Creator Chris Van Dusen explains how the Queen’s ancestry opened up the potential for storytelling.
While the Shondaland Netflix original series Bridgerton is not technically a historical drama in the same sense as the streaming platform’s The Crown or Hulu’s The Great, it does include several key real-life figures -- namely Queen Charlotte played by Golda Rosheuvel -- who help bring the Regency era back to life. And according to creator Chris Van Dusen, who adapted Julia Quinn’s best-selling romance novels about London society in the 1800s, tapping into the Queen’s real-life mixed race ancestry allowed him to take some creative licenses and “reimagine the more inclusive society you see on the show.”
Married to King George III (who is portrayed by James Fleet on the series), Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was Queen of the United Kingdom from 1761 to 1818. Prior to that, she was the youngest daughter of Charles Louis Frederick of Mecklenburg, Duke of a small north German town, and his wife, Princess Elisabeth Albertine of Saxe-Hildburghausen.
According to PBS, however, Queen Charlotte “directly descended from Margarita de Castro y Sousa, a black branch of the Portuguese Royal House.” While researching a “racial classification and the social phenomenon commonly known as ‘passing,’” Frontline expanded on claims made as early as the 1940s about the royal’s mixed race background, citing several official portraits as evidence. “Six different lines can be traced from English Queen Charlotte back to Margarita de Castro y Sousa, in a gene pool which because of royal inbreeding was already minuscule, thus explaining the Queen's unmistakable African appearance,” historian Mario deValdes y Cocom asserts in his findings.
When the research was first published in 1999, the Sunday Times wrote, “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.”
Debates over Charlotte’s ancestry and race were renewed by Prince Harry’s marriage to Meghan Markle, with questions over whether she was truly the first person of color to join the royal family. This led to Buckingham Palace spokesman David Buck, who did not deny Charlotte's Black ancestry, telling the Globe at the time, “This has been rumoured for years and years. It is a matter of history, and frankly, we've got far more important things to talk about.”
So when it came to adapting Bridgerton, which is executive produced by Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers, Charlotte’s real-life background gave them an opportunity to influence the adaptation with more modern themes and ideas by depicting a more racially diverse interpretation of the time period, where Black people now hold titles and power equal to their white counterparts.
“Many historians believe that Queen Charlotte was England's first queen of mixed race. That's something that really resonated with me,” Van Dusen explains to ET. “I started to wonder what that could have looked like. What could this queen have done? Could she have used her power to elevate other people of color in society? Granted them titles? Lands? Dukedoms?”
It's “this one possible fact” that allowed the series to expand the diversity of this world. “We want audiences to relate to these characters, and to see themselves onscreen, no matter who you are,” he adds.
One thing Van Dusen and Rhimes make clear about their adaptation of Bridgerton: it’s not a colorblind world. Race was very much considered when it came to telling this story. And Charlotte’s presence on the show is very much addressed by its Black characters, noting that without her, they would not necessarily have been afforded the same opportunities.
In addition to Rosheuvel as the Queen, she’s joined by Regé-Jean Page as Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings, who catches the attention of the Bridgertons, Ruby Barker as Marina Thompson, a mysterious newcomer among the Featherington household, and Adjoa Andoh, who plays Lady Danbury, a woman about town and a key figure in London’s society.
“As a woman of color, how could I not be thrilled to be working for Shonda Rhimes?” Andoh says. “I'm also thrilled to say, ‘Yeah, do you know what? People of color existed in this country right back to Roman times and Regency London had 20,000 Black people.’”
As for Rosheuvel, she’s “very, very proud as an actor” to be part of Rhimes’ universe of storytelling that pushes diversity while “looking at the world that’s happening now and look at the humans in the world now and trying to portray that onscreen.”
While Charlotte was not a character in the books, she certainly is more than just a royal figurehead. “I wanted this series to be about more than just the Bridgertons. The show is about an entire world. It's about a society.” Van Dusen says. “Adding Queen Charlotte afforded us an opportunity to see what true excess and decadence looked like at the time. She brings real import to the world as we get to be in some amazing spaces with her -- from Buckingham Home to St. Regis Palace.”
He adds, “Not to mention, she was definitely very much a part of the social scene during Regency times, so having her with us was important from a historical perspective as well.”
For Rosheuvel, it was an opportunity to play around with the character, especially the way she acts and appears onscreen. “Queen Charlotte doesn’t have any kind of continuity, so you’ll see her in lots of different outfits, lots of different wigs, and it kind of adds to the creativity of her character,” the actress says, adding that “she’s quite feisty; she loves a gossip,” and consequently becomes determined to find out the true identity of mysterious columnist Lady Whistledown.
While many have described Bridgerton as Gossip Girl meets Downton Abbey, Rosheuvel thinks it more closely aligns with Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. The comparison is even more interesting considering that Charlotte and the Queen of France were close friends and confidants in real life, making us wonder if Charlotte opens the door for more real-life figures to appear in future seasons.
No matter what, Rosheuvel certainly leaves her mark as Queen Charlotte, who is a welcome addition to the series. “When Golda read for the role, we knew we had found our queen,” Van Dusen says. “She truly inhabited the character. She was commanding, imperious and intimidating in the best possible way.”
Bridgerton is now streaming on Netflix.