Willums, Sigbrit (fl. 1507–1523)

views updated

Willums, Sigbrit (fl. 1507–1523)

Powerful figure in Danish history as counsellor to King Christian II and mother of his royal mistress . Name variations: Sigbrit Villoms; Sigbrit Villems; Sibrecht Willumsdatter; Mother Sigbrit. Birth and death dates unknown; flourished in Danish history from 1507 to 1523, as counsellor to King Christian II and mother of Dyveke, his royal mistress.

Sigbrit Willums was a bright and enterprising Dutch woman who, with her young daughter, arrived in Norway in the early 1500s. There she obtained a license to sell bakery goods (or fish) from a booth at the harbor, or, as some historians maintain, run a tavern. She had been a tradeswoman in Holland as well, a seller of apples and nuts. Sources unanimously describe her as fat and ugly, sharp tongued and unafraid to speak the cause of poor and downtrodden farmers and traders. Although not born to nobility, she could read and write, and she taught her daughter both skills.

Neither talent for business nor intellectual prowess, however, accounts for her introduction into Danish history. That distinction she owes her daughter, a beautiful, gentle girl, called Dyveke (little dove). Dyveke attracted the attention of young King Christian II (1481–1559), who as viceroy of Norway made a trip to Bergen in 1507. He invited the girl and her mother to a ball at Bergen's town hall and negotiated with the latter an extended stay for the former. When Christian returned to Oslo, he tarried only long enough to build a stone house across from the royal palace before arranging for Dyveke and Sigbrit Willums to move in.

When Christian's father, King Hans, died in 1513, Christian was called to Copenhagen to assume the duties of king of Denmark-Norway. Dyveke and Sigbrit followed and moved into a royal manor north of Copenhagen. Contemporary historians note how Copenhagen citizens would gather at the city gates in the evening to see their king and master ride to the embrace of his beloved and, as they were to learn, seek the advice of her mother in matters of state.

For three years, the king kept up his nightly rides even after, in 1515, he had succumbed to increasing pressure from his Council of the Realm and the queen dowager to marry a foreign princess and secure an heir to the throne. No amount of pressure, however, could make him abandon his passion for Dyveke and his need for Sigbrit's counsel. Quite the contrary. He bought a house for them on the main street in Copenhagen, only a few blocks from the royal palace, and continued his visits. The subsequent scandal is easily imagined. Christian had married Elisabeth of Habsburg , granddaughter of Emperor Maximilian and sister of the future Charles V, and her mighty relatives were furious at Christian's obstinacy and breach of etiquette. To be tolerated, a king's mistress should be of noble blood, and the king himself was expected to carry out the duties of a husband even as he maintained his bachelor habits. Two years went by before Elisabeth showed visible signs of receiving Christian's sexual attentions. She was pregnant with her first child when Dyveke died very suddenly in the summer of 1517—allegedly from eating poisoned cherries, although modern historians have theorized that appendicitis caused her sudden demise.

By then Christian was tied with seemingly unbreakable bonds of loyalty and respect to Sigbrit, who between 1518 and 1523 became the king's most prominent and increasingly visible counsellor. Initially, their discussions took place in private, but by and by she would appear in the royal chancellery to dictate letters either on behalf of the king or herself. Extensive national and international correspondence kept her informed of happenings inside and outside of Denmark, and at times of the king's absence, she was his representative in negotiations with foreign secretaries of state. She was considered a clever negotiator, quick of wit, and well acquainted with the questions and problems at issue. She knew when to insist and when to yield and knew how and when to push the queen to the foreground to their reciprocal political advantage.

Dyveke (c. 1491–1517)

Paramour of Christian II . Name variations: (Dutch) Duiveke; Little Dove. Born around 1491; died suddenly, possibly poisoned, possibly of appendicitis, in the summer of 1517, age 26; daughter of Sigbrit Willums (fl. 1507–1523); mistress of Christian II (1481–1559), king of Denmark and Norway (r. 1513–1523).

Elisabeth of Habsburg (1501–1526)

Queen of Denmark and Norway . Name variations: Elisabeth of Hapsburg; Elizabeth of the Netherlands; Isabella or Isabel of Spain; Isabella Habsburg; Ysabeau. Born on July 18, 1501; died on January 19, 1526 (some sources cite 1525); daughter of Juana la Loca (1479–1555) and Philip I the Fair (or Philip the Handsome), archduke of Austria, king of Castile and Leon (r. 1506, son of Maximilian I, Holy Roman emperor); sister of Charles V, Holy Roman emperor (r. 1519–1556), Mary of Hungary (1505–1558), Ferdinand I, Holy Roman emperor (r. 1558–1564), and Eleanor of Portugal (1498–1558); married Christian II (1481–1559), king of Denmark and Norway (r. 1513–1523), on August 12, 1515; children: John (b. 1518); twins Maximilian and Philipp (b. 1519); Dorothea of Denmark (1520–1580, who married Frederick II, elector Palatine); Christina of Denmark (1521–1590, who married Francesco Maria Sforza, duke of Milan, and Francis I, duke of Lorraine).

