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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Pictorial Tea Tour .......... CATHERINE OF BRAGANZA (c.1662)

Catherine of Braganza
The National Portrait Gallery, London

Tea is so much associated with the British way of life that it can come as a surprise to learn that it owes much of its popularity there to a foreign princess. While it is not true to say that Catherine of Braganza actually introduced tea to Britain, she certainly had much to do with it becoming a fashionable and widely drunk beverage.

Tea was already popular in Portugal where Catherine grew up and Britain at that time somewhat lagged behind. In May 1660 (just a few months before Pepys started writing), Charles II had been restored to the throne and sadly, he inherited many debts from Cromwell's previous administration. He soon also ran up new debts of his own and was desperately short of cash. One solution to this was to marry a wealthy foreign princess and to demand of her a great deal of money or goods as a dowry! After some negotiation, it was agreed that he would marry Catherine of Braganza and that her father, King John IV of Portugal, would provide with her several ships full of luxury goods - some as gifts and some which could be sold to pay off Charles II's debts. These goods included a chest of tea.

Catherine arrived in Portsmouth on May 13, 1662. It had been a long and stormy crossing and as soon as she set foot on land, asked for a cup of tea! So rare was it at this time, there was none available; the princess was offered a glass of ale instead! Not surprisingly, this did not make her feel any better, and for a time she was forced by illness to retire to her bedchamber.

Eventually, Catherine and Charles II were married. Initially Catherine, a deeply pious Catholic who had been schooled in a convent, found it difficult to fit in at the bawdy and fun-loving English court. But over time she established herself, and as the pre-eminent woman in the kingdom, became something of a trend-setter. Although she 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.

The marriage of Queen Catherine and Charles II was not an altogether happy union. They had no children together, a source of great heartache for them both, and made worse for Catherine by the fact that Charles had several illegitimate children from a series of mistresses. Further, Catherine was a Roman Catholic, which occasionally made her a victim of popular anti-Catholic feeling. Although she remained in England for some years after her husband's death in 1685, she eventually retired to Portugal, where she died in 1705. Though Catherine's experience as queen of England may not have been an entirely successful or happy one, it is this young foreign princess whom we have to thank for the development of the British taste for tea.

(Purchase the Catherine of Braganza print here)

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