Famous Bis: Queen Kristina

By Charlie Halfhide

April 30, 2022



Photo credit: Wikimedia/Sébastien Bourdon 1616–1671

"As you know, no one over thirty years of age is afraid of tittle-tattle. I myself find it much less difficult to strangle a man than to fear him." Queen Kristina, Sweden’s oft-forgotten, controversial, and undeniably queer queen. Described historically as the "Minerva of the North" due to her vast intellectual strength, Queen Kristina was truly a ruler like no other.

Kristina Alexandre was born on December 18th, 1626, as a member of the House of Vasa, to parents King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden and his Queen Maria. Her parents had experienced much tragedy following previous childbirths, including two stillbirths and the death of their infant daughter a year prior. For them, Kristina’s healthy pregnancy and birth was a blessing. Kristina was originally mistaken for a boy as she was hairy, and had a "strong set of lungs". Due to historical descriptions of Queen Kristina as having typically masculine features, and the confusion surrounding her gender at birth, it has been argued that she may have been intersex, though this has never been proven.

Painting of Queen Kristina, wearing dark robes smiling looking to her side.
Wikimedia/Sébastien Bourdon - Anna Danielsson/Nationalmuseum

However, the nurses quickly realized their mistake and were afraid to tell the King and Queen the truth. Queen Maria, was mentally unstable and was told a few days later. She attempted to attack the infant Kristina, shouting "Instead of a son, I am given a daughter, dark and ugly, with a great nose and black eyes. Take her from me, I will not have such a monster!" King Gustavus took the news far better. When he was finally told the truth, Kristina was actually a girl, he laughed, claiming "She’ll be a clever one, she’s fooled all of us!"

King Gustavus embraced the idea of being succeeded by Kristina and ensured that she was raised ready for this role. She was given the education of a prince rather than a princess and was tutored in mathematics and physics as well as art and philosophy. By her late teens, she spoke eight languages, including Hebrew, Arabic and German. She was also encouraged to follow what were seen as masculine pursuits, such as fencing and horsemanship, and by all accounts scorned typically feminine pursuits of the time, such as needlework and ballet. The father and daughter appeared to be close by all accounts and admired one another greatly.

When Kristina was only eight years old, her father was killed in the Battle of Lützen, 1632, a fatality of what would come to be known as the Thirty Years War between Sweden and numerous other European countries, predominately Denmark and Norway. Due to her unstable mental state, Queen Maria reacted poorly to her husband’s death, refusing to allow his burial for eighteen months and frequently visiting and speaking to his corpse, seemingly unaware of its decomposition. Kristina was instead left to the care of her Aunt Catherine, with the regency council governing the country in her place until she was officially crowned Queen in 1644, shortly after she turned eighteen.

Following the death of her aunt Catherine, Queen Kristina seemed to form very few close attachments to others. The exception to this seemed to be Ebba Sparre, her handmaiden and, as she put it herself, "bedfellow". Queen Kristina frequently described Sparre as "la belle comtesse" (the beautiful countess) and on one occasion assured an English ambassador that Sparre’s intellect was indeed "as striking as her body".

Unfortunately, Queen Kristina did not prove the most popular monarch. She advocated for peace between Sweden, Denmark and Norway, and signed the Peace of Westphalia, effectively bringing the end of the Thirty Years War. This caused conflict between herself and Chancellor Oxenstierna, the head of the regency council, who spoke severely (and publicly so) of Queen Kristina for the rest of her reign.

It didn’t help that Queen Kristina also had plans to turn Stockholm, the country’s capital, into the "Athens of the North". Though this was a noble pursuit, it was grandiose and unrealistic. Queen Kristina funneled much of the country’s wealth into majestic libraries, theaters and art collections — most of which were inaccessible for the majority of poor citizens. Though these pursuits did attract visits from scientists, artists and philosophers from across Europe, stories of Queen Kristina’s self-important nature clashing with many inflated egos (most famously, Descartes) and Sweden’s cold and unforgiving winters soon drove such visitors away.

A further cause of contention between Queen Kristina and her subjects was her distaste for marriage; she did not wish to take a husband, and certainly did not want to "produce" an heir. Some accounts suggest that she was so disgusted by the idea of pregnancy that her ladies in waiting would try to conceal their own, for fear of being dismissed from the role. After continuous pressure from the court, she eventually agreed to an engagement with her cousin, Charles X Gustav, but later broke this off and named him instead as the successor to the Swedish throne.

Following increasing public anger and pressure from her council to marry, in 1654, Queen Kristina stated plainly her plans to abdicate the throne to her cousin Charles X. Throughout her life, Queen Kristina had shown an interest in Catholicism, and after fleeing Sweden, she secretly converted to the faith on 24 December 1654, in the archduke's chapel of Brussels Palace, Belgium. Soon after, she traveled to Rome, where she publicly announced her conversion supported by Pope Alexander VII. However, it was illegal to be Catholic in Sweden as the monarchy supported the Lutheran faith that Queen Kristina had converted from. As a result, she was exiled from the country, only returning in 1660 when she learned of her cousin’s death and wished to regain her place on the throne. Due to her Catholicism, she was refused.

Aside from various travels around Europe, Queen Kristina called Rome her home for the rest of her life. It was there she established the first public theatre, in what used to be a prison house, even allowing women to perform at a time when it was considered scandalous. It seems she found peace in her later life, writing in her memoirs: "It is a far greater happiness to obey no one than to rule the whole world." In her later years, she formed a close relationship with Cardinal Azzolino. The relationship was controversial, due to the fact they were unmarried, and unorthodox, so much so that the Pope himself ordered Azzolino to Romania as punishment for allowing it to continue.

Painting of queen Kristina, posing with a rapier, on horseback near a river with others behind her.
Wikimedia/Sébastien Bourdon 1616–1671

Queen Kristina died on 19th April 1689 in Palazzo Corsini, Rome, aged 62 years old, following complications from her diabetes mellitus and pneumonia. She had named Azzolino as her sole heir, but due to his own failing health, he never settled her affairs before his own death in June of the same year. Instead, his nephew Pompeo Azzolino inherited all of Kristina’s wealth and rapidly sold off her prized art collections. In the days prior to her death, she sent the pope a message asking if he could forgive her sins. Despite her having asked for a simple burial, the Pope insisted that Queen Kristina be displayed for four days in a lit de parade, her body draped with fine silks and jewels. After this, she was carried in a funeral procession to the Grotte Vatican, where she was finally buried. She was one of only three women to ever receive this honor.


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