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History’s Royal Kates: Catherine of Braganza

Catherine of Braganza has gone down in history as a rather nice lady who liked drinking tea.  The Portuguese princess who arrived in Portsmouth in 1662 to marry Charles II has been portrayed as a gentle soul whose heart was broken by her inability to have children and who instead contented herself by making a nice cuppa the fashion of the day while trying to be friends with her husband’s many mistresses.  In reality, the main theme of Catherine’s life was her religion.  It would cause her many problems but this royal Kate never wavered from what she believed to be right.

Catherine’s staunch Catholic beliefs were with her through every phase of her life.  Soon after her birth, on November 25th 1638, her father became King of Portugal after his country declared independence from Spain.  But while Joao IV went about establishing his rule, his daughter went into a convent in Lisbon where she was educated on the orders of her devoted mother, Queen Luiza.  One chronicler of the time wrote that Catherine rarely left the confines of the convent which was near her royal home and even said that the infanta was ‘bred hugely retired’.

Charles II, the Merry Monarch, was the polar opposite of his quiet bride (Portrait by Sir Peter Lely, Public Domain, Wiki Commons)

She was certainly very shy and reserved and about as unlike her future husband, Charles II, as she could be.  That didn’t stop his father, Charles I, making plans to marry her to his son and heir when Catherine was still a toddler.  The English Civil War brought those negotiations to an end and this royal Kate was the subject of several wedding plans, including a mooted marriage with Louis XIV of France, but she was still single when Charles II retook the throne in 1660.

And that’s when Catherine’s religion really had an impact on her life.  For the ruling elite in England was mainly Protestant and didn’t want Catholic influences in the country.  There were strong objections to the new king’s idea of reviving old marriage plans, purely because of his prospective bride’s faith, and Charles himself said that he was offered a ‘whole litany of princesses’ to choose from but Catherine remained top of the list.  For that, she had her mother to thank.

Queen Luiza, now regent of Portugal after the death of King Joao in 1656, put together a formidable dowry for her daughter which included £300,000 in cash and the ports of Tangiers and Bombay (now Mumbai).  Luiza had supposedly encouraged her husband to accept the Portugeuse throne with the line ‘rather queen for a day than a duchess all my life’ and while she had kept Catherine in a convent for most of her youth she was determined that her daughter would wear a crown as well.  By 1661, she got her way and the marriage treaty was signed.  While Charles got gold and important trading ports, his bride got something very valuable to her – she was assured of the freedom to practice her religion.

When Catherine finally arrived in England in May 1662, there were plenty willing to see her fall – as soon as she stepped on shore in Portsmouth one writer described her ladies in waiting as ‘frights’ while another comment mentioned that the new queen’s teeth stuck out.  Catherine is reported to have asked for a cup of tea on her arrival – the drink was popular in Portugal where it had been traded for decades.  When none could be found she was given ale instead and had to take to her bed to recover.  She was well enough to marry Charles in Portsmouth on May 22nd 1662.

Queen Catherine found herself isolated in her first years in England (Portrait by Sir Peter Lely, Public Domain, Wiki Commons)

But being a Catholic meant that this new queen couldn’t take part in the Anglican coronation ceremony and so Queen Catherine remained uncrowned.   Instead, she was shown off by her new husband as much as possible in public – at court, though, things were very different.  Catherine’s shyness and unworldliness were widely mocked by the sophisticated court ladies but soon an even darker cloud threatened her already fragile happiness.  Charles’ favourite mistress, Barbara Villiers, hadn’t been at court when the new queen arrived as she was just weeks away from giving birth to her second child with the king.  But not long after Catherine’s arrival, Barbara was back and demanding the important role of Lady of the Bedchamber.  When the queen refused, she found she had few friends to back her up.

Charles became angry when she wouldn’t give in and dismissed many of her Portuguese attendants until Catherine crumbled.  But that was when this royal Kate first showed her common sense.  Realising that she had lost, she set about being calm and dignified in the presence of Barbara Villiers whose temper tantrums were notorious.  Queen Catherine began to develop a reputation for sympathy.  She could also calm her nerves with a cup of tea – the one thing the fashionable ladies at court had copied from their queen was her love of the drink.  A cuppa was suddenly all the rage.

