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Charles II and Catherine of Braganza: A loveless marriage?


On 23 June 1661 a marriage treaty agreeing upon the union of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza was signed. Catherine brought a dowry of £500,000, as well as Bombay, Tangier and the right of free trade with the Portuguese colonies, and also popularised tea-drinking in Britain.

In spite of being relatively poor, Charles easily assumed the role of King of England and he left it to his new government to work through the intricacies of choosing a wife who would bring the greatest political and economic benefit to him and to England.

Contrary to endless rumours that he was married to Lucy Walter in his teens, Charles was, in fact, married only once, and that was to a Portuguese princess eight years his junior, Catherine of Braganza. Catherine was born at Vila Vicosa near Lisbon on 25 November 1638, the third child of the Duke of Braganza who later became King John IV of Portugal. If ever a marriage was made for political and economic reasons, the union of Charles and Catherine was such a match. Her dowry included Tangier, Bombay, full trading privileges for England in the Indies and a very large sum of money for the impoverished Charles. At twenty-one Catherine was neither young nor pretty and apparently was not considered an important candidate for marriage in other European courts. Spain did not favour the match and the Spanish ambassador spread rumours that Catherine would be a sterile queen, hoping that Charles would look further north in Europe for a suitable wife. Notes which passed during Privy Council meetings between Charles and his chancellor, Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, illustrate Charles’s somewhat disinterested acceptance of this match. He even implied to Clarendon that he might not be able to consummate the marriage immediately as he would be tired after the long journey from London to Portsmouth, where he was to meet his bride and her entourage. As it happened Catherine had a cold and slight fever when Charles arrived and she was not up to much more than merely greeting Charles at their first meeting. They were married in a Catholic ceremony at Portsmouth and later were married again at a grand ceremony in London in May 1662. They shared the throne of England as king and queen and, ultimately, they also shared her Roman Catholic faith.

Although Catherine was short and had protruding teeth, she also had quite beautiful long black hair and a pleasant voice and demeanour. Charles described her in a letter to Clarendon as not exactly a beauty but he liked her eyes and thought her, on the whole, acceptable as a wife. The marriage began well but soon Catherine was in the difficult position of having to share Charles with his mistresses. To her great credit, she put a brave face on her personal anguish and discomfort in a situation she could not remedy. She reached an understanding with him, tacit or otherwise is not known, so that she remained queen and enjoyed his affection, protection and respect, while he was free to graze in pastures other than hers.

Charles II’s lifelong fascination with women has been titillating and of interest to many over the years, but it is distracting as far as understanding him as a ruler of England is concerned. He regarded his dalliances as recreation, not politics. His four favourite mistresses, Lucy Walter, Barbara Villiers, Nell Gwynne and Louise de Keroualle, were quite different in background, and whether or not they exerted important political influence on Charles is open to question. Louise de Keroualle was an agent of Louis XIV of France and Charles did become a client of Louis. But Charles might have embraced Louis for the money he gave him, regardless of Louise’s influence. Charles’s own estimate of his experience with women is best summed up in his answer to the man who asked him how many women he had; Charles mischievously answered thirty-nine, explaining that the number of the articles of the Anglican faith was a good enough total for the head of the Church of England.

The one dalliance with political consequences was his affair with Lucy Walter when he was living in exile in Holland. In 1649 she gave birth to a son when Charles was just nineteen years of age. This son, who Charles acknowledged, was ultimately known as James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, and he and his mother caused problems for Charles throughout his life. In spite of Charles’s many mistresses, sixteen bastard children and the occasional meddling of Henrietta Maria, who visited them for long periods, Charles and Catherine were happy together. Their court was stable and it restored much-needed pomp and splendour to London.

England and the Stuarts were severely tested in 1665/6 when bubonic plague struck, arriving through London and other seaports. Ultimately it took the lives of nearly one in four of the half-million inhabitants of London. The city was brought almost to a standstill by this terrible epidemic disease. The Royal College of Physicians was a major force in organizing the medical resources of London to deal with the challenge of plague, both as to individual sufferers and the public at large. Charles, Catherine and their court remained in London during the early months of the epidemic and were seen as a stabilizing presence. In the summer the royals moved to nearby Hampton Court and continued to serve as a source of stability for their kingdom, besieged by an enemy against which they had little in the way of defences.

With the plague barely gone, fire destroyed most of London in the autumn of 1666. Although only a few lives were lost in this Great Fire of London, it destroyed about 80 per cent of London’s buildings. It was a difficult time and Charles faced it well; with his brother, James, he directed the containment of the blaze on horseback, from the edge of the fire. It was Charles’s influence that led to the reconstruction of London, and the replacement of its burned wooden structures with stone. Together, Charles and Catherine were largely responsible for bringing back the social and cultural life of London after the Great Fire.

While his court has often been described as dissolute, certainly in comparison to the grim, grey days of Cromwell, the arts and science thrived during Charles II’s reign and the king himself was very much the cause of it. For example, in 1662 he granted a charter to the Royal Society, recognizing the alliance already formed by the men of science and strengthening it with the blessing of royal patronage. Catherine joined him wholeheartedly in encouraging this blossoming of culture and knowledge, for she remained every inch his, and England’s, queen.

Catherine’s principal value to England and to Charles lay in her potential to provide heirs to the throne. There is no reason to believe that Charles neglected his marital duties because Catherine is thought to have been pregnant as many as four times. But in September 1663, Catherine and Charles made an official visit to Bristol and on their return to London she was suddenly afflicted with what Samuel Pepys recorded as a spotted fever, an acute febrile illness associated with a prominent skin rash. This would not have been smallpox, but could have been measles, chickenpox, scarlet fever or even typhus or typhoid fever. She was delirious and ill enough to be given the last rites of her Church. Charles is noted by Pepys to have been constantly at her bedside and sincerely concerned about her welfare. It is likely that she was pregnant at this time and miscarried, as it had been rumoured she was pregnant prior to the visit to Bristol. She apparently also had miscarriages in early pregnancy in 1666, 1668, and 1669. With many women around her, the signs of pregnancy, including missed menstrual periods, morning sickness, and breast swelling and tenderness, would immediately have been noticed. It is only reasonable to assume that she did have these additional three pregnancies, all of which ended in miscarriages.

Catherine’s reproductive problems rapidly became a pressing concern for court and government and Charles was endlessly given counsel and suffered criticism from well-meaning advisers. There were even times when Charles faced pressure to divorce Catherine because of her inability to provide an heir. A polygamous marriage with Lucy Walter, his first mistress and mother of his bastard son, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, was seriously considered as a way out of at one point, even by Church authorities. But no amount of pressure would convince the king to desert his queen. Charles protected Catherine and she remained by his side throughout his reign as he slowly and steadily consolidated his power. By 1670, the ten-year anniversary of his reign, he was generally regarded as a vigorous and successful monarch, both at home and abroad.

Extracted from The Sickly Stuarts: The Medical Downfall of a Dynasty by Frederick Holmes

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