Part 2 of a History of Tea
In the last history of tea, we looked at its origins (spoiler: it came from China and then travelled to India) and how we went from a 2700BC botanist having leaves fall in his hot water, to those in the UK enjoying their morning cuppa. In this blog, we’re going to take a look at how tea was introduced to the high society 17th century Britain by a very rich foreign princess.
Not much has been written about tea in the UK before the 17th century. But thanks to the wonderful Samuel Pepys (who kept a diary throughout his life and gave us invaluable insights into London during the time of the plague and the Great Fire of London) we first see a written mention of tea in his diary entry for 25 September 1660. He wrote that he had been discussing foreign affairs with some friends, ‘and afterwards did send for a Cupp of Tee (a China drink) of which I never drank before’.
At this point in history, Portuguese traders regularly imported tea to their homeland from the East. The high price of tea meant it soon became very fashionable in aristocratic circles and at the royal courts. Tea had also gained popularity in elite society in Holland. Thanks to the famous Dutch East India trading company bringing in tea from India and China. But Britain was yet to catch up.
The Royal Union
That all changed when the British monarch Charles II married the wealthy Portuguese princess Catherine. After much negotiation, it was agreed that her father King John IV of Portugal would provide with her several ships full of luxury goods – an extravagant dowry. Charles II was in a lot of debt at the time. So it was decided some of these gifts would be sold to pay off what he owed. But Catherine wanted to keep one very special item – a chest full of tea. Tea had fast become the favourite drink at the Portuguese court thanks to the princess’ addiction. Thanks to her it had become a fashionable fad at the royal court. Soon spreading to aristocratic circles and the wealthier classes.
Bombay (now called Mumbai), in India, was another of the gifts to Charles II in Catherine’s dowry. Imagine giving your new son-in-law an entire PORT TOWN as a gift?! Back then the port was the Far East trading headquarter for the East India Company. Who paid an annual rent of £10 in gold. When, in 1664, the Company opened its first trading point in Macau, the merchants sent a silver case of tea and cinnamon oil as a gift to Charles II and Queen Catherine. The news got out and bit by bit the upper classes of the UK were slowly getting a taste of the good stuff!
Although we have this foreign princess to thank for the development of the British taste for tea, unfortunately, the marriage of Queen Catherine and Charles II was not a happy union. Never mind. At least the princess already knew that a nice cup of tea makes everything better.
And the rest is history
As time went on tea became a popular drink with those who could afford it. The East India trading company kept the prices higher to keep the product elite. But as we will discover in the next blog this didn’t go down too well with the working classes who wanted a brew too. In the next instalment of British histor-tea, we’ll be looking at how by the eighteenth century the general UK public went to great measures to reduce the price of tea and make it the affordable and quality brew we all enjoy today.
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