09:34 pm
22 October 2016

Was this Britain’s first black queen? Yes, Britain Indeed Had a Black Queen

Street after street is named after her, and Charlotte itself revels in the nickname the Queen City – even though, shortly after the city was named in her honour, the American War of Independence broke out, making her the queen of the enemy. And the city’s art gallery, the Mint museum, holds a sumptuous 1762 portrait of Charlotte by the Scottish portrait painter Allan Ramsay, showing the Queen of England in regal robes aged 17, the year after she married George III.

Charlotte is intrigued by its namesake. Some Charlotteans even find her lovable. “We think your queen speaks to us on lots of levels,” says Cheryl Palmer, director of education at the Mint museum. “As a woman, an immigrant, a person who may have had African forebears, botanist, a queen who opposed slavery – she speaks to Americans, especially in a city in the south like Charlotte that is trying to redefine itself.”


Yet Charlotte (1744-1818) has much less resonance in the land where she was actually queen. If she is known at all here, it is from her depiction in Alan Bennett’s play as the wife of “mad” King George III. We have forgotten or perhaps never knew that she founded Kew Gardens, that she bore 15 children (13 of whom survived to adulthood), and that she was a patron of the arts who may have commissioned Mozart.

Here, Charlotte is a woman who hasn’t so much intrigued as been regularly damned. In the opening of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities she is dismissed in the second paragraph: “There was a king with a large jaw, and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England.” Historian John H Plumb described her as “plain and undesirable”. Even her physician, Baron Christian Friedrich Stockmar, reportedly described the elderly queen as “small and crooked, with a true mulatto face”.

“She was famously ugly,” says Desmond Shawe-Taylor, surveyor of the Queen’s pictures. “One courtier once said of Charlotte late in life: ‘Her Majesty’s ugliness has quite faded.’ There was quite a miaow factor at court.”

Charlotte’s name was given to thoroughfares throughout Georgian Britain – most notably Charlotte Square in Edinburgh’s New Town – but her lack of resonance and glamour in the minds of Londoners is typified by the fact that there is a little square in Bloomsbury called Queen’s Square. In the middle is a sculpture of a queen. For much of the 19th century, the sculpture was thought to depict Queen Anne and, as a result, the square was known as Queen Anne’s Square. Only later was it realised that the sculpture actually depicted Charlotte and the square renamed Queen Square.

Hold on, you might be saying. Britain has had a black queen? Did I miss something? Surely Helen Mirren played Charlotte in the film The Madness of King George and she was, last time I looked, white? Yet the theory that Queen Charlotte may have been black, albeit sketchy, is nonetheless one that is gaining currency.