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The Queen Who Quit: Eccentric Christina of Sweden

History has given us some exceptional stories, heroes and villains. What do you think happened to King William II Rufus on 2nd August 1100?

Queen Christina of Sweden by Bourdan.

Queen Christina of Sweden by Bourdan.

Child Queen of Sweden

Born on the 18th December 1626 at Tre Kronor Castle in Stockholm, Christina was the last child of the Royal House of Vasa’s King Gustaf II Adolf of Sweden and his wife Maria Eleanora of Brandenburg. Her father was relieved to be a parent again; the couple had lost a son and two daughters in infancy, but her mother lamented that the hairy crying baby she had produced was not male.

Gustaf II Adolf was killed in battle before Christina reached six years old, and as his only surviving heir, the throne of Sweden fell to her. She was not of an age to rule alone, so the influential Lord High Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna and four other ministers ruled in her name until adulthood. Christina was allowed to join the council meetings from the age of 14.

Never an affectionate mother, Maria Eleanora suffered from mental health issues, and as a widow, she was sent to the remote Gripsholm Castle. Princess Katerina of Sweden, Countess Palatine of Zweibrucken-Kleeburg raised Christina.

Philosopher Rene Descartes died in Stockholm while a guest of Queen Christina.

Philosopher Rene Descartes died in Stockholm while a guest of Queen Christina.

Philosopher Rene Descartes

Christina was educated as a male which set her above many royal daughters. She was a keen student and quickly grasped politics under Oxenstierna’s guidance. In 1649 she invited philosopher Rene Descartes to Stockholm so that he could teach her philosophy, but she did not appreciate him. Descartes was seen as a trophy by her, and his visit validated her royal status in Europe.

She frequently postponed their philosophy sessions, and when she did grant him an audience, it was before dawn, in flickering candlelight in a room with no fire, and Descartes couldn’t wear a hat in her presence without it being considered an insult. Descartes suffered in the increasing cold and hinted that he would like to go home, but Christina insisted on his remaining in Sweden. He died miserably in Stockholm from a respiratory infection on the 11th February 1650, aged 53.

Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna tutored Queen Christina in politics and ran Sweden as she grew up.

Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna tutored Queen Christina in politics and ran Sweden as she grew up.

Queen Christina's Sweden

Queen Christina believed that being female was her great misfortune, perhaps the ultimate tragedy of her life. She often wore men’s clothing, was reluctant to wash, frequently had dirty nails and was not considered a great beauty of the age. Her sense of humour and intelligence were not valued as attributes. Women were supposed to be pretty, not witty, according to 17th-century men.

She spent lavishly and lived in opulence, even as her people starved, thanks to the cost of the ongoing Thirty Years War. She failed to realise that her frivolous behaviour was at odds with many Swedes’ struggle to survive.

She relied heavily on Axel Oxenstierna in the early years of her reign but, in time, regarded him as a threat. Despite her flaws, it was acknowledged that under her influence, Sweden’s trade, arts and science progressed significantly and she became known as the Minerva of the North in European courts.

The Queen Quits: Why?

In early 1654 Christina announced to a stunned court that she was ill, possibly she had suffered a nervous breakdown, but there is no proof, and that ruling Sweden was too much of a strain. She abdicated in favour of her cousin Charles who had previously been refused as a potential husband for her.

In fact, she’d refused to marry anyone, which led to speculation that her reluctance to marry and produce an heir was the true reason for her departure, presumably under growing pressure from her ministers. Her sexuality was questioned, claims of an affair with her lady-in-waiting Ebba Sparre surfaced, and to this day, it’s still disputed where her preferences lay.

Another theory abounded that she intended to publicly convert to Roman Catholicism, which placed her in an untenable position as the head of a devout protestant country. Unofficially, she converted in 1652 and officially in 1655.

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Exiled Queen Christina in Rome

Christina brokered an abdication deal. Sweden would pay her a generous allowance wherever she might reside for the rest of her life. Cousin Charles X Gustaf’s coronation and Christina’s exit from her homeland occurred on the same day.

At her abdication ceremony at Uppsala Castle, each item of the Swedish regalia was removed from her piece by piece, but one minister refused to take the crown from her head. Unhesitatingly, she took it off herself. The new king ruled Sweden from the 6th June 1654 until his death in 1660, aged 37. A 71-year-old Axel Oxenstierna died in 1654, still Sweden’s Chancellor.

After an extended stay in Austria on Christmas Day 1655, she was received in Rome by Pope Alexander VII, who gave her the confirmation name of Alexandra. He was soon disappointed in Christina/Alexandra, who enjoyed his hospitality and the use of the Palazzo Farnese but seemed unwilling or unable to follow her adopted faith’s edicts.

Her recklessness made her notorious. A stranger to frugality, she regularly ran out of funds, petitioned Swedish ministers for allowance increases and even sold some of her jewels.

Exiled Queen Christina spent most of her time in Rome.

Exiled Queen Christina spent most of her time in Rome.

Royal Prerogative: Murder

Through boredom or a yearning for power, Christina entered into talks about reigning in the Spanish territory of Naples and passing Naples to the French when she died. This plan was abandoned, partly because whilst visiting France for the negotiations, Christina had her advisor and possible lover, the Marchese Gian Rinaldo Monaldeschi, butchered for betraying her, despite there being no proof.

To the consternation and horror of Europe, she used her royal prerogative as the reason for brutally ending his life. Under the weight of disdain, she headed back to Rome, where the Pope was not pleased to see her.

She made a splendid home in the city at the Palazzo Corsini, patronised the arts and somehow managed to win the favour or friendship of four Popes. It was believed in Rome that she took Cardinal Decio Azzolino as her lover.

Christina Returns to Sweden

When news reached her of Charles X Gustaf’s death in 1660, she returned to Sweden, insisting bizarrely that she should rule again rather than Charles’ five-year-old son. She was forced to concede.

She travelled to Sweden again in 1667 and was approached about becoming the queen of Poland as another of her cousins had abdicated there. This did not come to pass, and she happily returned to Rome and Cardinal Azzolino. She invested her time in church politics and became a sponsor of Jewish people, and improved their rights.

She died from pneumonia and an infection in Rome on the 19th April 1689 and was buried in the Papal Crypt in St. Peter’s Basilica, one of only three women ever to have received this honour. She died before she completed her autobiography. That tome may have answered a few questions that persist about this eccentric woman-queen. Greta Garbo played her in the 1933 M.G.M biopic Queen Christina.

Christina's bedroom at Palazzo Corsini.

Christina's bedroom at Palazzo Corsini.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle

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