I cannot help but being filled with pity when I think of Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705), the young Portuguese princess who became the bride of the profligate Charles II. She was a stranger in a strange land where she could barely speak the language and where her religion was outlawed. Raised in a convent and in a pious, loving family, Catherine suddenly found herself in the midst of a bawdy and dissolute court, where she was the target for anti-Catholic bigotry. Her greatest misfortune was that she fell in love with her husband during the first halcyon weeks of their marriage. He appeared to be drawn to her as well. After Charles met Catherine he wrote to his sister Minette:
Her face is not so exactly as to be called a beauty, though her eyes are excellent good, and nothing in her face that in the least degree can disgust one. On the contrary, she hath as much agreeableness in her looks as I ever saw, and if I have any skill in physiognomy, which I think I have, she must be as good a woman as ever was born. You will wonder to see how well we are acquainted already; in a word, I think myself very happy, for I am confident our two humours will agree very well together.How extremely painful it must have been for Catherine to discover that there were other women in her husband's life. How difficult to have to see Charles with Barbara Castlemaine, with whom the king was besotted, and who was carrying his child when he married Catherine. She could not go home, or to a convent or anywhere. She had to stay and learn to live with it.
Catherine was also deprived of motherhood, with three miscarriages. She found consolation in her faith. Although Charles continued to be unfaithful, having children with other women, he respected Catherine's unwavering religious convictions, and defended her whenever she was attacked.
As one article says:
Of course life was not all bleakness and misery for Catherine. Although her difficulties with the language persisted, as time went on the once rigidly formal Portuguese Infanta mellowed and began to enjoy some of the more innocent pleasures of the court. She loved to play cards and shocked devout Protestants by playing on Sundays. She enjoyed dancing and took great delight in organising masques. She had a great love for the countryside and picnics, fishing and archery were also favourite pastimes. In a far cry from her convent-days the newly liberated Catherine displayed a fondness for the recent trend of court ladies wearing men's clothing, which we are told, 'showed off her pretty, neat legs and ankles'; and she was even reported to have considered leading the way in wearing shorter dresses, which would show off her feet. In 1670, on a trip to Audley End with her ladies-in-waiting, the once chronically shy Catherine attended a country fair disguised as a village maiden, but was soon discovered and, due to the large crowds, forced to make a hasty retreat. Although she was never to wield much influence at court the poet Edmund Waller credited her with making tea a fashionable drink amongst courtiers. And when in 1664 her favourite painter, Jacob Huysmans a Dutch Catholic, painted her as St Catherine, it promptly set a trend among court ladies.Tea had already been introduced to England but Catherine helped to make it popular.
Although [Catherine] adopted English fashions, she continued to prefer the cuisine of her native Portugal - including tea. Soon her taste for tea had caused a fad at the royal court. This then spread to aristocratic circles and then to the wealthier classes. In 1663 the poet and politician Edmund Waller wrote a poem in honour of the queen for her birthday:Catherine had the consolation of seeing her husband become a Catholic on his deathbed. After the overthrow of her brother-in-law James II, she returned to Portugal in 1692. She was active in politics, becoming the regent for her brother Peter II in the years before her death in 1705.
- Venus her Myrtle, Phoebus has his bays;
- Tea both excels, which she vouchsafes to praise.
- The best of Queens, the best of herbs, we owe
- To that bold nation which the way did show
- To the fair region where the sun doth rise,
- Whose rich productions we so justly prize.
- The Muse's friend, tea does our fancy aid,
- Regress those vapours which the head invade,
- And keep the palace of the soul serene,
- Fit on her birthday to salute the Queen.
She who was often overlooked in life continues to be neglected by historians. According to writer Heidi Murphy:
- In contrast to Charles II's mistresses there are precious few biographies devoted to his wife. Little of her private correspondence remains but an examination of those letters that are available show her to have been, in contrast to her public image, a pragmatic and astute woman, keenly aware of the difficulties of her position. Her husband's mistresses caused her endless grief and humiliation, but as her friendship with Monmouth shows she bore no grudges against his numerous children, and to some she proved a kind and loving friend (up until the time of Catherine's death Nell Gwyn's son, the Duke of St Albans, is reported to have received an allowance from her own income).
- It was on her return to Portugal amongst people who valued and supported her that she finally flourished. An exploration of her regency reveals her to have been a strong leader, capable and firm, a figure that her once dismissive courtiers would scarcely have recognised. In 1687, with the benefit of hindsight Catherine described her role as Queen of England, as being a sacrifice, 'solely for the advantage of Portugal'. It is fitting then that in contrast to England, where the Merry Monarch and his numerous mistresses continue to capture the imagination, in Portugal the name Catherine of Braganza 'is held in the highest veneration to the present day'.