Here we had some discourse of the Queen’s being very sick, if not dead…
Pepys, 17 October 1663.
Catherine of Braganza regained some of her husband’s affection through a wholly fortuitous piece of good fortune; she almost died.
(Hutton, p. 204).
Spoiler Warning: The events described in this article take place over the next few weeks of the Diary. Some of these events will be commented on by Sam, although his Diary entries regarding the subject matter are not included in this article. The incidents discussed are specific to the Queen, King and Court and include letters and observations by Ambassadors who experienced these events first hand. Commentary by historians and biographers of Charles and Catherine is also presented. Daily diary readers, who may choose to proceed, may find an interest in noting the accuracy/inaccuracy of Sam’s “intelligence” through his upcoming Diary entries in comparison to the information from the Ambassadors set forth herein.
Sam’s diary entry referenced above seems to refer simply to Queen Catherine, and yet given the complexities in the Court of Charles II, Sam’s one line evokes the myriad of background manoeuvrings, emotions and politics surrounding the Queen, her illness and the fallout that her potential death could have on England at this time. The intention of this article is to share a perspective on the “social” politics of the time, beginning by turning our attention to the ladies of Charles II.
The political affairs (as reported by Sam over the past few months) concerning Lord Bristol had taken their turn against him. Political courtiers were distancing themselves from him. Lady Castlemaine had been a big supporter of Bristol’s but,
as Bristol sank from view, so Castlemaine’s absolute dominance of the King’s sexual affections vanished. In mid-1663 Charles conceived a passion for a virgin of about sixteen years, Frances Stuart, daughter of a Scottish Catholic royalist. Sent to court in 1662 her remarkable elfin beauty soon created comment, and by early 1663 Barbara [Castlemaine] had befriended her in a desperate effort to reinforce the King’s interest in her own company. This failed, for in June Charles’s lust for Frances was patent and he was quarreling with Castlemaine. Throughout the summer and autumn Bennet and other courtiers attempted to use the new favourite to strengthen their own influence with him. What halted this course of events was the personality of Frances herself. The evidence remains unclear as to whether she was at this period a clever and virtuous woman or a feather-headed innocent, but the upshot was clear; she refused absolutely to surrender herself to the King or to take political affairs seriously.
(Hutton, p. 204). In addition, in September, Castlemaine had given birth to a son Henry, and, once again, there was some initial flack on Charles’ behalf as to whether he would claim this child as his own. Castlemaine had been known to be less than faithful to him. Frances’ star was rising, but as long as she remained a virgin, Charles still had a need to keep Castlemaine in the wings.
Meanwhile, Queen Catherine, and a good portion of Charles’ court, had spent the months of August through October visiting the waters at Tunbridge Wells and then those at Bath all in an attempt for the Queen to partake of these healing waters and hopefully become pregnant. Lady Castelmaine did not attend the Queen on these trips due to her pregnancy, but Frances Stuart was among the Queen’s entourage. It is not clear if Catherine returned from this journey carrying a child or not, as historians have different views on this, with Sousa and Mackay stating that she was pregnant, miscarried and became ill, perhaps as the result of the loss of the child. Other historians/biographers state that she had returned from the waters without conceiving and then succumbed to some sort of “spotted fever” (a generic term for a host of possible illnesses). What is clear is that her illness itself exposed the rather complex and conflicted side of her husband and sent ripples through the courtiers and politicians in their jockeying for status and power.
Her illness seemed to strike quickly and her health began to deteriorate rapidly. As Sousa translates from Virginia Rau’s Portuguese account (Sousa, p. 68-69):
The queen asked to be given over to the cares of her Portuguese attendants, and that her beautiful hair be shaven so that they could dress her in a cap of precious relics. The Portuguese family wept noisily as they prepared the queen for death. They believed that a princess of her lineages had to make a will, take leave of her servants one by one, make a professions of faith out loud, and be administered the last rites, the most important Communion of her religion. These rituals were so drawn out that the queen was unable to sleep, and they kept her in a state of dangerous agitation.
In addition to the ritual of the night-cap, which was supposed to bear powers of miraculous healing, was the seemingly odd ritual of slaughtering pigeons and placing their reeking carcasses at her feet.
There are curious folk-tales about the connection of the pigeon with death, based on the old belief that the dove was a messenger from the spirit world. Thus when a ship foundered in the olden times the spectators on shore used to see the souls of the newly drowned ascending to heaven in the shape of doves. An associated belief was that dying people cannot take leave of life if they are lying on a bed of pigeons’ feathers.
(Bury article, online). Finally, amongst the chanting of Latin prayers and the entourage of crying Portuguese attendants, Charles reached his limit of patience. He cleaned the room of all but a limited number of Catherine’s women. From this point on he would take charge of her care.
