his turban and obsequiously offering her freshly cut roses, an artistic trope that was already starting to fall into disfavour in Britain.

Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, by Esther Denner 1761

Three lesser-known portraits by Esther Denner (1710-1779) also survive from the same period. Here, for example, we see the young Charlotte, again wearing the same outfit as in the Ziesenis portrait, but has none of the delicate prettiness. Both were almost certainly painted from life.

Two weeks after her arrival, the coronation of her new husband took place at Westminster Abbey, and the rush for official portraits began. Although George’s image was familiar to his subjects, few knew what the new queen looked like. Not that this small detail stopped the more enterprising from producing images, albeit with remarkably varied results. For mass production purposes, prints were the quickest. In some instances, plates from other portraits were quickly requisitioned and remastered, hoping that the finished product looked vaguely like the subject. This was the case in a notorious dispute at the time between two publishers, who thought they had stolen a lead on the opposition in advance of the royal nuptials, by printing a mezzotint by Richard Houston, apparently ‘done from a miniature picture’. Unfortunately, it was soon exposed as being of a well-known beauty of the day, Mrs Penelope Pitt.[3]

Her most excellent majesty Charlotte Queen of Great Britain / Frye ad vivum delineavit et sculp, mezzotint by Thomas Frye, 1762. Library of Congress

A more ingenious attempt was made by Thomas Frye, a renowned portrait painter and mezzotinter of the day. He managed to surreptitiously sketch her while she was at the theatre. It is said that she noticed he was drawing her, and obligingly turned her face towards him, allowing him to boast that it was ‘ad vivum’ – ‘from life’.

In 1761, Allan Ramsay (1713-1784) was appointed Principal Painter in Ordinary to the King (1761-84). This was a considerable responsibility as it required providing official portraits for a myriad of government offices, embassies, colonial governors, institutions and so on. A visitor to Ramsay’s studio in Soho Square noted that it was ‘crowded with portraits of His Majesty in every stage of their operation’. These were substantial pieces of work, and Ramsay employed numerous assistants to help him complete these commissions. The prime portrait for the formal coronation portraits of Queen Charlotte can be seen here. A huge number of these paintings survive, many in the Royal Collection, and the variation between them is intriguing.

Not only was Ramsay their official artist, but the royal couple enjoyed sitting for him. He was almost as famous for his cultured conversation as he was for his portraiture; Samuel Johnson said of him, “You will not find a man in whose conversation there is more instruction, more information, and more elegance, than in Ramsay’s”. His enthusiasms were broad and passionately pursued. He had already spent a lot of time abroad, particularly in Italy, and spoke fluent Italian, French and German. George appreciated his breadth of knowledge on both cultural and political matters. Charlotte was said to have particularly enjoyed his company as she was able to converse with him in her native tongue, a rare pleasure as German was not generally spoken at the British court. Ramsay took great care to source books in German that he thought she might enjoy. However, this connection was to be relatively short-lived. Although he retained the title of Principle Painter until his death in 1784, he largely stopped painting in the 1770s, especially after he suffered a permanent arm injury in c.1773.[4]

So why is Ramsay so important? As well as being Principal Painter, his portraits have been singled out by many as depicting Queen Charlotte with distinctly African features. It is inferred that this was a subversive way of displaying his abolitionist tendencies, fuelled by his familial relationship with Lord Mansfield, and the latter’s role in several key legal judgements that contributed to the eventual abolition of slavery. This supposition, if it were true, begs the question as to why the royal couple would then approve these images if they were trying to obscure aspects of her heritage.[5]

The connection to Lord Mansfield is through Ramsay’s second wife, Margaret Lindsay, who was Lady Mansfield’s niece. Furthermore, the Mansfields were also the legal guardians of Dido Belle, Lady Mansfield’s great-niece. Dido had been born into slavery in the British West Indies in c.1761. Her father was a British naval officer, Sir John Lindsay, who was Ramsay’s brother-in-law. On returning to London in 1765, he chose to bring his young daughter with him, and entrusted her to the Mansfields.

Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray. Artist unknown, formerly attributed to Johan Zoffany, c.1788. Scone Palace, Scotland.

