Portrait of Catherine of Braganza
by Mary Ellyn Kunz
I’ve always loved the portrait of Queen Catherine by Peter Lely in the great hall. The dignity and serene expression of her face and the sumptuous clothing suggest a Queen who is leading a life of luxury and position. Nothing could be further from the truth! Poor Catherine had a difficult life filled with disappointment and ridicule. Yet she rose above it all and is seen by historians as a valiant and resilient woman.
Catherine of Branganza was born in 1638, the daughter of the King of Portugal. At the time, Portugal was a poor nation living in the shadow of Spain. Because an alliance with England would bolster Portugal’s security, they began marriage negotiations between Catherine and England’s future King Charles II when she was a child. The English Civil War and subsequent reign of Proprietor Cornwell put these plans on hold, but negotiations resumed with restoration of Charles and they were married in 1662.
From the beginning, there were problems with the union. Catherine had been raised in a convent and was deeply religious. (The terms of her marriage included freedom to practice her Catholic faith without persecution.) Charles, on the other hand, was famously known as one of the most “immoderate” of monarchs. Catherine was horrified by the debauchery of court. Right away, Catherine was forced to face the power and influence of her husband’s mistresses. Lady Castlemaine, the King’s chief mistress, was to serve the new Queen as a “Lady of the Bedchamber,” giving Castlemaine free access to the Queen in all parts of her life. The ensuing battle between the royal couple lasted several months and was extremely heated. One witness in court recorded a confrontation between the pair, and “the passion and noise of the night reached too many ears to be a secret the next day; and the whole Court was full of that, which ought to have been known to nobody.”
Eventually, the Queen relented in the face of the increasingly pressure from the King. Some historians maintain that she conceded only because Portugal needed more assistance from England. Whatever friends the Queen had at court abandoned her, understanding that the Queen had no influence with the King. Adding to her humiliation was her inability to produce an heir to the throne. Yet Catherine had reason to hope that there was some affection on the part of her husband. Samuel Pepys writes of seeing the King and Queen at an informal gathering, and he recounts a merry bantering between the two – although Castlemaine was also noted as being present. Even in later years, witnesses report the King’s great affection for Catherine. Throughout his reign, the King steadfastly refused all suggestions to divorce his wife, and he protected her against accusations of her alleged participation in treasonous plots. In the fall of 1663, Catherine fell gravely ill. As she lay dying, the distraught King attended to her and begged her to live “for his sake.” The Queen complied and began to recover. As she became stronger, her husband lost interest and returned to his mistresses.
After Charles II died, Catherine remained in England for several years. She returned to Portugal in 1692 and, at age 66, acted as regent (ruling monarch) for her brother. As regent, she gained several successes over the Spanish. She died a wealthy and popular woman. But the legacy of her bitter years will always follow her and can be seen even today at Pennsbury. Look closely at the plaque on her portrait. The Queen’s portrait is identified as the Duchess of Portsmouth – one of Charles’ most famous mistresses.