Mr Fancy-pants and the silver throne – the life of a Swedish nobleman
Once upon a time there was a young king who fell in love with a pretty little lady named Ebba. The king was over the moon, little Ebba was dazzled, and the Queen Mother was having none of it. Her precious son, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, needed a dynastic marriage, not some sort of tender love match with insignificant Ebba Brahe.
Gustavus Adolphus was adamant: he loved Ebba. The Queen Mother, turned her attention on poor Ebba.
“He can’t marry you,” she told Ebba brusquely. “And besides, you’d be terribly unhappy as queen.”
“I would?” said little Ebba who loved her dashing young king to bits.
“You would.” The Queen Mother leaned closer. “You’d have me to deal with – every day.” She smiled – a rather terrifying sight displaying most of her teeth and no warmth whatsoever.
Even the strongest of resolve crumbles under the unrelenting attack of a woman as determined as the Queen Mother. Soon enough, Ebba was quilling Gustavus Adolphus a long letter in which she told him she could not be the recipient of all his love – she was unworthy and he needed a better wife. I can imagine just how much Gustavus Adolphus cursed his mother, but this time Ebba would not be budged: she had been made to see reason.
A love story crushed in the bud, and Gustavus Adolphus went on to marry Maria Eleonora – and a rather unhappy marriage that was – while Ebba Brahe was rewarded for listening to the Queen Mother by being married off to up-and-coming Jacob De la Gardie. I wonder, at times, if the Queen Mother did not come to regret her meddling. Gustavus Adolphus’ wife never gave him a son. Ebba bore Jacob fourteen children, many of them boys. Several of these childen died young, but one of them, Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie, grew up to be one of Queen Kristina’s favourite courtiers, which led to riches and extensive land-holdings and a fancy marriage and… In brief, Magnus Gabriel took the silver spoon he was born with and converted it into a full set of silver cutlery.
To start at the beginning, little Magnus Gabriel was born in 1622 in Reval (present day Tallinn). His father was the Governor of the region, a most able royal servant that along the way added estates and further riches to his wealth. Magnus Gabriel was the eldest, the heir, and as such he was subjected to an extensive and thorough education. Expectations were that Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie would not only follow in his proud father’s footsteps, but preferably make his own imprints bigger and deeper.
Success was important for the De la Gardie family: Jacob’s father had been a French mercenary who through a fluke of luck – and considerable skill – built himself quite the career in Sweden. These relatively unimpressive roots made both Jacob – and later on Magnus Gabriel – somewhat sensitive regarding the issue of their ancestry.
Anyway; our young lordling was not only extremely handsome, he was also a gifted young man, eager to study and learn. In this he resembled Sweden’s young queen, Kristina, who was much taken with this dashing young courtier of hers, only four years older and in no way related to her by blood, ergo a potential husband.
There has been much speculation whether Kristina ever had any deeper feelings for Magnus Gabriel. She seems to have had something of a crush on Karl Gustav, her cousin, but in general Kristina’s relationship with men never went beyond the odd flirtation, and when it comes to Magnus Gabriel, we know from letters he wrote that very early on he fell in love elsewhere – with Kristina’s cousin no less, the elegant Maria Eufrosyne (sister to the flighty Eleanor, heroine of this post).
Whatever the case, Kristina made Magnus Gabriel her own special favourite – even more so when he returned after four years on the continent, brimming with newly acquired knowledge and cultural finesse. De la Gardie had spent considerable time in France, and could therefore not only regale Kristina with stories about Paris, but also came with various suggestions as to how to modernize Kristina’s court, make it more dazzling, more fun, more erudite, more…French. His fellow courtiers groaned – especially when Kristina went all wild and crazy about ballets, roping them all in to caper about in one production after the other.
Everything Magnus Gabriel did, he did with style. His clothes were the most elegant, his boots the best polished, his servants the cleanest, his gifts the most lavish. His family had the wherewithal to fund all these excesses, and it didn’t exactly hurt that Kristina heaped him with more land, more possessions. As icing on De la Gardie’s cake, in 1647, Kristina arranged a wedding between Magnus Gabriel and his beloved Maria Eufrosyne, and the grandson of a French mercenary had thereby hit the jackpot, marrying into the royal family.
