Love conquers all – even the mother from hell
Given today’s date, I thought it appropriate to bring you a story of how love can survive, no matter what obstacles. Mind you, it is my experience that love is at times fickle rather than constant – very few of us can go about more than a decade waiting and hoping that one day the love of our life will, in fact, land in our arms. When faced with such dire prospects, the heart – ever sanguine – has a tendency to look elsewhere. But not, I am happy to report, in this case, lifted from real life.
Once upon a time there was a young man named Erik Stenbock. Born in 1538, he belonged in the higher levels of Swedish nobility – his lineage stretched back into the mists of time, which in Sweden’s case was somewhere around the beginning of the 14th century, and he was the younger brother of the Gustav I’s third wife, Katarina Stenbock. This Katarina is quite the impressive lady: close to 40 years her husband’s junior – younger even than her eldest step-children – she managed to win not only her elderly husband’s affections but also those of his multiple children.
To make matters somewhat complicated, Katarina was the niece of Gustav I’s second wife, yet another imposing lady named Margareta Leijonhufud. This lady was actually contracted to marry a certain Svante Sture, but when the king’s beady eyes fixed on her, she had no choice but to acquiesce. Svante, they say, was utterly distraught. So distraught, in fact, that he threw herself at the feet of his former betrothed and begged her not to do this, leave him agonising in the flames of love. As he was grovelling, the king entered, not at all pleased by the touching tableau played out in front of him.
“What is this?” he roared, and Margareta, a quick thinker, immediately responded that Svante had come to beg the hand of her sister, Märta.
“So be it,” said the king, and so Svante found himself married to that most impressive force of nature, Märta Leijonhufud, known to history as King Märta on account of the iron hand with which she ruled her household.
Back to Erik. The nephew of a defunct queen, the brother of another, he was also the nephew of Märta, and for various reasons he spent a lot of his childhood at his aunt’s. Märta and Svante had been richly blessed when it came to children. Ten little Sture babies made it through the dangerous years of early infancy, and one of these babies was a pretty little girl called Malin, a year or so younger than Erik.
Erik fell in love with his cousin. Malin reciprocated, quite swept off her feet by her handsome cousin. Prior to the Reformation, a dispensation would have been required for cousins to marry. Post Reformation, such alliances were frowned upon by the church but they definitely happened – powerful noble families had a tendency to make their own rules. For some reason Märta was not at all enthused by the idea of wedding her daughter to her nephew. Instead, she “took advice” from the archbishop and pronounced such a union to be displeasing to God. Malin was devastated. Erik was crushed – but determined not to give up.
The loving couple pledged their troth in secret. I’m thinking rosemary and locks of hair, perhaps the exchange of a simple ring. As far as Erik and Malin were concerned, they were bound to each other for eternity. As far as Märta was concerned, she’d squashed the ridiculous notion of marriage once and for all.
At the time, Erik was around twenty. A young man, making his way up in a world that was somewhat perilous and fraught after the demise of Gustav I in 1560. The king’s eldest son, Erik XIV was not an entirely well man – intelligent, well-educated, charming and quite handsome, he was given to bouts of despair and insanity. Not qualities one wants in a king, and the nobles of his court found it tricky to manoeuvre in these murky waters.
Erik XIV had a particular fixation on the Sture family. You see, Svante Sture was the son of a man named Sven Sture (and a most amazing woman named Kristina Gyllenstierna) who had as much of a claim on the Swedish throne as did Erik XIV’s father, the now very dead Gustav I. While Svante Sture never did anything to indicate he was at all interested in claiming the throne, Erik XIV had his suspicions.
In 1567, the king succumbed to yet another bout of insanity during which he had Svante and two of his sons arrested. They were then brutally murdered – one of them stabbed to death by the king himself. Märta was understandably distraught – and enraged. She was definitely not in the mood to listen to Erik Stenbock’s repeated requests that he be allowed to marry pretty Malin. The two (not so) young people were forbidden to see each other, and that, as per Märta, was that. She had other matters to attend to, first and foremost to avenge the murders of her beloved husband and sons.
