Christina of Sweden (1626–1689)
Christina of Sweden (1626–1689)
Queen of Sweden and learned ruler who crossed gender boundaries, supported knowledge and art, and fascinated people with her unconventional ways. Name variations: Kristina Augusta Wasa; Christina Maria Alexandra Vasa; Christina Alexandra. Pronunciation: VAH-sa. Born Kristina Augusta Wasa on December 8, 1626 (December 18, by the Gregorian calendar now in use), in Stockholm, Sweden; died in Rome on April 19, 1689 (Gregorian); daughter of Gustavus II Adolphus (1594–1632), king of Sweden (r. 1611–1632), and Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg (1599–1655); never married; probably the most important romantic relationship in Christina's life, though discounted by most biographers writing from 1900s to 1960s, was with Countess Ebba Sparre; no children.
Became queen of Sweden (1632); began to reign (1644); abdicated (1654); moved to Rome (1655).
The astrologers had predicted a son, and King Gustavus II Adolphus, the great Swedish hero, was elated when told of the arrival of his long-awaited heir. Born with the placenta
wrapped around its body, only its head and limbs showing, the baby was covered with hair, its voice loud and vigorous, and in those first moments no one had realized that a girl had been born. When the women attending the birth realized their mistake, they wondered how to break the news to the king. Finally, Catherine , the king's older sister, carried the baby to the father "in such a condition that he could see … for himself what she dared not tell him." The king took his daughter in his arms, saying, "I hope that this girl will be as good as a son to me. I only pray that God will preserve her," then ordered a grand celebration appropriate for a male successor to the throne. Soon after, he laughed, "She will be clever. She took us all in!"
As a matter of fact, Christina of Sweden could inherit the Swedish throne. Written into the pact her great grandfather Gustavus I Vasa had made with the Swedish people was a clause stating that if a king should die without leaving a male heir, the crown could pass to an unmarried daughter. When Christina was one year old, her father had the government explicitly affirm her as his heir, since, as the proclamation said, the idea that a woman could be monarch, writes Christina in her autobiography, was one "not fully understood by many simple people of all degrees."
Christina's mother, Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg , was bitterly disappointed, both that Christina was a girl, and that, being a girl, she was not pretty. Christina always believed that her mother disliked her to the point of wishing her dead; she even blamed her mother for an accident in her infancy that left her with one shoulder higher than the other.
Queen Maria Eleonora loved her husband but found his subjects uncultured and unemotional. The king was away at foreign wars most summers, wars against Russia, Denmark, and Poland. Each time he left, she wept inconsolably, afraid she would never see him again. There was good reason for her fears, for King Gustavus II Adolphus approached war-making with the same zest and skill he showed in the rest of his life, and he had many close calls with enemy bullets and cannonballs. Sometimes, Maria Eleonora followed him to Europe, staying in towns behind the lines, leaving Christina in Stockholm in her Aunt Catherine's care.
When Gustavus Adolphus was home in Sweden, he kept the young princess near him for many hours daily. Since he was a busy king, this probably means that she accompanied him in some of his activities, as he directed the copper mines, saw to the ships, and reviewed the troops. As a boy, he had watched his own father do the work of ruling; this no doubt seemed to him a natural way to learn.
In June of 1630, when Christina was three and a half years old, her father set sail to join a war already underway in Germany. When he left, Christina cried for three days and nights; such grief in so young a child was feared a bad omen. After a year, the queen followed her husband to Europe, leaving her daughter once more in Catherine's care.
The war in Germany was to become the Thirty Years' War, remembered for the devastation it brought the people on whose farms, towns, and cities it was fought. It began as a war of Catholic against Protestant, a war the Catholics were winning. By stepping in to save the Protestant side, the vigorous young king of Sweden gained his country the status of a great European power.
