To celebrate Heritage Open Days 2020 we are publishing a series of blogs researched and written by Brighton Dome's heritage volunteers. The blogs reveal the fascinating stories connecting Brighton Dome's history with the Royal Pavilion Estate and the city.
Queen Charlotte Sophia is a notable figure in the history of the British royal family, not just because of her actions but because she was the first family member of mixed race heritage.
The wife of King George III and great, great, great grandmother of our current Queen Elizabeth II, she was born in 1744 in Germany. Charlotte married King George III aged 17 and had 15 children with him, including the Prince Regent, who commissioned the building of the Royal Pavilion Estate as his Brighton palace.
Six different lines trace Queen Charlotte back to Margarita de Castro y Sousa, a member of the Portuguese royal family. Historian Stephanie Myers, author of The Invisible Queen, said that Charlotte had ‘unmistakable African features’ and on her marriage to George III she was described as ‘Descended from the warlike Vandal race, She still preserves that title in her face’. So if her diverse background was recognised at the time, why is it not more commonly known today?
Photography had not yet been invented and portrait paintings were the main way of documenting nobility. The Queen Charlotte’s appearance was altered so that she didn’t appear to have African features. One reason could be that at the time the British Empire was facing strong calls to end slavery from the abolitionist movement, led by William Wilberforce. To have a public figure descended from the same race the Empire were oppressing was contradictory and would have added fuel to the abolitionist cause.
Despite being in the shadow of her husband for much of her life, Queen Charlotte was active outside of the royal realm. She had a keen interest in botany and one of her notable achievements is her help in establishing Kew Gardens. She also founded a maternity hospital in London, now the oldest maternity care institution in England and in Brighton, she donated £50,000 towards the construction of the Royal Pavilion. Contrary to common beliefs she is also thought to be the first person to have had a Christmas tree in England, rather than Prince Albert.
Today, Queen Charlotte is perhaps more recognised further afield. The American city of Charlotte in North Carolina is named after the Queen herself. The city is also known as the Queens city and the university is named Queen’s University.
There are many inspirational Black figures in history whose stories are not as well known as they should be. Queen Charlotte Sophia is one of these figures and deserves more recognition for her significant contributions to Brighton and the country.
Written by Heritage Volunteer Thomas Murphy
Discover more heritage stories and find out more about our future.