Saturday, 19 May 2012

Catherine of Braganza
By Heidi Murphy
Catherine of Braganza

Through the ages the complex and charismatic Charles II has both fascinated and divided historians and biographers. Some favour the traditional view of Charles as the ‘Merry Monarch’, a handsome, good-natured, charming patron of the arts, albeit one with a weakness for women and fine-living. While others see the indolence and frivolity of his court as a front for a shrewd, manipulative, resourceful monarch with dangerous leanings towards absolutism. Whatever your thoughts on one point all are agreed, this King was one of the most notorious womanisers of his or any other age and presided over a court which one historian aptly described as ‘a cross between a brothel and a bear garden’ 

At this most licentious of courts the King’s many mistresses and their numerous progeny were shamelessly favoured. During his own lifetime Charles’s passion for principal mistresses Barbara Villiers and Louise de Keroualle, his frequent affairs with low born actresses, the most memorable being Moll Davies and ‘pretty, witty’ Nell Gwyn, and his shameless pursuit of the virtuous beauty Frances Stewart, had become the stuff of legend. Yet paradoxically while he paid court to his latest lover and showered titles and riches on his mistresses he continued to hold his wife, the little-known Catherine of Braganza in the highest esteem; and even when it became politically expedient to do so, steadfastly refused to divorce her.
King Charles II

The woman who was destined to marry this most faithless of husbands was born Catarina Henriqueta de Bragança on 25 November 1638, at the imposing Vila Vicosa in Alentejo, Portugal. Catherine was the eldest child and only surviving daughter of Juan ‘The Fortunate’, Duke of Braganza and his wife Luiza Maria. The royal couple were immensely popular, news of Catherine’s birth was greeted with widespread rejoicing and on 12 December she was christened with great pomp and ceremony in the ducal chapel of the parish. Like her future husband, Catherine was fortunate enough to have been born into a close-knit and loving family. A great favourite with her indulgent parents; Catherine was soon joined in the nursery by younger brothers Alphonso and Pedro.

In 1640 a rebellion against Spanish rule led to Juan of Braganza being offered the throne of Portugal. Although initially reluctant to pit himself against the might of Spain, spurred on by his ambitious wife, Juan accepted the challenge and the family moved to the royal palace of Lisbon where the Duke of Braganza was declared Juan IV, King of Portugal. As the new King had suspected Spain was a ruthless enemy and the struggle for independence proved to be ‘long and fierce’. To add to his troubles he soon found that Portugal had little support amongst the royal courts of Europe where his declaration was greeted with cold indifference. Juan’s most valuable ally during this period was the King of England. Unable to assist in any other way, the increasingly beleaguered Charles I nevertheless ‘rendered him the important service of recognising him as the sovereign of Portugal’, an act of support which the grateful King Juan would never forget.
Juan IV, King of Portugal

By 1644, after a decisive victory over the Spanish the tide finally turned in Portugal’s favour. King Juan, ever anxious to seal his alliance with England, felt confident enough to direct his ambassador Sabran to explore the idea of a marriage between the young Charles, Prince of Wales and his daughter Catherine who now enjoyed the rank and privileges of a princess as ‘Infanta Catarina of Portugal’. King Juan doted on his young daughter and in an effort to secure her future ensured that she would have a tempting dowry to offer the cash-strapped English monarch. Although relations between the two countries remained friendly, for various reasons, not least England’s impending Civil War, these negotiations came to nothing.

Despite her country’s ongoing struggle with Spain, Catherine enjoyed a happy, contented childhood in her beloved Lisbon. Commonly regarded as the power behind the throne, Queen Luiza was also a devoted mother who took an active interest in her children’s upbringing and personally supervised her daughter’s education. Catherine is believed to have spent most of her youth in a convent close by the royal palace where she remained under the watchful eye of her protective mother. It appears to have been a very sheltered upbringing, with one contemporary remarking that Catherine, ‘was bred hugely retired’ and ‘ hath hardly been ten times out of the palace in her life.’
Luiza, Queen of Portugal

In 1656, worn out by his persistent battles with Spain, Juan IV died. Shortly beforehand the ailing King issued a grant, dated November 1 1656, which ‘after an acknowledgement of her virtues’, bequeathed to his beloved daughter, ‘the island of Madeira, the city of Lanego, and the town of Moura, with all their territories, rents, tributes and other privileges to be enjoyed by her. He also gave her other places and sources of income, but provided that, in case of her marriage out of the kingdom, she should relinquish them on receiving a proper equivalent from the crown’.