Countess Palatine. Name variations: Katarina; Catherine Vasa. Born on November 19, 1584; died on December 13, 1638; daughter of Charles IX, king of Sweden, and Anna Maria of the Palatinate (1561–1589); half-sister of Gustavus II Adolphus (1594–1632); aunt of Christina of Sweden (1626–1689), queen of Sweden; married John Casimir of Zweibrücken (b. 1589), count Palatine, on June 11, 1615; children: Charles X Gustavus (1622–1660), king of Sweden (r. 1654–1660); Christina Casimir (who married Frederick of Baden-Durlach).
Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg (1599–1655)
Queen of Sweden. Name variations: Maria Eleanora Hohenzollern. Born on November 11, 1599; died on March 28, 1655; daughter of John Sigismund (1572–1619), elector of Brandenburg (r. 1608–1619), and Anna of Prussia ; sister of George William, elector of Brandenburg (r. 1619–1640); married Gustavus II Adolphus (1594–1632), king of Sweden (r. 1611–1632), on November 25, 1620; children: Christine (1623–1624); Christina of Sweden (1626–1689).
To solidify his position with the Protestant north German states, Gustavus married Maria Eleonora, sister of George William, elector of Brandenburg, on November 25, 1620. According to historians, the marriage failed on all counts: not only did it not bring German support for Gustavus' war in Poland, but he and the mentally unbalanced Maria Eleonora never produced a male heir. Sadly, most of what is known of Maria Eleanora is seen through the eyes and writings of her not-so-doting daughter. In the early years, Maria accompanied her husband on Swedish campaigns against Germany.
In December 1632, Christina had been living for a year and a half with her aunt's family, which included several cousins near her own age. On the evening of her sixth birthday, the fateful news arrived from Germany that Gustavus Adolphus had been killed in battle. Christina was now the queen of Sweden. "I was such a child," she tells us, "that I knew neither my misfortune nor my fortune." But she remembers how enchanted she was when all the household came to kneel before her and kiss her hand, even her uncle, and later the mayor.
For six months, Christina enjoyed her life as queen. She writes proudly of the dignity with which she received a Russian delegation. But in July, her mother returned, bringing the king's body. This began a time that Christina was to recall with horror. Maria Eleonora had ignored her child previously, whereas now she nearly suffocated her. Christina looked like her father; the grieving queen fastened on her, keeping her constantly with her in rooms that were draped for mourning in black velvet, shutting out all light and air. At night, the two of them slept in a bed at whose head hung a small gold casket containing her father's heart. Maria Eleonora wept constantly and spent long hours with the embalmed body displayed in state in the great hall. Aunt Catherine was sent away. It was a full year before the old king was finally buried in Stockholm.
Christina's main source of pleasure and escape were the hours she spent at her studies. She was a good student and liked her tutors, especially
Johannes Matthiae. He had been her father's chaplain and was now her preceptor, in charge of her moral development. He was kind and open-minded, unlike many of the Swedish Lutheran clergy of the day, and he won the suspicious child's trust. She also liked and trusted Axel Banér, her governor, who had been her father's intimate friend. Gustavus Adolphus had left some unusual instructions for his daughter's education: she was to be raised as a boy in every respect, even to physical training. She was to be taught nothing of womanly ways, "except modesty and virtue." This plan "agreed wonderfully with my own inclinations," Christina writes. She learned languages, literature, mathematics, astronomy, geography, politics, history, and, what is probably unique for a girl in her times, learned to "handle any weapon passably well." She became a first-rate rider and an excellent shot.
To be obliged to obey none is a greater happiness than to command the whole world.
—Queen Christina of Sweden
During Christina's minority, the work of ruling the country was handled by a High Council of nobles headed by Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna. Dedicated to preserving the old king's dynasty, Oxenstierna was a superb diplomat who "knew the strengths and weaknesses of every European state." He spent several hours a day with the young queen, passing on as much as he could of political wisdom. He had returned from Europe, where the war still raged on, when Christina was nine years old. Seeing at once the harm inflicted on Christina by her mother, he forced the old queen to move away from Stockholm, many miles up Lake Mälaren to Gripsholm Castle. Aunt Catherine again became Christina's guardian, moving with her family to the Three Crowns Castle where Christina lived. For a while, two girl cousins shared Christina's lessons; she once wrote to her uncle complaining that one of them giggled too much.
