Holding on to his heart – of grief and crazy queens
Once upon a time, there was a very pretty little girl who grew up pampered and cosseted by her parents. Because her blood line was quite impeccable and because she was so very, very pretty, her parents had high hopes for a good marriage for Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg, and she seemed happy enough to go along with their plans. Not all that surprising, as this was the 17th century, and Maria Eleonora was brought up to show adequate devotion to her parents and God – or maybe that should be the other way around.
Born in 1599 in Köningsberg, Maria Eleonora combined her blonde good looks with a strong Protestant faith. Due to her father’s somewhat strained finances and her mother’s very strict Lutheran approach to life, Maria Eleonora’s education was not the best, restricted to practical skills and Bible instead of including French, Latin or the like. Despite this, she and her sisters were not short on offers of marriage – the house of Brandenburg was ancient and well-connected.
One of Maria Eleonora’s suitors was the young and energetic king of Sweden, Gustav II Adolf. Now this was a young man who combined an excellent education with impressive brain power and a gigantic ambition, thereby making him one of the movers and shakers of the time. One would therefore suppose Maria Eleonora’s parents would be thrilled to bits when he showed up on their doorstep, hoping to wed their daughter, but instead Maria Eleonora’s father flatly refused. Why, might one wonder, and the answer is to be found in the political instability of the time. The house of Brandenburg was dependent on good relationships with Poland, and in Poland king Sigismund III was still sulking because his cousins had wrested the Swedish crown from him a couple of decades earlier.
Gustav II Adolf needed a dynastic marriage. Had he been allowed to choose, he would have married Ebba Brahe, a Swedish noblewoman with whom he was head over heels in love with, but Gustav II Adolf’s mother said “no way” and being a dutiful son – or a pragmatic young king – Gustav II Adolf bid his beloved Ebba farewell and set off in search of other arms. Maria Eleonora was pleasing to the eye, and Gustav II Adolf figured that if he had to marry out of duty, he could at least combine some pleasure with it, so he was rather put out when his suit was refused. Fortunately, Maria Eleonora’s father died in 1620, and Gustav II Adolf decided to visit her incognito, determined to sway Maria Eleonora’s mother into giving him her daughter’s hand.
Obviously, Gustav II Adolf could be both persuasive and charming, because some months later Maria Eleonora’s mother arranged for her daughter (and herself) to be smuggled out of Preussen and to Sweden. Maria Elonora’a brother fumed and cursed, but by then it was too late as no sooner had Maria Eleonora set foot in Sweden but she was married to the most eager bridegroom. Not that Maria Eleonora was reluctant, not at all; she was madly in love with her dashing young king. In fact, it soon became very apparent that Maria Eleonora’s passionate love for her husband bordered on mental instability. In his presence, she glowed like the sun. In his absence, she was depressed and fearful, going into hysterics if he was delayed in returning home or – God forbid – was wounded. Given that Gustav II Adolf spent most of his time away from home, and most of that time embroiled in one battle or the other, poor Maria Eleonora must have led a dark and difficult life.
To make matters worse, Maria Eleonora seemed incapable of giving her husband the lusty heir he desired. Her first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, and in the aftermath Maria Eleonora’s behaviour bordered on the seriously deranged. Her emotional volatility, her outbursts of rage and grief, caused most of the court to stay well away from her, and even her husband found her behaviour more than trying. One year into the marriage, and everyone knew that Gustav II Adolf found little solace and happiness with his wife, being more than a little concerned about her mental health.
Still; the king needed an heir, and now and then Maria Eleonora reverted to being the delightful young woman Gustav II Adolf had found so attractive. More pregnancies, one resulting in a girl that lived only a year, the next in a stillborn son. The Swedish government was getting worried; should Gustav II Adolf die without an heir, that Polish dude they’d ousted back in 1599 could potentially come into his own. Pressure built – on the king, but even more on his wife. Poor Maria Eleonora must have felt seriously deficient; the one thing she was expected to do, she couldn’t deliver on. And then in early 1626, the queen became pregnant again, and the court cavorted with joy. Well, not the queen, obviously, as this time the pregnancy had to succeed, so no cavorting allowed.
Everyone was sure it was a boy. The king, his Lord Chancellor, the queen herself, the court astrologers, the queen’s dwarfs, her ladies-in-waiting – all of them were quite convinced that this time the queen would be delivered of the male heir the kingdom so desired. In early December 1626 the baby was born, covered in a hairy pelt that only left face and arms uncovered. A boy! A healthy (if very, very hairy) boy! Who cared about the baby’s big nose, about all that hair that covered it? A prince, Gustav II Adolf had a son! Hang on a minute… Closer inspection revealed that under all that hair the little baby was a girl. Utter silence. No one wanted to tell the king the news. Even more, no one was volunteering to tell the queen – she was too weak after her recent ordeal.
