Charles II was a bit of a man-whore – there’s not really another way to put it. He kept dozens of mistresses over the course of his life and ended up siring 20 bastard children. He was also married, so let’s take a moment to pity his poor wife, Catherine of Braganza, a convent-reared princess from Portugal who spent her life in England humiliated by her husband’s infidelities and forced to watch them give birth to his children when she could not.
Marriage between Charles and Catherine was briefly discussed when they were children and then put aside. England became bogged down by its Civil War, an event that ended in the abolishment of the monarchy and the execution of Charles’s father. Forced abroad for over a decade as he alternately fought, negotiated and waited, Charles was brought back to the throne in 1660 and the royal house continued as it had been, albeit a little warier and more aware of public opinion.
Two events quickly transpired that brought Charles’s marriage to the forefront of his government’s agenda. One was the death of his younger brother, Henry Stuart, Duke of Gloucester. The other was the ill-advised marriage of his other brother, James Stuart, Duke of York and Lady Anne Hyde, a union made in secret and outed thanks to a pregnancy. A succession that had once been firm was now made tenuous and it became urgent that Charles quickly marry a foreign princess, solidify an alliance and produce an heir. (Isn’t it always?)
The politics of the match were interesting. While England and Portugal had long been allies, and English princesses had gone to Lisbon in the past, there had never been an Portuguese queen of England. There had, however, been numerous Spanish ones and in the middle of the 17th century (as well as various other points), Spain and Portugal were struggling over control and autonomy of the Iberian peninsula. Spain, needless to say, was against the match, but France was for it. Bound by treaty not to directly interfere, and incredibly nervous about Spain’s potential expansion, France was all for Portugal allying itself with England by marriage.
Catherine arrived in England on May 13, 1662 and promptly asked for a cup of tea. She was offered ale instead, but it’s worth noting that it was Catherine who was responsible for making tea drinking so synonymous with British culture by making it fashionable. While tea certainly existed in the country before, it wasn’t the “national drink” that it is now by a long shot.
Given the Stuarts’ complicated history with Catholicism, to put it mildly, it’s also worth pointing out that Catherine was Catholic. But as Lady Antonia Fraser said in her excellent biography of Charles, England was used to Catholic queens, for all that they complained about them post-Reformation. While Henry VIII’s last five wives might have espoused his beliefs publicly, his brand of Protestantism was essentially Catholic. Mary I attempted to re-align with Rome. Anne of Denmark, James I’s wife, converted once in England. Henrietta Maria of France, Charles’s mother, was ostentatiously and politically Catholic as well. Suffice to say, it wasn’t an unfamiliar situation to the English people.
But Charles was re-assured that Catherine had no interest in meddling in government, nor in attempting to influence him. She indicated that their children would be raised as Protestants and that she had no issue with marrying him publicly in a Protestant ceremony. As a concession to her faith, they were married first in a private Catholic ceremony, but as the Earl of Clarendon (Anne Hyde’s father), who played a prominent role in negotiating the marriage, told Charles: “She will do that [which] is necessary for herself and her children.”
As stated, Charles was experienced with women and, as king of England, he had access to the most famous beauties of the countries – access that he took advantage of frequently. Catherine, by several accounts, was no beauty, though part of that may have been due to English fashion at the time. Most of Charles’s mistresses were tall, shapely and pale. Catherine was small, “swarthy” and doll-like.
Charles, however, announced himself well-pleased with her, though acknowledged she wasn’t classically beautiful. He noted she had pleasant eyes and was “good.” This goodness, if you will, would lend itself a mostly successful relationship between the two as Charles grew to respect her, if not love her in his own way.
Her convent-bound childhood led to a very sheltered young woman arriving at her husband’s court. She had, however, been warned of Charles’s extracurricular activities, particularly his mistress du jour, Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine (and later Duchess of Cleveland). For her part, Barbara was less than pleased by the arrival of Catherine and perhaps for good reason given that she was pregnant with her second child by Charles at the time.
When Catherine arrived at Hampton Court Palace, Barbara was the only one not to light a fire outside her rooms as welcome. She also demanded that she be allowed to serve in Catherine’s household – why she would want this is anyone’s guess, but likely was a dual desire to needle her opponent and insist on the respect (or attention) that the position would bring her.
Catherine was livid. When presented with the list of suggested names of ladies in her service she angrily crossed out Barbara’s with tears in her eyes. When she was eventually introduced to her she was civil, but only because she didn’t know who she was at first. When she found out she fell into hysterics and had a nose bleed, a situation at which Charles threw up his hands and left to Clarendon to handle.
Whatever was said to her, or whatever peace she eventually found inside herself, Catherine learned to handle such social fiascos with a dignity I, personally, can’t even begin to wrap my head around. It appears that she relied on hierarchy, drawing strength from the difference between mistress and wife, from lady and queen. In later years, the only time she ever grew angry with Charles’s women was when they missed a social cue or overstepped their bounds.
From the get-go there was disappointment that Catherine didn’t conceive. Within a year of marriage she was recorded as taking to waters that were meant to increase fertility. In the autumn of 1663 she grew dangerously ill and, in delirium, became convinced that she had given birth to a son. She told Charles from her sickbed that she was worried that the baby was so ugly.
“No, it’s a pretty boy,” Charles reassured her.
“If it be like you then it is a fine boy indeed,” she said.
Later on in her sickness she became convinced she had three children, including a daughter who looked just like Charles, and would repeatedly ask after them. Each time Charles played along to keep her calm. And even though I’ve written about executions, potential child abuse and house arrest here, I still think that is one of the most devastating scenes I’ve ever come across.
In 1668 and 1669 Catherine did conceive, however both pregnancies were short-lived and ended in miscarriage. Later on, in the 1670s, Charles was approached about the possibility of divorcing his wife given the crisis of succession. Indeed, with little expectation that his marriage could produce an heir, and given James’s conversion to Catholicism, there was legitimate angst that the next king would be a Catholic and attempt to return England to Rome.
But Charles refused, primarily out of loyalty to Catherine and their relationship. There’s much more to say about Catherine, not to mention Charles, but for today we’ll leave it here: Compare for a moment a man like Henry VIII, who claimed to be fervently religious and put so much value on the purity of his wives and the divinity of his marriage, and the way in which he treated them to Charles, a man who did nothing to hide his sexual activity and yet insisted his wife be protected by their marriage, even with his line in jeopardy.
Personally, there is something to be said for Charles, certainly. But then again, one has to note that within three years of Charles’s death the Glorious Revolution occurred, William III and Mary II were brought in and England’s relationship with Catholicism remained as dysfunctional as ever. Did Charles have a greater duty to England? It’s a question worth considering.