Thursday, May 19, 2011

Monarch Profile: Queen Christina of Sweden

Queen Christina of Sweden, though she reigned in the Seventeenth Century, continues to inspire fascination, debate and controversy even today. In her own time she was widely known as a rebel Queen, a woman who followed her own path and refused to limit herself to the social norms of the day. She was constantly causing gossipers and elitists to wag their tongues as she did things that women of her time considered unthinkable such as showing intellectual curiosity, thinking for herself, wearing breeches and converting to a religion which was illegal in her native land. She was Queen regnant of Sweden only from 1632 until 1654 when she abdicated to convert to the Catholic faith. Forget what you learned from the movies and Greta Garbo (though she is positively fantastic, don‘t get me wrong), she converted because of conscience and not romance.

Christina was born in Stockholm on December 8, 1626 to Maria Eleanor of Brandenburg and King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, the “Lion of the North”. Her Hohenzollern mother was rather unkind to her and her father ordered that she be raised as a boy. A true military genius who became the Protestant champion of Europe during the 30 Years War he would have preferred Christina to have been a son. When her father was killed at the battle of L├╝tzen she became Queen of Sweden at only six years old. As she grew up she quickly displayed an independent streak and a very active mind. Educated as a boy and taking her coronation oath as a king rather than a queen, as per the wishes of her father, Christina was often referred to at court as the Girl King. She had an interest in a variety of subjects and loved long discussions with educated people on any subject which caught her interest. She also loved ballet, opera, theater and riding horses which necessitated wearing more masculine styles of clothing.

In 1649 she invited Descartes to her court to tutor her only one year before his death. Queen Christina gathered many other learned individuals around her which was considered unusual for a queen, further she seemed in no hurry to marry but what was perhaps most worrying to her government was that many of these philosophers, scientists and so on were Catholics, practicing or at least Jesuit educated nominal Catholics and religious discussions did arise from time to time. The Kingdom of Sweden by this time had long been officially Lutheran and to be a Catholic was a crime punishable by death as it was in most Protestant countries. She was never very interested in Lutheranism as it seemed too simplistic for her and the casual observer might have thought her to be totally unconcerned with religion, especially compared with other sciences and statecraft. She also saw to it that Sweden got in on the rush for colonies in North America when New Sweden was established in what is now Delaware, built around Ft Christina which was named in her honor. However, the Swedish Empire in the New World did not long survive as it was soon overrun by the Dutch from neighboring New Netherland. Nonetheless, during this period Sweden was the preeminent Baltic and Scandinavian power.

Queen Christina continued to make tongues wag across Sweden, though her most controversial studies, on the topic of religion, were kept secret. She met with Jesuit priests to learn more about the Catholic Church and in it, for once, she found a faith she could sink her teeth into; one that satisfied her fiery intellect as well as her heart. Where others saw idolatry and traces of paganism, Christina saw faith alongside reason, mysticism along with philosophy. Eventually, she determined that the Catholic Church was the true Church and made up her mind to convert. However, she tread softly and slowly, wishing no harm to come to her beloved country. If word had got out prematurely it might have meant chaos, her own death or even civil war. She was, after all, Queen of an officially Protestant country where Catholics were put to death and she was the daughter of the Protestant champion of the 30 Years War, the undeniably great man Gustavus Adolphus.

Queen Christina worked thoughtfully and methodically. She realized that she could not become Catholic and remain Queen of Sweden so she took steps to ensure a peaceful transition of power. Some have since questioned the sincerity of her conversion, but such arguments most often come from those who doubt true religious conviction to ever be authentic in any person. The Church sent a Jesuit priest, Father Paolo Casati, in 1651 to determine if she was sincere and he found that she was. Queen Christina may not have come to the faith by the way most converts do, but as with any human action there really is no one “normal” way at all. Different people are moved by different things in different ways. Despite what all of the doubters say, Queen Christina had everything to lose and nothing to gain in worldly terms by her conversion to Catholicism. Some point out that there were rumblings against her in Sweden for her expenses, her close ties with the aristocracy and so on. However, these are not uncommon for monarchs of her time and the same could be said for a multitude of kings across Europe, none of whom were overthrown or faced death because of some gripes by the chattering classes.