The king took it quite well, all things considered. He ordered for the country to rejoice as if the baby had been a son, and was more than happy with his healthy little daughter whom he named Christina. (Want to know more about Christina? See my post on her here) Maria Eleonora, however, had a fit, screaming that she didn’t want to see this monster, this ugly daughter with which God had seen fit to punish her. It is said the queen actually tried to injure her child, and throughout Christina’s early childhood there were a number of odd accidents: the child was dropped head first on the floor, permanently injuring her shoulder; a beam fell over the cradle; little Christina tumbled down stairs. This, dear reader, was but a mild southerly breeze compared with the emotional distress Maria Eleonora would put her daughter through some years later..
Gustav II Adolf continued his expansive, somewhat bellicose policy. In 1632, things caught up with him, and Sweden’s foremost hero king was ignominiously killed on the battlefield of Lützen. First he was shot in the back, then he was dragged along by his horse, his foot caught in the stirrup. He seems to have managed freeing himself from the horse – despite his wound – but ended up shot in the head instead. After the battle – which the Swedes won – the king was found face down in the mud, robbed of everything but his shirt.
Maria Eleonora went bonkers. She wept, she tore her clothes, she wept some more. She shrieked in despair, she was inconsolable, lamenting her cruel fate, to be robbed of the light of her life when they were still both so young. At the time of his death, Maria Eleonora had been in Germany, and so she hastened to kneel by her husband’s body, insisting it was her right as his wife to see to his body. She had him embalmed (very much against his will), selected the clothes the corpse was clad in, the fabrics for his bier. All the while she wept and moaned, embracing her dead husband as if he were still alive. Most uncomfortable for the Swedish nobles who witnessed all this – such excessive grief was frowned upon, very far from the Lutheran ideal of silent stoicism in the face of adversity.
In 1633, the embalmed king and his widow returned to Sweden and were met formally by the little queen. At seven,Christina was a precocious and active child, who considered her mother more or less a stranger. Due to all those accidents in Christina’s early life, the king had entrusted his daughter to his sister rather than the child’s mother. Now, however, Maria Eleonora greeted Christina as if she was the only thing worth living for. In Christina’s words “I embraced the queen my mother, she drowned me with her tears and nearly smothered me in her arms”. Yet again, Maria Eleonora wept and bemoaned the death of her beloved husband, yet again there were instances when she had to be forcibly removed from the king’s body, fingers gripping at his clothes. Had Gustav II Adolf been alive, he would have been shocked by the spectacle she made of herself. As it was, it was left to little Christina to handle her deranged mother. Later in life, Christina was to comment that “my mother carried out the role of mourning to perfection”.
To make matters worse, Maria Eleonora did everything she could to stop Gustav II Adolf’s burial. His heart she kept in a separate casket, and for over a year she procastinated, demanding that the king be set in a coffin big enough for two as she had no intention of allowing him to be buried without her. At night, she slept in the marital bed, now bedecked in black as was her entire room, with the casket containing her husband’s heart hanging above her. Very often, she insisted Christina sleep with her, and one can only imagine what that must have been like for such a small child, to attempt to sleep while above her head swung the golden container that held her father’s heart…
In 1634, 19 months after his death, Gustav II Adolf was at last buried – despite his widow’s protests. Marie Eleonora developed a sudden fondness for her daughter and insisted she was to have a major say in her daughter’s upbringing and future marriage. Not at all in line with Gustav II Adolf’s instructions – he had little confidence in his wife’s capabilities. The council and the queen mother were in constant conflict, poor little Christina being the object of this lethal tug-of-war. When Maria Eleonora had the bad taste to offer Christina as a bride to Christian IV of Denmark, Sweden’s archenemy, things went from bad to worse. The Council had had enough; in 1636, Christina was removed from her mother’s custody and returned to the safety of her aunt’s household.
From that moment on, Christina’s relationship to her mother was destined to be rather distant. Maria Eleonora retired from Stockholm to one of her castles and submerged herself in her own shadow court, rarely finding the opportunity to visit her daughter – well, unless she needed her royal daughter to bail her out, as Maria Eleonora went through money with the speed of lightning. (A trait her daughter to some extent inherited; Christina had an eye for life’s little luxuries)
When Christina was fourteen, Maria Eleonora decided to leave Sweden – she never liked the place anyway; far too much forest, far too many snotty men, far too few creature comforts – and spent the following decade in Denmark and present day Germany. But she was back in Stockholm in time to attend her daughter’s splendid coronation, and adult Christina seems to have had a far more relaxed relationship to her mother than young Christina ever did. In 1655, Maria Eleonora died, and was at last reunited with her husband. I’m not quite sure our embalmed hero king welcomed her with open arms…
In fairness to Maria Eleonora, she appears to us today as depicted in her husband’s letters to his Lord Chancellor and best friend, Axel von Oxenstierna, and the minutes of the Swedish Council’s meetings. The king was frustrated by his overly devoted and unstable wife, Axel didn’t like her, and the Council found her a meddling woman with a negative influence on her daughter. Is this a fair depiction of Maria Eleonora? Probably not. Was she an entirely stable and supporting wife & mother? Nope. In retrospect, maybe it was unfortunate that Maria Eleonora’s mother succumbed to young Gustav II Adolf’s charms and gave him her daughter’s hand in marriage. On the other hand, no Maria Eleonora, no Christina, and I sort of like Christina.