What Has Portugal to Do With the British Obsession With Drinking Tea?

Let’s start with a challenge: what comes to your mind if I tell you to think of something that distinguishes an Englishman? Perhaps a traditional image comes to many: a phlegmatic person with a cup of tea in his hand. Because that is a stereotype of the English: they live for tea.

And although it is well known that Westerners should thank China for the original cultivation of the tea tree, it is much less known that it was the Portuguese who inspired their popularity in England, particularly a Portuguese woman.

Why do the English like tea so much?

Year 1662. It was in that year when Catalina de Braganza (daughter of King Juan IV of Portugal) won the hand of King Charles II of England.

There were several aspirants, but with the help of an immense dowry that included money, spices, treasures and the lucrative ports of Tangier and Bombay, Catherine was the most apt to become Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland.

It is said that when she moved north to join her future husband, she packed loose sheets of tea as part of her personal belongings; although others say that it was part of his dowry.

The truth is that tea was already popular among the aristocracy of Portugal due to the direct commercial line of that country with China through its colony in Macao, which was established around 1500.

But when Catherine arrived in England, the tea was consumed there only as a medicine, to which she attributed properties to revitalize the body and keep the spleen free of stones.

However, the young queen was used to drinking it as part of her daily routine and continued to do so until she turned tea into a social drink and not just a tonic for health.

“When Catalina married Carlos, she became the center of attention, everything from her clothes to her furniture became the source of the court talk, and her love of drinking tea encouraged other ladies of the court to imitate her. this way it was extended its consumption “, explains Sarah-Beth Watkins, author of” Catherine of Braganza: the Queen of the Restoration of Carlos II “.

Reason for costs

And the issue with tea in the UK was not just that it was considered a tonic for health. Markman Ellis, Professor of 18th Century Studies at Queen Mary College, University of London, and co-author of “The Tea Empire: The Asian Leaf Who Conquered the World” says that by then his price was almost prohibitive.

There were three basic reasons for the cost:

England had no direct trade with China.
Indian tea was not yet known.
The small quantities that the Dutch imported were sold at a very high cost.

In fact, it was so expensive that the price, according to Ellis, limited its consumption only to the richest elite sectors of society. “Tea was associated with the social class of women around the royal court, of which Catherine was the most famous emblem,” says Jane Pettigrew author of The Social History of Tea.

But what about the models that create celebrities? Well, people who are not famous imitate them. “When the queen does something, everyone wants to follow her example, very, very gradually at the end of the 17th century, the aristocracy started taking small amounts of tea,” says Pettrigrew.

But, as is to be supposed, it was not the English upper class who invented the ritual of drinking tea.

“Until we arrived with the Dutch, the English did not know anything about the tea, we did not have any spoons or cups, so we did what always happens: we copied all the ritual of China, imported small porcelain bowls, saucers, dishes, small teapots… “explains Pettigrew.

Catalina’s native country also participated in the popularization of this aspect of the tea experience.

“Portugal was one of the routes through which porcelain arrived in Europe, it was very expensive and very beautiful and one of the things that made drinking tea attractive was everything beautiful that went with it, like having the latest iPhone”, says Ellis.

As it was so valued, porcelain was probably part of Catherine’s dowry, and she, as a lady of the aristocracy, surely accumulated magnificent ornaments of this material to show off in her tea sessions once she lived in England.

“She started it as an aristocratic habit, it was very elegant, very classy, so the ceremony was immediately associated with the fine life (… ) It’s the same as today: you buy expensive things to show how important you are” says Pettigrew.



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