Already, as a child, Christina had begun to have serious questions about the religion in which she was being raised. When six years old, she heard a terrifying sermon on the Last Judgment: the end of the world, the preacher said, could come at any moment; everyone caught unprepared would be cast into the tortures of hell. Emerging from church crying, Christina ran to her preceptor, demanding, "Why has no one ever told me about this terrible day? Will it come in the night tonight?" Matthiae reassured her, "It will come. But don't worry about it. Just be good and obey your teachers, and you will go to paradise." This reply, she writes, "stirred up reflections in my mind that I shall never forget; for one of my age they were out of the ordinary." Three times she listened to the annual sermon, feeling a little less frightened, and a bit more skeptical on each hearing. Then she asked Matthiae frankly if religion were not all just fables, "like this famous Day of Judgment which never comes." Shocked, Matthiae threatened her with a beating if she said anything of the kind again. "I promise I will never again say anything like that," she told him icily, "for I do not want a beating. I also assure you that if you did have me beaten, you would later regret it." Unable to completely trust her thoughts to anyone, Christina tells us she was "unbelievably secretive," a trait she would make good use of later.
When Christina was ten, a French dancing master arrived at court, and she and her cousins began lessons in the new art of ballet. She studied and exercised for 12 hours a day. At age 11, her heroes were Julius Caesar, Cyrus, and especially Alexander the Great. She dreamed of outshining her own father just as Alexander had surpassed his. It was useless for her ladies-in-waiting or her foster mother to try to teach her stitchery or ladylike decorum; she had, she writes, "an invincible antipathy to all women are and say."
Several people close to Christina died during her early adolescence, including her Aunt Catherine. When Christina was 15, she became secretly engaged to marry Catherine's son Charles (X), four years older than herself. She cared for his hunting dogs and wrote dutiful love letters while he was away studying at the university, taking the grand tour of Europe, and training to be a soldier. She began to attend meetings of the High Council, listening and learning. On her 18th birthday, Christina became the ruler of Sweden in fact, as well as in name.
The winter also witnessed the arrival at court of a new lady-in-waiting. Though the same age as Christina, the recently orphaned Ebba Sparre had been placed under her protection. Soon, the two were constant companions and bedmates. At that time, bedmates were common in Sweden, for the nights were often cold. But from the few surviving letters Christina wrote to Ebba much later, it is clear that from the beginning Christina was in love with her, and that her love was probably returned. By all accounts, Ebba was beautiful, and Christina's pet name for her was "Belle."
Perhaps it was both Christina's assuming the royal power and the coming of Belle that contributed to her decision not to marry Charles. When he returned to Stockholm, she informed him that she had changed her mind and did not consider herself bound by promises made when she was hardly more than a girl. Afterwards, Christina did have a succession of male "favorites," whose friendship she valued and whose interests she forwarded. Popular opinion often linked her to them romantically, especially to the young noble, Magnus De la Gardie, and later to the Spanish ambassador, Pimentel. The truth of these rumors is not known. What is clear is that Belle was by Christina's side for all the years she ruled.
As monarch, Christina's first efforts went toward halting the wars in Europe that her country had been waging all her life, depleting its population and resources. She first urged Chancellor Oxenstierna to conclude a truce with Denmark, which he did. Then she turned her attentions to the stalled peace negotiations among the combatants in the Thirty Years' War. She insisted that Sweden drop its excessive demands and offer terms the enemy could accept. It took nearly four years, but in 1648 the Peace of Westphalia earned Christina the gratitude of her own suffering people, and that of much of Europe. She was, however, happy that peace had been delayed long enough for her troops to capture Rudolph II's castle in Prague, sending her its incomparable booty of art treasures, scientific instruments, rare books, even a lion. The queen feasted her delighted eyes on the rich colors of the painters of Italy such as Titian and Correggio.
