Queen Christina of Sweden – A Perplexing Exception?

Today we shall quickly return to our series of influential women in history. One of the most exceptional characters of the 17th century must be Queen Christina (Kristina) of Sweden. Here we shall take a brief look at a few aspects of her life that made her perhaps the most exceptional monarch of her time.

Born a Queen

Born in December 1626, Christina was to become the heir to the Swedish throne. Her father, the famous king and warlord Gustav II Adolf and his wife Maria Eleonora only had one child together and as such only one legitimate heir. As a hero of the Thirty Years’ War, Gustav II Adolf has been celebrated as the cementer of Sweden’s position as a superpower in the 17th century. Alas, he also very famously met his death on the battlefield of Lützen in 1632, which left the young heiress to the custody of her slightly unstable mother and the renowned high chancellor Axel Oxenstierna.

Christina has been portrayed as a chameleon of sorts, always changing her image and never quite following the script written for her. Since it is likely that one of her true passions was theatre, it might also be fitting to call her a rebel actress who refused to act out any role other than the main in her own life.

Why Was Christina So Exceptional?

1. She made the most shocking decisions – for herself

And why? Likely because she felt like it. Christina was an intellectual thinker, hungry for knowledge. Her father made sure that she received a proper and comprehensive education, the kind that girls could normally only dream about. This also included a strict and uncompromising introduction to religious Lutheran teachings, deviations from which would have been hereditary and altogether unthinkable.

Christina, however, was a person of contradictions. Through her surviving letters and scripts, historians have found a queen whose mind was a constant battlefield for intellect and emotion, for reason and religion. Her personal writings also reveal – beside the fact that she wasn’t half-bad as a writer – that she was struggling with the paradox inherent between dogmatic nature of religious teachings and the new scientific world order, born in the newly established enlightened circles. Christina practiced sciences in the court, both philosophical and natural, and invited savants from all over Europe – among these people poor René Descartes, who contracted pneumonia during the cold Swedish winter and died in 1650. Nevertheless, many of the visitors in Christina’s court shared the traits of being both relatively tolerant and of Catholic faith, something which likely gave Christina some very dangerous ideas at the time.

Christina gave up her crown and left Sweden in 1954, and publicly converted to Catholic faith in 1955. At the time, the latter was far more a controversial choice, since it had not been ten years since the Catholics and Protestants of Europe last time ceased killing each other. The conversion was also a huge win for the Pope, whereas the abdication was largely a personal decision for Christina. She hated being constrained and being told what to do, almost as much as she hated being criticized for her politics. And she despised the idea of fulfilling her duties as a female monarch of Sweden – namely those of getting married and having children.

 

 Christine of Sweden on Horseback, 1653. Photo by Sébastien Bourdon from Museo del Prado / Public Domain

Sébastien Bourdon: Christina on Horseback, 1653, in Prado Museum. This work was a gift from Christina to Philip IV of Spain (1605–1665). Philip was her Catholic ally before conversion, and the painting contains many allegorical and secret messages for the recipient.

 

2. She was non-compliant regarding to her sex

Christina managed to nominate her cousin and should-have-been-husband Charles X Gustav as her successor, and left for Antwerp in the Spanish Netherlands as soon as possible, dressed up in men’s clothing. She spent most of her life in Rome and Hamburg, and as a ‘landless queen’, the rest of her days were filled with monetary worries and what seemed like a desperate struggle for prestige and power.

From a young age, Christina was belligerent, turning prestigious statesman into her adversaries, practiced alchemy, pistol shooting, horseback riding and dressing in short skirts and even pants. Deputy rulers wished that she would marry before formally accepting the crown, but in vain. According to Christina’s own words, people got married because they didn’t know what they are doing, and marriage bed was the death of love. The idea of having sex with a man was repugnant to her, partly because she considered it to be a form of submission, completely unsuitable for a strong character like her. Christina’s attitude towards the ladies of the court was almost irreverent, and she didn’t enjoy their company. In retrospect, this might have stemmed from the fact that the other women were hardly disciplined in the same areas as she was, and thus couldn’t provide the intellectual response that the queen was looking for.

Her wit and thirst for knowledge were coupled with arrogance, self-centeredness and delusional fallacies about her own prowess. For sure, these weren’t a proper combo for a lady, but her characteristics took her far when it came to continental fame and magnificent pursuits. Later in her life, she chased both the crowns of the Kingdom of Naples and that of Poland, eventually to no avail, and caused a huge scandal by executing Italian nobleman Gian Rinaldo Monaldeschi and taking a full responsibility of the somewhat cruel murder with pride.

3. She remains exceptionally controversial

Queen Christina appears as an extremely puzzling character to the posterity, above all because she seemed to be always this and that, not either or. Christina began to write her own memoir several times, with the clear intention of building up her own myth, which only manages to confuse researchers even more. She might have lacked the perseverance to focus on one thing, which meant that she was always doing several things at the same time.

Christina was meant to be a trophy for the Catholic Church, but she only managed to shock the Pope with her presumptuous behavior right after the conversion. She may or may not have had a somewhat romantic relationship with a lady-in-waiting, yet the ‘love of her life’ was a charismatic clergyman called Decio Azzolino. She had a curious zeal to war yet dedicated a large chunk of her life to reading and religious contemplations.

One of the most exceptional traits in her was her almost perfect disregard for the disapproval of the society around her. Researchers have speculated on the possibility of her being an intersex individual or on the autistic spectrum. However, the chance remains that her story simply offers backing for the leverage of education and surrounding conditions to the mind. We could also see Christina as an ambitious and educated person, with a dose of royal megalomaniac in her, who realized that in the way of her objectives there mainly stood problems that had to do with her gender. If we study the course of my whole life, my spirits and my temper, I think we can agree that my gender has no significance, she once argued in a letter. No matter how hard she tried, she still remained a female in the eyes of her contemporaries, to some fascinating, to others perhaps ridiculous or pitiful. Even today, she continues to evoke dichotomies and contradictions among researchers, authors and readers.

 

Further reading:

Biography: Englund, Peter. Silvermasken – en kort bibliografi över drottning Kristina. Albert Bonniers förlag, 2006. / Kuningatar Kristiina – Elämäkerta. WSOY 2007.

Dalén Cilla & Drewsen Annelie: Drottning Kristina: ett liv. Vilja förlag, 2020.

Christina in portraits: Popp, Nathan Alan. Beneath the surface: the portraiture and visual rhetoric of Sweden's Queen Christina. MA (Master of Arts) thesis, University of Iowa, 2010. (Available online.)

Light reading about rebel princesses: Rodriquez McRobbie, Linda: Princesses Behaving Badly. Quirk Books, 2013.