Only six hours before their royal wedding, King George III met Princess Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz for the first time. After a difficult storm-tossed journey at sea, the German princess had finally arrived from the German coast in London on Sept. 8, 1761, where George had been impatiently awaiting his chosen bride.
He was 22; she was 17. When Charlotte was introduced to the king, she “threw herself at his feet,” according to the book “A Royal Experiment: The Private Life of King George III” by Janice Hadlow.
But the king pulled Charlotte to her feet, wrapped her in his arms, then led her through the garden and up the steps into St. James Palace.
Crowds of commoners stretched to see this first encounter between the king and his princess, whose brown hair was piled high in curly ringlets falling about her long neck and that appeared to be a beautiful cafe-au-lait.
“The date of my promise is now arrived, and I fulfil it — fulfil it with great satisfaction, for the Queen is come,” wrote Horace Walpole, a Whig politician in a letter describing Charlotte’s 1761 arrival in London. “In half an hour, one heard of nothing but proclamations of her beauty: everybody was content, everybody pleased.”
On Saturday, 257 years later, Britain’s Prince Harry married American actress Meghan Markle, whose mother is black and whose father is white. She’s been hailed as Britain’s first black royal.
But some historians who have researched this question say Charlotte was of African descent and was Britain’s first black royal.
Historian Mario De Valdes y Cocom argues that Charlotte was directly descended from a black branch of the Portuguese royal family: Alfonso III and his concubine, Ouruana, a black Moor.
In the 13th century, “Alfonso III of Portugal conquered a little town named Faro from the Moors,” Valdes, a researcher on the 1996 Frontline PBS documentary “Secret Daughter,” said in an interview with The Washington Post. “He demanded [the governor’s] daughter as a paramour. He had three children with her.”
According to Valdes, one of their sons, Martin Alfonso, married into the noble de Sousa family, which also had black ancestry. And, thus, Charlotte had African blood from both families.
Valdes, who grew up in Belize, began researching Charlotte’s African ancestry in 1967, after he moved to Boston.
He discovered that the royal physician, Baron Christian Friedrich Stockmar, had described Charlotte as “small and crooked, with a true mulatto face.” He also found other descriptions, including Sir Walter Scott writing that she was “ill-colored.” And a prime minister who once wrote of Queen Charlotte: “Her nose is too wide and her lips too thick.”
In several British colonies, Charlotte was often honored by blacks who were convinced from her portraits and likeness on coins that she had African ancestry.
Valdes became fascinated by official portraits of Charlotte in which some of her features, he said, were visibly African.
“I started a systematic genealogical search,” said Valdes, which is how he traced her ancestry back to the mixed-race branch of the Portuguese royal family.
Charlotte, who was born May 19, 1744, was the youngest daughter of Duke Carl Ludwig Friedrich of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and Princess Elisabeth Albertine of Saxe-Hildburghausen.
She was a 17-year-old German princess when she traveled to England to wed King George III, who later went to war with his American colonies and lost badly. His mother most likely chose Charlotte to be his bride.
After George ascended the throne in 1760, according to Buckingham Palace, he set upon a search for a bride. In July 1761, he announced to his council his intention to wed Charlotte.
Then he sent a fleet to Cuxhaven on the German coast to bring her to England.
“They arrived on 14 August 1761,” according to an account by Buckingham Palace, “and were received by Charlotte’s brother, the current Duke, and the marriage contract was signed. Three days of celebrations followed and on 17 August the Princess departed for Britain. The voyage was difficult, with three storms at sea, arriving in London on 8 September.”
The principal yacht, the Royal Caroline, was renamed Royal Charlotte “and sumptuously fitted out for the Princess,” according to an exhibit at the Royal Museums of Greenwich, which contains a painting of the September 1761 arrival of Charlotte at Harwich Harbor. “Westerly gales blew the returning squadron over to the Norwegian coast three times, so it was ten days before it reached Harwich.”
“Back in London, the king’s enthusiasm mounted daily,” Hadlow wrote in his book. “He had acquired a portrait of Charlotte and was said to be mighty fond of it, but won’t let any mortal look at it.”
George ordered that gowns be made and waiting for his bride when she arrived in London.
When she approached the palace, she turned pale, according to Walpole, the Whig politician. “The Duchess of Hamilton smiled,” Walpole wrote, “the princess said, ‘My dear duchess, you may laugh: you have been married twice, but it is no joke to me.’”
Throngs of crowds impatiently waited for a glimpse of the new queen. Her lips trembled as the coach stopped.
“In half an hour, one heard of nothing but proclamations of her beauty: everybody was content, everybody pleased,” Walpole wrote. “She looks very sensible, cheerful, and is remarkably genteel.”