Christina slept only three or four hours a night, waking early in order to have time to read and study before taking up the rounds of royal duties and pleasures that occupied her days and evenings. She gathered around her a distinguished circle of scholars, collected books and art works and news of the cultures to the south, and bought one of Pascal's calculating machines. She even succeeded in bringing the famous René Descartes to Sweden to talk philosophy. Unfortunately, she could only see him at five o'clock in the morning. In the depths of the Swedish winter, Descartes caught pneumonia and died.
There were strains between Christina and her subjects. The Swedes at court often resented the foreigners (some of them Catholic) she brought to Stockholm. Too, she often shocked with her unorthodox ways: she swore notably, wore men's jackets, hats, and comfortable flat shoes, and enjoyed nude paintings. She was even rumored to have doubts about religion. Christina spent a great deal of money on her rare books, collections, scholars, and on the elaborate ballets she staged and often danced in herself in her new theater. She also gave away crown lands to her friends and favorites. Thus, taxes were as high as in wartime.
Above all, there was the question of Christina's marriage, and the need for an heir, so that the country might avoid civil war. Over the years, she had several inquiries from European princes who sought such an attractive alliance; but she found she could not imagine marrying anyone. Gradually, she convinced the government that she wouldn't marry and persuaded them to declare her cousin Charles heir to the throne. In the midst of all this, Christina continued to study, reading omnivorously and learning new languages; she eventually knew nine, and something of two or three more. In Europe, she was becoming famous, the young woman who was Sweden's "philosopher king," "the Diana of the North."
Christina was strong and vigorous, enjoyed hunting, and was able to walk or ride for ten hours at a stretch. But her body frequently gave out. She sometimes fainted and had monthly spells of pain, sickness, and severe headache, in addition to bouts with serious diseases such as measles and pleurisy. When she was 21, a malarial fever brought Christina so near death that she formed the resolution to abdicate. It took her six more years to work out the details and to be sure in her own mind: How would she support herself? Where would she live? How would she get the country to agree? But in June of 1654, in a solemn ceremony, she lifted the crown from her own head.
Christina headed south. Near the border with Denmark, she cut her hair and donned men's clothes, entering Europe at first disguised as "Count von Dohna." Belle stayed behind. Though Ebba had married, she had continued as companion and bedmate. From Belgium, Christina wrote, saying how much she missed her. Then, the queen, for so she continued to be called, traveled to Hamburg, Amsterdam, and Brussels, enjoying life and soaking up culture. Within 18 months, she converted to Catholicism—much to the shock of her former subjects—and moved to Rome. She also changed her name from Kristina Augusta Wasa to Christina Maria Alexandra Vasa and was thereafter known as Christina Alexandra. Whether or not her conversion was sincere has been debated ever since. She once remarked, "After all, one must have some religion or other. But as for me, my religion is that of the philosophers."
Christina probably chose to live in Rome to avoid living on any other monarch's territory. Rome was a great center of culture and learning, where so many of the heroes of her youth had walked, from Caesar to Marcus Aurelius. She also hoped Rome would be more open to new ideas than was her native land; but she soon learned that most popes were not like the freethinking Catholics who had sought her out in Sweden.
Still, she was able to find like-minded souls in Rome, particularly Cardinal Decio Azzolino. They may have been lovers for a while (there are letters in which Christina sounds like a rejected lover). Eventually, however, they became dear and lifelong friends. Christina put her political skills to work on various schemes, some more admirable than others. She cultivated peace between Spain and France. She dreamed of a united Europe where there would be freedom of religion. She also plotted to make herself the ruler of Naples and later applied for the throne of Poland when it became vacant. She argued for raising a new crusade against the advancing Turks. With Azzolino, she schemed to elect liberal popes. Once she ordered a man put to death, one of her retinue who had betrayed her plans for Naples. Legally, as a sort of "queen-at-large," she had the right to do so; but it did shock people.