While the Spanish are reported to have displayed ‘indecent joy’ at the news of Juan’s death, it was soon quashed by the news that his widow, the formidable Queen Luiza had been appointed regent. Determined to protect the throne for her son, King Alphonso, Luiza put her considerable energies into a renewal of the struggle with Spain and was soon triumphantly establishing her country’s independence with a successful combination of military victories and shrewd commercial policies. Before long Portugal’s Queen was being hailed as ‘the wisest sovereign in Europe’ and was in the enviable position of having those who had snubbed her husband now anxious to secure her favour. Predictably this change of fortune increased her daughter’s standing on the world stage and we are told that Queen Luiza was soon receiving ‘many proposals’ for Catherine’s hand. 

Not one to be tempted by the first offer that came her way Queen Luiza was determined that her daughter’s marriage should be a ‘source of additional strength to the newly established throne of Portugal’. When her attempts to secure a match with France’s Louis XIV came to nothing she turned her attention to England, where the highly eligible Charles II had just been restored to his throne. Previous negotiations may have come to nothing but it appears that this time the English saw a match with Portugal as an attractive proposition, not least because of the vast dowry Queen Luiza was promising. Talks were soon underway, determined to leave nothing to chance Queen Luiza sent an agent, Francisco de Melo (Catherine’s godfather) over to London to conduct the negotiations. Acting on the Queen’s orders de Melo brought with him enough money to ensure that within weeks he had secured a secret meeting with the King himself.  It was during this meeting that de Melo is believed to have first ‘dangled the bait of the richest dowry brought by any Queen of England’. This included Tangier, which would give England control of the Mediterranean; Bombay, a valuable base for trade in India and the princely sum of 2 million cruzados (£300,000) in cash. Charles was visibly impressed and after further discussions de Melo was sent home to finalise the terms.

In the incestuous world of seventeenth century diplomacy it was not long before these ‘secret’ talks became common knowledge and were being discussed throughout the courts of Europe. Initially both France and Spain had been anxious for an alliance with the newly restored English king and presented Charles with what he described as ‘a whole litany of princesses’ but it was now clear that the Portuguese with their matchless dowry had the advantage. Viewing an Anglo-Portuguese alliance as a direct snub to Spain the French government was supportive. Spain, naturally outraged at the thought of England allying herself so firmly with her enemy, vigorously opposed the match. As the negotiations continued it was reported that the increasingly desperate Spanish Ambassador had resorted to libel, scattering ‘seditious literature from a window onto a group of ladies so that they could read how Catherine was deformed and suffered from many diseases’ anxious to further blacken her name the Spanish also spread rumours that the Portuguese Infanta was ‘incapable of bearing children’. And in the absence of a suitable Spanish candidate the Spanish government were finally reduced to offering Charles ‘a vast dowry’ if he chose any princess other than Catherine.

While his advisers would have preferred Charles to take a Protestant bride the lack of suitable candidates coupled with the sheer size of Catherine’s dowry soon overcame their scruples. After a year of negotiations Charles finally put an end to the speculation and on 8 May 1661 at the opening of parliament, declared that he had, ‘…often been put in mind by my friends that it was high time to marry; and I have thought so myself ever since I came into England. But there appeared difficulties enough in the choice, though many overtures have been made to me…’ Referring to the possibility of ‘criticism on religious grounds’ the King quipped that if he were to wait for the perfect match ‘you would live to see me an old bachelor, which I think you do not desire to do.’ He then revealed that ‘I can now tell you, not only that I am resolved to marry, but whom I resolve to marry, if God please …and trust me, with full consideration of the good of my subjects in general, as of myself; it is with the daughter of Portugal.’
A young Catherine of Braganza
On 23 June 1661 the marriage treaty was duly signed. In return for Bombay, Tangier, free trade with Brazil and the East Indies, England offered military assistance to help protect Portugal from Spain. Catherine was to receive ‘an income of £30,000 and, as a Roman Catholic, a private chapel in any palace where she might reside, and the right to practice her religion freely’ The usual proxy marriage was not conducted before Catherine set off from Portugal on 13 April 1662, possibly because with the Pope still refusing to recognise Portuguese independence, any Papal dispensations for the marriage would have described Catherine as merely the daughter of a Duke. Despite this, as early as July 1661 Charles was composing charming letters to Catherine addressing her as ‘My lady and wife’ declaring that he was hopeful that he would soon see ‘the beloved person of Your Majesty in these kingdoms, already your own’ and signing himself ‘the very faithful husband of Your Majesty, whose hand he kisses’

Little is known of Catherine’s own thoughts on the match. While her mother plotted and schemed to secure an alliance with England and her future husband celebrated his restoration by sporting with his mistresses, Catherine’s time had been spent in the sombre seclusion of her convent home where there was little opportunity for fun or frivolity. Even outside of the convent her actions were governed by the strict etiquette of the royal court of Portugal. By all accounts Catherine grew into a quiet, even-tempered young woman. The Portuguese Ambassador proudly remarked that she was, ‘totally without that meddling and activity in her nature.’ At the time of her marriage she was already twenty-three, (something which was not lost on her critics), and had long since resigned herself to the necessity of making a grand match abroad. Contented and serene, Catherine’s rather quaint response on being told of her impending nuptials was to request permission to make a pilgrimage to a favourite shrine of hers in Lisbon. Devoted to her beloved Portugal, as she set sail for England any distress she may have felt at leaving her family and her home was no doubt lessened by the knowledge that her marriage had been hailed as ‘the welcomest news that ever came to the Portuguese people’. 

