It’s a man’s world
…or so, at least, Ulrika Eleonora Stålhammar must have reasoned when she decided to leave her feminine self behind and instead become a man. And not any old man, either, no Ulrika Eleonora decided to go all in and become a soldier.
Okay, so none of the above is truly remarkable in this day and age, but rewind the clock (drastically) to the first few decades in the 18th century, and we are looking at a scandal in the making. You see, it was a crime for a woman to don menswear. And as to impersonate a man, well an adequate response would be a shrill “off with her head” – except that this was no make believe world starring a Mad Hatter, a lost girl and a rabbit hole.
Ulrika Eleonora had an impeccable pedigree: she was of noble birth, her father was an officer, her grandfather had been an officer, her older brothers were officers, and her sisters were nice and ladylike the lot of them. Unfortunately, while Ulrika Eleonora’s father seems to have been a capable officer, he was less than successful when it came to managing his financial situation, and when he died, Ulrika Eleonora and her five sisters found themselves in the unenviable situation of being poor as church mice and dependent on the goodwill of their relations to survive.
For a young, destitute noblewoman, the only solution was marriage – often to someone “beneath” her. In the early 18th century, the young destitute noblewomen rarely got a say in who they were married to, and Ulrika Eleonora watched one sister after the other end up in unhappy marriages, at the beck and call of their spouses. Not a fate Ulrika Eleonora wanted to share, and besides, time was passing and men weren’t exactly queuing up to marry this young woman who rode and shot better than most men, and who was unfashionably loud and borderline long in the tooth (after all, the lady was going on thirty, almost ancient…)
We don’t know what incident pushed Ulrika Eleonora to act, but in the spring of 1713, she requested her papers from the local priest (one couldn’t travel without papers confirming your identity), bid her sisters farewell, and set off for Stockholm in search of a better life. Her sisters were mildly scandalised: a young woman travelling alone was not the done thing. Imagine just how shocked they would have been had they known that no sooner had Ulrika Eleonora waved them goodbye, but she took off for a secluded spot where she exchanged skirts and petticoats for men’s breeches, a coat and sturdy shoes. Ulrika Eleonora was no more: instead, here was young Wilhelm Edstedt – carrying papers identifying him as Miss Stålhammar…
No one asked to see the papers. Wilhelm arrived safe and sound in Stockholm and quickly sank to the bottom of the social pecking order. Miss Stålhammar was a someone – however impoverished. Wilhelm was a nobody, with no contacts, no previous work experience – and the added disadvantage of lacking a male member, which required circumspection. How Wilhelm managed to survive is an open question, but at some point his/her good breeding paid off, and Wilhelm was employed as a footman. Not the future Wilhelm had envisaged, but at least it gave him room and board.
One employment led to another, and in 1715, Wilhelm was at last able to achieve his dream. He joined an artillery regiment in Kalmar, a small city well to the south of Stockholm. Wilhelm was to serve with his regiment for eleven years, and I wonder just how he/she could keep his/her real identity a secret for so long. After all, soldiers tend to live cheek to jowl, and at some point even Wilhelm would have needed to relieve himself…
Even more reckless was Wilhelm’s decision to marry. In 1715, he met a young maid called Maria Lönman, and whether or not it was true love from Wilhelm’s side, he/she set out to woo Maria. Maybe it started as an attempt to act like a “normal” man, but as the months went by, Wilhelm seems to have developed feelings for Maria. He wrote her letters, he courted her assiduously, and in 1716 Wilhelm proposed, was accepted, and married his Maria.
Umm…Did Maria know she was marrying a man in disguise? According to what she said later, she didn’t. If so, how was Wilhelm planning on addressing the whole issue of taking his new bride to bed? Turns out Maria had been brutally assaulted some years back, so when Wilhelm expressed a certain reluctance vis-a-vis intimacy, she was mostly relieved. And curious, one imagines, so curious that Wilhelm some weeks after the marriage, broke down and told Maria the truth.
His wife heard him out, did some hand-twisting and pondering, and decided the best course of action was to do nothing – she liked her “husband” well enough, and I also suspect she found it more than embarrassing to explain to her relatives that her wedding had been a farce.
For ten years, Wilhelm and Maria lived in apparent harmony. Their pastor was later to say that rarely had he encountered such a devout and virtuous couple, and both Maria and Wilhelm vehemently denied ever having had carnal knowledge of each other. Whether this was true or not, I have no idea – but it was probably a wise move to deny it.
Back in 1713, Ulrika Eleonora had written one of his sisters. Elisabet Katarina, and told her she was living as Wilhelm Edstedt. There seems to have been no contact between the sisters after that date, but sometime 1725 or so, Wilhelm received a letter. He recognised the handwriting, and in my mind’s eye, I see him turning it over, one part of him wanting to tear it open, the other not sure if he should read it at all. Curiosity won out, and with some trepidation, Wilhelm settled down to read Elisabet’s letter.
Somehow, Elisabet Katarina had found out that Wilhelm had married, and she was beyond livid: how could her irresponsible sister drag an innocent woman into the mess she’d made of her life? What did Ulrika Eleonora think would happen if they were found out? And how could she be so selfish as to condemn Maria to a life of pretense?