Catherine, grateful for her husband’s attention and believing that she was dying, kept her regard for her husband in the forefront of her thoughts as she prepared to depart this world. She told him that “the concern he shewed for her death was enough to make her quit life with regret; but that not possessing charms sufficient to merit his tenderness, she had at least the consolation in dying to give place to a consort, who might be more worthy of it, and to whom heaven, perhaps, might grant a blessing [an heir] that had been refused to her.” (Grammont, chapter 7 online). Charles was deeply touched by her honest concern of placing his needs above her own, and was sincerely grief-stricken, as attested by the following observers.
Lord Arlington [Bennet] in a letter to the Duke of Ormond, dated the 17th of October, says, “the condition of the queen is much worse, and the physicians give us but little hopes of her recovery: by the next you will hear she is either in a fair way to it, or dead: to-morrow is a very critical day with her: God’s will be done. The king coming to see her this morning, she told him she willingly left all the world but him; which hath very much afflicted his majesty, and all the court with him.” (Brown, p. 306.).
The fever spiked and Catherine was in a critical state. When the initial fever broke, there was a slight sigh of relief but additional factors kept her struggling for her life for several weeks. Charles remained uncharacteristically devoted to her at this time. Sousa explains the Portuguese perspective, that “The Marquis de Sande, who also spent many hours sitting up with the queen, witnessed the affection which Charles felt for Catherine. [In a letter to Catherine’s mother, Donna Luisa,] Francisco de Melo wrote about Charles’ grief and mentioned that he had often taken Charles from Catherine’s arms weeping copiously from seeing his wife so near death.” (Sousa, p. 71).
The French Ambassador, Cominges in his correspondence to Louis XIV, provided details, along with gossip.
I am just come from Whitehall, where I have left the Queen in such state that, according to physicians, little room is left for hope. She has received the extreme unction this morning… She has moreover made her last recommendations to the King, asking him to have her body sent back to Portugal, and not to desert the cause of the little kingdom then hard pressed by Spain… The Portuguese are excessively unpopular here, and their ambassador himself is not secure from aspersions. They are accused, and he especially, of having contributed by their bad management to the death of the Queen. … Tis true that, to please her, she was left two or three days in their hands; but the King, having perceived that they increased her illness and went even the length of having her take a number of remedies of their country, has put a stop to those things.
(Jusserand p. 88-89). The Ambassador would go on to provide the “juicy” gossip that although Charles spent his days attending to his wife; he spent his evenings with Lady Castlemaine in order to pursue Frances Stuart.
Through she has some little respite from time to time, I despair of her recovery… The King seems to me deeply affected. Well! He supped none the less yesterday with Madame de Castlemaine and had his usual talk with Mlle. Stewart, of whom he is excessively fond. There is already a talk of his marrying again, and everybody gives him a new wife according to his own inclination; and there are some who do not look beyond England to find one for him.
(Jusserand, p 88-89). This allusion was to Frances Stuart.
Along with the push of Frances into the forefront of the courtiers’ minds as a replacement for Catherine came the political moves working against Lady Castelmaine. Andrews explains that with the shift of Charles’ affections towards Frances Stuart (combined with Bristol’s fall from grace, mentioned above), that Castlemaine’s “former cabal remained aloof, and Bennet had joined the ‘committee’ organized by the Duke of Buckingham to promote the King’s marriage to Frances Stuart in the case of the Queen’s death — a proposal which Buckingham kept in his mind even when the Queen revived.” (Andrews, p. 106). Wilson rounds out the political view by checking in on the ‘Somerset Group’ (Henrietta Marie, and Frances’ mother were among this crowd), when he explains that
the Somerset House group had made their choice and matters seemed to be falling out better than they could have hoped. Little Frances had no political standing but, by the same token, she would bring with her no political baggage. Freed from a Portuguese alliance which had become an embarrassment, Charles would have no wish to tie himself in fresh diplomatic coils. He would be free to follow his own desires - and there was no doubt where they led.
(Wilson, p. 197).
There was little doubt in anyone’s mind that the King would have married her [Frances], had the Queen died. Such a marriage would have been unusual; it would of course have caused a stir; but no doubt the importance of the distant connection of the Blantyre Stuarts with the Royal House would have been insisted upon and exaggerated, and, to allay popular scruples as to the suitability of the match, evidence of royal descent would have been ingeniously bolstered up by judicious inventions. At any rate, the kinship, distant as it was, had always been admitted and stressed, and, since the first Lord Blantyre had been brought up with James I, the association of the two families had been drawn even closer.
(Hartmann, pp. 64-65). The plans and arguments to establish Frances were well underway.