On 14 May 1662, after a difficult voyage Catherine landed at Portsmouth where Charles joined her one week later. On 21 May the couple were married firstly in a ‘brief and secret’ Roman Catholic ceremony, conducted by Catherine’s chief almoner Ludovic Stuart, and secondly in a public Anglican ceremony conducted by Bishop Gilbert Sheldon. A variety of reports were soon circulating as to the new Queen’s appearance, ‘slim and small and inclined to paint her face in the Mediterranean fashion’, ‘short, but lovely’, ‘a very beautiful, handsome princess, but low and slender and of a solid, grave countenance’ Her large, dark eyes were praised as ‘angelic’; but critics noted that her teeth were ‘wronging her mouth by sticking out a little too much’ and made fun of her solemnity and her vast entourage, which included numerous confessors, a deaf duenna, a Jewish perfumer, a barber, and her ladies-in-waiting whom the Comte de Grammont dismissed as ‘frights’ and who insisted on wearing their national dress, which consisted of vast skirts known as farthingales.

The general consensus was that Catherine, while pleasant, was no beauty. Quiet and reserved by nature, her broken English further hampered any efforts to win over an expectant court. While observers were soon praising the new Queen as ‘a woman of intelligence…extremely devout, extremely discreet’ such characteristics were unlikely to excite much enthusiasm among the King’s lively inner-circle. And Catherine’s comments that the ladies of the court ‘spend so much time in dressing themselves, she fears they bestow but little on God Almighty…’ certainly left them cold. Interestingly in a letter to the Earl of Clarendon, Charles II seemed genuinely pleased with his new bride.  While admitting that ‘her face is not so exact as to be called a beauty’ he declared her eyes ‘excellent good’, and remarked that ‘she has as much agreeableness in her looks altogether as ever I 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. In a word I think myself very happy...’

On 29 May the couple arrived at Hampton Court where the crowds came ‘streaming in’ for a glimpse of their new Queen. The early days of their marriage passed pleasantly, the couple were rarely apart and Charles continued to declare himself delighted with his new bride. Effortlessly charming and attentive by nature, the charismatic Charles had always proved irresistible to women and rather predictably and to the amusement of the court, his gauche and naïve young bride was soon hopelessly in love. But already the storm clouds were gathering. For while Charles and his new bride made merry at Hampton Court, the King’s heavily pregnant mistress Barbara Villiers was waiting in the wings for a high-profile return to court.

Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine, had always divided opinion; Samuel Pepys adored her and never tired of describing her, while John Evelyn denounced her as ‘the curse of the Nation’. A tempestuous beauty known for her fiery temper and ruthless ambition, Barbara managed to fascinate and intimidate both King and court in equal measure. Her tears and tantrums were legendary and while they would eventually prove her undoing, at the time of his marriage Barbara was in high favour with the besotted King. As she awaited the birth of their second child, reports reached her of the King’s apparent delight in his bride. An irate Barbara was now more determined than ever that, whatever the cost, on her return to court she would show the world that the arrival of a Queen had in no way affected her dominance over the King. Matters would come to a head in the infamous ‘Bedchamber Incident’ 
Barbara Villiers with her son Charles Fitzroy, Duke of Cleveland

Following the birth of her son Charles, whom the King proudly acknowledged as his own, the recently separated Barbara demanded that Charles reward her with a highly coveted position as ‘Lady of the Bedchamber’ to the new Queen. Anxious to please his lover and apparently heedless of the insult this was to his wife the King duly placed her name on the list for Catherine’s approval and thought no more about it. To everyone’s surprise on seeing Barbara’s name Charles’s formerly docile bride angrily 'struck out that offending name, and gave orders that the favourite was not to be admitted to her presence' 
Torn between his mistress and his wife the King at first attempted to defuse the situation by hinting that his affair with Barbara was in the past and a respectable position at court was nothing more than his way of helping her to repair her tarnished reputation. When this did not work he immediately went on the defensive and angrily demanded that Catherine obey his wishes. As an angry stalemate ensued, relations between the royal couple were further strained by problems relating to Catherine’s dowry, over half of which remained unpaid while the other half was sent in a combination of cash and unwanted goods.

