Catherine of Braganza: A Dancing Queen

Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705) is generally known as the Portuguese princess who married Charles II in 1662 and failed to provide him with an heir. As his Queen, she had much to endure – not only the King’s repeated and flagrant infidelities but also the spiteful politics of the English court. Much less well known is her love of dancing and her role in the promotion of dancing both at court and on the London stage.

Catherine of Braganza Huysmans 2

Attributed to Jacob Huysmans. Queen Catherine of Braganza, 1660-1670

She is first recorded as attending a ball at court on 31 December 1662, just a few months after her arrival and marriage. Samuel Pepys records the entrance of ‘the King and Queen, the Duke and Duchesse [of York], and all the great ones’. On this occasion, the Queen seems not to have danced, for Charles II ‘takes out the Duchess of Yorke, and the Duke the Duchesse of Buckingham, the Duke of Monmouth my Lady Castlemayne, and so other lords other ladies; and they danced the Bransle’. Pepys also mentioned that ‘when the King dances, all the ladies in the room, and the Queen herself, stands up’. Catherine of Braganza had a sheltered upbringing so she may not have been familiar with the courante, the formal couple dance repeated several times after the bransles, and she was unlikely to have encountered the English country dances which followed.

Charles II had appointed a royal dancing master, the Frenchman Jerome Francis Gahory, around Christmas 1660. In July 1663, Gahory was sworn as a groom of the Queen’s Privy Chamber. He must have begun teaching the Queen some months earlier, for John Evelyn records a ball at court on 5 February 1663 at which both the King and the Queen danced. On 11 May 1663, the French visitor Balthasar de Monconys wrote of the Queen’s ‘petit bal en privé’ at which ‘L’on commença le bal par un branle comme en France, & ensuite l’on dança des courantes & d’autres danses; le Duc d’York commença avec la Reyne’ adding ‘Quand elle ou le Roy dansoient, toutes les Dames demeuroient debout’. Catherine of Braganza had obviously learnt both the steps and the etiquette of the court ball quickly. Sadly, we have no record of the lessons she must have had (presumably from Gahory) to acquire this new skill.

The first ball to celebrate Queen Catherine’s birthday that we know of took place at Whitehall Palace on 15 November 1666. I have discussed the account by Pepys in another post, ‘The Restoration Court Ball’. There were certainly further birthday balls for the Queen in 1671, 1672, 1673, 1675, 1676, 1677, 1681 and 1684, enough to establish such events within the annual court calendar well into the 18th century. Such accounts as survive of Catherine of Braganza’s birthday balls tend to be brief, particularly those by John Evelyn who usually fails to mention whether or not the Queen danced herself. However, Evelyn’s account of the last ball on 15 November 1684 (when the Queen would have been forty-six) tells us that ‘all the young ladys and gallants daunced in the greate hall’ suggesting that she looked on rather than dancing. He adds that ‘The Court had not been seen so brave and rich in apparell since his Majesty’s Restauration’, presumably the King was there alongside her.

The Queen was also responsible for some more elaborate entertainments with dancing. The ‘Queens’ Ballett’ was given at Whitehall Palace in the mid-1660s but seems to have left no records of its performance. It may have been the event described by Pepys on 2 February 1665, at which Lady Castlemaine and the Duke and Duchess of Monmouth among others (he does not mention the Queen) ‘did dance admirably and most gloriously’. The ‘Queen’s Masque’ given at Whitehall, probably on 20 and 21 February 1671, did leave some evidence. One would-be member of the audience wrote:

‘The Queen is preparing a ball to bee danced in the greate Hall by herself and the Dutchesse of Buckingham, Richmond, Monmouth, Mrs Berkely, and Madame Kerwell the French maid of honor. There are no men of quality but the Duke of Monmouth, all the rest are gentlemen.’

The event did not disappoint, for the writer affirmed that the performers in this grand ballet ‘danced very finely, and shifted their clothes three times’. There is evidence that the music included pieces from the ‘Ballet des Nations’ in Lully and Molière’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, which had been performed at the French court just a few months earlier. The ‘Queen’s Masque’ came a year before the first adaptation of the comédie-ballet reached the London stage in the form of Edward Ravenscroft’s The Citizen Turn’d Gentleman, given at the Dorset Garden Theatre in early 1672. Her lavish entertainment could not compare in scale and ambition with the court masque Calisto, given by young members of the royal family and the court before the King and Queen on 22 February 1675. Calisto, with its English and French professional dancers performing alongside the royal and noble amateurs, undoubtedly affected dancing on the London stage. The Queen’s earlier ballets must surely have influenced dancing at court as well as in the theatre.

Catherine of Braganza is well worth further study as both a dancer and a patron of dancing.

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