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Ann Russell, Catherine Braganza
  A History of Tea

From Catherine Braganza to Ann Russell:
A Timeline of The Afternoon Tea Culture

The tradition of afternoon tea as a meal and social occasion has been around since the early 1800s, thanks to Ann Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford. However, the origin of tea-drinking in Britain can be traced to the mid-1650s. Although tea drinking has become inextricably linked with Englishness, there is nothing less British than a cup of tea, given that tea is made from plants grown in China, India or Africa and usually sweetened by sugar from the Caribbean. It is in fact one of the extraordinary ironies of Britain's national identity.


Catherine Braganza: the Tea-Drinking Queen

Potuguese and Dutch traders began importing tea from China to Europe in the early 1600's. However, it didn't arrive on British shores until the mid-1650's. The first advertisement for tea appeared in the British Weekly magazine : The Mercurius Politicus in September 1658.

The history of the afternoon tea concept is an intriguing one. Initially tea in Europe was considered a medicine, found only in apothecary shops and it was an expensive commodity. Soon tea was sold in coffeehouses - small restaurants where coffee and tea were served. They became popular meeting places for people (mostly men) who would gather to discuss politics, business and the like. As well as serving the beverage, the coffeehouse owners also began selling tea as dry loose leaves. The men would buy large quantities to take home to their wives, at a time when women were neither permitted to enter coffeehouses nor roam the streets unaccompanied.

In 1662, Charles II of England married Portuguese Princess Catherine Braganza. Both were confirmed tea drinkers; Charles II had been living in exile in the Dutch capital since childhood, and it was Catherine's preferred beverage of all time. She and her husband soon helped spread tea culture to the upper echelons of society.  Consuming tea now became associated with royalty and the upper class.

The teas brought to Europe from Asia were of inferior quality and taste, and most Europeans did not know how to brew them properly to extract the best flavours.

Catherine of Braganza knew exactly which teas were the best and taught the English ladies at court how to brew tea that was quite pleasurable to drink. We must remember that tea, at this point in history, was taken green without milk or sugar and thus was indeed bitter in taste. Her advice was much needed; mistakes were made by many in its preparation. It was believed that a member of the Aristocracy sent some of these delightful tea leaves to his relatives in Scotland thinking that they would know what to do. They then ventured to boil the whole lot in a saucepan, discarding the water and served the leaves as greens with butter and anchovies. They undoubtedly wondered what all the fuss was about!

Thanks to Catherine Braganza, attitudes to alcohol slowly began to change in an age when both ladies and gentlemen, at all times of the day, stupefied their brains with ale wine and spirits. Thanks to Catherine Braganza's influence, tea was to become the British Aristocracy's preferred drink.

Catherine Braganza set the example of having tea at home. Indeed, tea was consumed in her bedchamber or closet where she

Catherine Braganza tea drinking queen of England
Anne Russell portrait drinking tea at Woburn Abbey

would invite her friends to gather. The tea itself and teaware were not kept in kitchens or dining rooms, as we would expect, but rather in these small closets, also known as boudoirs, under lock and key.

With Ann Russell, Tea became an Afternoon Meal and Social Event.


It is said that Anne Russell pioneered the idea of afternoon tea as a meal and a social event in 1840.  Luncheon was a light meal taken around noon and dinner wasn’t served until 8 o’clock at night leaving a long gap between the two meals. The Duchess would become rather peckish around four o'clock in the afternoon and asked that tea, bread and butter and cake be brought to her bedchamber. The afternoon snack gave her a much-needed energy boost and kept her going until dinner.

Thanks to Ann Russell, it soon became a popular pastime within her circle of friends, and the gatherings moved away from the bedchamber to the drawing rooms and conservatories of the British Aristocracy. As it gained in favour, so did it in respectability.

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