The 17th century Queen who could say “There were three of us in this marriage”

Professor Maria Hayward, Head of History at Southampton University, has been working on the Privy Purse account books of Charles II’s Queen, Catherine of Braganza. (1638-1705) At 2.30p.m. on Tuesday 05 March at Gold Hill Museum, Maria takes time off her busy schedule to share with members of The Shaftesbury & District Historical Society what she has discovered about an under-rated monarch whose legacy is still influencing the British and American ways of life today. This illustrated talk is open to non-members from 2.20p.m. when seats should be available on payment of £3 at the door.

Last season we heard from Paul Cordle in “Escape or Die” how in 1651 the youthful King Charles II, by a mixture of bravado and sheer good fortune, evaded the posses of Parliamentary troopers on his tail from Worcester to Shoreham, where he found a boat for France. In 1660 he was able to return to reclaim his crowns at the Restoration of the Monarchy, having already acquired an habitually decadent life-style and at least one illegitimate son, James Crofts or Scott, future Duke of Monmouth.

During his continental exile Charles had not been impressed by the charms of any potential Protestant brides. The Braganza kingdom of Portugal, however, was keen to secure an ally in its struggle to remain independent of its domineering neighbour Habsburg Spain. A dowry worth £360,000 plus the trading posts of Bombay / Mumbai and Tangier convinced Charles of the merits of a marriage to the Portuguese Infanta, Catherine of Braganza. While Tangier proved a dubious asset, requiring constant expenditure on its defences, Bombay was to become a jewel in the crown of British India. Trading rights in Brazil and the Portuguese East Indies gave access to lucrative colonial markets, including those for slaves.

When a seasick Catherine landed at Portsmouth in May 1662, her first request was for a cup of tea. This quintessential British beverage was then a novelty, first served in a London coffee house in 1657, and promoted for its health benefits. (Boiling the polluted water of the day was a good idea.) In 1658 tea was advertised as That Excellent and by all Physicians approved China drink, called by the Chinese Tcha, by other nations Tay alias Tee. The diarist Samuel Pepys first mentions drinking it in September 1660. Catherine’s preference for tea and its introduction as a standard refreshment at Court functions helped establish tea-drinking as a fashionable activity, initially for the wealthy as tea was much more expensive than coffee.

This 1661 etching by Hollar shows Catherine of Braganza with a single lock of hair looped over the forehead in the Portuguese fashion. This and the continued wearing of farthingales to extend the width of her ladies’ dresses at the hips attracted negative comments from English observers in 1662. Later, writes Jenny Uglow, Catherine came to really like the light English dresses with their revealing bodices, and enjoyed dressing in breeches which showed off her legs. Original in the Metropolitan Museum of New York.

Something else recorded enthusiastically by Pepys was the King’s dalliance with a favourite mistress, Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine. At the time of Catherine’s arrival, Barbara was pregnant with one of five children acknowledged by Charles. She had already persuaded the King to secure her appointment as a Lady of the Queen’s Bedchamber. On 21 May Pepys noted walking into Whitehall garden; and in the privy Garden saw the finest smocks and linen petticoats of my Lady Castlemaynes, laced with rich lace at the bottomes, that ever I sawe; and did me good to look upon themthe King dined at my Lady Castlemayne, and supped every day and night the last week. And the night that the bonefires were made for joy of the Queenes arrivall, the King was there, but there was no fire at her door.

Predictably this ménage a trois provoked some furious scenes. The Lord Chancellor, Edward Hyde Earl of Clarendon (born in Dinton), encouraged the Queen to resist the appointment. She struck the name of Castlemaine from the list, and fainted when the two were introduced. The King made it plain that he would not back down under any circumstances: I am resolved to go through with this matter, let what will come on it … If you desire to have the continuance of my friendship, meddle no more with this business … And whosoever 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.

Eventually Catherine decided on tactics of conciliation, rather than confrontation. (Uglow) Barbara was a Lady of the Bedchamber until 1673, by which time she had been supplanted in Charles’s affections by Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth. Three illegitimate sons – Charles (b 1662), Henry (1663) and George (1665) – were all given the surname Fitzroy, confirming their royal parentage. Sadly Catherine’s three pregnancies all miscarried.

Charles did show some respect and affection for his Queen at the time of the Popish Plot in 1678. This was the wildest conspiracy theory of the age, a farrago of lies and pure invention which fed on contemporary anti-Catholic prejudices and fears of a future Catholic dynasty should a childless Charles be succeeded by his brother James, a Catholic convert. Members of Catherine’s Portuguese household were accused of plotting to kill the King. The most notorious liar, Titus Oates, even accused Catherine of scheming to poison her husband. Charles was present in person to tear holes in Oates’s fantasies, but it made little impression on the Protestant public, or on Exclusionist Whig politicians like Anthony Ashley-Cooper, first Earl of Shaftesbury, who would know it was all rubbish but who exploited the furore to try to alter the Succession. As Shaftesbury said later: I will not say who started the Game, but I am sure I had the full hunting of it.

St Giles House, built by the first Earl of Shaftesbury
St Giles House, built by the first Earl of Shaftesbury (1621-83)

The royal brothers referred contemptuously to the diminutive Shaftesbury as little sincerity – he had changed sides during the Civil Wars, and from supporter of the King to critic in the 1670s – but he was consistent in wishing to retain the role of Parliament in government. He suspected that both brothers were envious of the absolute power exercised in France by Louis XIV and would rule autocratically in Britain if they could. Repeatedly during the Exclusion crisis Shaftesbury urged the King to divorce Queen Catherine and marry a Protestant princess or declare Monmouth to be his legitimate heir. Charles however steadfastly maintained that the Queen could never do anything wicked, and it would be a horrible thing to abandon her.

So Catherine of Braganza’s legacy arguably includes the name of one of New York’s Boroughs; the foundation of British India; the popularisation of tea-drinking; trouser-wearing for women; and quite unintentionally, the beginnings of a political party (the Whigs) and the party system. In 1685, when Charles was on his deathbed, Catherine sent a message to beg his pardon if she had offended him in all her life, to which he replied: Alas, poor woman! She ask my pardon? I beg hers with all my heart.