When Charles II married Catherine of Braganza in 1662, it was an alliance of royal irregulars. Charles had been restored to the English throne only two years earlier after spending much of the previous decade scraping an existence in France and the Low Countries. Catherine was the daughter of a usurper: her father, the Duke of Braganza, had seized the crown of Portugal from King Philip IV of Spain in 1640. Although he was swiftly proclaimed King João IV, when he died sixteen years later he was still at war with the man he had dispossessed. Both João and Charles had slummed it on the way to the top. On taking possession of the royal palace in Lisbon, the erstwhile duke discovered it had been stripped of all furniture. An English visitor to Lisbon who encountered him found him ‘meanly clad as any Citizen’ and ‘homely as any Farmer’. Charles, who had disguised himself as a farm hand while fleeing Cromwell’s forces after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, had more in common with his bride’s father than was typical among royal in-laws.
The coming together of the royal houses of England and Portugal in 1662 is possibly the only historical episode to have propelled the Braganzas into British consciousness – and largely on account of Catherine of Braganza’s dowry, which included the modest gifts of Tangier and Bombay. The rest of the family is almost entirely unknown, and perhaps with good reason. They rarely intruded into the great affairs of Europe and their courts, says Malyn Newitt, were for the most part ‘dull, formal and antiquated’. In spite of this, Newitt manages, through a mixture of breezy writing, jaunty quotations and bountiful illustrations, to produce from lacklustre soil a fruitful harvest.