Unlocking hidden gems: A trunk fit for a queen

By Sophie Towne

We have had another marvellous discovery at the Norfolk Collections Centre in the form of an ornately studded leather trunk.

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For several months we (the Shine a Light team) had passed this chest on the roller racking. We were mostly preoccupied with re-packing fireplaces and fire screens and constructing early 20th century wardrobes. Nevertheless we noted that this trunk must be something special but it had to wait in line for its turn to be audited like everything else! All objects are equal here at the Norfolk Collections Centre whether you’re a toilet or an aeroplane wing! Finally it came to the trunk’s day of reckoning. The accession number was jotted down and checked on MODES (our collections database). So imagine our surprise to find out from the object records that the chest in question dated from the 17th century and once belonged to Queen Catherine of Braganza shown in the portrait below, wife to King Charles II.

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Catherine of Braganza was born on 25th November 1638 and became Queen of England (Queen Consort) in 1662 upon her marriage to Charles II. Norfolk Museums Service has a cushion cover commemorating the union. Catherine came from the noble House of Braganza which became the Royal House of Portugal when her father was crowned King of Portugal in 1640 following a rebellion over Spanish rule in Portugal.

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Catherine had some difficult times during her life in England. She was a devout Roman Catholic in a Protestant country and came under considerable pressures because of her religion. She was subjected to attack by the inventors of the ‘Popish Plot’. Accused of ordering her servants to murder Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey (what a fabulous name!) and wrongly accused of conspiring to poison the King. She was forced to stand trial in June 1679 but she was protected by the King who was steadfast in his loyalty to his wife (despite his philandering). Charles II was a notorious womaniser yet he stayed devoted to his wife despite her apparent inability to produce an heir and calls for him to divorce.

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Certainly Queen Catherine had a most fascinating, yet little known and researched, life. She lived through the plague of London and the Great Fire of London in 1666. She has also been credited with popularising the custom of tea drinking in Britain. Imagine what might have been stored in this trunk in the 17th century or what it might have witnessed in Catherine of Braganza’s rooms.

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The hinged trunk is made from wood with a leather facing adorned by a brass-studded design covering its entirety in a swirled pattern. The lid of the chest is initialled with ‘K.R.’ with a crown above. It is an ornate chest with detail even on the pull handles of the drawers. It has a large central lock opened with an amazing embellished key which reveals a plush red lining inside. It is surely a trunk fit for a Queen.

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So did Catherine of Braganza have any Norfolk connections which might explain her trunk ending up here? Well, she did visit Norfolk in 1671 when Robert Paston hosted Charles II and Catherine at Oxnead Hall. The trunk itself was donated to the museum in 1992 from the then owners of Hautbois Hall in Norfolk. I’m sure the trunk looked right at home in the Tudor manor house!

After Charles II’s death in 1685, Catherine spent many years attempting to live quietly at Somerset House, London. She finally returned to Portugal in 1699 where until her death she took over the care and education of the young Prince John of Braganza who was to become King John V of Portugal. Evidently she left her exquisite trunk behind in Norfolk.

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