The ninth novel in the beloved Queens of England series, The Merry Monarch’s Wife brings Catherine of Braganza to life and plunges readers into the tumultuous world of Restoration England.
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My life will end where it began, for in the year 1692 I left England where I had gone some thirty years before as a bride to the most romantic prince in Europe.
I smile now to consider how ill-equipped I was for such a position, and when I look back I say to myself, “If I had done this . . . ,” “If I had not done that . . . how much happier my life would have been.” But then, although I was not very young—I was twenty-four, which is a mature age for a princess to embark on marriage—I was quite innocent of the world and had hardly ever strayed from the walls of the convent where I had received my education, or the precincts of the royal palace. I had been brought up between the nuns and my mother with the strictest rules on moral rectitude, to be plunged into what was known as one of the most licentious courts in Europe. Naturally there was much which I could not understand and could not accept. I was lost and bewildered and desperately unhappy.
But when I came back to Portugal and my brother, Don Pedro, the King, gave me the Quinta de Alcantara, one of his summer palaces, where I lived in comfort, his wife, Queen Maria Sophia, became my good friend, and I was fêted by the people wherever I went. They could not forget that, by my alliance with England, I had helped to free them from the Spanish yoke.
Everywhere I went, I was assured of their gratitude and that was heart-warming.
When my health worsened, my brother sent me to the palace of Santa Martha and then to Belem where I have stayed. He and his Queen show great concern for me.
It was a great joy to visit the Villa Viçosa, called by some the Paradise of Portugal, where I was born and spent the first two years of my life in those idyllic surroundings. And as I wandered through those leafy glades, I thought of that day—my second birthday—which could be said to be the beginning of all that followed, for if my father had taken a different decision on that day, it is unlikely that I should have gone to England.
It is interesting to contemplate what my fate would have been; and there, in the Villa Viçosa, I decided to look back on it all, to ask myself how much my actions had played their part in that drama—which was sometimes a comedy, as I suppose all life is. I want to see it all clearly—the hopes, the dreams, the eager expectations and, after the bitter revelation, the joys, the pleasure, the pain and the passion: I want to live it all again in my thoughts.
There are days when I must take to my bed. I am plagued with illness and at such times my great solace is to escape into memory, to see again that glittering court; the elegant costumes of the men; the curled periwigs, the lace-edged breeches; the cloaks trimmed with gold cord; the feather hats; all proclaiming the joy to escape from Cromwellian puritan rule to royal splendour. And at the centre of it all, the King himself: merry, witty, gracious, rarely roused to anger and with a charm that exceeded handsome looks. It was small wonder that he fitted my dreams of him.
I had been quite young when I had heard that there was a possibility of his becoming my husband, and in the years that followed, in my thoughts, he became a romantic ideal. I wanted to hear all about him: his exile, his valiant attempts to regain the crown snatched from his murdered father. I loved him in the beginning, and for a time I believed he loved me too. He did in a way, but I had to learn that he was capable of loving many women at the same time. In fact, there were two deep abiding passions in his life: women, and, as I had heard him say, “never to go wandering again.”
I was feeling emotional after my visit to the Villa Viçosa. Donna Inez Antonia de Tavora, one of my favorite ladies-in-waiting, was with me. She said I was tired and she would prepare me for my bed.
My thoughts were far away in the past and I did not speak for a moment.
“I am tired, yes,” I said, “but not in the mood for sleep. I wish to amuse myself by writing. Bring my materials to me, Inez, please.”
If she were surprised she gave no sign.
She did as I commanded and I began.
The Long Betrothal
I remember the day clearly, for it was the beginning. It was then that I realized that the dream which had haunted me so long could come true.
We were working on an altar cloth—my ladies and I—and it was a task which had occupied us for weeks; the work was detailed and delicate and while we stitched one of us would play some musical instrument and we would sometimes sing together; at other times, one of the party would read aloud from some holy book. A great deal of our time was spent thus.
Presiding over us were those two ladies who were never far from me, for they had been specially selected by my mother to guard me. One was Donna Maria de Portugal, the Countess of Penalva; the other Donna Elvira de Vilpena, the Countess of Pontevel. They were much aware of their dignity and determined to do their duty by watching over me.
I was often exasperated by this, but I was generally of a docile disposition. I had led a very sheltered life and had scarcely been outside the palace walls or those of the convent where I had been educated; and I was inclined to accept my fate with a certain placidity.
