“One of the greatest and most illustrious princesses in the world.” If contemporaries thought highly of Catherine of Braganza, why has history been so condescending to Charles II’s queen? Linda Porter believes it is high time the Merry Monarch’s Portuguese wife was given her due.
Catherine of Braganza is one of our most overlooked queens, neglected not just by her priapic husband, but by historians as well. Written off as lachrymose and lonely, as well as plain of face and dull of personality, she has scarcely merited a mention in Restoration historiography, apart from the occasional patronising comment about how long-suffering she was, a sad little woman who found refuge in her Catholic faith. Yet if one looks at Catherine more closely, a very different woman emerges from the shadows, one who decided to forge an independent and satisfying existence and establish herself as a cultural rival to Charles II’s mistresses.
I was as guilty as any historian of giving little attention to Catherine until I began the research for my latest book, Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II. I’d decided that she needed to be included in the book because, like the other ladies, she had shared Charles’s bed and would have borne him children had she not suffered several miscarriages. Her relationship with his mistresses was also important in itself. But why did Charles decide to marry her in the first place? The answer is, quite simply, money.
Portugal had amassed a large empire, stretching from Brazil in the west, across Africa, to India and Asia. In 1640, after 60 years of union with Spain, a significant number of the Portuguese nobility rose in revolt and set John, Duke of Braganza, on the throne of an independent Portugal as King John IV. He was Catherine’s father. So Charles’s bride came from a country that had, like England, suffered much upheaval and uncertainty in recent years. Portugal wanted protection from Spain and France, now uneasy allies since the marriage of Louis XIV and Maria Teresa of Spain, and Britain needed Portugal’s still very considerable wealth.
Catherine brought with her the largest dowry of any English queen consort. At a stroke, Charles II gained Bombay and Tangier as well as confirmed access to Brazil and the East Indies, not to mention a huge cash payment, though this was never fully paid. He had not rushed into marriage but he had done very well out of it.
Whether the marriage would be a success on the personal level was a minor consideration. Neither party knew much about the other and Catherine’s views would, in any case, have been irrelevant. Years later she would say, in a remark that betrays much residual bitterness, that she was sold to England. It was an accurate judgement.
Escorted by the earl of Sandwich, Catherine’s flotilla left Lisbon in a blaze of fireworks. The stormy voyage to England was much less enjoyable and Catherine’s welcome in her new country far from splendid. Charles II did not rush to Portsmouth to meet her and it was left to his brother, James, Duke of York, to welcome her formally. The king justified his lateness by the need to approve parliamentary legislation.
This was a prevarication. His main reason for tardiness was the desire to enjoy the charms of his heavily-pregnant mistress, Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine, before he was compelled to perform his conjugal duties with the nervous young woman, who, recovering from a cold, awaited him in Portsmouth. He arrived so late in the evening that he felt it best to avoid consummating the marriage that night. In any case, as he later confided to his sister, Catherine was having her period. It was a far from auspicious start to their married life.
Daylight did not really improve matters. The king’s first reaction to his wife’s appearance was one of undisguised disappointment. He did report that her eyes were “excellent good” and that there was not “anything in her face that in the least degree can shock one”. Faint praise indeed.
But he made it clear that she was no beauty and was apparently taken aback by her Portuguese fashions and a hairstyle that stuck out so much at the sides that it made her look like a bat. How could this princess, no matter how good-natured and easy to please, compare to the voluptuous, auburn-haired, emotional volcano that was Barbara Palmer? Catherine never stood a chance.
Nor was her husband ever really going to give her one. He made it abundantly clear to the earl of Clarendon, his chief minister, that he would censure and bear a grudge against anyone who tried to oppose the appointment of Barbara as a Lady of the Bedchamber to his wife. He wrote : “Whosever I find to be my lady Castlemaine’s enemy in this matter, I do promise, upon my word, to be his enemy as long as I live.”
He had made his priorities clear from the outset. This was a cold, calculated humiliation. Catherine felt it very keenly. She was not so naïve as to be unaware of Barbara Palmer, even if she did not immediately understand the name when ‘the Lady’, as Barbara was known in court circles, was presented to her at Hampton Court. Moments later, as recognition dawned, she turned red, suffered a nose-bleed and fainted.