Catherine may have had a sheltered upbringing but it was soon clear to Charles that he had greatly underestimated her. Either on the advice of her mother or the Portuguese Ambassador, Catherine had been made aware of Lady Castlemaine’s existence sometime before her departure for England, and advised never to admit her into her presence. Determined to follow this advice, to Charles’s dismay, and the court’s surprise Catherine put up a vigorous resistance despite fierce pressure from all sides. On learning that the King had already orchestrated a meeting between the two women and that her poor English had led her to unwittingly acknowledge the one woman she was determined not to, the Queen caused a public scene by bleeding from the nose and fainting. 

Unable to face his wife’s righteous indignation and unwilling to disappoint his demanding mistress Charles ordered Clarendon, his chief adviser, to use his ‘best endeavours’ and resolve the matter for him. And lest the disapproving Chancellor have any doubts on where the King stood, he added the following ominous instructions, ‘…whoever I find to be my lady Castlemaine’s enemy in this matter, I do promise on my word to be his enemy as long as I live’
Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon

Unfortunately for Clarendon his first efforts failed totally and merely elicited from the Queen ‘further torrents of tears and threats to return to Portugal’. News of the scandal was now circulating in Europe and Charles’s beloved ‘Minette’, his sister Henriette-Anne, felt moved enough to plead with her brother on the Queen’s behalf. But in this matter the usually easy-going Charles stood firm, while Clarendon continued his negotiations Catherine found herself virtually ostracized at court, and was cruelly threatened with the removal of her Portuguese entourage.  

In late August 1662, worn down by months of arguments, humiliated and doubtless distressed by the recent dismissal of over half of her Portuguese attendants, Catherine was close to breaking point. She was also still desperately in love with her faithless husband. Having astutely observed that the tears and tantrums Charles so readily accepted from his mistress he considered both unseemly and abhorrent in his wife, Catherine finally swallowed her pride and relented. It was a pragmatic and successful move, and one, which further endeared Catherine to her grateful husband.  Almost as if the ‘Bedchamber Incident’ had never happened, Catherine swiftly reverted to her initial docility. And from that moment on, regardless of the pain and humiliation it cost her, she turned a blind eye to her husband’s numerous infidelities and treated Barbara, her new Lady of the Bedchamber, with studied friendship.

Anxious to put the months of friction behind them the court removed to Whitehall where Charles arranged a spectacular celebration to accompany his bride’s arrival by barge. Once at Whitehall Catherine appeared determined to please the King, not only by her gracious treatment of Barbara Villiers, but by the kindness she showed to the King’s eldest illegitimate son James Scott who had recently arrived at court. But Catherine’s position was far from easy, and in many ways her capitulation had made it even easier for the court to disregard her.
James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, Charles II's eldest and favourite illegitimate son

Describing a Sunday evening at Whitehall, diarist John Evelyn wrote of ‘inexpressible luxury and profaneness, gaming, and all dissoluteness, and as it were total forgetfulness of God…the King sitting and toying with his concubines, a French boy singing love songs in that glorious gallery, whilst about twenty of the great courtiers and other dissolute persons were at Basset round a large table, a bank of at least 2,000 in gold before them’ At such gatherings it was reported that the new Queen sat ‘untaken notice of’ while a large crowd of sycophantic courtiers surrounded her rival. In the winter of 1662-3 the vivacious Barbara Villiers was at the apogee of her powers, no matter how outrageous her demands the King, it appears could refuse her nothing and courtiers competed for her patronage; while the Queen was forced to face the fact that as far as the court was concerned there was  ‘universal mirth in all company but hers’

Catherine’s position was made even worse by her failure to produce an heir to the throne. In September 1662 Charles was heard joking to his mother that his wife was pregnant, to which a mortified Catherine replied ‘You lie!’  As early as December 1662 reports were circulating that the Queen was barren and that the King was considering legitimising his eldest son James Scott, now Duke of Monmouth and on his father’s instructions married off to one of the richest heiresses in the country. Wild rumours abounded that the Earl of Clarendon had deliberately procured a barren bride for the King in an attempt to secure the throne for his son-in-law and heir apparent James, Duke of York. Matters were not helped by the ease with which Charles’s mistresses became pregnant, and her husband’s obvious potency only deepened Catherine’s humiliation. In July 1663 in an effort to improve her fertility the increasingly desperate Catherine began the first of several summer visits to the waters of Tunbridge Wells and Bath.

