It took a queen to introduce the drink to the English.
When you think of a British person, you might first imagine Queen Elizabeth II in one of her fancy matching dress suits and an elaborate hat. Once that imagine dissipates you might then picture a man in a tweed jacket, smoking a pipe, and in his hand, a steaming cup of tea. “Tea is so utterly English, such an ingrained part of the culture, that it’s also ingrained in how everyone else around the world perceives that culture,” Billie Cohen writes, for the BBC. But how did the British empire become so obsessed with this drink? Cohen has the answer.
First, Cohen credits the Chinese with introducing tea to the Western world. Then comes the big reveal: It was actually the Portuguese who made the drink popular in England. Back in 1662, a woman named Catherine of Braganza, daughter of Portugal’s King John IV, became Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland following her marriage to the monarch at the time, Charles II. She brought with her a dowry that included—among her fortune—spices from Tangiers and Bombay. Included in that cache spices, and tucked away inside her personal belongings as well, was loose-leaf tea—urban legend says that the crate containing the tea was marked Transporte de Ervas Aromaticas, or Transport of Aromatic Herbs, later abbreviated as T.E.A.
Cohen admits that that part of the story likely isn’t true, but what is true is that tea was already a popular drink in Portugal among the aristocracy (the country had a direct trade route with China), and Catherine was no exception. She sipped tea regularly for pleasure. In England, her new home, tea was only consumed as a medicine, but the queen set the trends of the time, and the fashionable ladies of the day were eager to emulate Catherine’s habits. Soon, tea became associated with the country’s social elite, and eventually spread throughout the kingdom, where “the lower classes transformed tea into a more egalitarian drink.”
For tea lovers and Anglophiles alike, the BBC's thorough account is a valuable history lesson and a surprising origin story behind one of the most ingrained aspects of English culture.