Despite Mansfield’s rulings on the James Somersett case and his forceful statements on the abhorrence of slavery, as well as his well-documented affection for Dido, it would be inaccurate to describe him as an abolitionist – as a judge, his remit was to interpret the law of the land as it already stood, as is seen in his judgement in the infamous Zong trial. Thus, abolitionist sentiments that have been ascribed to Ramsay through this association need to be treated with caution. Whilst Ramsay’s thoughts on slavery are not known, he was an enthusiastic figure within the Scottish Enlightenment, and therefore one could assume that he would have been against slavery. However, whilst those within the Scottish Enlightenment condemned slavery, their opposition was largely on moral, philosophical and economic grounds, and rarely translated into active engagement with the issue.[6] Again, being against slavery didn’t mean one was an abolitionist. It is also unclear whether he ever met Dido; he certainly hadn’t when he painted the earlier portraits of Queen Charlotte, as Dido, born in c.1761, was not brought to this country until around 1765 – her story will be the subject of a forthcoming blog.

Allan Ramsay in old age by James Foye, 1776. Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Photo: Stephen C Dickson

Whilst the young Queen Charlotte may have been charmed by Ramsay’s cultured conversation, one person who wasn’t was his father-in-law. The eldest daughter of Sir Alexander Lindsay of Evelick and Amelia Murray, Margaret Lindsay had been one of Ramsay’s drawing students. Her father was incensed by their relationship. Not only was Ramsay a mere painter, and one with dependents, but his father had been a wigmaker – that Allan Ramsay Senior was also a famous poet and leading figure of the Scottish Enlightenment counted for nought. Ramsay had a somewhat robust attitude towards obstacles, and that included future fathers-in-law; in 1752, the couple eloped.[7] Her father disowned her. Although the estrangement from his wife’s family appears to have been total in the earlier years of their marriage, the death of Ramsay’s father-in-law in 1762 opened the way to a reconciliation with her remaining family. Surviving correspondence, for example, shows that Ramsay took it upon himself to help sort out his mother-in-law’s complex legal problems following her husband’s death. There is also a sensitively rendered portrait of his brother-in-law painted in 1768/9.

The Queen of Hearts cover’d in diamonds, c.1786. Library of Congress.

Meanwhile, the royal couple settled into the happy rhythm of domesticity, something in which they both delighted. Charlotte was remarkably fecund, and with an heir and several spares produced very rapidly, she began to slip the shackles of her micromanaging mother-in-law. By royal standards of the time, their marriage was a thoroughly strange affair. Unlike his predecessors, George was the very model of fidelity; during his long life, there was not even the whiff of a rumour that there was a royal mistress. Having witnessed the catastrophic consequences of other Hanoverian marriages, he believed that the monarchy would better serve the people if grounded in the sensibilities of a family life Despite the toll of giving birth to 15 children over 22 years,[8] Charlotte’s keen intellect flourished on these strange shores. Her cultural and scientific curiosity complemented her husband’s wide-ranging interests; she read widely and intelligently, and was a sophisticated musical patron. However, her greatest passion lay with plants, and she became a highly accomplished amateur botanist. She sought out the finest botanists of the age, including Sir Joseph Banks, who named the striking Bird of Paradise after her (Strelitzia reginae Banks), and encouraged the development and expansion of Kew Gardens.

The trajectory of George III’s reputation is fascinating. He tends to be remembered primarily for losing the American colonies and his ‘madness’. After an uncertain start to life – he was born two months premature – he soon showed himself to be a quick and enthusiastic student. He could read and write in both English and German from a very young age, and was the first British monarch to receive a systematic scientific education. His interest in science and the burgeoning technologies of the age continued throughout his life. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the astronomer, William Herschel, and sponsored the construction of what was then the world’s largest telescope. Despite being ridiculed by some as Farmer George, he was a knowledgeable and passionate agriculturalist.

The Gradual Abolition of the Slave Trade or Leaving of Slavery by Degrees, by Isaac Cruikshank, published 1792. Library of Congress