The more politically seasoned French Ambassador, de Lionne “told Louis that the meanest of the courtiers was busy in selecting a new wife for Charles, and that the daughter of the Prince de Ligne, to whom Charles had been reported to be attached during his exile, was confidently spoken of. This would be an alliance greatly backed by Spain, who had had enough of England as Portugal’s ally”. (Davidson, p. 203). Where Charles was so cash strapped choosing between love, money and political alliances only added to the dimensions the courtiers had to consider.
With all of the political plans and machinations taking place, there was one thing that these courtiers hadn’t counted on, and that was that the inner emotions and despair revealed by Queen Catherine would leave an everlasting impression on her husband and throw and emotional wrench into all of the political works. Over the next few weeks Catherine was so weak that her death seemed imminent. She wavered in and out of a cohesive state. During her more lucid moments she declared her affection for her husband and regard for his welfare, but during her delirious moments she revealed her private inner turmoil.
Her mind during her illness was constantly occupied with her desire for a child; in her delirium she imagined that she had at least given birth to an heir. Its ugliness seemed to distress her, so the King, to humour her, assured her that it was a very pretty boy. “Nay,” said the Queen, “if it be like you, it is a fine boy indeed and I would be very pleased with it.” During the succeeding days she imagined that she had given birth to two more children, and was delighted that the girl was so much like the King. Charles was most distressed at his Queen’s illness, and his tenderness for her was increased by the knowledge of her love for him which she betrayed in her delusions. He sat constantly by her bed-side, and tearfully besought her to live for his sake.
(Hartmann, p. 63-65).
Grammont, quite mean-spirited in this case and bearing a different view than actual observers, stated sarcastically,
at these words, she bathed his hands with some tears, which he thought would be her last: he mingled his own with hers; and without supposing she would take him at his word, he conjured her to live for his sake. She had never yet disobeyed him; and, however dangerous sudden impulses may be, when one is between life and death, this transport of joy, which might have proved fatal to her, saved her life, and the king’s wonderful tenderness had an effect, for which every person did not thank heaven in the same manner.
(Chapter 7, online).
According to court etiquette, Catherine was still expected to accept diplomatic visitors during her illness. Louis sent a Monsieur de Cateu with a personal message of condolences. Poor Catherine was partially deaf due to the fever, so Charles escorted the diplomat to see her. Charles had to yell the message to her as in her current state she could barely understand it. In a message to King Louis de Lionne claims,
She was, it was reported, much gratified by the attention of Louis and his Queen, and said so herself in quite clear words. De Lionne was courtier enough to inform his master that no doubt His Majesty’s kindness in sending a special message had much to do with Catherine’s recovery. Lord Aubigny, her almoner, told her she must impute her recovery to the cap of relics, and the extreme unction. Catherine, in spite of being so profound a devotee, replied to him that it was not so, but that it must rather be laid to the prayers of her husband.
(Davidson, p 203). Depending on what country one came from (and/or their level of savvy diplomatic experience) it seems that the get well wishes of ones respective king were the cause of her recovery. The Portuguese saw it differently. In his letter to Catherine’s mother, Francisco de Melo told her that God had remembered her devotion, the effect of her great and public faith and that her recovery was a miracle. He also assured Donna Luisa that along with the visits from the Duke of York, the Queen Mother and Prince Rupert that all were there to assist Catherine. (Letter translation/summary provided by this site’s Pedro.)
Slowly, the Queen started to mend, but not without the loss of her hearing which remained for quite some time. For a few weeks she was unable to stand. During this time, de Lionne informed Louis that he “thought her brain affected hopelessly, and says that though she was out of danger she still wandered.” (Davidson, p. 203). As she began to heal and her lucidity returned, the plans of the cabals and potential future queen faded.
Whatever dreams Frances may have had were shattered by the Queen’s restoration of health; for she could never hope to be Queen while Catherine lived. Charles was no Henry VIII; in his strange perverse way he was really fond of his Queen, and always rejected with contumely any suggestion of divorcing her. But if he abandoned all idea of marrying Frances, his passion for her was undiminished, and he became all the more determined to make her his mistress.
(Hartmann, p. 66). In addition to all of the disappointments that Frances and the cabals de jour may have felt a sarcastic Cominges summed up the feelings regarding Catherine’s turning the corner on her health by explaining to Louis that there “‘were great rejoicing, none being more sincere’, the ambassador wickedly observes, ‘than the Duke of York’s and his wife’s.’” (Jusserand, p. 89). For now, it was thought that all that seemingly stood between James and the throne was a barren Queen, a popular thought perhaps, for the Duke of York, but not for those opposed to him.
Norrington believes that “it is an endearing side to Charles’s character that although he was so deeply in love with Frances Stuart, when his wife became so ill his devotion to her was outstanding, even if it robbed him of the chance not only to marry a woman he loved, but also, probably, to have some legitimate children.” (Norrington, p. 70). Others note this seeming conflict as a result of the complexity of Charles’ character and his inability to see any lady suffer.
