The Europeans, No 6: Queen Christina
In 1654 Queen Christina abdicated and left for Italy, to Sweden's relief
The queen of Sweden was a true eccentric, confounding 17th-century expectations of her sex and role as monarch, writes ENDA O'DOHERTY
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf famously traced the fate of “Shakespeare’s sister” Judith, a girl as talented and spirited as her brother but destined to remain uneducated, oppressed by her father, and prevented from blossoming in the world – and all because of her sex.
In fact, Shakespeare had a daughter – and not a sister – named Judith, who does, rather shockingly, seem to have grown up illiterate. Woolf was employing literary licence to make a point about the narrow options open to young women in contrast to their brothers. “What I find deplorable,” she once said, “is that nothing is known about women before the 18h century.”
Well, not quite nothing. Although women until the 20th century seem to have been widely regarded as existing solely for the purpose of childbirth, some, largely at the upper end of the social scale, managed to plot a different path.
Kristina Wasa, or Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689), caused consternation from the moment of her birth. The attendants first mistook the infant, covered in hair and roaring lustily, for a boy.
Although a male heir would have been welcome, Christina’s father, the warrior king Gustavus Adolphus, seemed happy with what he had got, reportedly remarking: “She’ll be clever, she has made fools of us all.”
After Gustavus’s death in battle in 1632, Christina was removed from the care of her unstable mother and brought up by the chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, and by her aunt. The child queen was given lessons in religion, philosophy, Greek and Latin. She showed boundless enthusiasm for learning – she studied for up to 10 hours a day – and also took up modern languages, including German, Dutch, Danish, French and Italian. When she was 14 the bemused Oxenstierna remarked: “She is not at all like a female . . .” Only in one sphere did she prove wanting: some French dancers had to be employed to teach her to walk like a lady.
Christina became queen in her own right in 1644 and began to make her presence felt. While Oxenstierna felt it was in Sweden’s interest to continue the Thirty Years War, the queen made it clear she wanted peace. In 1649 she announced that it was not her intention to marry and that she wished to be succeeded by her cousin, Charles Gustavus. In 1652, after protracted secret discussions with a succession of Jesuit envoys, she decided to become a Catholic. In 1654, she abdicated and left for Italy, taking with her a large proportion of the country’s stock of books and paintings, a few hundred servants and 247 horses. Sweden was rather relieved.
Christina’s arrival and ostentatious presence in Rome represented a considerable diplomatic coup for Counter-Reformation Catholicism. At her home in the Palazzo Farnese, she entertained artists and scholars with a lavishness she could no longer afford. But her religious observance was à la carte. On inquiring how strictly she would have to adhere to the church’s regulations, she was given soothing reassurances, but the pope was compelled to ask Cardinal Azzolino to shorten his visits to her palace so as not to cause a scandal.
Nor did Christina cease to make trouble diplomatically by speaking her mind: she chastised Louis XIV of France for revoking the rights of Protestants and made Pope Clement X ban the custom of chasing Jews through the streets during carnival.
On her death in 1689 she was buried in St Peter’s Basilica, reputedly one of only three women to have received this honour. She is perhaps unlikely to be proposed for beatification.
What to see and read
The most recent biography in English, a sceptical, “debunking” account, is Veronica Buckley’s Christina, Queen of Sweden (Fourth Estate). A more romantic picture is provided by Rouben Mamoulian’s 1933 film Queen Christina, starring Greta Garbo.