Catherine’s critics were soon hopeful that there might yet be a neat solution to the problem of the succession when on her return to Whitehall in October 1663 she fell dangerously ill and was soon reported to be close to death. Revealing the intense pressure she was under Catherine was soon raving of pregnancies and childbirth. As her condition continued to deteriorate the doctors tried every remedy they knew, including shaving her head and tying pigeons to her feet. To the surprise of many at court his wife’s illness left the King genuinely grief-stricken and frenzied with anxiety. He, more than anyone was aware of his wife’s devotion to him, he had manipulated and neglected her but when faced with the prospect of losing her, the guilt-ridden Charles knelt at her bedside and wept.

While her fever raged the King maintained a vigil at her bedside and for once ‘it seemed as if the wife counted above the mistress’. At one point Catherine believing that she had given birth to the longed-for heir declared him to be ‘a very ugly boy’ to which the King gently replied ‘no, it’s a pretty boy’.  When she asked after the three children she believed she already had, Charles humoured and comforted her. As the doctors despaired and prepared her for death the delirious Catherine displayed such touching devotion to Charles that he was genuinely moved. The grief he displayed at her bedside was credited with rousing her spirits and before long she was showing signs of improvement.

As the fever left her Catherine slowly regained her strength, although for a while her first thought on waking was to ask, ‘where are the children?’ For a time she was unable to walk and her illness left her temporarily deaf. Anxious to aid her recovery Charles asked his sister Henriette-Anne to send his wife some holy images for her prayer books, ‘I assure you it will be a great present to her and she will look upon them often.’

Catherine’s illness may have led to a greater understanding between husband and wife but it did little to halt Charles’s chronic infidelity or to improve his wife’s position at court. Pathetically grateful for the care and attention Charles had shown her, Catherine studiously ignored his shameless pursuit of her maid of honour Frances Stewart which continued from 1663 until Frances’s shock elopement in 1667; and passively accepted his ever-increasing brood of illegitimate children, all of whom were honoured with wealth and titles and openly doted upon by their proud father.
Frances Stewart, La Belle Stuart

In 1665 the Plague forced the court to move firstly to Sailsbury and then to Oxford. It was there, in late January, early February 1666 that Catherine is believed to have suffered her first miscarriage. The pressure on Catherine remained intense, with one historian noting that over the next few years the unfortunate Queen ‘only had to stay in her room for a couple of days for the whole world to be convinced that she was showing signs of pregnancy’ In 1668 Catherine suffered another miscarriage, and although Charles was understandably ‘troubled’ by the news, in a letter to his sister Henriette-Anne he remained positive, for ‘’tis evident that she was with child, which I will not deny to you till now I did fear she was not capable of. The physicians do intend to put her into a course of physic which they are confident will make her hold faster next time…’
Henriette-Anne, known to Charles II as 'Minette'. She was his youngest and favourite sister and their lively and entertaining correspondence remains a great source for historians of the period.

Sadly Charles’s confidence was misplaced, in May 1669 a third pregnancy was announced but by 7 June that too had ended in miscarriage. According to some reports the miscarriage was caused when a tame fox owned by the King jumped onto the Queen’s bed and ran across her face. But the details were irrelevant; it was now common knowledge that, just as her Spanish critics had once claimed, Catherine of Braganza was ‘incapable of bearing children’. Heartbreaking as it was for Catherine, her failure to produce a child was to have serious implications for the royal succession.

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.
Catherine, Queen of England by Huysmans

Although she wisely took care not to involve herself in English politics, Catherine kept up an active interest in her native country. Anxious to re-establish good relations with the Pope and perhaps gain recognition for Portuguese independence, she sent Richard Bellings, later her principal secretary, to Rome with letters for the pope and several cardinals. In 1669 she involved herself in the relief of Candia in Crete, which was under siege by the Turks and whose cause Rome was promoting, although she failed to persuade her husband to take any action. In 1670, as a sign of her rising favour with the pontiff she requested, and was granted, devotional objects.

Along with her more frivolous pastimes Catherine occupied herself with her faith. Her piety was widely known and was a characteristic in his wife that the King greatly admired; in his letters to his sister Catherine’s devoutness is described almost with awe. Her household contained between four and six priests and in 1665 Catherine decided to build a religious house east of St James’s to be occupied by thirteen Portuguese Franciscans of the order of St Peter of Alacantra. It was completed by 1667 and would become known as The Friary.

In August 1669 on the death of her mother-in-law Queen Henrietta Maria, Catherine was granted Somerset House and in 1671 she moved her chapel, priests and monks there. The move sparked rumours of a divorce and Catherine’s imminent retirement from public life. From as early as 1667 such rumours had been circulating and in 1669 the Duke of Buckingham, Charles’s long-time friend and confidant claimed to have seriously discussed the matter of a divorce with the King. In 1670 the notorious divorce case of Lord Roos came before parliament. The King’s interest in the case and his apparent support for Lord Roos was taken by many as a sign that a royal divorce and remarriage would soon follow. But as before such rumours came to nothing.