The question of how a foreign-born woman could gain such great influence over the monarch of a country other than her own may be answered in terms of shared interests and mutual ambitions. Both resented and distrusted the nobility and wanted their curtailment. Christian had inherited those sentiments from his father, King Hans, who had maintained that Denmark's welfare depended on industrious farmers and merchants rather than arrogant, power-hungry nobles. As a demonstration of this attitude, Hans had sent his son, the crown prince, to be reared in the home of a Copenhagen bookbinder where he might learn to value the life and work of common people. Christian had learned his lesson well and as viceroy of Norway shown himself a friend of the burghers. The Danish nobles, therefore, made him sign a coronation charter granting the Council of the Realm control of the country and granting men of nobility sole right to office under the crown. Sigbrit shared Christian's dislike of the nobles. A daughter of the people and a self-made woman, she loathed the arrogant ways of those whose inherited wealth had been amassed at the expense of working men and women like her. Against this common enemy, Christian and Sigbrit formulated and implemented their plans for Denmark's future based on government reforms and free trade, favoring the burghers and modelled on self-sufficient, flourishing Holland.

At Sigbrit's instigation, Christian encouraged foreign businesses to invest in Danish trade and advertised for successful merchants to settle in Copenhagen which he envisioned as a center for trade in the Baltic. In 1520, after he had reclaimed Sweden for the Danish crown, Christian drew up plans for a Nordic trading association with offices in Copenhagen, Stockholm, Finland, and—characteristically—Holland. The association was to join forces with the south German merchant house of the Fuggers with the intent of crushing the Hanseatic league and ruling the Baltic. Nothing ultimately came of those grand plans, which suggest the vision of the king and his bourgeois counsellors, notably Sigbrit, but which also demonstrate the flaw in all their reforms: a lack of understanding of the difficulty with which people accept change.

While Christian was engaged in his war efforts to reunite Sweden with Denmark and Norway, Sigbrit took charge of the king's finances. In the spring of 1519, she became controller of the Sound tolls, the tariffs paid by all ships sailing between Denmark and Sweden for trading in the Baltic, and she moved the center for collecting those tariffs from Elsinore to Copenhagen. As an effort to centralize taxation, her strategy was sensible; the move, however, annoyed the captains who now had to maneuver their ships into the harbor of Copenhagen. She furthermore took charge of the generally despised taxes on wine and beer and aided Christian's efforts to grant Danish merchants special trading rights in disregard of privileges usually accorded only to the nobles.

To promote farming and farming methods, Sigbrit prevailed upon the king to import Dutch farmers to the flat land of Amager, south of Copenhagen. Their expertise in the making of butter and cheese and cultivation of gardens has been praised by Danish historians who have considered their efforts a positive trait among their mostly negative evaluations of Christian's innovations. Yet the farmers they replaced naturally resented their presence and only grudgingly yielded their land.

Sigbrit appears to have ignored whatever criticism reached her ears as she proceeded to put her stamp on city administration as well. She had Christian appoint a city administrator for the capital, as was the custom in Dutch cities, and draft ordinances to promote decency and cleanliness. Butchers were ordered to refrain from letting blood and other offal flow through the streets; to diminish air pollution, scavengers were told to bury their dead animals outside the city limits. Saturday nights were to be dedicated to sweeping of yards and scouring of floors and benches; garbage was to be stacked and carried into the street for collection by carriers on carts so tightly constructed that no refuse would fall out and litter the streets. Decent houses were to be built on empty lots and clay walls facing the streets of Copenhagen replaced with those of bricks and timber. Prostitutes were confined to plying their trade in a designated area of the city and to do so without benefit of wearing robes. The reason for the latter injunction is suggested by the 17th-century Danish historian Ludvig Holberg who credits Sigbrit with a specific ordinance pertaining to clearing the streets of beggars. She decreed, on the king's behalf, that only students who could pay for their own food would be matriculated into Copenhagen schools. Previously, school boys dressed in long robes leaving only their right arms free would be begging for food and money. Madame Sigbrit insisted, according to Holberg, that hands reaching out from those slits took more than alms and concealed the spoils in the folds of their robes, and he considers it likely that Sigbrit's experience with both boys and prostitutes had proven her point.

