Amidst all the commotion created by King Charles II’s sex life and flamboyant mistresses, there actually was a Queen. She was Catherine of Braganza and she led a very interesting life in England as the King’s wife and later as ruler of her country of origin. Catarina Henriqueta de Braganza was born on November 25, 1638 in the Vila Vicosa in Alentego, Portugal. She was the eldest child of Juan, Duke of Braganza and his wife, Luisa Maria. Catherine had two siblings, Afonso and Pedro and grew up in a loving family. Catherine’s mother took an active interest in her children’s education.
In 1640, Catherine’s father led a rebellion against Spain. During the rebellion he was offered the crown of Portugal and at his wife’s urging he agreed. The family moved to Lisbon and he was crowned King Juan IV. Portugal continued to fight for independence from Spain and received little cooperation from other European countries. However, one monarch acknowledged his elevation to the monarchy. The beleaguered King Charles I of England recognized his crown and King Juan would always remember this validation of his status. In 1644, King Juan finally prevailed against Spain. In an effort to reinforce his standing further, he sent his ambassador to England to negotiate a marriage agreement between King Charles I’s eldest son Charles and his daughter Catherine. Due to the raging Civil War in England, the negotiations never were carried out.
Catherine lived for most of her childhood in a convent close to the royal palace where her mother could supervise her education. Her upbringing was said to be sheltered and made her a person of strong faith and devotion. Exhausted with fighting the Spaniards, King Juan died in 1656 leaving his remarkable wife as regent for King Afonso. Luisa continued the fight against the dominance of Spain and enhanced Portugal’s independence through military and commercial endeavors. She soon was entertaining proposals for her daughter’s hand in marriage. She first contemplated a marriage with Louis XIV of France. When that didn’t materialize, she turned to England. A secret meeting was set up with her ambassador and King Charles II. The Portuguese offered Charles Tangier which could be used as a base for trade in the Mediterranean, Bombay, a gateway for trade with India, free trade with Brazil and the East Indies and an enormous amount of cash, £300,000. After a year of negotiations and overcoming doubts over him marrying a Catholic princess, Charles announced he would marry Catherine of Braganza before Parliament on May 8, 1661.
The marriage contract was signed on June 23, 1661 with England agreeing to provide military assistance to help protect Portugal from Spain in return for the massive dowry. Catherine was given and income of £30,000 and the right to worship freely in England as a Catholic. Catherine was twenty-three and had become a serene and quiet young woman. She made the difficult journey to England, leaving her beloved home. The couple had two wedding ceremonies performed on May 21, 1662. The first was a Catholic service performed in secret and then a public Protestant service. She was never crowned as a Catholic was not allowed to participate in an Anglican ceremony.
People were already criticizing Catherine’s appearance and her reserved nature. The fact that she didn’t speak English well made things difficult for her. But Charles seemed pleased with her appearance and her behavior and the early days of their marriage were satisfying. Catherine fell hopelessly in love with the King.
But things did not go smoothly for long. Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine, Charles’ tempestuous mistress was pregnant with her second child by the King. Once their son was born, Barbara demanded to be named “Lady of the Bedchamber” to the new Queen. The King placed her name on the list and Catherine instantly crossed the name off. Both parties dug in their heels but in the end, Catherine surrendered and Barbara was given the post. After the dust settled on the issue, Catherine was to treat all of Charles mistresses with calculated friendship, thus endearing herself even more with Charles.
To make Catherine’s position even more difficult, she had trouble producing an heir. In 1663, she fell seriously ill and almost died. The King remained by her side, seemingly devoted to her. In her delirium she kept asking where her children were. Charles reassured her and his attentiveness seemed to restore her. When she recovered she couldn’t walk and was temporarily deaf but she eventually overcame these disabilities. In 1665, plague in London caused the court to move to Oxford and it is likely Catherine miscarried in February 1666. She suffered another miscarriage in 1668 and again in June 1669. This was to be her last pregnancy and both she and Charles were forced to accept they would never bear children together.
Catherine’s existence was not all misery. As she grew older, she began to relax and enjoy what life at court offered. She loved to play cards, dance and organize masques. She liked to picnic and fish in the country as well as practice archery. Like other women of the time she dressed in men’s clothing and may have instigated the practice of wearing shorter dresses to show off her pretty ankles. She is credited with starting the practice of drinking tea in England which noblemen had done in Portugal. She may have introduced the use of forks as well. She did not get involved with English politics but closely followed developments in Portugal. In 1665, she started building a religious house east of St. James which was completed in 1667 and became known as The Friary.
In 1669, the King’s mother died and in 1671 Catherine moved into Somerset House. The rumors of divorce commenced but the King remained supportive of Catherine. In February 1673, Catherine fell seriously ill again. The government was calling for Charles to divorce Catherine or legitimize his eldest bastard son, James, Duke of Monmouth. Charles refused both requests. Barbara Castlemaine openly insulted the Queen in pubic so Charles made her a Duchess and basically bought her off. But his new mistress, Louise de Kéroulle was even more repugnant to Catherine than Barbara had been. The stresses of her life threatened to kill her again with another serious illness in 1675. To make matters even more stressful, her religion was coming under attack and the Popish Plot of 1678 threatened her status directly. The government threatened Charles asking him to purge all Catholics from his household and they asked him to divorce her again in 1680.
Charles was steadfast in his support of Catherine. He continued to treat her well until his death in 1685. Catherine fell into a deep depression but she was to enjoy religious freedom and the support of Charles’ Catholic brother King James II. When James was driven from the throne, his daughter and son-in-law took the throne as joint sovereigns, William and Mary. For some reason Mary didn’t like Catherine and in 1692, Catherine received permission to return to Portugal and she retired there.
Her retirement did not last long. Her brother King Pedro II was incapacitated and her nephews were too young to rule and in 1704, she was named regent, just as her mother had been when her father died. Catherine ruled over military campaigns and was highly effective in running the country. She was to govern to great acclaim until her death on December 31, 1705. She is buried in the Royal Pantheon of the Braganza Dynasty and her name is highly respected to this day in Portugal.