Black European Aristocrats

The TV show Bridgerton is known, among other things, for its choice to cast diverse characters for its upper-class, Regency England setting, including a Black Queen Charlotte. This has led many Regency fans new and old to wonder if there really were upper-class people of color in early modern (or earlier) Europe. The answer is yes, though they were the exception and not the rule. Here are spotlights of a few European aristocrats of African descent.

Too often when Black people appear in paintings from the 1700s and 1800s, they’re servants, standing in the background to hold the subject’s horse or bowl of fruit. Dido Belle is a notable exception–sort of. She is literally holding a bowl of fruit in the painting below, but she’s not subservient. Her eyes sparkle with mischief, and the painting captures both a fondness and an uncertainty between her and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. Both young ladies were great-nieces and wards of the Earl of Mansfield, raised together by the childless earl and his wife. Dido had been born to an enslaved mother from the West Indies and the earl’s nephew. Based on comments made by visitors, Dido engaged in some social activities with the family, but not all of them. It’s hard to say for certain how much of that was because of her mixed-race heritage and how much was because she was illegitimate. She helped to oversee the earl’s household and even acted as a sort of clerk for him, an unusual role for a woman. Upon the earl’s death, he left her a comfortable legacy (though much less than her cousin, who was white, legitimate, and an heiress). Dido married a French emigre, and her sons went on to have successful military careers.

Two young women in silk dresses pose together for a painting, one Black and one white.

The mixed-race heiress from the West Indies was unusual in early nineteenth-century British society, but not unheard of, and seems to have occupied an uncomfortable social position. Jane Austen appeared to be exploring this theme with the mixed-race West Indies heiress Georgiana Lamb in Sanditon, but unfortunately died before the work was finished, so we don’t know what insights she might have offered. From the fragment we have, it appears that Miss Lamb’s position as a legitimate daughter and a very wealthy heiress earned her a sometimes-grudging acceptance from society.

It may be a coincidence that Dido Belle married a Frenchman, but the French in the late 1700s did seem to have a more open attitude about race. The best example of this is probably the so-called Black Count, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas. Born to a French marquis and an enslaved woman in Haiti, Dumas’s father acknowledged him and brought him to France, where Dumas was educated and accepted as part of the aristocracy. Dumas was known particularly as a swordsman, and in the French Revolution, he led a group of mixed-race soldiers called the Free Legion of Americans (those born in French colonies in the Americas) or the Black Legion. Dumas and his legion gained fame for their daring exploits, until Napoleon turned his back on his Black subjects, reinstating slavery and stripping free Black people of their rights. If the name Dumas sounds familiar to you, that’s not a coincidence. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas’ son was the novelist Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.

A black cavalry officer in French Revolutionary red, white, and blue.
Thomas-Alexandre Dumas
A nineteenth-century photograph of novelist Alexandre Dumas.
Novelist Alexandre Dumas, grandson of a French marquis and an enslaved woman

In the cases of Dido Belle and Dumas, they started with aristocratic connections, but their children and grandchildren landed in the middle class. Though that was often true of white aristocrats as well, it wasn’t always the case even for Black European nobility. Take Abram Petrovich Hannibal. The son of a prince or chieftain from Central Africa, he was captured in battle around 1700 as a young boy and taken to the Ottoman Empire. From there, a Russian official brought him to the court of Tsar Peter the Great, since Black servants and slaves were status symbols. Peter the Great saw Abram’s intellectual and military potential, freed him, and became his godfather. Abram excelled in his studies in math and military strategy and fought with the French army to gain military experience. He adopted the surname “Hannibal” after the great Carthaginian general who led an invasion of the Roman Empire from North Africa. Abram returned to Russia to serve in the court of Peter’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth, as a successful engineer and general-in-chief. Elizabeth elevated him to the nobility for his work, and his children further married into aristocratic European families so that today, many members of the European nobility are descended from Abram Hannibal.