To the dismay of her enemies, with the King’s support Catherine continued to fulfil her role as Queen consort, accompanying Charles on his journeys outside of London. In September 1671, while rumours of a divorce spread throughout the land, the King and Queen travelled to Norfolk where they visited Norwich. In marked contrast to her treatment at court, amongst the common people, and despite her Catholicism, Catherine had always been immensely popular, the people of Norwich reported their Queen to be ‘infinitely gracious’ while, ‘the whole of our inhabitants sing of nothing else but her praises’
Catherine, Queen of England.

In February 1673 Catherine suffered a serious illness, and confided in one of her ladies that she feared being poisoned.  An assassination attempt was unlikely but from 1673 Catherine had every reason to fear for her safety. The conversion of the King’s brother and heir apparent James, Duke of York to Catholicism became widely known in 1673 and threw the government into chaos. If England was to avoid a Catholic succession it now became imperative that either the King legitimise the Duke of Monmouth or set aside his scruples, divorce his barren wife, remarry a Protestant princess and provide the country with a Protestant heir.
James, Duke of York, Charles II's Catholic heir.

Legitimising Monmouth was considered by most to be the easiest solution to the succession crisis. Charles’s much-loved eldest son was young, vibrant, a great favourite at court and popular with the people. He was also staunchly Protestant and easily led in matters of state, something, which Charles’s ministers regarded as an added bonus. A further attraction were the persistent rumours that Monmouth was in fact the result of a secret marriage between the exiled Charles and his then mistress Lucy Walter, and therefore a legitimate heir. This was, his ministers believed, the perfect solution, Lucy Walter was long dead and an admission of a ‘secret’ marriage would have no impact on the Queen’s position. But much to his ministers’ chagrin the King refused to cooperate. Charles denied the rumours and to press home the point took the trouble of registering Monmouth’s illegitimacy twice in Privy Council records. Nevertheless in the years that followed his ministers continued to make frenzied but unsuccessful attempts to find the mysterious ‘Black Box’, which was believed to contain ‘Lucy Walter’s marriage lines’.

To the consternation of the government, Charles also refused to consider their second proposal of divorce.   This is despite the fact that from 1674 royal relations were reported to have reached ‘a low ebb’. The beginning of the 1670s had witnessed the decline of Barbara Villiers. Finally tiring of her rages and outrageous demands Barbara’s ‘last folly had been to insult the Queen publicly’ something which the King ‘would not permit’, Charles’s solution was to create Barbara Duchess of Cleveland and pension her off. But Catherine found Barbara’s replacement, the French beauty Louise de Keroualle, even more objectionable. So much so that, rather than joining the court Catherine had taken to spending time in ‘retirement’ at Hampton Court. The Venetian ambassador reported that the Queen returned ‘unwillingly to London, where the customary freedoms of the King and the even more flaunting of his mistresses dispirit her and render her incapable of disguising her sorrows’
Louise de Keroulle, Duchess of Portsmouth. Charles II's French-born mistress.

In 1675 the stress of a possible revival of the divorce project indirectly led to another illness, which Catherine’s physicians claimed and her husband cannot fail to have noted, was ‘due as much to mental as physical causes’. In the same year all Irish and English Catholic priests were ordered to leave the country, which left Catherine dependent upon foreign priests. As increasingly harsher measures were put in place against Catholics, Catherine appointed her close friend and adviser, the devoutly Catholic Francisco de Mello, former Portuguese Ambassador to England, as her Lord Chamberlain. It was an unusual and controversial move but ‘wishing to please Catherine and perhaps demonstrate the futility of moves for divorce’ the King granted his permission.  De Mello was dismissed the following year for ordering the printing of a Catholic book, leaving the beleaguered Catherine even more isolated at court.

The Test Act of 1673 had driven all Catholics out of public office and anti-Catholic feelings intensified in the years to come. Although she was not active in religious politics, in 1675 Catherine was criticised for supposedly supporting the idea of appointing a bishop to England who, it was hoped, would resolve the internal disputes of Catholics. Critics also noted the fact that, despite orders to the contrary, English Catholics attended her private chapel. As one of the highest-ranking Catholics in the country, Catherine was an obvious target for Protestant extremists, and it was hardly surprising that the Popish Plot of 1678 would directly threaten her position.
Titus Oates

