A dowry is the money, goods, or estates that a wife brings to her husband at their marriage. The giving of dowries was a common practice in societies around the world and still continues in some countries and amongst certain classes. The ‘golden’ age of dowries was reached in European societies in the 15th to 18th centuries, when royal dowries amounted to colossal fortunes or exchanges of land that could change the course of history.
The wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton was heralded as a decisive break with the past. No matter that the Middletons had amassed a significant fortune from successful business ventures, they were, in the curious world of royal etiquette, commoners. That Kate had been educated at some of the UK’s most exclusive schools was irrelevant – Prince William was marrying outside of the gilded circle of the aristocracy.
But some traditions do not come to an end so easily. The news that Kate’s parents would contribute a ‘substantial’ amount to the cost of holding the wedding was reported around the world as Kate’s ‘six-figure dowry’. Whether this was truly a dowry or, as seems more likely, a nod to austerity and a way of involving the middle-class Middletons, it was a miniscule amount compared with dowries from Britain’s historic royal marriages.
One of the reasons Henry VIII was so keen to marry Catherine of Aragon was so that he could get his hands on the outstanding half of her vast dowry. Catherine had originally married Henry’s older brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales. She had come from Spain with the promise of unimaginable riches – 200,000 escudos. Only half had been paid by the time Arthur died, leaving 100,000 escudos available if Henry married his dead brother’s widow (you can start to see the issues and arguments this would bring later on – have a read of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy starting with Wolf Hall for the full and gripping story).
It is difficult to accurately value 16th century currencies and even harder to convert Spanish currency into English. The escudo was a gold coin and English coins were mainly denominated in silver. Still, 200,000 escudos was worth anything up to £100,000 in 1500 terms. This means that Catherine’s dowry was worth an entire year’s income for the English Crown and government. It was also equal to roughly two years’ imports of treasure from the gold and silver mines of the New World. Put another way, the dowry could pay the wages of up to 40,000 labourers for an entire year.
Perhaps the greatest royal dowry bonanza accompanied Catherine of Braganza upon her marriage to Charles II of England and Scotland. The Portuguese were desperately keen to secure a marriage alliance with the English. It was seen as an excellent way to keep their acquisitive Spanish neighbours at bay. Queen Luiza sent her daughter’s godfather, Francisco de Melo, to London to start negotiations, where he:
“dangled the bait of the richest dowry brought by any Queen of England”.
And what a dowry was offered: on the table were the cities of Tangier, which would give England control of the Mediterranean, and Bombay, a valuable base for trade in India. The territorial offer was substantial enough but was also accompanied by the offer of 2 million cruzados (£300,000) in cash. This cash sum could be equal to between £1 billion and £6 billion in today’s money, using either the ‘economic status’ or ‘economic power’ (i.e. comparative share of GDP) measures.
The marriage treaty was eventually signed on 23 June 1661 and also have the English the right of free trade with Brazil and the East Indies in return for military protection for Portugal if she were attacked by Spain. The marriage revolutionised the British Empire, giving her valuable footholds in India, boosted her commerce with trade in both Latin America and Asia and changed tastes forever - the British liking for everything from sugar and spices to tea has been ascribed to Queen Catherine.
The tea connection is perhaps the most valid. On 25 September 1660, Samuel Pepys recorded that: “afterwards I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before”. This unusual novelty was soon to become far more familiar with Catherine’s arrival on 13 May 1662. Catherine followed the Portuguese taste for the drink and it soon became a royal, then aristocratic and then fashionable fad throughout the kingdom.
Catherine of Braganza was not the only Princess to bring land as a dowry. Both Margaret and Anne of Denmark brought the Islands of Orkney to the Scottish king when they married James III and James VI respectively. The islands had reverted to Denmark on the death of James III, but had been brought back by Anne’s marriage to James VI. Anne also provided the Shetland Islands. Again, territory was not the only benefit of marrying a foreign Princess; Anne’s dowry added £150,000 Scots to the Scottish Crown’s funds.