A mixed-race man wearing military medals.
Abram’s son Ivan, an ancestor of many members of the European nobility.

So, what about Bridgerton‘s Queen Charlotte? Her real-life portraits look as Germanic as her name (Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz), but plenty of people have suggested she has some African ancestry. In fact, most Europeans do–nobility or not. That’s because the European nobility of Iberia (Spain and Portugal) sometimes intermarried with the (African Muslim) Moors who ruled the peninsula for centuries. And the nobles of Spain and Portugal intermarried with nobility in the rest of Europe, and voila! In Queen Charlotte’s case, she has Portuguese ancestry, so it’s possible that she could trace her lineage back to Africa as well.

An apparently white woman with reddish-brown hair.
Queen Charlotte without her hair powdered or covered by a white wig.

All images are in the public domain and courtesy of Wikimedia.

Do you know about Balthazar?

Writing about Three Kings Day a couple of weeks ago (and thinking about the Wise Men in general) made me remember the line from the comedy detective show Psych when Dule Hill’s character Gus comments about an all-white Nativity scene, and his sister says, “I thought everyone knew about Balthazar.”

Their knowledge provides a (minor – not a big spoiler) clue in the show, and they’re not wrong: Balthazar is one of the Wise Men, along with Melchior and Gaspar, and he is traditionally African (or Macedonian). (Melchior is elderly and European, and Gaspar is Southeast Asian/Indian – though sometimes depicted as European or African.) I’ve wondered if this was a relatively new innovation to be more inclusive, but it turns out the traditional names and homelands of the Three Wise Men go back at least to the early Middle Ages, being discussed by no less than the Venerable Bede, early English monk and chronicler, circa 700 AD.

Most Medieval European paintings and other art depicting the Wise Men show them all as European, but by the dawn of the Renaissance, we start to see Balthazar as a very dark-skinned African. There were a limited number of Africans in Europe during the Middle Ages, so European artists may not have considered that people from other parts of the world looked much different from themselves, but the Renaissance concern with realism appears to have influenced paintings of the Magi, and today, many Nativity scenes in homes and public places include our friend Balthazar. Now you’ll know to always look for him, whether or not it helps you uncover a murder.

A painting depicting Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, and the Three Wise Men, one of them Black.
A 15th-century manuscript illumination showing Balthazar as African.

Audiobook Giveaway!

I’ve recently started the process of turning my print books into audiobooks, and A Proper Dragon, narrated by Stephanie Nemeth-Parker, is the first one available. I have the opportunity to give away some free audio copies of A Proper Dragon on Spotify! Keep reading for more information.

You may be aware that Audible has come under fire recently for unfair payment practices toward authors. They’re the industry giant, so while they have done a lot of good for audiobooks, they still have some fairness issues they need to address, mostly due to the fact that they don’t have much competition. Megastar author Brandon Sanderson has announced that his Secret Project books will not be available on Audible, and instead, he’s using Spotify (which now sells audiobooks) to distribute them. (More here from his blog – scroll down to the “audiobook” section.) Though my audiobooks are on Audible, I have distributed them wide to try to help support a variety of listening platforms, and Spotify is currently offering free codes for authors to share their books and introduce people to Spotify’s audiobook services.

So, if you are interested in checking out Spotify’s audiobook services and getting A Proper Dragon free as an audiobook, I just ask that you subscribe to my quarterly newsletter (the link is and consider leaving an honest review of the audiobook once you’ve listened to it. The first 25 people who sign up through the link above get a unique free book code for A Proper Dragon on Spotify (free Spotify account required). 

And remember that you can request books – including audiobooks – through your local library! Happy listening!

Audiobook cover of A Proper Dragon showing a woman in a Regency gown with a dragon on her lap.