According to the memoirs, Charlotte was described as “being of a middling stature, and rather small, but her shape fine, and carriage graceful; her hands and neck exceedingly well turned; her hair auburn; her face round and fair; the eyes of a light blue, and beaming with sweetness; the nose a little flat, and turned up at the point; the mouth rather large, with rosy lips, and very fine teeth.”
Valdes argues that several royal portraits painted Charlotte with the features of a black queen.
In a portrait by Sir Allan Ramsay, Charlotte is featured wearing a pink silk gown and holding two children. Her dark brown hair is piled high.
Ramsay, Valdes said, was an abolitionist married to the niece of Lord Mansfield, the judge who ruled in 1772 that slavery should be abolished in the British Empire. And Ramsay was uncle by marriage to Dido Elizabeth Lindsay, the black grandniece of Lord Mansfield. Dido’s life story was recently recounted in the movie “Belle.”
In 1999, the London Sunday Times published an article with the headline: “REVEALED: THE QUEEN’S BLACK ANCESTORS.”
“The connection had been rumored but never proved,” the Times wrote. “The royal family has hidden credentials that make its members appropriate leaders of Britain’s multicultural society. It has black and mixed-raced royal ancestors who have never been publicly acknowledged. An American genealogist has established that Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, was directly descended from the illegitimate son of an African mistress in the Portuguese royal house.”
After the Times story, the Boston Globe hailed Valdes’s research as groundbreaking. Charlotte passed on her mixed-race heritage to her granddaughter, Queen Victoria, and to Britain’s present-day monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.
Some scholars in England dismissed the evidence as weak — and beside the point.
“It really is so remote,” the David Williamson, former co-editor of Debrett’s Peerage, the guide to Britain’s barons, dukes and duchesses, marquises and other titled people, told the Globe. “In any case, all European royal families somewhere are linked to the kings of Castile. There is a lot of Moorish blood in the Portuguese royal family and it has diffused over the rest of Europe. The question is, who cares?”
A Buckingham Palace spokesman did not deny Queen Charlotte’s African ancestry. Spokesman David Buck told the Globe: “This has been rumored for years and years. It is a matter of history, and frankly, we’ve got far more important things to talk about.”
Valdes told The Post that in the current racial climate, Charlotte’s genealogy is important to history. Charlottesville, where white supremacists held a Unite the Right rally that turned violent, “is named after this queen. Her ancestry is very relevant.”
In 1761, George presented Charlotte to his mother, Augusta, his three sisters, his three brothers and his uncle the Duke of Cumberland, according to Hadlow. Before the wedding, they had a very English dinner of partridges stuffed with truffles and venison pastry. While they dined, workers hurriedly set up for the wedding ceremony.
Charlotte, who knew no English upon her arrival, conversed in French and German with the king.
“At 9 p.m., the same evening, within six hours of arrival, the wedding of Princess Charlotte and King George III took place at the Chapel Royal, St. James’s Palace,” according to the official Buckingham Palace site.
For her wedding, Charlotte wore a gown constructed of silver tissue and a tiara of huge diamonds. She accessorized with a purple velvet cape.
“For all its magnificence,” Hadlow wrote, “Charlotte’s outfit was a very poor fit; clearly, the measurements sent across from Mecklenburg had proved no substitute for the more accurate sizing that stays would have provided. The dress, burdened with heavy jewels, was far too large for Charlotte’s slender frame.”
Her gown was too big and her “violet-velvet” wrap was weighted, pulling the neckline down and creating a royal wardrobe malfunction.
Her purple cape, Walpole wrote, was “so heavy, that the spectators knew as much of her upper half as the king himself.”
“Less than a year after marriage, on 12 August 1762,” according to Buckingham Palace, “The Queen gave birth to her first child, The Prince of Wales, who would later become King George IV. In the course of their marriage, the couple became parents of 15 children.”
The royal couple’s official residence was St. James Palace. “But the King had recently purchased a nearby property, Buckingham House,” according to the Royal Encyclopaedia. “In 1762 The King and Queen moved into this new house, making it Buckingham Palace. Charlotte loved it — 14 of her children were born there and it came to be known as ‘The Queen’s House.’ ”
Charlotte was an amateur botanist and a connoisseur of music. She especially liked German composers, including Handel. But her long marriage had an unhappy ending when the king began to suffer bouts of mental illness.
“After the onset of George III’s permanent madness in 1811,” according to Buckingham Palace, “The Prince of Wales became Regent, but Charlotte remained her husband’s guardian until her death in 1818.”
Charlotte is buried at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. On Saturday, that is where Prince Harry will marry Meghan Markle.
The royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle
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