Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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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)

Catherine of Braganza as infante,
portrait by the artist Dirk Stoop
I must admit that, until recently, I didn't know much about Catherine of Braganza, aside from the fact that as the wife of Charles II of England, she endured the presence of his many mistresses at court--and while she suffered a series of miscarriages, the king's many mistresses gave birth to over a dozen children, all of whom were publicly acknowledged and granted titles. I had also heard that she introduced the drinking of tea into England.

The tea part isn't true--before Catherine of Braganza arrived in England from Portugal in 1662, the English diarist Samuel Pepys mentions having "tee (a China drink)" late in September of  1660. Still, Catherine of Braganza is credited with having made the drinking of tea very popular among those who were able to afford it. 

But the sad story of a queen who had to put up with her husband's mistresses is true, as is the fact that she was unable to provide her husband with an heir. The Catholic queen's "failure" in this regard meant that she became the focus of a great deal of animosity from members of the English court. 

Born on 25 November 1638, Catherine was the daughter of João, eighth duke of Braganza, and his wife, Luisa María Francisca de Guzmán y Sandoval. In 1640, after years of Spanish rule, João proclaimed himself the legitimate king of Portugal (through his grandmother, Catherine of Braganza), becoming João IV. An extended war with Spain was the result.

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 resulted in the civil wars that had resulted in 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.

Queen Catherine remained in England after Charles's death in 1685. She even remained after the deposition of James II in 1688. With increasing legislation against Catholics during the reign of William and Mary, she finally returned to Portugal in 1692, having lived for thirty years in England, first as queen, then as dowager queen.

Returned to Lisbon, she was reunited with her younger brother, now Pedro II, king of Portugal. There she earned another title, serving as regent of Portugal for her brother in 1701 and again in 1704-5. And while serving her brother, 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.