Twelfth Night (Day)

You may have heard of the Twelve Days of Christmas or even celebrated it in some form as the twelve days leading up to Christmas. But did you know that’s backwards? Traditionally, the twelve days of Christmas start on Christmas and continue for twelve days after, ending January 6th with Epiphany, or Three Kings Day. The whole time in between used to be one long celebration called Christmastide, kind of like what we experience now as the dead week between Christmas and New Years, but with more parties. Twelfth Night was the end of the festivities, celebrated either on January 6th or on the 5th as “Epiphany Eve” depending on how people counted the nights.

Today, Three Kings Day or Epiphany is still celebrated in some Catholic cultures with at least as much gusto as Christmas, with a gift exchange to commemorate the gifts brought by the Wise Men and a King Cake containing a small toy baby or a bean so that whoever finds it gets good luck for the year, and sometimes the honor of being “king” and bringing next year’s cake.

I like the idea of stretching out the Christmas celebrations as long as possible since in the northern hemisphere, this is a pretty bleak time of year. But for people like me who procrastinate taking down Christmas, there’s some bad news: it’s bad luck to keep your decorations up after Three Kings Day. Christmas is over and it’s time to move on. In fact, if you keep them up as long as Candlemas (February 2nd), people used to believe it would bring death into the home – especially if you hang on to the evergreens and holly berries. So, I suppose I’d better start taking down the tree. Happy Three Kings Day!

A Renaissance painting of the three wise men bringng gifts to Mary and baby Jesus.
Adoration of the Magi by Bartolome Esteban Murillo circa 1660

Elder Lore

With cold and flu season upon us, it seems like a good time to talk about the Elder tree or Elderberry. Elderberry has become trendy in the medicine aisle thanks to studies that suggest that it may help fight influenza, but its use in medicine goes back to ancient times in Europe, parts of Asia, north Africa, and North America. It’s also an important feature in European folklore – a bringer of healing and also of death.

Elderberry (Sambucus) is an interesting plant – a large (12 feet/4 meter+) shrub with pretty umbrellas of tiny white flowers in the summer and dark berries in the fall. In the wild, it often grows along streambanks, but it can also be fairly drought tolerant and does well in a variety of soils (it grows well in my yard, which has sub-optimal soil, water, and sun conditions). It likes sun but will grow in part shade, and survives in both hot and cold climates. Elderberry is a survivor. It has hollow stems that have been used for pipes and bellows, but be careful – most of the plant is toxic! Some Native American peoples used the plant to induce vomiting. Only the flowers and berries of certain species are edible (black elderberry is most commonly used), and even then, it’s safer to cook them before using them (and don’t forage berries unless you are 100% certain they come from a safe source).

The flowers can be used to make a tea that’s popular outside the United States. The black berries range from very tart to sort of sweet and are made into jams, syrups, and wines. Some people swear by the syrup as a way to stay healthy in the winter, and some studies have found that people who take elderberry syrup recover faster from influenza, while other studies have found no effect, so the jury is still out as far as an official recommendation. The berries of the edible species are fairly healthy regardless, with plenty of fiber and vitamin C as well as other vitamins and minerals, and the syrup tastes yummy on pancakes.

The contrast between the healthy berry and the poisonous leaves, stems, and seeds of the Elder might be why the folklore around elderberries is so varied. Many European cultures believed that the Elder provided protection from dark magic and other evils when planted near the house or when a small piece was carried with the person. But don’t take a piece without asking! The Elder tree was supposed to be protected by a spirit or Elder Mother who would curse you if you cut the plant without her permission. Luckily, you can ask for permission, and if there’s no response, then you’re allowed to cut (I’ll admit it – I’ve asked, and I’ve never heard a peep in response 😉 ). But you don’t want to use the Elder wood in your house or your cooking fire because you’ll invite in the Fair Folk that honor the tree – I’ve wondered if that piece of lore came from poisonous fumes from the smoke, but I’ve never found a clear answer and never tried burning the wood myself.