The plot, a tissue of lies, half-lies and truths woven by Titus Oates, to the effect that Catholics were about to assassinate Charles II in order to replace him with his Catholic brother James, under whom all the Protestants would be massacred and England returned to the Catholic Church, was first revealed to a disbelieving Charles in August 1678. Hardly the most reliable of sources, Oates was a renegade Anglican parson with a capacious memory and a fertile imagination, but his rather fantastical revelations were given credence with the public when the magistrate before whom Oates had sworn his testimony, Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey was found dead at the foot of Primrose Hill in October 1678. In a further twist one William Bedloe came forward and promptly accused Queen Catherine’s Catholic servants of murdering the magistrate and Somerset House was searched for evidence.  Oates then charged the Queen with high treason, claiming that she had known and approved the plot. Her motives were supposedly the twin desires of avenging herself on her faithless husband and restoring England to Catholicism.

Under questioning it became clear that these claims were wholly without foundation, but on 28 and 29 November both Oates and Bedloe made their depositions against Catherine before parliament. At this stage belief in the plot was such that even taking into consideration the lack of either evidence or motive the House of Commons voted for an address calling for the Queen and her household to be banished from Whitehall. In this they were unsuccessful, but accusations continued and further depositions were made against her. The King might laugh off suggestions of his wife’s involvement but it was now becoming increasingly clear that the Queen was in real danger.

A further Test Act of 1678 had restricted Catherine to nine Catholic servants only and the pressure for the King to purge his household of Catholics was intense. To calm the situation the King had sent his brother and heir, the Duke of York into temporary exile. In a letter to her brother Catherine revealed her increasing alarm and fears for her own position, for her husband, ‘hath seemingly closed his eyes…and taken a step so contrary to the affection he bears towards this brother to whom he owes so much. Such decision evokes alarm that were others to support his [the Duke of York’s] attitudes they must suffer the same fate.’

While Catherine continued to protest her innocence, in April 1679 a special envoy Marquez de Arronches arrived from Portugal with the proposal that she return home for her own safety. Catherine refused, but such actions only renewed speculation that the King would take this opportunity to rid himself of an increasingly troublesome wife. In July the case against Catherine collapsed when her physician was acquitted of attempting to poison the King, and a dying Bedloe confessed that the Queen was completely innocent.  But in the feverishly anti-Catholic atmosphere that lingered throughout the kingdom her faith remained a serious problem. In the months that followed, Catherine was mercilessly lampooned by the pamphleteers as the ‘barren Queen’ and on occasion was even publicly insulted on her way to chapel. While the lack of a Protestant heir meant that the King remained under intense pressure to agree to a divorce and remarriage.

With his wife coming under daily attack, and even his closest advisers now pleading with him to agree to a divorce, Charles remained firm, revealing what one biographer describes as ‘one of the King’s few genuinely sensitive spots’.  Catherine may have proved incapable of producing an heir but in all other respects she was a faultless wife and one whom he loved and admired. Charles truly believed that ‘considering his faultiness to her in other matters, it would be a terrible thing to abandon her now’ and when pressed had no hesitation in declaring as much to his advisers, ‘they think I have a mind to a new wife, but for all that I will not see an innocent woman abused…’
Charles II and Catherine of Braganza

The pressure they were both under only served to bring the couple closer together. Catherine was soon writing to her brother praising her husband who, ‘every day… shows more clearly his purpose and goodwill towards me and thus baffles the hate of my enemies…I cannot cease telling you what I owe to his benevolence, of which each day he gives better proofs...’ One observer was reporting that by September 1679 ‘the Queen…is now a mistress, the passion her spouse has for her is so great. In November 1680 in a final attempt to convince the King to abandon Catherine, the Earl of Shaftesbury introduced a divorce bill in the House of Lords. It had few supporters and was soon dropped. As a public show of support for his wife, on hearing the news the King immediately went to her rooms to deliver the news in person. Charles may have been a notoriously unfaithful husband, but politically, at least, he was steadfastly loyal to his wife.

From that point on, completely secure in her husband’s favour and therefore safe from further attack, Catherine is reported to have withdrawn a little from court life, and now spent ‘most part of the day at her devotions and reading’. The increasing dominance of the loathsome Louise de Keroualle, now Duchess of Portsmouth was partly to blame. The arrogant Portsmouth continued to frustrate her and in 1683 Catherine was heard to complain to her husband that ‘now the mistresses govern all’. Her hatred of the unpopular Louise led the normally neutral Catherine to choose one of Portsmouth’s enemies Lord Halifax as her Lord Chancellor. But, his infidelities apart, in the last years of his reign Charles treated his long-suffering wife with ‘exceptional tenderness and consideration’. In November 1684 an indulgent Charles celebrated his wife’s birthday ‘more lavishly than usual’ with a fireworks display on the Thames followed by a sumptuous ball.

