Of all the boroughs, none has as vague a name as Queens. It doesn’t hearken back to a city or governing body in Europe. It’s not named after an enterprising settler. It gives no sense of the area’s native origins or defining geographical features. It’s just plain Queens.
Yet as it turns out, Queens is named after a person, and a rather interesting person at that. Despite not bearing her actual name, Queens is named after Catherine of Braganza, who was Queen of England in 1683, when Queens was established as one of the twelve original counties of New York. Kings County (Brooklyn) was named after her husband, King Charles II, and Richmond County (Staten Island) was named for Charles’ son, the Duke of Richmond.
Still, she ascended the throne as Charles II’s queen, and while he protected her from criticism and even conspiracies to depose her, he also offended her deeply by consorting with his mistress, Lady Castlemaine. When he decided to make Lady Castlemaine mistress of Catherine’s bedchamber, Catherine is said to have fainted at the insult. Charles overcame her resistance by dismissing her entire Portuguese retinue, effectively isolating her in a largely hostile court.
Despite the many problems she faced as Queen, Catherine does seem to have had a strong political relationship with Charles, who repeatedly defended her against her detractors. She also had a major cultural impact on England, as she is believed to have popularized tea-drinking, a tradition she brought with her from Portugal. She is also known for her love of picnics, dancing, and archery, her taste for shorter, ankle-revealing dresses, and possibly for introducing the personal table fork to England.
Catherine survived Charles II and continued to live in England through the reign of James II, a Catholic, and William of Orange, a Protestant who deposed James during the Glorious Revolution. While William of Orange did not specifically oppress Catherine, his reign ushered in renewed anti-Catholic sentiment, banned Catholics from the British monarchy (a practice that continues to this day), and deeply undermined the role Catholics could play in British society. Ultimately, Catherine returned to Portugal, where she lived out her remaining years. She died in Lisbon in 1705.
Catherine of Braganza’s life touches on many major issues of the 17th century. Her marriage was an effort to expand trade for England and protect Portuguese military interests. Her arrival in England quickly turned sour against a backdrop of simmering anti-Catholic sentiment. She lived through three monarchies, one attempted uprising, and one successful uprising. Even in modern times, the controversy about her statue points to her many political roles and the multifaceted criticism of European imperialism. Despite the stalemate surrounding her statue, the borough itself stands as a proud legacy, with its history of diversity and religious tolerance that Catherine herself might have found a welcome relief.
Katie Uva is a Ph.D. candidate at The Graduate Center, Educator at the Museum of the City of New York, and Associate Editor of Gotham.
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