Despite its potential protective or healing powers, the Elder tree was associated with winter, darkness, and death in many European cultures. Sleeping beneath the Elder might let you glimpse the Faeries or their home, which was sometimes associated with the land of the dead. Medieval stories said that the Elder was cursed for being either the tree from which Jesus’s cross was made or the one where Judas hanged himself. The Elder isn’t really large or strong enough for either of those purposes, but perhaps its more diminutive nature is part of the curse – there’s a similar legend about the dogwood tree.

Still, with all respect to my Celtic and Norse ancestors, I continue to associate the Elder with summer when its flowers bloom after the spring blossoms have faded, and it’s hard to think of it as cursed when it survives everything the Utah mountains can throw at it. But maybe its association with winter is appropriate if it turns out that it can keep colds and flus away.


Today, September 29th, is Michaelmas, or the Feast of Saint Michael (Michael’s Mass, similar to Christmas – Christ’s Mass). Traditionally, this was the end of the harvest and the day rents and loans were due. Old British legends also said that this was the day that Saint Michael defeated Lucifer and cast him out of heaven. Lucifer fell into a blackberry bush and either spat or peed on them and spoiled the fruit, so blackberries should not be harvested after Michaelmas. In other versions of this superstition, it’s the pooka – a Faerie creature – who spoils the blackberries at the end of harvest time.

Ripe and unripe blackberries on the vine.
The tastiest blackberries are totally black and have lost their shine, but today is supposed to be the last day to pick them before they’re spoiled.

The Alexandra Limp

In 1869, a new fashion took hold among the young ladies of England: they began limping. They might intentionally snap the heel off one of their shoes or even buy a set of shoes designed to give them a limp. The important thing was to be seen shuffling unevenly around Hyde Park or the theater.

Speaking as someone who always walks with a limp, this would have been very uncomfortable. Walking unevenly strains your muscles and skeletal structure and leads to chronic pain. High heels and bras – or corsets – are not always comfortable, but this was an extreme sacrifice for fashion. So, why did the Victorian ladies do it?

The answer is Alexandra of Denmark, the Princess of Wales. She was immensely popular and a fashion setter in Britain. She wore chokers to disguise a scar on her throat, so chokers became popular among British ladies. In 1867, Princess Alexandra gave birth to her third child and became very ill with rheumatic fever – a complication of strep throat and scarlet fever that was sometimes deadly in the days before antibiotics. Princess Alexandra survived, but she had to learn to walk again using walking sticks, and she continued to limp. Ever anxious to follow their social leader, the fashionable ladies of England hurried to break their shoes and limp after her.

I’m not sure what Princess Alexandra thought about this, but the newspapers howled in outrage at the silliness of watching able-bodied young ladies limp all over London and other British towns. Perhaps thanks to the painful side effects of constantly limping, the fashion faded after a year or two, and ladies found other ways to torture themselves for fashion. Of course, people who had real limps didn’t leave them behind so easily. Princess Alexandra limped for the rest of her life.

A portrait of Princess Alexandra in a fashionable white dress.
Princess Alexandra in 1864

Princess Elizabeth in World War II

The death of Queen Elizabeth II marks the end of a 70-year era full of conflict and change. Born in 1926, she is the same age as actors Marilyn Monroe and Andy Griffith, dictator Fidel Castro, author Harper Lee, and musicians Miles Davis and Chuck Berry. She is part of a generation that came of age during World War II, and as with many of that generation, the war was a defining experience in her life.

Princess Elizabeth was thirteen when World War II broke out in 1939, and like many London children, her parents sent her away from the city for her safety, though she lived in Windsor Castle and still saw her parents often. The future Queen Elizabeth II made her first public speech during this time, addressing the other children who were separated from their parents by the war. Her parents stayed at Buckingham Palace in solidarity with the people of London, and the royal residence was bombed by German planes during the Blitz.