Donna Maria was the senior of the two. She was the sister of Don Francisco de Mello, of whom my mother thought very highly. He was not only my godfather but he held a very important post, Ambassador to England.
England had always been held in great respect by my mother, even when the English murdered their King and set up a Commonwealth. Strong-minded, practical woman though she was, she had a strange premonition about that country, which was alien to her nature, for she was in all other matters firmly realistic; but where England was concerned she allowed her wishes to get the better of her usually logical reasoning.
As we sat there on that sunny afternoon, she came into the room. I knew at once that something important had happened. She rarely visited us unexpectedly. If she wished to speak to us she would send for us, and anything concerning us was generally of small consequence compared with matters of state with which she was usually concerned.
She was Regent of Portugal because my brother Alfonso was not suitable to be King. She had been in that position since my father’s death four years before, and though Alfonso was no longer a boy—he must have been seventeen at this time—she still considered him unfit to take on the burden of state; and she continued to rule.
None in royal circles questioned my mother—not even my father had done that; she had always been actively involved in state matters, so we knew something of great moment must have brought her to us on this afternoon.
We all rose and curtsied as she entered, and my mother turned to the ladies, which was a sign that meant they were to leave us.
“Donna Maria, Donna Elvira, you may remain,” she said.
A smile of satisfaction spread over Donna Maria’s face. She was delighted when her special place in the household was acknowledged. She immediately placed her chair for my mother and took another herself.
My mother acknowledged the service with a nod and, sitting, said: “I have news. The best of news. Dispatches have arrived from England.”
Donna Maria nodded her head to remind us all that they would have come from her shrewd and clever brother Don Francisco.
My mother’s eyes were on me. “The King of England has been recalled to his country. I have had several account of the scenes there in the English capital. It would seem that they are a good augury for the future.”
Donna Maria said: “I believe, Your Highness, the people there must have been heartily tired of the Puritan rule.”
“It would appear so,” said my mother, smiling. I, who knew her so well, could see that she was so delighted by the turn of events that she had dispensed with some of her dignity and was not averse to a little light conversation.
“My envoys tell me that the bells are ringing all over the capital and the people are in the streets dancing and making merry, as they did in the old days before Oliver Cromwell came to put a stop to their gaiety.”
My mother paused. I could imagine she was thinking that that much merriment was not entirely to be praised, and that the people would be better engaged in attending church to give thanks to God for the return of the King.
“How glad they must be to have him back!” I said.
“Not more than he is to be there, I’ll swear,” said Donna Elvira.
“It is certain that the King is pleased to come back to his country,” said my mother. “He is now a king not merely in name. England will return to its greatness.”
“I wonder what all those Roundheads are thinking now,” said Donna Elvira.
“There will be some to mourn and regret, I doubt not,” replied my mother, “but there will be many to rejoice—and none more than the King!” She was looking at me. “This is a very important day for us. As you know, the English have been good friends to this country. I have always wanted to strengthen the alliance between us. I am recalling Don Francisco. I have much to discuss with him.”
Donna Maria was slowly nodding her head again.
“We must all watch events in England,” went on my mother. “I believe this to be a time of great importance, not only to England but to Portugal.”
“Amen,” said Donna Maria.
“Great events could come out of the restoration of King Charles,” continued my mother. She was smiling at me. “We must be prepared. As yet . . . perhaps it is early. But . . . we shall talk of this later.”
I knew why she was recalling Don Francisco. Long ago, I had been suggested as a wife for Prince Charles—as he had been at that time. It was when I was not quite seven years old and he was fourteen. That had been the beginning of my dreams.
The matter had been set aside then. How could it have been otherwise with the country in turmoil? And then his father had been murdered, and he became an exile, wandering through Europe from court to court, wherever he could find some refuge. The years had passed and I was at this time twenty-two years of age. He was now thirty and it was time he married.
And through the years my mother had waited. She had some premonition and she had refused all offers for my hand. What she wanted was an alliance with England. She had waited all these years. It might have been too late for me to marry at all; it was getting near to that time now. But she had always believed that the King would recover his throne and, when he was safely there, she would set about pursuing her dream.
No wonder she was delighted; no wonder she forgot her royal dignity and came to the sewing room to chat with us.
This was a great day. It was the beginning.
So clearly I remember that day: the wonderment in Donna Elvira’s face, the pride in Donna Maria’s, because she believed her wonderful brother would play a big part in bringing this about. There was my mother’s exultation, and my own excitement because the dream which had never really left me could now be coming true.
