Meghan Markle’s marriage to Prince Harry has had some interesting effects on media consumption in the lead-up to their nuptials. We will all have noticed the increased attention to the fashions of the Hollywood starlet – a media trope women of position contend with whether marrying a prince or running for president – or you may have been following the will he/won’t he saga of whether the now Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Sussex's father would attend her wedding. An effect of more substance, however, has been the increased interest in whether there is a historical precedent for the marriage between a member of the royal family and a person of colour. (Meghan is also American and a divorcee, but perhaps Wallis Simpson’s marriage to Edward VIII in 1937 set the precedent on those details.)
Curious minds on the matter of royal diversity may come upon a number of stories and rumours ranging from questions of why Charles II was nicknamed ‘the black boy’ to whether Queen Victoria had a relationship with her attendant, Abdul Karim. Many articles on the subject come across as pseudo-historical reaching, but there are two European royals who appear to be legitimate examples of diversity in noble families: Queen Charlotte (1761–1818), wife to George III of Great Britain and Ireland, and Alessandro de Medici (1510–1537), Duke of Florence.
Paintings of Queen Charlotte have been amongst the most popular searches on Art UK since the announcement of the engagement between Harry and Meghan. Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was the daughter of Duke Charles Louis Frederick of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1708–1752) and Princess Elizabeth Albertine of Saxe-Hildburghausen (1713–1761). Some of the basis for curiosity around Charlotte’s lineage begins with her appearance (both during her life and in paintings), which was cruelly mocked at the time of her marriage. Many paintings of the queen show her with tan skin and full lips – features that, by today’s standards, would be considered desirable, but at the time drew speculation and unsavoury remarks.
The queen’s potential African ancestry has been the subject of scholarly debate, with some historians tracing her lineage back to Madragana, a Moor and mistress of Afonso III of Portugal (1210–1279). Allan Ramsay painted some of the more famous paintings of Queen Charlotte, and some scholars question whether the artist played up the queen’s features in paintings to support his strong Abolitionist beliefs. These are questions to which we’ll never have a firm answer, and will likely remain the subject of debate.
Alessandro de Medici, the Duke of Penne and first Duke of Florence, is officially recognised as the son of Lorenzo de Medici (1492–1519) – born out of wedlock. It is widely accepted that his mother was Simonetta da Collavechio, a Moorish slave, but it is speculated that his father was possibly Lorenzo’s cousin, Pope Clement VII. Whatever confusion there may be surrounding his paternity, the evidence of his maternity is reinforced by his portraits depicting a tan man with broad features, his contemporaneous nickname of ‘Il Moro’ (The Moor), and the fact that he and Simonetta corresponded over the course his life.
Alessandro’s life and reign were short, as he was assassinated by his cousin Lorenzino de Medici at the age of 26. Despite this, a fair number of noble families can trace their lineage back to Alessandro via his three children, including some members of the famous Hapsburg family. As an interesting side note, Alessandro’s half-sister Catherine became an influential Queen Consort of France and mother to three kings and two queens. She also tried very hard to marry her youngest son, Francis, to Elizabeth I to no avail. Nevertheless, several royal families across Europe can trace their lineage back to Catherine.
It’s interesting to rediscover these stories as a reminder that the arc of European history does, in fact, include many histories relating to various ethnicities, sexual orientations, religious beliefs and more. While we may never have definitive answers on some topics, it’s still important to give these conversations space in historical discourse.
Ferren Gipson, Social Media Marketer at Art UK