When she turned eighteen in 1944, Princess Elizabeth enlisted in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, which was the female branch of the British Army designed to shift some non-combat military jobs to women to free men to fight. Her royal title didn’t earn her an automatic advancement, and she served as an auto mechanic and driver with a junior officer ranking. She was among 200,000 young women serving in the ATS, of which 335 were killed in the line of duty, and many others injured.

Princess Elizabeth wasn’t wounded in the line of duty, and the war ended in 1945. Probably breaking quite a few rules, she took to the streets to celebrate with everyone else, keeping her uniform hat pulled low so no one would recognize her. She linked arms with her future subjects and marched in celebration, and some rumors even say she danced in a Conga line.

Princess Elizabeth maintained an enjoyment of driving and engine repair into her reign as Queen Elizabeth II, and also an ability to connect with many of the citizens of her country. Some people credit her as the first royal British woman to serve in the armed forces. This ignores many medieval and Renaissance queens who took active roles in defending their countries, but it’s fair to say that Princess Elizabeth’s role in the war set a positive example for British women – royal and otherwise.

Princess Elizabeth in overalls changing a car tire.
Negative (H 41668) Original wartime caption: At a Vehicle Maintenance Class, Princess Elizabeth changes the wheel of a car. She is wearing overalls. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

Dance Fans

Regency dances were complicated, involving many steps that participants had to remember. And the ballrooms were crowded with people dancing energetically, making them very hot. Clever ladies solved both of these problems by carrying fans decorated with fashionable dance steps. The examples below are from the Jane Austen cottage in Chawton.

This fan shows the steps of the quadrille (each circle is a different “figure” created by the dancers, so they all had to know their places and how to move in the circle so they didn’t crash into each other).
And this one has the music to several country dances.

With the help of fans such as these, ladies of Jane Austen’s time could stay on top of the latest dance steps and stay cool.

Wishes and curses

You may know that the tradition of tossing pennies into wells or fountains to make a wish goes back to ancient times when offerings were thrown into bodies of water to gain favors from the gods (if you didn’t before, you do now). But did you know that people also threw curses into sacred waters for the gods to enact? These curse scrolls or tablets were written asking for justice or revenge, and they give us a fantastic glimpse into the everyday life – and the gossip – of people who lived two thousand years ago.

The scrolls in these pictures are from the Roman baths in Bath, England. Sadly, my camera isn’t high resolution enough to capture the very faded writing on the lead tablets, but I did take a shot of the transcriptions as well (most of them are in Latin). The “tablets” themselves are pretty small, just a couple of inches across.

Faded and cracked thin, lead plates.
Latin transcriptions of the curse tablets above with an explanation that they are about the theft of a hooded cloak, the theft of a bracelet, and two instances of the theft of six silver coins.

Some of the translations say things like, “I have given to the goddess Sulis the six silver coins which I have lost. It is for the goddess to exact from the names written below: Senicianus and Saturninus and Anniola.” An interesting take on revenge, telling the goddess that she can have the coins if she gets them back from the thieves. Another is more specific, saying, “Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their minds and eyes in the goddess’s temple.” I guess he really liked those gloves, though it is a pretty infuriating feeling to have something stolen.

In some cases, people would write the curse backward, maybe to make it stronger or easier to read on the “other side,” and sometimes they added magical symbols or shoved nails through the scrolls to reinforce their curse.

One of the scrolls is in what scholars believe to be the only (known) written example of ancient British-Celtic.

A small fragment of a lead tablet.

There’s no translation of this tablet because British Celtic is an as-yet-untranslated language. The words read, “Adixoui Deuina Deieda Andagin Uindiorix cuamenai,” though the scroll and the message are incomplete. There are a couple of suggestions about what this might mean, but if you can figure it out, let us know (and the rest of the world)!

To end on a cheerful note, archeologists have also fished a lot of beautiful items out of ancient wells and ponds, and I would love a modern replica of this ancient Celtic brooch found at Bath.

A circular brooch with a long pin for holding a clock or tunic, with swirling designs on each end of the circle.