The portrayals of Charlotte also settle into a regular image that transcends the large number of famous artists of the age who sought to portray her, Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, Zoffany, Benjamin West and Francis Cotes being just a few. While these might have flattered, the caricaturists of the day had a wonderful time mocking the royal couple. What is striking, however, is that cartoons and caricatures are free of any racial connotations, even when the Queen Charlotte embraced the anti-saccharite campaign. London was never as genteel as people would like to imagine it, with a strongly subversive and defiant streak, especially when whetted by alcohol, with a healthy disregard for ‘one’s betters’. Whilst no reference seems to have been made of ‘African’ features, what they never stinted on, however, was her supposed ugliness. As she grew older, her Chamberlain, Colonel Disbrowe, declared, “I do think that the bloom of her ugliness is going off.” Charlotte was remarkable sanguine on the attacks on her appearance. One of her attendants recalled her saying: “The English people did not like me much, because I was not pretty; but the King was fond of driving a phaeton in those days, and once he overturned me in a turnip-field, and that fall broke my nose. I think I was not quite so ugly after dat [sic].”[9]

But this domestic bliss was not to last. Their apparently happy marriage was changed forever by the George’s first major onset of ‘madness’ in 1788. Charlotte was said to have been devastated.[10] He became extraordinarily voluble and sometimes violent. Contemporary accounts report that he would speak continuously for hour upon hour until he frothed at the mouth. One of the most poignant depictions of her was painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence in 1789, and said to have been a good likeness. Drawn and wraith-like, she looks away from the viewer as if in a painful world of her own. Around her wrists are the magnificent pearl bracelets that George had given her upon their marriage. By the time the painting was complete, George had recovered, and the royal couple refused to buy the portrait.

For many years, a hypothesis circulated that the cause was porphyria, a genetic blood disorder that can cause acute psychiatric symptoms.[11] However, this theory has now been largely discounted due to its very selective use of evidence, and it is now thought that he was suffering from bipolar disorder, with significant periods of mania.[12] The last major episode began in 1810, and continued to his death in 1820, with the Regency Act being invoked in 1811. His final illness was exacerbated by blindness, possible deafness and probable dementia. Frightened by his often bizarre and frightening behaviour, it is believed that the last time she saw her husband was in June 1812.

As the freshly-minted Duchess of Sussex and her 92-year-old grandmother-in-law were pictured giggling away together on their first joint official engagement, one couldn’t help thinking how different the current monarch’s later years are from those of her great-great-great-great-grandmother. Charlotte’s declining years were marked by her sadness at her husband’s insanity and frustration with his doctors, her own poor health, and fractious relationships with her surviving children. Her previous even temper became tetchy and argumentative. Heart disease meant that she sometimes suffered periods of terrible oedema, or fluid retention, which sometimes caused her to swell enormously. There are far fewer portraits of her from this period. They typically show a simply dressed, elderly woman. In Stroehling’s 1807 portrait, the terrible bloating is clear to see. After her death in November 1818, straw was strewn on the courtyard at Windsor Castle to muffle the sounds of the carriage procession bringing George’s beloved wife’s body back to St George’s Chapel. Courtiers feared it would distress him greatly, but it is unlikely he was even aware of her existence. He joined her just over a year later.

Among the public, there was much sympathy for her difficult final years, and many thousands had turned out for her funeral possession. Within the court, however, there was not always so much consideration. Whilst George’s experiment in domestic felicity had given the royal family so much happiness in its early years, it turned into a seething mess of dysfunction in their brood’s adulthood. Having experienced the dislocation and isolation of being a young royal bride far from home, one wonders if the royal couple trying to protect their own daughters from such a fate. Janice Hadlow’s The Strangest Family charts the combination of violent dissent and chronic boredom that characterized the family. The sons, and particularly the eldest, rebelled with profligacy, mistresses and all that George despised. The daughters, meanwhile, were kept confined and close to home despite beseeching their parents to be allowed to marry – a niece once described the sisters as ‘a parcel of old maids’. One witness to this was Baron Stockmar, physician to her grandson-in-law, Leonard I of Belgium.[13] In his memoirs, assembled by his son some years after his death, he describes her as “small and crooked, with a true Mulatto face”.

The politics of perception is key to this narrative. Stockmar’s description has been central to the rumours that she might just have had a slightly more unusual admixture flowing through her veins. Whilst these have been circulating for a very long time, in recent years, they have been boosted by the claims made by Mario de Valdes y Cocom, notably in a programme for US television in 1996.[14] Since then, his hypothesis has been continually cited, often without being examined – one of the dangers of the internet is that if something is repeated often enough, it somehow becomes ‘true’.