Danish historians unanimously report the animosity and hatred levelled against Sigbrit by members of the Council and the nobility in general, but they disagree on the extent to which she merited their detractions. One historian reports that when he as a child was on his way to school, he would pass by Madame Sigbrit's house and see the most prominent men in the kingdom beating their hands and stomping their feet against the cold as Sigbrit let them wait outside her door. They did not dare speak out against her openly, but they blackened her reputation by blaming her for the king's provocative administration and his thinly disguised desire to promote a hereditary monarchy. Holberg is less judgmental and less willing to ascribe to Sigbrit the title of evil counsellor. No one can be certain, he writes, whether the king in his dealings with the nobility followed his own nature or Sigbrit's advice. The coronation charter Christian had been forced to sign was so constraining that he was determined to curtail the power and authority of his nobles. Consequently, Holberg thinks, Christian would likely have taken the same measures without the presence of Sigbrit. Whichever the case may be, he concludes, Sigbrit was blamed for the king's actions. Holberg's concession is significant as a caveat against drawing overly hasty conclusions about distribution of fault and responsibility. No such prudence has tempered later historians' attributing to Sigbrit the engineering of Christian's brutal execution of 70 Swedish nobles on Stockholm's square in 1520, despite the fact that no evidence of her involvement exists.

The king she served was a gifted man, a visionary ruler with progressive plans for the future of his triple kingdom, a passionate and affectionate man, but, as his actions show, ruthless and brutal as well. He had been deeply devoted to his mistress, and when Dyveke died, Christian was inconsolable. He took revenge by executing Torben Oxe, administrator of the Castle of Copenhagen, who supposedly had brought Dyveke the cherries she ate before she died. By and by, however, the love and devotion of his young queen Elisabeth drew him to her, and gradually she moved into the place that had been Dyveke's in the affections of both Christian and Sigbrit. Sigbrit assisted at the birth of the queen's first child, three months after Dyveke's death. She was present also when the crown prince was born in early 1519 and again at the arrival of twins in December of the same year. Holberg reports that Sigbrit thought such fecundity reprehensible in a country as poor as Denmark; but despite that openly acknowledged opinion, she assumed the role of foster mother of Crown Prince Hans, and from then on was called Mother Sigbrit.

Sigbrit proved herself knowledgeable beyond mere midwifery and became a general physician for the royal house. Her fame spread after a visit by the renowned physician Paracelsus, who is known to have expressed his admiration for an herb brew she concocted and taught him to make. Yet because all she did was viewed with suspicion outside the royal household, Sigbrit's knowledge of medicine was by some perceived as knowledge of witchcraft. The same historian, Hans Svaning, who tells about the freezing nobles outside Sigbrit's door, reports that on one occasion her foster son, Crown Prince Hans, wandered into her bedroom which held a variety of bottles and glasses. He picked up a round bottle with a long neck because he saw something moving about inside it. Frightened, he dropped it, and the evil spirit escaped with a tremendous roar. Thunder rolled and a storm broke loose, and now the entire city knew for sure that Sigbrit was a witch.

Sigbrit and Christian ruled together from 1517 to 1523, when he was forced into exile. His queen and children accompanied him, as did Sigbrit. They separated on their arrival in Germany to the sorrow of all, because Sigbrit had by then become a loyal and trusted "mother" to the entire family. The headstone she had requested from Holland, she had to leave behind. On it was engraved her picture, her trademark, and an inscription: "here lies Sibrecht Willumsdatter, who died in the year of our Lord 15… Pray to God for my soul." A Danish noble, who had been charged with complicity in the "poisoning" of Dyveke and therefore been temporarily exiled, dragged it from its resting place in Sigbrit's courtyard and had it erected outside his own farmhouse. Word has it that he placed it in the gateway and ordered his farmhands to spit—or even urinate—on it as they passed through.


Bech, Svend Cedergren. Københavns Historie gennem 800 Aar. Copenhagen: P. Haase og Søns, 1967.

Danmarks Historie. Eds. John Danstrup og Hal Koch. Copenhagen: Politikens, 1977.

Holberg, Johan Ludvig. Danmarks Riges Historie. Copenhagen: Thieles Bogtrykkeri, 1856.

Sources in English are scarce.

Inga Wiehl , a native of Denmark, teaches at Yakima Valley Community College, Yakima, Washington

About this article

Willums, Sigbrit (fl. 1507–1523)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article