In 1649 Queen Christina had named her cousin, Charles X Gustav, as her heir though he had no role in government at all so long as she was on the throne. This set the stage for her abdication as well as being a way to stop the various European princes who had been seeking her hand in marriage. She had no desire to marry and preferred to devote her time to the arts and education. She was also eager, frankly, to leave behind the prejudices of her government. Officials groaned over her lack of attachment to Lutheranism and the more deeply she came into agreement with the Catholic Church the harder she found it to disguise her low opinion of Protestantism. The government also objected over her proposed alliance with Catholic Spain in which Sweden was to share the spoils of a new invasion of Portugal. Some attributed this to a total lack of understanding of statecraft on her part, but Spain was a major power and could have been a useful ally. The real reason for the opposition seems to have been simply the fact that the Lutheran elites of Sweden were repelled by any friendliness to Spain which was long considered the Catholic champion of Europe.

Despite the efforts of her detractors to portray her as a woman out of control at the end of her reign, the care she felt for her country is clearly seen in the plans she put into effect over a considerable length of time to ensure a peaceful transition of power when the time came for her to leave. That time came on June 5, 1654 when Queen Christina abdicated the Swedish throne and passed power to her cousin who became King Charles X Gustavus. She disguised herself as a man under the name of Count Dohna and left the country on a transcontinental trek to Rome. At Innsbruck in the Spanish Netherlands she was met by a Church delegation and was officially received into the Roman Catholic faith taking the name Maria Christina Alexandra.

Upon reaching Rome she was warmly received by Pope Alexander VII and for several months she was feted as the preeminent convert in the world at the time. The story of the Queen who gave up her crown to become Catholic was the one story absolutely everyone was talking about. The notables of Rome turned out in droves to entertain her and celebrate her courageous act of conscience. Thousands of people turned out to cheer her at this long succession of festivities in her honor which included pyrotechnics, operas, parades of elephants and camels in Asian style, jousts, acrobatic displays and mock battles. She reestablished herself at a court in exile and again became the hostess of some of the most brilliant minds in the world of her time. She became a center of the very essence of the old Renaissance with scientific and artistic figures constantly in her company. Eventually the celebrations calmed down but even after all of this Queen Christina had not lost her ability to shock and cause controversy.

A little over a year after her arrival she traveled to France as the guest of the preeminent European monarch of the day King Louis XIV. The very proper and protocol conscious ladies of the French court were shocked by her casual manner and doing such outrageous things as not sitting properly and clapping at a ballet. Hardly what anyone today would consider shocking behavior. The French elites were impressed by her but often with the attitude of being impressed by an oddity rather than by her own merits. She let her hair down, as we might say, but there was nothing truly scandalous about her actions and she was undoubtedly enjoying the freedom of being beyond the control of her gloomy government ministers and stuffy bureaucrats. She lived essentially the life of an Italian Renaissance prince and of course no Italian Renaissance prince worthy of the name did not have some political intrigue under his belt and Queen Christina was no different.

In 1656 a plan was conceived to put Queen Christina on the throne of the Kingdom of Naples; that part of southern Italy nominally under the rule of Spain but long neglected and finally being contested by France. The French army promised her support and Cardinal Mazarin, the power behind the French throne, was involved in the enterprise. However, this scheme fell apart as the result of the treason of the Italian master of horse for Queen Christina at Fontainebleau. He learned of the plot and in 1657 made it known. He was called before the Queen and presented with evidence of his betrayal and was summarily executed by members of her household staff. This caused quite a stir in France and subsequent historians have made quite an issue out of it, however, it was perfectly legal in the time and place as the prince (or princess) of any court at that time was judge, jury and executioner over those of his or her household. The man had betrayed his mistress and such treason would have resulted in death one way or another in any court or country in the world at the time.

Queen Christina and Pope Innocent XI
Nonetheless, the whole issue embarrassed the French and in any event meant that there would be no effort for the Kingdom of Naples and Queen Christina returned to Rome where she resumed her intellectual pursuits. She had some desire to visit England but as the country was then under the dictatorial rule of the Puritan Oliver Cromwell there would be no welcome there for a queen who was a Catholic convert of all people. Her only further political activities centered on her long lost homeland of Sweden. Since her exile things had not been going too well in the Nordic kingdom. The same year of her abdication a Swedish invasion of Poland met with defeat and in 1660, when King Charles X Gustav died, it seemed an opportunity for Queen Christina to regain the throne and resume her place as Queen of the Swedes, Goths and Wends. However, she found no welcome there in the Lutheran country for a Catholic queen and she had neither the means nor the desire to force her way back onto the throne and so she renounced the throne and returned to Rome, keeping up her social life there and correspondence with the intellectuals of the day.