Everything that happened really began on that important day, some twenty years before, on the second anniversary of my birth. I had heard so much of that occasion from Donna Maria and Donna Elvira—and not only those two—that I am not sure whether I remember or imagine I do. It was such an important day, for if my father had taken a different decision then, it is almost certain that I should never have gone to England.
When I visited the Villa Viçosa, I believed I remembered it, for it was so easy to visualize the idyllic life we led there. I know my father was very happy there, for he had often told me so; and I shall never forget the sadness, the nostalgia in his eyes when he spoke of it. He was so contented there . . . in obscurity . . . in that quiet paradise, with his beloved wife, whom he greatly revered, his two little boys and his two-year-old daughter. The little boys, alas, were to die before they grew up, but there was no shadow over his life at that time.
He died when I was eighteen, so I had time to know him well. He was a gentle and kindly man who valued peace and the life he shared with his family. I understand what his feelings were on that significant day.
Guests had gathered to celebrate my birthday. My arrival into the world had been greeted with great joy. There was none of that disappointment so often felt in royal circles because a child proves to be a girl and not a boy. Why should there have been? They already had their two boys. How were they to know then that they were going to lose them?
Donna Maria liked to tell me about it, so I heard often of the joy at the Villa Viçosa when I was born.
“There was rejoicing throughout the palace . . . the whole country, in fact . . . for although your father lived the life of a country gentleman, it was not forgotten that he was the Duke of Braganza, and it was hoped that one day he would be in his rightful place on the throne of Portugal, and our country would no longer be the vassal of the hated Spaniards. Only the best was good enough for the Duke’s daughter, and, as you know, your godfather was the great nobleman Don Francisco de Mello, the Marquis of Ferreira.”
“Who,” I never forgot to say at this point, “is your brother.”
“That is so, my child. We are a highly respected family, and have always been the good friends of the House of Braganza, which is one of the reasons why your mother has entrusted you to my care.”
“I know, dear Donna Maria.”
And she would go on: “As you were born on St. Catherine’s Day, it seems right and proper that you should be named after the saint.”
My first two years had been spent at the Villa Viçosa in the province of Alemtejo, and very happy they must have been until that fateful day.
According to Donna Maria, from all over the country, people had come to celebrate my birthday.
“It was not only that,” added Donna Maria, anxious as ever that I should not grow up with an inflated idea of my importance. “The occasion was used to express the people’s loyalty to the Duke of Braganza, and to remind him that they were aware that, although he was living as a country gentleman, they did not forget that he was the rightful King of Portugal.”
Our country had been a vassal state of Spain for sixty years. The Portuguese had lived through troublous times since the death of Henry, the Cardinal King, who had died before he named his successor. Consequently there were several claimants to the throne. My great-grandmother, the Duchess of Braganza, was in the direct line and considered herself the rightful heiress, but she was a woman. Philip of Spain laid claim to the throne. He was perhaps the most powerful ruler in Europe, and he was successful, which was a sad day for Portugal; and the people never ceased to chafe against the invader.
So . . . now my father, grandson of Donna Maria, Duchess of Braganza, was in truth the King of Portugal.
That was the state of affairs on that November day when the celebrations of my second birthday were in progress. There was great joy and merriment until Don Gaspar Cortigno arrived, with his special mission which was to change our lives.
Knowing my father as I did, I understood his feelings on that day. He would be enjoying the merry company, delighting in his family, revelling in the serenity and peace of the Villa Viçosa with his loved ones around him. He was not an ambitious man.
Gaspar Cortigno had been selected for this mission. He must have been an eloquent man and a fervent patriot. I could imagine his words. “The time has come for you to do your duty to your people, Your Highness. The throne could be yours for the taking. The country is behind you. We want you to leave this place and come to Lisbon. We have the men. We have the means. The time has come for Portugal to be free.”
And my father’s dismayed response, what had that been? At first, I was sure, he would have vehemently refused. Others had tried and failed. He wanted to cling to his pleasant life. He had large estates; he was wealthy; he did not seek to rule; he only wanted to live in peace with his family; he had little stomach for battle; blood would be shed, lives would be lost.
But there was my mother. She was different from her husband.
She was the daughter of the Duke of Medina Sidonia; she was proud; she had decided views of right and wrong; and she was ambitious for her family. She believed that my father’s rightful place was on the throne.
Gaspar Cortigno’s words made a deep impression on her. The people of Portugal were asking my father to rise against the Spaniards and they were ready to stand beside him.
I can imagine my father’s dismay when she joined her pleas with those of Gaspar Cortigno.