Needless to say, the wedding was a grand – and stylish – affair. The groom was ardently in love, the bride – to judge from her future correspondence – was pretty taken with her new husband, but despite all this initial attraction the marriage was not destined to be an entirely happy one. Poor Maria Eufrosyne was destined to birth eleven children, of which only three survived.
Magnus Gabriel was made a Privy Councillor and was called away to serve with his new brother-in-law, Karl Gustav, in the final years of the Thirty Years’ War. In 1648, Magnus was made general, and it was as a general he took part in the conquest of Prague – and the sacking that followed. Magnus was generously rewarded for his participation.
In 1650, Queen Kristina decided it was about time she was crowned. Interestingly enough, she was already toying with the idea of abdicating, being of the opinion that women were not cut out to be rulers, but apparently Kristina felt entitled to a major party first. She planned a grand affair, with interminable processions, wine spouting from fountains, innumerable roasted animals to be served to the celebrating populace, fantastic clothes and pageantry.
Magnus Gabriel was entrusted to carry the royal banner before his queen, and so enthused was he by the whole occasion that he decided it required something special, a je-ne-sais-quoi, which was why he commissioned a throne in silver to be presented to his queen. Kristina was delighted. The throne was elegant and ostentatious at the same time, an indication of just how rich our Magnus was – richer, even, than the queen, some said.
So the lady was crowned, all the while considering just how to arrange her abdication. There may have been days when she regretted expressing her intention to her Council, but Kristina had passed beyond the point of no return when she secretly arranged for a Portuguese Jesuit in disguise, a certain Macedo, to carry a personal letter from her to the Pope regarding her planned conversion to the Catholic faith.
Stop, stop, stop! A Swedish Queen, head of the Swedish protestant Church, colluding with a cloak-and-dagger Jesuit? Major scandal – potentially devastating scandal, even for a reigning queen. And why this desire to convert to begin with? Well, the answer to that we will never know, but we know for a fact that Kristina was educated by a very open-minded gentleman named Johannes Matteus, who, contrary to most of his contemporaries, preached tolerance among the Christian faiths.
And then there was the charming French ambassador Chanut, who introduced Kristina to Catholic thinkers such as Descartes, and who very early on began fanning her interest in the Catholic faith. Plus, of course, the Pope did his thing, sending yet another undercover Jesuit to discuss Kristina’s conversion. In actual fact, most of the important potentates within Catholic Europe seemed aware of her interest in the old faith, with Felipe IV of Spain sending a dashing ambassador to further the cause of the righteous.
Don Antonio Pimentel de Prado arrived in Stockholm in 1652. He was witty, he was educated, he was charming and bright, and he buzzed round the queen as eagerly as a happy bumblebee circles a stand of clover. Long, secret discussions about Catholicism, about what future role Kristina would play, took place. Endless musings about the relative benefits of Catholicism vs Protestantism, accompanied, I’m thinking, by excellent Spanish wine (except that Kristina didn’t drink – she stuck to water).
For a woman in love with culture, with the fine arts, with opulence and pageantry, the orthodox Swedish Lutheran Church must have felt like a gigantic yoke. For a woman who loved being admired and complimented on her intellect, all these charming Catholic ambassadors were quite the intoxicant. And when charming, libertine Pierre Bourdelot arrived to take up the role of the queen’s physician, things became even livelier. It didn’t help that Magnus Gabriel – her peacock in residence – had been taken seriously ill, thereby spending several months away from court. Without flamboyant Magnus Gabriel to balance the attraction of these Catholic Don Juans, Kristina became even more determined not only to abdicate, but also to convert.
Magnus Gabriel returned to court to find his previous position as favourite usurped by a Spanish ambassador dandy and a French doctor. He was not happy, muttering something about Catholic sycophants. He sulked, he whined, and after a rather embarrassing situation in which he told the queen “someone” had told him she suspected him of treason – a pack of lies – the queen sent him home, refusing to have any further contact with him. Magnus Gabriel was devastated. He begged, he wheedled, he sent his wife and mother to the queen, he beseeched Karl Gustav to speak on his behalf, and all this had zero effect. Kristina was royally pissed off with her former favourite – and all too aware that there were very many among her nobles who, just like Magnus Gabriel, distrusted her Catholic friends.