In 1662 she again sent word out of her desire to return to her homeland even if she would not be Queen. However, the prejudiced government insisted on such restrictions placed on her residence that she would have been little more than a prisoner in her own home and for an independent woman like Queen Christina this was totally unacceptable. She remained in Rome, keeping up with the latest discoveries and theories as she always had done until her death on April 19, 1689. She left her massive library and exquisite art collection to the Pope and named her friend Cardinal Decio Azzolino, leader of the so called Catholic Flying Squad, heir to her estate. She was buried in the crypt beneath St Peter‘s Basilica and has a prominent monument on display there in her honor; Queen Christina being one of only three women to be so honored in the basilica.

Were all things as they should be, that is where the story of Queen Christina would end. Instead, there are the lingering, modern day controversies which must also be addressed. In the many works concerning her written long after her life she has been portrayed as a lesbian, a bisexual or owing to her occasions of wearing masculine attire as a transgender person. However, there is absolutely no factual basis for any of these accusations. As a matter of fact there is not one shred of hard evidence of her ever having a sexual affair with anyone. The most that can be presented are letters to female friends, none of which actually suggest anything more than strong personal friendship and her letters to her friend Cardinal Decio Azzolino, none of which, again, convey anything but strong friendship and one would have to do some extremely stretched reading between the lines to make anything more of them and in such cases one is usually able to find whatever one wishes, seeing things that are not there and twisting words so far out of proportion as to be totally unrelated to the original work.

As for Queen Christina dressing like a man and having male mannerisms, it must be remembered that she was purposely raised as a boy, encouraged to act like a king rather than a queen and many of her hobbies like horseback riding necessitated wearing something more practical than feminine attire. We should also keep in mind that by modern standards most of the men in her day dressed in a way we would consider feminine with long, flowing hair, earrings and lacey collars and cuffs. She also enjoyed study, learning and other things which were, at the time, considered the domain of men and her attire may have been no different from women today who are in big business that wear pantsuits to fit in better with their male counterparts and keep from drawing undo attention to their gender. As to the transgender issue itself, the body of the Queen was examined in our own time and no evidence of any sexual abnormalities were found. All in all the adoption of Queen Christina by the gay, lesbian or transgender communities as some sort of icon really represents nothing more than people grasping at straws in an effort to write themselves into the history books by claiming figures long gone as their own.

Greta Garbo as Queen Christina
With all of these accusations, which are numerous even if groundless, and the skeptics who doubt and pour scorn on her every action it is easy to lose sight of the plain facts about Queen Christina of Sweden. Those facts are that she cultivated her mind, rising above the prejudices that surrounded her as a child and that she gave up the pinnacle of worldly power, being the reigning Queen of a country, to do what she felt was right. She could have kept her throne and played the part of a hypocrite, being outwardly Lutheran even though she rejected it in her heart, or for those who say she simply did not want to be queen and was not sincere in her conversion, she could have abdicated and lived privately in her own country in considerable comfort with no religious conviction at all. However, she did none of these things and there is no other solid reasoning for her sacrifice and her conversion except that she was convinced she had to become Catholic as it was the only Church which she found totally satisfying. The facts support this, as they do not the many allegations against her. The facts also show how dearly she loved her country, even as she could not, in good conscience, remain its Queen, but taking great care not to disturb its tranquility with her departure and to leave it in capable hands. Sweden should still be proud of her.


  1. Innsbruck is in Tyrol I believe, thus it was part of the hereditary lands of the Habsburgs, not of Spanish Netherlands.

  2. Brilliant post about a fascinating human being.

    1. I totally agree. A woman that went against all odds to find herself..truth.

  3. She was not a mad! She was a brilliant and intelligent modern woman!

  4. Thank you so much for your brilliant and extremely indepth article (with heaps of pictures) about such a fascinating, highly controversial individual. She certainly is a woman to be honoured, looked up to and remembered kindly as she truly was a warrior. Queen? Yes, however a warrior nonetheless. Seems she fought things and certain groups, people and mindsets throughout her lifetime and sad as it is, people are still arguing and fighting over her. She is truly a historical figure of great importance to women everywhere, her voice echoing down through the ages for us to be true to ourselves, to be curious, be bold and take risks, be courageous, be daring, step out of our comfort zones both socially and personally, and no matter 'who' we are, be true to that and stand firm and never compromise our beliefs!!

  5. She was strong willed and an example of what an independent thinker is.


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