“Your father said he could not do it,” said Donna Maria. “He said it would plunge the country into war. It was better to let life go on as it was. But there was one thing which persuaded him to change his mind.” She looked at me proudly. “It was because of you.”
I was delighted to think that I was so important—at least had been on this occasion.
“There you were, in your birthday gown. You looked . . . er . . . very pleasant. Your mother took you by the hand, and she said to your father: ‘Could you deny this child her due? Could she grow up the daughter of a mere duke when she is indeed the daughter of a king? It is your duty, if for no other reason than for the sake of this child . . . and your boys.’ After that your father gave way. What could he do? If he would not act for himself, he must for his family.”
I knew that Donna Maria’s version was near the truth because I had heard the story from other sources, and I think I remember my father’s serious look as he took me into his arms, holding me tightly and saying: “This must be.”
And soon after that he left the Villa Viçosa and went to live in Lisbon, where my father was proclaimed King Juan IV of Portugal.
I was five years old when the next momentous event occurred. Both my little brothers were dead. I did remember the sorrowful atmosphere throughout the palace when it happened—one death following quickly on another.
My mother shut herself in her apartments and appeared rarely, and when she did her grief was apparent; but she was not of a nature to flaunt her sorrow and soon she was emerging to dominate us all.
I was delighted to see her with us again. I think she had a special fondness for me. She had loved her boys, but they had always been delicate and, although she had never failed in her tenderness toward them, she had a natural distaste for weakness of any kind. I was a healthy girl and she delighted in me.
I realized that something was happening when I heard Donna Maria and Donna Elvira whispering together.
“Can it be true?” murmured Elvira.
“What a blessing it would be . . . after the tragedy.”
“Do not speak of that. It is too grievous . . . even now. But if this should be . . .”
“I shall pray for it.”
“And so shall I.”
I was not sure of what they were speaking, but I sensed there was some secrecy about it, so I refrained from asking my mother.
We had moved to the palace at Sintra and I saw little of my father. He was always away, driving the Spaniards out of Portugal, I supposed. He was known as King Don Juan, and my mother was very anxious that everyone should be aware of the family’s rank.
She was angry because my father was not generally recognized as King outside Portugal. The Pope, terrified of the Spaniards, had refused to acknowledge the title. There were only two countries who did. France was one, England the other. Both of these countries had reason to hate the Spaniards.
I discovered that my mother did not always trust the French, but she did have special feelings of friendship toward the English.
I had heard a great deal of talk about the troubles in England. It would appear they were in a worse state than Portugal. Their King was fighting his own Parliamant and there was civil war in that land. We, at least, were only trying to free ourselves from the usurper, and the Portuguese nation stood firmly together, whereas Englishmen were fighting Englishmen.
Reluctant as my father had been to take up arms, he had had several successes. This was encouraging, but not decisive; there was great rejoicing throughout the country at every success and hopes were high.
“It is Donna Luiza who is behind the King,” I heard Donna Maria say to Donna Elvira; and they nodded in agreement.
“The day will come,” said Donna Maria prophetically, “when King Don Juan with Donna Luiza will free this country absolutely.” I wondered when that time would come and whether we should then go back to the Villa Viçosa.
Then the long-awaited event took place. My mother retired to her bedchamber and a hushed atmosphere pervaded the house. Everyone was waiting.
It had happened. There was rejoicing throughout the palace.
Later I was taken to see my new brother Alfonso in his cradle.
I was nearly seven years old when I first heard of Prince Charles.
My father’s success had continued, and although to the Spaniards he was still the Duke of Braganza, to the English he was King Juan of Portugal, which was no longer the subject state it had been before that important day at Villa Viçosa.
My mother sent for me, and I could see at once from her demeanor that she was about to talk of a very serious matter.
She was gentle but tender toward me as always, which gave me a feeling of warm comfort, for she was inclined to be severe when dealing with most people.
“Catherine, come here,” she said, and when I stood before her, she kissed me on both cheeks.
“You are growing up,” she went on. “Have you ever thought that one day you might marry?”
“I do not want to leave you,” I said in alarm.
She smiled. “Certainly you do not. But it will not be for some time. Your father and I have been talking of your future, and, as you know, it is the duty of us all to consider our country in every way.”