But her newfound happiness and security was not to last. By 1685 the King had suffered sporadic attacks, which his physicians labelled ‘fits of the ague’ and his health was beginning to give some cause for concern. In February 1685 a particularly severe attack left the King fighting for his life. His physicians’ painful concoction of ‘spirits, strong purges and blistering plasters’ had no effect on the ailing monarch and Catherine and the Duchess of Portsmouth were soon taking turns at his rather crowded bedside, which at one stage contained seventy-five assorted lords and Privy Councillors, surgeons, servants and bishops. When it was obvious that the end was near Catherine, overcome with grief had to be carried half-fainting from his bedside.
Nell Gwyn, 'Poor Nelly' was Charles II's mistress and mother of two of his children.
Much has been made of Charles’s famous last request to his brother James, ‘let not poor Nelly starve’, a reference to the inimitable Nell Gywn. In fact Charles went to the trouble of listing all of his mistresses and their children, commending them all to his brother’s care. And of his wife’s pitiful farewell Charles declared, ‘Alas! Poor woman, she beg my pardon! I beg hers with all my heart’ In his last hours having apologised to everyone for taking such an ‘unconscionable time a-dying’ the great libertine is believed to have made a secret conversion to Catholicism, and on 6 February 1685, having asked his attendants to draw up the curtains and open the window, ‘that I may behold the light of the sun for the last time’ he died.

The devoted Catherine was distraught and in the months following her husband’s death suffered a ‘profound depression and melancholy’. She ordered an elaborate marble bust of her husband and is reported to have spent over a year in the deepest mourning. Eventually recovering an interest in her household affairs, the new Queen-Dowager divided her time between Somerset House and a summer residence in Hammersmith, Middlesex. During the reign of her Catholic brother-in-law, James II, Catherine had more religious freedom than ever before and established a community of nuns at Hammersmith. Without her husband’s protection and with few friends or allies in England, except the King and Queen, Catherine became increasingly isolated and wrote to her brother requesting his permission to return to Portugal.  Whatever his reasons, despite his sister’s pleas King Pedro seemed reluctant to act and an increasingly miserable Catherine was forced to remain on in England.

Although as Queen Dowager her public role was negligible the new King and Queen treated Catherine with the greatest respect and consideration. Her intervention on behalf of the doomed Duke of Monmouth whose short-lived rebellion against his uncle James had led to his arrest was the only reason the King granted him a final interview. She was also present at the birth of James II’s son James Edward, Prince of Wales, stood as his godmother and in an effort to quash the many rumours that were soon circulating about the circumstances of his birth went to the trouble of giving a statement before the Privy Council in defence of the new heir to the throne.  

During the Glorious Revolution of 1688 Catherine remained carefully neutral. In 1689, in spite of her warm friendship with the deposed James, Catherine publicly recognised William and Mary as King and Queen. Despite their previously affectionate relationship the presence of a Catholic Queen-Dowager appears to have been an irritation to her niece Queen Mary who continually requested that Catherine move to somewhere less conspicuous than Somerset House.

Finally in 1692 Catherine received the long-awaited permission to return home, and in January 1693 after an arduous voyage landed in Lisbon where the people gave a rapturous welcome to the woman they regarded as ‘the guardian angel of Portugal’. Her first months were spent in palaces in Alcantra, Santa Marta, Moinho de Vento and Belem, before she finally settled at Bemposta near Lisbon, where she had a new palace and chapel built and spent her days happily in retirement.

Things would doubtless have remained that way but in 1704, with her brother incapacitated, and her nephews not yet of age Catherine was declared regent and the once shy and retiring Queen Consort was forced into the limelight as ruler of Portugal. It was a role she would excel in, and Catherine was soon displaying much of her mother’s talent for government. Under their new regent Portugal won many military victories against Spain and the once friendless and isolated Catherine won the love and respect of a nation. Popular and highly successful, Catherine remained regent of Portugal until her death on 31 December 1705. Her funeral was conducted with ‘no less grandeur and solemnity than if she had been a reigning monarch…as a testimony of respect all public business and amusements were suspended for eight days, the court and its attendants mourned a year…’ 

Although not without her champions in England, Dryden hailed her as ‘the best of Queens’, while her husband consistently praised her virtues, Catherine’s policy of non-interference in politics, her lack of the beauty, wit and sophistication so highly prized at her husband’s court, and her crucial failure to produce an heir has meant that she is easily overlooked with many historians and biographers content to dismiss her as the Merry Monarch’s ‘dull but worthy’ wife.

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’


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"Heidi Murphy is a freelance writer specializing in royal history and biography, currently living and working in London. She is a graduate of University College Dublin, has a MA in Early Modern History and presently works in publishing"

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