Tea is an indelible part of British culture.
A bowler hat, a posh accent telling one to “carry on,” and a cuppa are all stereotypical images of British identity. However, it turns out that tea is not be as inherently British as you may have imagined.
Although it’s relatively common knowledge that we have the Chinese to thank for tea, it was actually a Portuguese woman named Catherine of Braganza who popularized the beverage in England.
In 1662, Catherine (who was the daughter of Portugal’s King John IV) married Britain’s King Charles II. Catherine was specifically chosen for her father’s connections — key ports in Tangiers and Bombay — and wealth. In addition to the ports, Catherine’s dowry included several trunks of luxury items popular with the Portuguese aristocracy, including several crates of loose leaf tea, according to BBC.
Portugal, unlike Britain, had a direct trade route to China via Macau through which they were able to easily import the product. And it’s not that the British weren’t drinking tea around this time, it’s just that it wasn’t very fashionable — and, because of the trade routes, it was quite expensive.
However, when Catherine arrived in the U.K., she continued drinking tea every day. The royal court quickly adopted the pastime and other members of the aristocracy followed suit.
It was an expensive habit to uphold, though. Not only was the tea itself costly, it was only ever served in porcelain cups, following the Chinese tradition. (Portugal was one of the routes through which porcelain was brought to Europe.)
One year after Catherine’s arrival in Britain, the poet Edmund Waller wrote a poem in honor of her birthday, including the lines, “Venus her Myrtle, Phoebus has his bays / Tea both excels, which she vouchsafes to praise.”
The East India Company increased the amount of tea it was importing, and as the price decreased, the beverage quickly trickled down to the masses. It took time, but eventually the herbal drink was democratized for all Brits.
More than 300 years after Catherine’s introduction, it’s estimated that the British now drink about 165 million cups of tea every day.