I was beginning to feel uneasy. She saw that and went on quickly: “There is no need to be afraid. Your father and I have decided that you should know now what is happening, as it concerns you. We did not want you suddenly to be presented with a situation of this nature . . . as has happened to so many. You know something of the state of our country, and that we are trying to rid ourselves completely of Spanish tyranny. You know of the great work your father has done and that we are succeeding in our task. Your father is the rightful King of Portugal, and we are determined that soon every state shall recognize him as such. The English have always been good friends to us. They are a more powerful nation that we are . . . one of the most powerful in Europe. But the King is now engaged in a war with his Parliament, who are trying to impose their will on the people. They will not succeed. The King has a son—more than one—but it is the eldest in whom we are interested—Charles, Prince of Wales. It is your father’s wish, and mine, that you shall marry him.”
“Go to England?” I cried.
“It would not be for some time. I am just telling you that your father has sent our ambassador with a suggestion that this might be. They are a great nation, but at war. We are a small one in semi-captivity. These matters depend on negotiations. Your father is in a position to bestow a good dowry on you and the King of England will need money to conduct his war.”
“So because of the money . . .”
“No, because you are the daughter of a king and young Charles is the son of one. We must accept these things as they are. It is the rulers who decide them. To marry a man who will one day be a king is a great destiny and one must be prepared for it.”
“I should like to know something about this prince.”
“He is fourteen years old—a charming boy, so I have heard.”
“That seems very old,” I ventured.
“You think so because you are younger. As you grow up, these seven years will seem nothing. It is better for a husband to be older than his wife. Charles is clever and charming, a loyal son and he will be a good husband.” My mother drew me to her. “You must not be anxious,” she went on. “It will not be for a long time, but I tell you now so that you will be prepared when the time comes. So far this is only a suggestion. With Oliver Cromwell at his heels, the King may have many matters with which to concern himself as well as the marriage of his son.”
It proved to be that he had, for there was no enthusiastic response brought back by my father’s ambassador. I learned from little scraps of gossip that my religion was a handicap. The King of England had had enough trouble through marrying a Catholic wife. He did not want his son to fall into the same trap.
That startled me. Our religion was of the utmost importance to us and I had always believed that anyone not of the Catholic faith was doomed.
I asked my mother about the King of England’s objection to our religion.
“Where do you hear such things?” she demanded.
I did not way to betray anyone, so I said vaguely: “Oh, it must have been something I heard someone say . . .”
“Who has been talking?”
“Oh . . . several . . . Not talking to me but to each other. I cannot remember who . . . but there was a good deal of talk about the proposed marriage.”
She was thoughtful for a moment, then she said: “The people of England have rejected the true faith. It happened a long time ago after Queen Mary died and Queen Elizabeth came to the throne. And after Elizabeth there came the Stuarts.”
“But if they are not of the true faith . . .”
“First,” she said, cutting me short, “we have to think of an alliance which would bring honour to you and to our country.”
“But . . .”
“My dear child, you are too young to concern yourself with such matters which can safely be left to your father and to me.”
“But if Prince Charles is a Protestant . . . a heretic . . .”
“The Prince of Wales must be brought up in the religion of the country he will one day rule.”
“Then how . . . ?”
She smiled secretively and whispered: “Who knows? If he had the right wife . . .”
“But the King himself married a Catholic . . . and . . .”
Again I was interrupted. “How knowledgeable you have become! That pleases me. You must learn what is going on. King Charles of England married the daughter of the great King Henri of Navarre who became the fourth Henri of France. It was a match of great benefit to both France and England. King Henri was a Huguenot at one time and he became a Catholic. Sometimes these matters are necessary. Who knows what might happen?”
“Prince Charles’s mother did not make his father a Catholic.”
“Perhaps she was not clever enough. If the Prince married a good Catholic wife, who knows what influence she might have on him . . .”
“You mean, I might lead him to the Truth?”
“Hush, my child. You must not say such things. You must learn to keep such matters to yourself. What people in our position say is often repeated. We must be careful at all times . . . even little girls. It is different with humbler folk. We do not know what the future holds, but I believe that one day you are going to be Queen of England, and when you are, you will do your duty to God and your country.”
“Oh yes,” I said fervently, “I will.”
I had a mission now. Not only was I going to marry Prince Charles, but I was going to save his soul.
I set about discovering all I could about him. It was not much. I did hear that he was taller than most boys of his age; he was dark and somewhat swarthy, not handsome, but of great charm. He bore a strong resemblance to his maternal grandfather, the great Henri, who had been known in France as the Evergreen Gallant because he had loved so many women.
I was constantly thinking of Charles.
Even when the overtures of our ambassador came to nothing, and there was no more talk of a possible marriage, he remained in my mind.