Charles II’s reaction was one of fury. He took Catherine’s distress as a personal affront and proceeded to parade Barbara in front of the queen regularly. His wife’s dignity and contentment, her evident adoration of him, were of little concern to Charles from the outset.
Later in their marriage he would, though, protect her from rabid anti-Catholicism. It is true that, even when it became apparent that Catherine could never have children, he refused to contemplate divorce. His fatalism about her place in his life was, though, apparent right from the beginning of their marriage. She would always be a secondary consideration. He didn’t actively dislike her. He just preferred the company of almost any other woman whose personality or looks attracted him more. These could easily be found in his hedonistic court. It took Catherine nearly a decade of heartbreak to understand that they needed to live separate lives. When she did accept this reality, she found it unexpectedly liberating and rewarding.
The marriage had finally foundered on the Queen’s successive miscarriages. She did not conceive until the royal couple had been married for four years and then lost three foetuses between 1666 and 1669. Her inability to carry a child to term, coupled with difficulty in conceiving in the first place, seem to have been the result of the condition known as abnormal uterine bleeding. Still not fully understood, this leads to frequent, heavy periods and the risk of miscarriage.
Catherine’s difficulties were widely known and the subject of much comment and conjecture, which must have been extremely distressing for the queen. In our own times, menstruation remains a topic that is only just becoming an acknowleged part of the conversation about being female. Intrusions by the paparazzi into royal life still do not bring forth the kind of comment about “the extraordinary frequence and abundance of her menses” or the observation that she “had a constant flux upon her” that Catherine of Braganza had to endure.
Queens’ bodies were public property in the past, since hereditary descent and the begetting of healthy heirs were essential to the survival of monarchy as an institution. At least Catherine’s ‘failure’ spared her the ordeal of having to give birth under the watchful eyes of prelates and politicians. She might have gladly suffered this if it had led to motherhood.
When she fell seriously ill a year after her marriage, the extent to which, even then, her difficulties were preying on her mind, became evident. Delirious with a high fever, she rambled to the King about their son. He did not exist, except in her imagination, but that she was desperate for such a child is beyond doubt.
After eight years of marriage, both king and queen accepted that there would be no heir, male or female. There was talk of divorce but this, to his credit, Charles II would not countenance. His growing brood of illegitimate children by numerous mistresses was sufficient proof, as he saw it of his own virility and his brother, James, Duke of York, had children, though when Charles died the only two surviving were girls, both of whom would become Queen in their turn. Tired of Lady Castlemaine and entranced by a newcomer to the court, the Frenchwoman Louise de Kéroualle, the king was moving on.
So was his wife. Relieved of the burden of expectation to produce an heir, Catherine could now forge a life for herself.
The Queen used her patronage to support the arts and music in distinctive ways, drawing on her Portuguese heritage and her own personal interests. Her chapel was the focus of innovative approaches to music, drawing on virtuosos from across Europe, though notably not from France. Portugal itself had a rich musical tradition, though this was certainly not appreciated by English commentators initially. The prevalence of woodwind instruments and the singing voices of the castratos grated on English ears.
The diarists Pepys and Evelyn both made unflattering comments on the first concerts given by Catherine’s Portuguese musicians which revealed their ignorance of European musical trends and the kind of condescension that the English do so well. They disliked the ‘pipes’ and the ‘ill voices’ of the ‘eunuchs’.
By 1666, however, the arrival of a group of Italian singers who had recently left the court of Queen Christina of Sweden and greater familiarity at court with Catherine’s musical tastes helped sway opinion. By 1668, Pepys had decided that the music in the queen’s chapel was “beyond anything of ours”.
As a patron of art, Catherine also consciously avoided French painters, preferring to have her portrait made by Italian and Flemish Catholic artists. Jacob Huysmans’ portrait of Catherine as a shepherdess, in a stunning satin dress that would have made it very difficult to herd sheep, conveyed her confidence and maturity. The low neckline of the costume even hinted at a delicate degree of sensuality without the brazen sexiness of Lady Castlemaine’s portraits. In contrast to Barbara, the woman who had effectively blighted her marriage, and the simpering influence of Louise, Catherine established an image of a confident, regal queen.
