When we think about England, we think directly about tea.
Tea is so utterly English, such an ingrained part of the culture, that it’s also ingrained in how everyone else around the world perceives that culture.
Tea is such an ingrained part of the culture, that it’s also ingrained in how everyone else around the world perceives that culture
And while it’s fairly common knowledge that Westerners have China to thank for the original cultivation of the tannic brew, it’s far less known that it was the Portuguese who inspired its popularity in England – in particular, one Portuguese woman.
Travel back in time to 1662, when Catherine of Braganza (daughter of Portugal’s King John IV) won the hand of England’s newly restored monarch, King Charles II, with the help of a very large dowry that included money, spices, treasures and the lucrative ports of Tangiers and Bombay. This hookup made her one very important lady: the Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland.
When she relocated up north to join King Charles, she is said to have packed loose-leaf tea as part of her personal belongings; it would also have likely been part of her dowry. A fun legend has it that the crates were marked Transporte de Ervas Aromaticas (Transport of Aromatic Herbs) – later abbreviated to T.E.A.
That last bit probably isn’t true (etymologists believe the word ‘tea’ came from a transliteration of a Chinese character), but what is for sure is that tea was already popular among the aristocracy of Portugal due to the country’s direct trade line to China via its colony in Macau, first settled in the mid-1500s (visit today to sample the other end of this culinary exchange, the Portuguese pastéis de nata, aka egg custard tarts).
When Catherine arrived in England, tea was being consumed there only as a medicine, supposedly invigorating the body and keeping the spleen free of obstructions. But since the young queen was used to sipping the pick-me-up as part of her daily routine, she no doubt continued her habit, making it popular as a social beverage rather than as a health tonic.
Everything from Catherine’s clothes to her furniture became the source of court talk
Hot poet of the time, Edmund Waller, even wrote a birthday ode to her shortly after her arrival, which forever linked the queen and Portugal with the fashionable status of tea in England. He wrote:
“The best of Queens, and best of herbs, we owe
To that bold nation, which the way did show
To the fair region where the sun doth rise,
Whose rich productions we so justly prize.”
To be fair, tea could be found in England before Catherine arrived, but it wasn’t very popular.
Tea was unusual because it was so expensive and everyone was drinking coffee at this time.
The reason for the cost was threefold: England had no direct trade with China; tea from India wasn’t around yet; and the small quantities that the Dutch were importing were sold at a very high premium.
Tea became associated with elite women’s sociability around the royal court, of which Catherine was the most famous emblem.”
And what happens with famous people? Non-famous people imitate them. When the queen does something, everyone wants to follow suit, so very, very gradually by the end of the 17th Century, the aristocracy had started sipping small amounts of tea.
Until tea arrived with the Dutch, the English didn’t know anything about tea. No sugar spoons, no cups, no tea kettles so they copied the entire ritual from China. They imported Chinese tiny porcelain tea bowls, the saucers, the dishes for sugar, the small teapots.
Catherine’s home country had a hand in in popularising this aspect of the tea experience, too. Portugal was one of the routes by which porcelain got to Europe,it was very expensive and very beautiful. Since it was so prized, porcelain was probably part of Catherine’s dowry, and, like other aristocratic ladies, she would have accrued many gorgeous trappings to pad out her tea sessions once she was living in England.
But tea was not the only introduction of Catarina de Bragança in England.
The knowledge of orange
Catarina loved oranges and never stopped eating them thanks to their baskets that her mother sent her.
The orange compote
That the English call “marmelade”, using, incorrectly, the Portuguese term marmalade (quince paste), because Portuguese marmalade had already been introduced in England in 1495.
Catarina kept the compote of normal oranges for herself and her friends and that of bitter oranges for enemies, especially for the king’s lovers.
Influenced the way of dressing
She introduced the short skirt. At that time, a short skirt was above the ankle and Catarina scandalized the English court for showing her feet.
She introduced the habit of wearing men’s clothes to ride.
The use of the fork to eat
In England, even at court, they ate with their hands, although the fork was already known, but only for carving or serving. Catarina was used to using it to eat, and soon everyone was doing the same.
Introduction of porcelain
She was surprised that they ate on gold or silver plates and asked why they did not eat on porcelain plates as they had done for many years in Portugal. From then on, the use of porcelain crockery became widespread.
An ensemble of Portuguese musicians was part of the retinue she took from Portugal and it was by her hand that the first opera in England was heard.
Catarina also took with her some furniture, including precious Indo-Portuguese accountants who had never been seen in England.
The birth of the “British Empire”
Catherine’s dowry was great for the amount of money but, much more important for the future, for including the city of Tangier, in North Africa and the island of Bombay, in India.