The Bedchamber Incident, as it became known, perhaps marked the low point in the relationship between king and queen.  The following year, Catherine fell seriously ill and her husband was devastated.  Charles’ almost uncontrollable anxiety over his queen’s health might well have been partly caused by guilt but the king suddenly began to show a devotion to his wife that few would have thought possible just months earlier.  He sat at her bedside, as the doctors told him daily that she was about to die, and humoured her when her fever became so strong she turned delirious and began to talk about the children she believed she had given birth to.  Her recovery was put down, to some degree, to Charles’ bedside vigil and it marked the start of a strange bond between the two that would survive many attacks – including serious allegations against the queen from those who didn’t want a Catholic consort.

Catherine was a popular queen (By Benedetto Gennari II, Public Domain, Wiki Commons)

For Catherine was an easy target for those who wanted to remove her as she had failed in the one area in which queens had to succeed – giving birth to an heir.  While Charles had a growing family of illegitimate children, there were no royal babies from his marriage to Catherine.  The queen suffered several miscarriages, the last in 1669, and her lack of children gave her enemies plenty of ammunition.  From the late 1660s onwards there were constant rumours of divorce as some of Charles’ ministers and advisers tried to get rid of Catherine and replace her with a Protestant queen who would provide a Protestant heir – their main concern.  The king was having none of it and in 1671, after one of the most sustained campaigns suggesting a royal separation, took his wife on a very public tour where she proved hugely popular.

But by the mid 1670s, anti-Catholic sentiment in parts of society made the queen’s position difficult and even dangerous.  In 1673, the Test Act was passed – it effectively banned Catholics from holding public office and among those who quit their roles rather than abandon their faith was the king’s brother, the future James II.  In 1675, another law ordered all English and Irish priests to leave the country while in 1678 Charles had sent his brother into exile.  Later that same year, the queen was even accused of trying to kill the king as part of the Popish Plot – a fictitious scheme dreamed up by Titus Oates who claimed he had discovered plans to murder Charles and place the Catholic James on the throne.  Charles dismissed the claims against his wife and ordered the arrest of Titus Oates but hysteria over the supposed plot was so intense the king had to drop the arrest plans.   Titus Oates fell from grace in 1681 but by then Catherine was living a much quieter life while her husband remained steadfast in his devotion to her.

Charles’ death, in 1685, left Catherine vulnerable.  James II took the throne but his reign was soon in trouble and Catherine was present when his second wife, Queen Maria, gave birth to the male heir that his enemies so feared the couple would produce.  In 1688, James fled England and was replaced by his Protestant daughter from his first marriage, Mary, and her husband William.  Catherine’s religious beliefs again became an issue as the new monarchs urged her to take an even more background role and in 1692 she left England after receiving permission to go back to Portugal.

King Joao V of Portugal was mentored by his aunt, Catherine of Braganza (portrait by Pompeo Batoni, Public Domain, Wiki Commons)

She left her adopted country in as much a state of religious upheaval as she had found it and her happiness on returning to the land of her birth was palpable.  She was hugely popular and her arrival was marked by massive crowds turning out to see her.  Catherine settled into retirement and had a new palace – and chapel – built near Lisbon.  But as the 18th century got under way, one more change beckoned for Catherine. Her brother, King Pedro II, was in poor health while his wife, Maria Sophia, had died in 1699. Catherine became a mentor to their son and heir, Joao, who came to rely heavily on his aunt. Her influence on him and the court was deemed to be a huge success. On her death, on December 31st 1705, she was widely mourned and hailed as a great queen.  She was buried at the Monastery of St Vincent of Fora in Lisbon where many of her Braganza relatives already lay.

Catherine of Braganza, shy and quiet, turned into a great ruler in her own right – as surprising as the fact that her marriage to Charles lasted twenty three years and was characterized by devotion on both sides.  This royal Kate has never had the recognition of other queens to carry the name but in some ways, she outdid them all.

About author

Lydia Starbuck is Jubilee and Associate Editor at Royal Central and the main producer and presenter of the Royal Central Podcast and Royal Central Extra. Lydia is also a pen name of June Woolerton who is a journalist and writer with over twenty years experience in TV, radio, print and online. Her latest book, A History of British Royal Jubilees, is out now. Her new book, The Mysterious Death of Katherine Parr, will be published in March 2024. June is an award winning reporter, producer and editor. She's appeared on outlets including BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Local Radio and has also helped set up a commercial radio station. June is also an accomplished writer with a wide range of material published online and in print. She is the author of two novels, published as e-books. She is also a marriage registrar and ceremony celebrant.