Valdes draws attention to Charlotte’s Portuguese ancestry.[15] She was descended from Margarita de Castro e Souza, a 15th century Portuguese noblewoman, who was descended from Madragana six generations earlier. Madragama (born c.1230) was the mistress of King Alfonso III of Portugal (1210-79). King Alfonso left a plethora of offspring, but unlike other royal houses, illegitimacy was not a concern, and his relationship with Madragana produced two children who carried the lineage. Madragana’s possible Moorish heritage was only flagged up as a passing mention in the 16th century by a royal chronicler, Duarte Nunes de Leão, and denounced two centuries later by António Caetano de Sousa. It is generally thought that she was Mozarab, a modern term used to describe Iberian Christians living under Muslim rule.

That Moorish blood runs through the Portuguese family is indisputable, and thus it runs through most of the royal families of Europe. But who were the Moors? It is generally accepted that they were the Muslim Berber inhabitants of the Maghreb, covering a swathe of north Africa including parts of the Sahara, but not Egypt. During the Middle Ages, they occupied the Iberian Peninsular and other parts of southern Europe, before being finally driven out in the 15th century. The greatest period of unity was probably during the period of the kingdom of Numidia. At various points, there were incursions from the north, including the Roman Empire and the Vandals. Over the centuries, the word came to acquire a plethora of other meanings, some of them derogatory. Importantly, it cannot be ascribed a single ethnicity. In the push-and-pull of empires, people sometimes ended up far from home, and absorbing and being absorbed into the people that they encountered. In a poem read at their wedding, the ancient lineage of Charlotte’s family stretching back to the Vandals was eluded to.[16] Valdes erroneously infers from this that Charlotte was of African descent. Instead, it references an ancient kingdom from an area stretching from eastern Germany into Poland, and whose empire once included parts of the Iberian Peninsular and north Africa.

Valdes also claims, without providing any supporting evidence, that “the Royal Household itself, at the time of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, referred to both her Asian and African bloodlines in an apologia it published defending her position as head of the Commonwealth”.

The coronation took place at a time when many nations within the Empire had either recently become independent or were in the process of seeking independence, and it seems extraordinary that no-one noticed what would have been a remarkable historical pronouncement.

The conflation of royal lineage with ethnic purity is, of course, fallacious. As even the most amateur historians of European history know, it is not ethnic purity that matters, but the authority of aristocratic lineage.

It is noticeable how much traction these rumours have gained in the USA. That some have even entered the dialogue of a fictionalised account of Harry and Meghan’s wedding, causing no little bemusement on this side of the pond.[17] Some of the more vividly imaginative have even drawn significance from Meghan and Harry announcing their engagement on the anniversary of Charlotte’s death, and beginning their married life on what would have been her birthday, the challenges of juggling multiple royal diaries apparently not having been considered.

Perhaps this obsession with an 18th century royal bride speaks to other traumas. The British experience of slavery and blackness are very different to those in the US. Despite Britain’s terrible involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, slavery was generally something that was ‘over there’, with the nuances of recognition and ‘passing’ being experienced differently from those who grew up in the shadows of the Jim Crow laws and the ‘one drop’ issue.

We are all drawn to the displaced ‘other’. We need to know that it is possible to survive, and survive well, as Charlotte most certainly did. Charlotte’s story evokes much sympathy. In a hostile environment, managed by her omnipresent mother-in-law, and almost continually pregnant, this highly intelligent woman found her own path. And yes, it probably would have been a little bit easier if she had been pretty. The politics of projection is powerful.

Revisiting our past and its conventions is never wasted. The white-washing of history is very real, and researchers have to be alert to it. They also have an ethical duty to report fact correctly – we cannot cherry-pick our sources – and misinformation helps no-one. In this post-colonial and post-Brexit era, as the Commonwealth negotiates a new role, it is very healthy that a fresh light is being shone on an often myopic view of the British monarchy and its empire. But just as the debate over the cause of George III’s madness remains hypothetical, likewise, Valdes’s claims are just a hypothesis.

A quick internet search can provide hundreds of images within seconds. However, as we all know, looks can be deceiving. Colour balances shift, and when subtleties of colour are significant, then the character can seem entirely different. Nothing substitutes for the visceral experience of standing in front of a painting, and observing the artist’s dance of brushstrokes that make the subject before you seem so real. But it is just a dance.