Eventually, Christina settled down to be what she had left Sweden to become, the queen of the arts and sciences. She is remembered as a patron of artists, astronomers, composers, singers, alchemists, philosophers, actors, archaeologists, and assorted rogues. The sculptor Bernini, the composer Scarlatti, and the astronomer Cassini were among those she befriended and supported. She founded a public theater. Over the years, she led several "academies," where thinkers gathered to discuss philosophical questions; they met in her palace, which was a virtual temple to the arts, or in her large hillside garden. At the top of the hill was an astronomical observatory; her basement harbored an alchemical laboratory. Christina had fine collections of ancient Roman statues and of paintings by the Italian masters. The best singers and musicians in Rome made music in her halls and gardens. Remarkably free from some of the prejudices of her contemporaries, she had many Jews for friends, and near the end of her life declared all the Jews of the Roman ghetto to be under her protection.
Christina has been seen as male-identified and not a feminist. She believed that women rarely made good rulers: "Their virtues make them unfit to rule, as well as their faults," she said. It's true she preferred the company of men, with whom she could discuss the things that interested her, from military strategy to philosophy. She once said, "It's not that I like so much that they are men; but at least they are not women!" On the other hand, from Sweden, she had corresponded enthusiastically with some of the précieuses, a circle of educated, aristocratic French women who urged women not to marry. She was very taken with her visitor Madame de Brégy , who walked the streets of Stockholm in men's clothing, even when she was clearly pregnant. After Christina abdicated, she visited the scholar Anna Maria van Schurmann , and she wanted to meet Descartes' friend, the philosopher Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia (1596–1662), though, unbelievably, considerations of protocol prevented this. In Rome, she made retreats in nunneries and liked to read Catherine of Genoa .
In her late 40s, Christina studied quietism, a Catholic form of mysticism that stressed simple meditation and the seeking of inner guidance. Her outer life, however, remained anything but quiet; and she was involved in controversies to the end.
When Christina died in 1689, age 62, she was buried in St. Peter's Cathedral, wearing a silver mask, a replica of her face. She also left us her image in paintings, engravings, coins, and medals, and her thoughts in letters, maxims, an unfinished autobiography, and in notes scribbled down the margins of her books. Her life spanned Renaissance Sweden through Baroque Rome and has left a unique record of a woman who used both privilege and strength of character to challenge the parameters of "woman" in her time.
Åkerman, Susanna. Queen Christina of Sweden and Her Circle: The Transformation of a Seventeenth-Century Philosophical Libertine. NY: E.J. Brill, 1991.
Clarke, M.L. "The Making of a Queen: The Education of Christina of Sweden," in History Today. Vol. 28, 1978, pp. 228–235.
Goldsmith, Margaret. Christina of Sweden: A Psychological Biography. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1933.
MacKenzie, Faith Compton. The Sibyl of the North: The Tale of Christina, Queen of Sweden. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.
Masson, Georgina. Queen Christina. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968.
Rodén, Marie Louise. Queen Christina of Sweden at Rome, 1655–1689. Rome: Biblioteca Apostilica Vaticana, 1989.
Stolpe, Sven. Christina of Sweden. Edited by Eric Randall, translated by Eric Randall and Ruth Mary Bethell. NY: Macmillan, 1966.
Queen Christina (97 min.), film starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, M-G-M, 1933.
The Abdication, film starring Liv Ullmann , Harvey, 1974.
Papers located at Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Archivio Storico Communali, Jesi, and Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Rome; Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; Bibliothèque de l' école de médecine de Montpellier, Montpellier; Bodleian Library, Oxford; British Library, London; Kunglia Biblioteket, and Riksarkivet, Stockholm; Uppsala Universitets Bibliotek, Uppsala.
Tangren Alexander , a philosopher at Southern Oregon State College, who is currently working on a historical novel about Christina, Her Majesty, The King