In proportion as the Queen regained her health and spirits, the King’s revived affection for her diminished, and by the beginning of the New Year, when she was quite well again, he had already begun to relax those devoted attentions, which had contributed so much to her recovery. During the critical days of her illness his affection had been genuine enough; for, like most cynics, Charles was thoroughly sentimental, and the spectacle of the suffering of the women, who, he knew, adored him had touched him so profoundly that he had found his placid half-contemptuous affection transformed for the time being into something very nearly approaching real love. There had been no insincerity in his tears over her or his passionate prayers to her to live for his sake; his emotion had indeed been so intense as to turn his hair grey. But now that there was no longer any cause for anxiety he experiences revulsion of feeling. The grey hair was hidden under a curling jet-black periwig of the latest fashion, and thus rejuvenated the King thrust his wife once again into the background of his life, and renewed his pursuit of Frances Stuart.
(Hartmann, p. 67-68).
As it became clear that Catherine was now safe, Charles himself summed up the Queen’s recovery in the following letter to his sister Minette. (Norrington, p. 70).
Charles to Minette 2 November 1663 (excerpt)
My wife is now out of danger, though very weake, and it was a very strange feaver. For she talked idely fouer or five dayes after the feaver had left her, but now that is likewise past, and desires me to make her compliments to you and Monsieur, which she will do her selfe, as soone as she getts strength, and so my dearest sister, I will trouble you no more at this time, but beg of you to love him who is intierely yours. C.R.
As the year will come to a close Sam will no doubt report on the ins and outs of the Queen’s health and the gossip surrounding Charles’ ladies. Things will return to the “norm” during this time with Charles dividing
between three women at the same time the love that an ordinary man would devote to one at different stages of his passion. His love for Frances was romantic, it was love at its birth, an irresistible attraction towards youth and beauty and gaiety, while with the Queen it was love growing old, tenderness free from passion, a placid affection which was a haven for all his better instincts. But both romance and tenderness were lacking in his feelings for Lady Castlemaine; she appealed now only to that which was basest in him; the physical element, naked and undisguised, was all that survived of his former passion for her, save for a kindliness which natures like his often retain for those whom they have once loved, and which is more an effect of memory than a reflection of present feelings.
(Hartmann p 67-68).
Hutton does point out that this illness did bring a slight improvement between the relationship between the King and Queen, when he tells us that the “reconciliation survived her recovery, and henceforth the royal affections were divided between the three women, two of whom declined to meddle in public affairs. The area available to political intrigue in court life was thus further circumscribed.” (Hutton, p. 204)
But in a touching and poignant poem, perhaps we’ll give the kind poet Waller the last word. (Davidson, p. 200).
He that was never known to mourn So may kingdoms from him torn, His tears reserved for you, more dear, More prized, than all those kingdoms were. For when no healing art prevailed, When cordials and elixirs failed, On your pale cheek he dropped the shower, Revived you like a dying flower.
Books consulted and/or quoted
- Andrews, Allen: The Royal Whore, 1970.
- Barbour, Violet: Henry Bennet Earl of Arlington Secretary of State to Charles II, 1914.
- Brown, Thomas: Miscellaneous Aulica, or a Collection of State Treatises, never before publish’d, 1702.
- Bryant, Arthur: King Charles II, 1931.
- Bury, Dr. Judson Sykes: Samuel Pepys, His Diary and the world he lived in, 1933. Available online.
- Casimiro, Augusto: Dona Catarina de Braganca, 1956.
- Davidson, Lillias Campbell: Catherine of Braganca, 1908.
- Fraser, Antonia: King Charles II, 1979.
- Grammont: Memoirs of the Count de Grammont, 1864. Available online.
- Gray, Robert: The King’s Wife: Five Queen Consorts, 1990.
- Hamilton, Elizabeth: The Illustrious Lady, 1980.
- Hartmann, Cyril: La Belle Stuart, 1924.
- Hutton, Ronald: Charles II, 1989.
- Jusserand, J.J.: A French Ambassador at the Court of Charles the Second: Le Compte de Cominges from his unpublished Correspondence, 1892.
- Mackay, Janet: Catherine of Braganza, 1937.
- Norrington, Ruth: My Dearest Minette, 1996.
- Ponsoby, Dorothy: The King’s Ladies, 1936.
- Rau, Virginia: D. Catarina de Braganca, rainha de Inglaterra, 1941.
- Sousa, Manuel Andrade E: Catherine of Braganza: Princess to Portugal Wife to Charles II, 1994.
- Thomas, Gertrude: Richer Than Spices, 1965.
- Wilson, Derek: All The King’s Ladies, 2003.