As an arbiter of taste in other areas, the Queen was also notably successful. She brought with her not just money and an entrée into faraway lands, but other aspects of these distant cultures. The interiors and furnishings of her apartments were soon copied by courtiers who wished to be viewed as discerning. The colourful textiles of India and the cane furnishings that featured so prominently in her rooms were complemented by lacquer cabinets and the finest porcelain. And into the exquisite china that tinkled around conversation in Catherine’s court was poured – and enjoyed for the first time as something other than a medicinal drink – that most quintessentially English of beverages, tea. The queen did not introduce tea to the British Isles, but she did make consuming it fashionable. It was quite the achievement.
Charles II did not resent his wife’s independence. In fact, he seems to have approved of it. Perhaps it relieved, to some extent, his conscience. Though her political influence is difficult to gauge with any certainty, she may have acted as a sounding-board for some of her husband’s policies. Her private secretary was only one of four men who signed the Secret Treaty of Dover in 1670.
But the king never entertained in Catherine’s apartments, preferring the company of Louise de Kéroualle, who was ever-obliging as a hostess. Catherine did still show occasional frustration at her exclusion from what should have been her rightful place at his side, but she had ensured that her own position was secure and that she could live her private life in security, with a loyal and affectionate household around her.
When death came to Charles II, as it did in February, 1685, Queen Catherine was the only female allowed in his presence, as protocol dictated. She found his suffering, which was great, hard to witness. In a touching gesture of the wife she had always wanted to be, she rubbed his feet in an attempt to warm them. Eventually, she nearly swooned and had to be helped away.
In his last moments, he is said to have expressed remorse to those around him about the way he had neglected her throughout their life together. She was, no doubt, pleased that he died a Catholic, having undergone a death-bed conversion to the religion he had probably favoured on a personal level all his adult life.
His death meant that Catherine of Braganza became a queen dowager, never the easiest of roles to fill. She was 47 years old and hoped, after an appropriate time of mourning, to go back to Portugal. In this she was frustrated for seven long years, during which she pleaded with her brother, King Pedro, to support her wish and he, ill and insecure, found endless reasons to delay her return. When the final permission to return home to a country she had not seen for 30 years was granted, Catherine journeyed overland through France. She had every reason to dislike the French but was gratified by Louis XIV’s gracious treatment of her and delighted by the warmest of responses from the citizens of Lisbon when she arrived in January, 1693. The English ladies who had accompanied their mistress were pleased to see how much she was still loved.
The queen lived contentedly in Portugal for 12 years until, in 1705, with her brother incapacitated and his son too young to rule on his own, Catherine became regent. She ruled capably for barely a year, until on the last day of 1705, late in the evening, she died in the palace she had built in Bemposta.
In her will, she asked the Earl of Chesterfield, her chamberlain in England, to be the executor for her English estates. He could not fulfil this charge, being old and ill himself. But he did pay her the tribute quoted at the beginning of this feature, something which would have pleased her greatly.
More scholarly research is now under way on this forgotten queen, which is most welcome. It should add substantially to our knowledge of Catherine of Braganza herself and her role in Restoration England.
Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II by Linda Porter is published in paperback on 15 April, 2021.
Linda has also written about Hortense Mancini, Charles II’s last mistress, earlier in Historia.
See more about Queen Catherine in our feature Raise your teacup for Catherine of Braganza! by Isabel Stilwell.
Catherine of Braganza by Peter Lely, 1665: via Wikimedia
Charles II and Catherine by Frederik Hendrik Van den Hove: via Wikimedia
Catherine of Braganza after Dirk Stoop, 1660–61: via Wikimedia
Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine, by Peter Lely, 1665: via Wikimedia
Queen Catherine as a Shepherdess by Jacob Huysmans, 1662–64: via Wikimedia
Louise de Kéroualle by Peter Lely, 1671–74: J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, via Wikimedia