Who Put the Queen in “Queens”?
By Katie Uva
Each of the boroughs has its own naming history. The Bronx is named after early settler Jonas Bronck. Brooklyn comes from a Dutch word meaning “marsh” or “broken land.” Manhattan derives from a Lenape word which has been translated variously as “land of many hills,” and, more recently, “the place where we get wood for bows.” Henry Hudson himself is said to have named Staten Island Staaten Eylandt, after the Staaten Generaal, the Dutch parliament.
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.
Being a monarch is not all fun and games and having boroughs named after you, though. Catherine of Braganza was a controversial figure in England. She was a Portuguese princess; in negotiating the marriage England gained control of Bombay and Tangier, trading privileges in Brazil and the East Indies, plus a large cash dowry. In exchange, the Portuguese were granted British support against Spain and religious freedom for Catherine. Catherine, being Portuguese, was a devout Catholic, and this left her vulnerable in England, where long-simmering tensions between Catholics and Protestants had caused much bloodshed and political unrest.
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.
Catherine’s problems were compounded when she failed to produce an heir to the throne. She suffered several miscarriages, and this only added fuel to the fire of those who hoped the king would divorce her for a Protestant, child-bearing woman. Anti-Catholics accused her servants of killing Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, and Titus Oates, the originator of the specious and virulently anti-Catholic Popish Plot, accused Catherine herself of trying to poison the king. However, the plot was ultimately foiled, Catherine was vindicated, and Titus Oates was briefly imprisoned and permanently discredited.
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 did earn the admiration of the famous English diarist Samuel Pepys. According to Pepys, “Catherine lived in her husband’s court as Lot lived in Sodom. She did justly, and loved mercy, and walked humbly with her God in the midst of a seething corruption and iniquity only equaled, perhaps, in the history of Imperial Rome.” For the most part, however, she lived a difficult life, during a time of great political instability in which she was repeatedly misunderstood and criticized for her devout Catholicism.
Catherine’s legacy remains contested to this day, but for different reasons. In 1988, a plan was set in motion to erect a 35-foot tall statue of Catherine in Hunters Point, facing the UN across the river. If this plan had come to fruition, it would have been the second tallest statue in New York City, after the Statue of Liberty. However, the plan soon ran into numerous kinds of opposition. Queens historian Stanley Cogan told The Queens Tribune that many resented the fact that Catherine would face Manhattan, “and all Hunters Point and Queens would get was her backside.” Residents of Irish descent opposed a monument to a British monarch being placed so close to Calvary Cemetery. Others resisted erecting a monument to a Portuguese princess, firmly stating that they were “not going to sit idly by and let them erect a statue to honor a person who benefited from the slave trade.” To this day, the statue has not been built, although a smaller version stands in Lisbon.
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.