Betraying the Treaties they had assumed and with the excuse that the King of Portugal was Spanish, the English managed, despite the control of the Portuguese Navy, to sail to India where they created a warehouse in Gujarat.
In 1670, after receiving Bombay from the Portuguese, King Carlos II authorized the East India Company to acquire territories.
Thus, the British Empire was born!
Its popularity extended to America, where one of the five neighborhoods of New York (Queens) was named after her.
In the 13th century, in the kingdom of Aragon, a princess was born who would remain in the history of Portugal forever.
Isabel, also the name of her aunt, Saint Isabel of Hungary, sister of her paternal grandmother, was most likely born in Zaragoza in the Kingdom of Aragon on 11 February 1270. She was the daughter of D. Pedro the Great and Dona Constança of Sicily. On her father’s side, blood from Hungary was flowing in her veins, while on her mother’s side she descended from Manfredo of Naples and Sicily and from Dona Brites de Savoy, her grandparents. The girl, firstborn, among several siblings, was delicate and very beautiful and since childhood, lived a good part in Barcelona, demonstrated a taste for prayer, the candid power to generate affections and reconciliations, naive kindness and promising intelligence. These virtues triggered in several Royal Houses in Europe the strong desire to have her as queen.
In 1279 D. Dinis ascended the throne of Portugal, a cultured monarch, poet, grandson of Afonso X, the Wise. The young king was nineteen and considering, among several other reasons of state, he chose to choose for his queen, Isabel, the daughter of the king of Aragon. Isabel had three suitors, however it is D. Dinis who will have her by the Portuguese throne. The bases of the nuptial contract were signed on April 24 1281.
The wedding took place, by proxy in the city of Barcelona, after a copious epistolary exchange. Just two months later the bride and groom met for the first time in Portuguese lands.
The queen received a significant donation from her husband: Óbidos, which she loved very much, Porto de Mós, Abrantes and 12 more castles.
It was in the city of Coimbra that Queen Isabel began a life full of magnanimity and sanctity with her court. Mother of Constança and Afonso, future king Afonso IV, pious, of supreme charity and devout, the life of the queen remained linked to acts of complacency, of favor through alms, offerings, care, with which she dedicated herself to the poorest.
At the same time, their pleas and diplomacy spread harmony and peace between kingdoms, relatives as well as between husband and son.
The marriage with King D. Dinis lasted about 44 years and only the death of the monarch in 1325 separated the royal spouses. When she remained widowed, D. Isabel wore, from that date, the humble habit of the religious of Santa Clara, and established her residence in Coimbra in the Paço that she had next to the Monastery of the Poor Clares. She survived her husband just over ten years, and in December 1327 she made her second will in which she dedicated her body to a tomb in the Church of the Santa Clara Monastery in Coimbra. Between the Palace and the Convent, the queen combined the duties of the Crown with devotion and piety, followed by days of prayer, works of charity, fasting and fatigue that time does not appease.
In June 1336, the queen was informed that her son was going to fight in combat with his grandson D. Afonso IV of Castile. King Afonso IV and his court were already in Estremoz, D. Isabel, mother and grandmother, aged 66, undertook a long and painful journey of dozens of leagues between Coimbra and Estremoz. The journey was tiring and exhausting, the Queen arrived very ill and died on the 4th of July 1336.
The next day, the king, complying with his mother’s latest determinations, ordered the transfer of the body to Coimbra.
Queen Dona Isabel was esteemed by the people for her works of charity, in death the same people began to venerate her remains, worshiping him believing in miracles and in her holiness. King D. Manuel asked the Holy See to beatify Queen D. Isabel, granted by Pope Leo X in 1516. In the 17th century, the tomb was opened, declaring who saw that the queen’s body was uncorrupted and with an aroma of flowers. The queen was holy. In May 1625 Pope Urban VIII solemnly canonised Queen Dona Isabel, changing her name to Queen Saint Isabel. When the coffin was transported from the Monastery of Santa Clara Velha to Monastery of Santa Clara a Nova, after the waters of the Mondego had completely flooded the old convent, the tomb was opened again and, to the amazement of all, it was verified that the body remained uncorrupted and that the smell was still the scent of flowers.
The miracle of roses
A legend said that the king, already irritated by her always walking with beggars, forbade her to give more alms. But one day, seeing her sneak out of the palace, he went after her and asked what she was hiding under his cloak.
It was bread. But she, distressed to have disobeyed the king, exclaimed:
– They’re roses, sir!
“Roses, in January?” He doubted.
With her eyes down, Queen Saint Isabel opened her lap – and the bread had turned into roses, as beautiful as they had ever been seen.