So, here’s the skinny: Catherine of Braganza (wife of England’s King Charles II) loved tea, but she cannot be credited for introducing tea to the British. Catherine did, however, almost single-handedly turn tea into widely consumed and very fashionable beverage.
Where did Catherine’s penchant for tea come from? Portugal. After all she was a Portuguese Princess.
The Portuguese had direct trade access to China—the original tea-cultivating culture—via their colony in Macau. And Portuguese traders were early importers of tea from the East to their home country where “its high price and exoticism helped it to become very fashionable in aristocratic circles and at the royal court, where Catherine grew up.” [so sayeth the UK Tea and Infusions Association]. By the time bride-to-be Catherine boarded a ship and sailed for England (she married Charles in 1662) tea was HOT (in the popularity sense as well as literally) in her home kingdom.
Tea was also “the” beverage to be seen drinking in Holland. But at that point England was lagging behind the fashion. Tea was consumed “only as a medicine, supposedly invigorating the body and keeping the spleen free of obstructions” when Catherine landed on English shores (BBC Travel). Legend has it Catherine’s first request for tea—after landing at Portsmouth—was indeed for medical purposes: she’d had a long, draining, and stormy crossing. But Catherine was accustomed to taking Tea daily, purely as a fashionable enjoyment, and she had no intention of stopping.
As England’s’ new Queen Catherine was the focus of attention—“everything from her clothes to her furniture became the source of court talk.” (BBC Travel). The ladies in her circle were quick to copy Catherine’s tea drinking, and a new English Court fashion was born. Those in the upper class swiftly adopted tea drinking, imitating the members of the Royal court. Early on tea drinking was pretty much confined to the rich because the stuff cost a FORTUNE, as did the porcelain it was served in (Catherine likely had porcelain as part of her dowry because it was that valuable).
It was only a matter of time—once the high and mighty started serving and drinking tea—before the “lower classes” started mimicking the fashion (sans the porcelain of course but there are some pretty great English earthenware teapots, my personal favorite is the traditional Brown Betty). Think of the courtiers and the rich as celebrity cultural influencers mid-seventeenth century style, because when it comes to tea they were.
So next time you sit down to afternoon tea, whether at your desk with a homemade scone or out in a fancy tearoom somewhere, perhaps raise your cup to Queen Catherine of Braganza, who started this most English of customs.