Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Monday, November 25, 2019

Catherine of Braganza, Queen of England and Regent of Portugal

Catherine of Braganza, queen of England and regent of Portugal (born 25 November 1638)


Lately I've been reading biographies of women who lived a little beyond my areas of expertise--as I've written before, I used to joke with my students that if something happened after 1603 (the date of Elizabeth Tudor's death) it was a little too recent for me.

And so, although I was obviously aware of Catherine of Braganza, who was--unfortunately for her--married to Charles II of England in 1662, I didn't know much about her, and what I knew, or thought I knew, wasn't all that significant. 

I "knew" that she had introduced tea into England--I put that in quotation marks here, because it's what I believed, though it isn't true. 

The 1660/61 portrait of
Catherine of Braganza
with her unfortunate hairdo
(National Gallery, London)
I also "knew" that Catherine had exceptionally bad hair. Upon seeing his bride-to-be for the first time, Charles is said to have exclaimed that he thought Catherine was a "bat" and not a woman. The nineteenth-century historian Alice Strickland provided an extended description of Catherine of Braganza's unfortunate hairdo: the Portuguese princess had "a rich profusion of chestnut hair," but it was
disposed on each side of her face in a waved pyramid, consisting of parallel lines of canon curls, descending in graduated rows to the waist in a most extraordinary and unaccountable fashion, as if in imitation of a lord chief justice's wig, but without the powder. The whole of a very beautiful head of hair was spread out thus fantastically in side wings, with the exception of one large tress called a top-knot, which was combed slanting across her forehead, and gave additional oddity. . . .
But neither of the things I thought I knew has proven to be true. 

Catherine of Braganza certainly popularized the drinking of tea in England, but there are several references to tea in London before her arrival. Most notably, the diarist Samuel Pepys records on 25 September 1660 that he had "a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before." But the drink was being served in London well before Pepys tried it; Thomas Garway, proprietor of the Sultaness Head coffee house, was serving the drink at least two years earlier. According to an advertisement in the London Gazette (2 to 9 September 1658), “That Excellent, and by all Physitians approved, China Drink called by the ChineansTcha, by other Nations Tay alais . . . Tee, is sold at the Sultaness-head, a Cophee-house in Sweetings Rents, by the Royal Exchange, London.”

As for the bad hair? Well, I've used a portrait showing Catherine's "bat" hairdo, above, and it's certainly not attractive. But within days of her arrival, Catherine had exchanged her Portuguese farthingales and manner of dressing her hair for English styles, and that "fixed" the hair issues. I should add, however, that many contemporary descriptions of Catherine--her bad hair, her bad teeth, her bad complexion, her bad figure, her bad demeanor, her bad temper, her bad clothes--all seem aimed at excusing the king's execrable behavior toward her. Charles was unthinking and neglectful at best, and cruel at worst--it depends on how you judge his flaunting of his many mistresses, whom he refused to give up, in front of his humiliated queen. 

To give Charles credit, though, he himself seemed perfectly satisfied with his Portuguese bride, and while he continued to accrue mistresses who bore him many, many children, he refused to divorce his wife, even when pressed to do so for the sake of producing a legitimate heir. 

Jean Nocret's portrait of Catherine,
with far more acceptable hair
(Prado Museum)
He also protected the Catholic queen when she was supposedly involved in a "Popish plot" against his life, and Catherine was suspected of having conspired with Charles's physician to poison the king--a charge of high treason was laid against her in parliament. But, rather than taking advantage of the situation to rid himself of an inconvenient wife, Charles stood by his queen, organizing her defense. 

Catarina de Bragança was born on 25 November 1638, two years before her father, João II, duke of Bragança, proclaimed himself king, becoming João IV of Portugal. An extended war with Spain was the result. (Interestingly, his claim was made through the female line, from his grandmother Catarina of Portugal, who had claimed the throne after the death of King Henrique of Portugal in 1580).

Catarina's mother was Luisa de Guzmán, a Spanish noblewoman who seems to have been the driving force behind her husband's acceptance of the Portuguese throne when it was offered to him. (She is believed to have claimed that it was better to reign for an hour than to be a duchess for a lifetime.) After her husband's death in 1656, she acted as regent of Portugal for her minor son, Afonso, a role she maintained even after the boy reached the age of majority--the young king was said to be physically weak and mentally unstable, but he still managed to seize power in 1662 and confine his mother in a convent. (A few years later, Afonso was declared incapable by his brother, Pedro, who took power in Afonso's name and then married Afonso's wife, after her marriage to Afonso was annulled. Family values! Don't you just love them?)

Although the "war of Restoration" would not formally end until 1668, the infanta Catarina, as she was known after her father was proclaimed king of Portugal, became a desirable prospect in the marriage market. As early as 1644, he was negotiating with Charles I for the marriage of his daughter to the English king's eldest son, destined to follow his father on the throne.

The English Civil Wars disrupted whatever plans might have been concluded, however. Charles I was executed, his son Charles escaping to the continent.

Meanwhile, Catherine was being carefully and strictly educated in a convent. After the Portuguese king's death in 1656, the regency was left to the queen, and it was under Luisa María Francisca de Guzmán y Sandoval's regency that war with Spain ended and Portuguese independence ensured.

In order to strengthen ties with England, the dowager queen and regent of Portugal revived the marriage negotiations between the infanta and Charles, restored to the English throne in 1660. The English king knew the problems that marriage with a Catholic would cause--his mother, Henrietta Maria, was Catholic, her religion contributing to the many conflicts that precipitated the civil wars that led to her husband's deposition and execution--but, in need of money, Charles was eager for the huge dowry that would come with the Portuguese princess.