The letter was like a festering boil. Wilhelm tossed and turned through the nights, he decided to resign from the army, did some more tossing and turning, and sometime later, Wilhelm came to the conclusion it was time to revert to being Ulrika Eleonora – with the picturesque addition of a wife. Major problem number one…
Major problem number two was that Ulrika Eleonora had – in the eyes of her contemporaries – committed a heinous crime. As per the law, there was only one punishment possible. Death. Not, I suppose, an entirely palatable alternative for ex-Wilhelm, now firmly back in skirts.
Fortunately, Ulrika Eleonora had an aunt. This aunt with the rather impressive name Sofia Drake (eg Sofia Dragon) had a vested interest in keeping the name Stålhammar unsoiled – for the sake of her dead husband and her own children. Reluctantly, she offered to help – not only Ulrika Eleonora, but also Maria, who by all accounts received a much warmer welcome than her erstwhile “husband”. Consensus was that Maria had been sinned against – the sinner being that irresponsible and head-strong Ulrika Eleonora. In fact, Lady Sofia went out of her way to help Maria find a position as a housekeeper, while it seems she had major problems offering her niece anything but a dutiful and decidedly cool welcome.
Sofia Drake advised Ulrika Eleonora to go to Denmark and write a grovelling letter to the king, Fredrik I, begging forgiveness for the sins she’d committed in “youthful despair”. Hmm. she was pushing thirty at the time of her original transformation into Wilhelm…However, grovelling letters tend to help, and Ulrika Eleonora was invited back to Sweden and allowed to stay with her aunt while waiting for her day in court.
Being of noble birth, Ulrika Eleonora had assumed her case would be fast-tracked to the higher courts, bypassing local magistrates. Not so. Instead, Ulrika Eleonora and Maria were brought before the magistrates in Kalmar. Six days of intrusive question – and at one point Ulrika Eleonora was subjected to a thorough physical examination to ensure she was a woman. The midwives charged with verifying her gender also confirmed she had never given birth. Neither had Maria…
After these initial formalities, the trial focused on Ulrika Eleonora and Maria’s sexlife. At the time, homosexuality was a crime (labelled sodomy, which didn’t quite apply in this case, but even 18th century judges had enough imagination to visualise two women in bed), so maybe it is no wonder that the ladies repeated over and over that yes, they loved each other deeply, but that their feelings were platonic. In fact, neither of them had ever felt any desire to engage in sexual acts. The court was not entirely convinced, but there was nothing to prove, and what witnesses were found generally agreed that Ulrika Eleonora a.kl.a. Wilhelm and Maria had had a loving but virtuous relationship.
The Kalmar magistrates came to the conclusion the two women had committed a crime and should be punished – but they couldn’t find any guidance as to how they should be punished, and so they turned the whole case over to the educated lawmen of Göta Hovrätt – the next judicial level.
The lawmen didn’t take all that long to make up their minds:the crime was punishable by death, as supported by Deuteronomy 22:5:
The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.
I dare say Ulrika Eleonora swallowed repeatedly. Many, many times.
However, the lawmen in their mercy decided to commute the punishment to 30 days on bread and water, to be followed by public penance at Church before being exiled from the town of Kalmar. Well, compared to being hanged, this seems a walk in the park, but Ulrika Eleonora was not happy. 30 days on only bread and water equaled borderline starvation. Yet another letter was sent off to the king, who decided to allow Ulrika Eleonora full prison rations (woo hoo!) while reducing Maria’s sentence to 8 days – after all, the poor girl had been tricked…
After their respective punishments in 1730, Maria and Ulrika Eleonora parted ways. Maria was to become a much appreciated servant in Lady Sofia’s household, while Ulrika Eleonora was given little choice in her future life – she was hastily passed off to an elderly female relative who lived as a recluse out in the woods. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say.
At the time, Ulrika Eleonora was pushing fifty, with no income, no assets – nothing but the permanent stain of shame that marked her in the eyes of her exasperated family. None of her sisters seem to have offered to take her home – but then, that may have been all those obnoxious husbands who put their feet down. And as to her brothers, imagine the horror with which they learnt that their sister had dragged the family name through the mud – by impersonating a man and becoming a petty officer, no less.
Ulrika Eleonora died three years later. In the intervening period, she had not been allowed to see Maria, and we don’t know if this caused her sorrow. I would assume it did – in hindsight those ten years and more she lived as Wilhelm with Maria at her side must have seemed the happiest in her life. After all, Ulrika Eleonora did inhabit a man’s world – a society in which women were, by law, reduced to being nothing more than their closest male relative’s burden and chattel.
Ulrika Eleonora is not the only woman to dress up as a man and go to war. There are plenty of other examples in Sweden – and in England, Ireland, well, a bit all over. Many of these women were executed – dear old Moses had made it quite, quite clear that cross-dressing was a major no-no. Many more were probably never discovered, and their stories will never be heard, their names by now forgotten – a fate they share with like 99,9% of all those that went before us…