That the possible ‘blackness’ of Queen Charlotte remains important is reminds us that inclusiveness is still an ideal to be strived towards. When Sheku Kanneh-Mason, a 19-year-old black cellist from Nottingham, made our eyes mist as he played Ave Maria – at his first wedding, no less! – and the Kingdom Choir launched began its pared-back rendition of ‘Stand By Me’, the British monarchy moved briskly into the 21st century. As the Duchess of Sussex takes her place on the royal stage, we now have a rather more willing royal bride who proudly identifies as ‘biracial’. As Meghan becomes more of a fixture with ‘The Firm’, one wonders if the interest in Queen Charlotte’s bloodlines will decrease, with more attention focused on her achievements instead.

[1] The storms had been so ferocious that a journey that usually took three days took closer to ten. Even the journey to the port had been dramatic, as thunderstorms had caused trees to catch fire along the route.

[2] Queen Anne (1665-1714) was the last of the Stuart monarchs. Despite at least 17 pregnancies, she died without issue. After the death of her sole-surviving son in 1770, the 1701 Act of Settlement was passed, which forbad Catholics from the throne. Upon her death, the crown had been passed to the Stuart’s German Protestant cousins, the House of Hanover. George I, although 52nd in line to the throne, became the new king.


[4] After a spate of devastating house fires, he was demonstrating to his household the dangers of these conflagrations when he fell from the loft and permanently damaged his right arm. He scarcely painted afterwards, although he seems to have found drawing slightly easier. Displaying the stoicism for which he was renowned, leavened with just a little eccentricity, he seems to have been unphased by this turn of events, and was soon pursuing his antiquarian enthusiasms in Italy.

[5] The foremost expert on the life of Allan Ramsay was the late Alastair Smart, who makes no mention of Ramsay’s alleged abolitionist tendencies, and nor are they corroborated by any of his contemporaries within the Scottish Enlightenment.

[6] One member who was an ardent abolitionist was James Ramsay (1733-89) – no relation of Allan Ramsay. A ship’s surgeon and an Anglican priest, he had seen slavery at first hand, and campaigned vehemently and publicly for its abolition, inflaming the wrath of the plantation-owners and almost certainly leading to his early death.

[7] Ramsay’s first wife, Anne Bayne, had died in childbirth in 1743, and Ramsay was not only supporting them, but also his two sisters.

[8] The two children to have died were Princes Alfred (1780-82) and Octavius (1779-83). Both contracted smallpox after being inoculated for the disease. Smallpox inoculation, also known as variolation, involved being infected with the disease itself (as opposed to its variant, cowpox, which is used in vaccines). The death rate following inoculation was around 0.5-2%, as opposed to 30% for those who contracted the disease. Smallpox is estimated to have caused 400,000 deaths annually in the late 18th century, and was also a major cause of blindness for those who survived. The smallpox vaccine, derived from cowpox, still nearly two decades away, following Edward Jenner’s discovery in 1796 that exposure to cowpox amongst milkmaids gave immunity to smallpox.

[9] Recollections from 1803 to 1837 by Hon Amelia Murray (1868).

[10] An earlier episode had occurred in 1765, the knowledge of which was, extraordinarily, kept from Charlotte by her mother-in-law.

[11] It was first proposed in 1966, in a paper entitled “The Insanity of King George III: A Classic Case of Porphyria” by Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter, mother and son psychiatrists.

[12] Along with testimony from the time, including Charlotte’s heartbroken letters to friends, analysis of his literary output during both periods of illness and of apparent mental wellness show a range of changes that are suggestive of bipolar disorder.

[13] His wife was Princess Charlotte of Wales, only legitimate daughter of the Prince Regent, and future King George IV. She died shortly after giving birth to a stillborn son, causing widespread mourning across the kingdom.


[15] Charlotte isn’t the only member of the British monarchy whose ethnic identity has been pondered through links with this lineage, the other being Philippa of Hainault, the wife of Edward III, famed for her intervention on behalf of the Burghers of Calais.

[16] Descended from the warlike Vandal race,/ She still preserves that title in her face./ Tho’ shone their triumphs o’er Numidia’s plain,/ And and Alusian fields their name retain;/ They but subdued the southern world with arms,/ She conquers still with her triumphant charms,/ O! born for rule, – to whose victorious brow/ The greatest monarch of the north must bow.

[17] Harry and Meghan: A Royal Romance (Lifetime Movies). It are also numerous literary references, for example, Lawrence Hill’s recent The Book of Negroes.


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