Fortunately for Magnus Gabriel, in 1654 Kristina pushed her abdication through and left Sweden. In her stead, Magnus Gabriel’s brother-in-law Karl Gustav ascended the throne, having been hastily crowned immediately upon Christina’s formal abdication. Magnus Gabriel was in the clover, a boon companion to the king, holder of so many offices he’d have needed like ten modern-day business cards to present them all. However, Karl X Gustav was not quite as generous when it came to handing over estates to his favourites, and the state of the Swedish finances was dire – Kristina had little interest in numbers – so Magnus Gabriel’s purse did not exactly grow fatter.
Not that Magnus Gabriel seemed to care overmuch about balancing his books. His expenses constantly exceeded his incomes – a feat in itself as this man was loaded with estates. But Magnus Gabriel believed in noblesse oblige – well, at least when it came to appearances – and besides, he was married to the king’s sister, and of course that meant he had to live in style. Magnificent style. Exorbitant style, with over 1 000 people employed to see to his mansions and palaces, his farms and towns, his food and clothes.
To be fair to Magnus Gabriel, he didn’t only invest in his own luxurious lifestyle. He gave generously to such institutions as Uppsala University, promoted architects and artists, initiated the World’s first National Heritage organization (17th century Swedes were very eager to promote their illustrious ancient roots, trying to link us back to Noah and the ancient isle of Atlantis) and he personally paid to bring back treasures such as the Silver Bible, which Kristina had carried with her abroad and sold. (And yes, the Silver Bible, or Codex Argentus, really belongs in Prague, from which the rampaging Swedish soldiers stole it back in 1648, but this is an infected debate I prefer to side-step)
Karl X Gustav died most unexpectedly in 1660. Sweden was left in shock – the king who had led his army across the frozen straits to defeat the Danes, who had covered the Swedish Army in glory (well…) in the final years of the Thirty Years’ War was killed by pneumonia, and the crown now passed to a child, little Karl XI.
Magnus Gabriel was named Lord High Chancellor in Karl X Gustav’s will and as such was a member of the council which ruled Sweden under Karl XI’s minority. A dog fight ensued among the powerful nobles that sat on the council – and their wives, as represented by the rather tasteless shoving match between Maria Eufrosyne and another lady at Karl X Gustav’s funeral. The ladies had different opinions as to who was the most important…
The regency period was fraught, with the council divided by those who supported Magnus Gabriel, and those who opposed his policy of waging more wars and always siding with France. Plus there was the sensitive matter of Magnus Gabriel’s overextended finances and his tendency to now and then stick his hand in the till and award himself a royal donation or two to tide him over a personal financial crisis.
Karl XI came of age, and Magnus Gabriel remained at his side, a valued counsellor as per the king. Hmm. Not everyone agreed, and when Magnus Gabriel’s aggressive policy exploded into yet another war with Denmark, there were mutterings of High Treason – accusations that were dismissed as unfounded.
No, Magnus Gabriel was not a traitor – but he was a wastrel, a man who borrowed money everywhere and never repaid his debts. Unfortunately, his relaxed attitude to finances had led to an almost bankrupt kingdom, and the war with Denmark was the final nail in the coffin. Something had to be done – and quickly – to save Karl XIs kingdom.
The answer was simple – and so painful for the Swedish nobility that to this day The Reduction is remembered as one of the more drastic measures ever implemented by a king. What Karl XI did was simply to reclaim all lands the Crown had gifted to the nobles. All. Personal fortunes disappeared with the stroke of a quill, and in Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie’s case, he lost more or less everything he had – including the lands he’d inherited from his father and grandfather, seeing as these had also been gifts from the Crown.
The richest man in Sweden, proud owner of a number of castles and palaces, benefactor of the arts, was sent off to live out the rest of his life on one of his smaller manors, where he died in 1686, substantially poorer than when he was born. Those footsteps he was destined to fill and make bigger, had if anything shrunk, and the De la Gardie family was never to regain its former glory. Easy come, easy go, one could say: once upon a time a French mercenary landed in Sweden and made it good. Two generations later it was all gone.
So ends the story of Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie, that flashiest of Swedish noblemen. His castles are gone, his bloodline extinct, but that silver throne – well, it still exists! These days, however, it is too fragile to do more than decorative duty while our monarch sits on another chair beside it. Me, when I stand before it, I see a man with a blond mane down to his shoulders, his bucket-topped boots polished to perfection, his breeches and short padded jacket an orgy in gold-embroidered velvet. He is smiling at his queen, bowing deeply as she sits on the chair he made for her – only for her.