The Infanta Catarina arrived in England in 1662--now Catherine, she married the king on 22 May in an Anglican ceremony. There was also a secret Catholic marriage ceremony.

Before Catherine arrived in England for her marriage, the British consul in Lisbon had sent home a letter describing the princess. Something of the difficulties she would have as queen of England should have been clear. Thomas Maynard described the princess as a young woman of great virtue, beauty, and "sweetness," but "bred hugely retired." She has "hardly been ten times out of the palace in her life." In fact, she hadn't been out of doors for the five years before the negotiations for her marriage, when, in an act of religious devotion, she paid a visit to two shrines in the city. She would find the English court--described by a contemporary as a "cross between a bear garden and a brothel"--an uncomfortable new home.

While her new husband was fond of his wife and insisted that members of the court treat her with respect, he did not hide his infidelities (or his mistresses) from her. (He even proposed his mistress as Catherine's Lady of the Bedchamber--Catherine resisted, but after the king sent home her Portuguese ladies, she capitulated.) The queen's difficulties with the English language and her religion also contributed to her isolation at court.

Her miscarriages (which seem to have occurred in 1663, 1666 and 1668) ultimately gave rise to talk of divorce. The king's advisers urged him to get rid of his problematic queen and find a replacement--a Protestant. To his credit, Charles refused. She was, he said, a "weak woman" who had some "disagreeable humours," but she was incapable of doing a single "wicked" thing. To "abandon her" would be "horrid," and he claimed that he could never be so "base."

Catherine of Braganza c. 1665,
as queen of England,
by Peter Lely
Still, the queen was a target of increasing anti-Catholic sentiment. She was suspected of trying to appoint a Catholic bishop in England, and although the hysteria of the Popish plot of 1678 resulted in the executions of some two dozen suspected Catholics and even more suspicion directed to the queen, Charles refused to countenance persecution of her.

When Charles II died in 1685, Catherine, now dowager queen, hoped to return to Portugal, but her plan to do so was delayed for years. Not long after her husband's death, she sought permission to return from her brother Pedro, now king of Portugal, who was not keen to upset his alliance with England and, anyway, the necessary fleet to fetch his sister was needed elsewhere. She was treated kindly by James II, but he could not, or would not, arrange for her return to Portugal either. And then when her brother arranged for her return, she was too ill to travel; her ill health also prevented her from traveling when James II at last arranged for a ship to take his sister-in-law back to the land of her birth. 

And money was an issue. Her income, guaranteed by her marriage treaty and augmented by gifts from her husband and an inheritance from her mother-in-law, Queen Henrietta Maria, widow of Charles I, was left unpaid, and she discovered that her lord treasurer had retained a great deal of what was paid for himself. And so she went to court. (I love biographer Lillias Campbell Davidson's comment on the shock that was felt at Catherine's temerity of pursuing what she thought was right: "She had for so long meekly submitted to be robbed and slighted, that neither James nor those about her could understand the resolute fight she now made for her own hand.")

As a Catholic, Catherine was increasingly isolated and at risk during the reign of the staunchly protestant William and Mary, who took the throne as a result of the "glorious revolution." (Mary was James's elder daughter and heir, her husband, William, her first cousin, the son of Mary Henrietta Stuart, sister of Charles II and James II.)
 
Once again, the question of transport became an issue--the terms of her marriage treaty had guaranteed her right to return to Portugal, but how was she to get there? She was caught between her brother, unable to do what was necessary to arrange for her return, and the new English monarchs, unwilling to offer her any assistance. In July 1689, the House of Commons passed a bill against "papists" (and taking aim at the dowager queen), reducing her household to a handful of Catholic servants. A few months later, Catherine was again under suspicion, suspected of having attempted to poison Queen Mary.  

And still her departure from England was delayed--the effort dragged on until 1692, when Catherine was finally able to leave for Portugal. Her journey began on 30 March 1692, just a few weeks short of thirty years since her arrival in England. She sailed from Margate to Dieppe, then traveled overland through France. By June she had arrived in Moulins, and in September she had reached Avignon. In November, she was met at the Spanish border by Portuguese noblemen, and at long last, in January 1693, she entered Lisbon and was reunited with her brother.

At last the trajectory of Catherine's life was reversed. The city not only welcomed her, but lavish celebrations greeted her return. Instead of hostility and suspicion, she was embraced by her new sister-in-law, Maria Sophia of Neuburg (Pedro's second wife, whom he had married in 1687). There does seem to have been a bit of upset, however--Pedro wished that Catherine would no longer dress in her English gowns but resume wearing Portuguese fashion . . . 

Returned to Lisbon, she soon earned another title, serving as regent of Portugal for her brother in 1701 and again in 1704-5. And she also assumed responsibility for her nephew, who would succeed his father on the throne as João V of Portugal. She oversaw the boy's education from 1699, when his mother died, until her own death.

Catherine of Braganza, queen of England and regent of Portugal, died on 31 December 1705. She had just turned sixty-seven. 

Catherine of Braganza's tomb,
House of Braganza Pantheon,
Sao Vicente de Fora Monastery, Lisbon


There is an extended biographical account of Catherine of Braganza in volume 8 of Alice Strickland's nineteenth-century Lives of the Queens of England. However romanticized, it is a rich, complete survey of the queen's life. S. M. Wynne's entry on the queen in the Dictionary of National Biography is accessible only to those with a subscription.

There are several historical novels, if you're interested. 


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