I can’t say I fault Märta’s priorities. She had many children to watch out for, and the death of her husband and her two eldest sons must have been a major blow. The Swedish court was in a state of shock at what their king had done. Erik XIV himself scampered off to hide for some days and emerged in control of himself. Thing were tense, putting it mildly, and it took the payment of a huge amount of silver in compensation for the murdered men to restore some element of peace.
Svante Sture and his sons were buried in Uppsala – a most magnificent spectacle in which the bloodied clothes they’d died in were elaborately displayed. And for those of you who like stuff like that, the clothes are still around and can be viewed in Uppsala. (I just had to include a pic – isn’t it impressive they’ve survived since 1567?)
Throughout all this, Malin refused to marry whatever suitors Märta brought before her. Her heart was set on her Erik Stenbock, and it was either him or no one.
“Fine,” said Märta, “be an old maid then. I don’t care. I have plenty of other children to carry on the family name.” As Malin was fast approaching thirty, she already was an old maid as per the standards of the day.
Erik Stenbock, meanwhile, withstood the mounting pressure to marry. It was Malin or no one, and his parents, his siblings, they all went cap in hand to Märta to beg her to reconsider. Needless to say, she refused. It would be a sin to allow them to wed, she repeated over and over again. I dare say her recent bereavement had made her bitter – she had no tolerance for such fripperies as true love. Besides, Märta had her attention and considerable energy focussed elsewhere: she had decided it was time to change the regent.
Erik XIV had two younger half-brothers. One of them, Johan, was by all accounts a capable man – and definitely not insane. Fretting under the yoke of his older brother, Johan planned rebellion, and Märta was more than happy to assist, pledging all the blood money she got from Erik XIV to finance the revolt.
Erik XIV didn’t help his cause by marrying the illiterate daughter of a man-at arms – no matter how beautiful a love story it makes (see more here) In 1568 Erik XIV was deposed and spent the rest of his life incarcerated in one or other of the royal castles. Instead, his brother became Johan III, and Märta was in the agreeable position of having a king who was indebted to her – and was her nephew.
The new king was also Erik Stenbock’s cousin – as was the new king’s younger brother, Duke Karl. Our not so young hero remained determined to win his bride, and after more than a decade pleading and begging, he was fast approaching a point where he saw no choice but to act. During all this time, he had remained in secret correspondence with his beloved, and in 1573, the by now 35-year-old ardent lover set his plan in motion.
Duke Karl loaned him 200 men-at-arms, Erik Stenbock himself arranged for a sleigh and a strong, spirited horse. The soldiers were carefully placed round Hörningsholm Manor, where the fair Malin lived with the rest of her huge family. Quite brazenly, Erik then drove the sleigh right up to the front door and invited Malin to take a moonlit ride with him. She, of course, knew of the plan and so she graciously agreed. Her older sister, who was tasked with the job of ensuring Malin and Erik never met, felt sorry for the unhappy two and allowed Malin to accompany him for a short ride. After all, what would be the harm in that?
In only the clothes she was wearing and a thick cloak, Malin ascended the sleigh. The horse took off. Belatedly, big sister Sigrid realised the sleigh was not taking a little turn in the yard – it was making a beeline for the frozen lake. Enraged (and probably weak at the knees at the thought of her mother’s ire) she ordered the sleigh to be pursued – which was when all those soldiers materialised, creating a protective barrier that allowed Erik to make his getaway with his beloved Malin.
Märta did not take it well. I imagine a lot of things went crashing against the wall. This was unacceptable – her own daughter to so humiliate her and flagrantly disobey her. No: She was having none of it. Märta stormed off to the king, rather unsubtly reminded him of how much he owed her and demanded that Erik be imprisoned, all his lands and titles taken from him.
At first, Johan acquiesced, and poor Erik was thrown into a dungeon. But soon enough people were coming out of the woodwork demanding that Johan reinstate Erik and allow the man to wed the woman he’d remained constant to for over fifteen years. Johan’s wife, his sisters, his brother, his counsellors, every nobleman of any standing in the land – they all came to plead Erik’s cause.
The king relented. In 1574 Erik and Malin were finally wed, and one would have thought it was time for the happily ever after. But Malin wished desperately to be reconciled with her mother (one wonders why: maybe the softer sides of Märta have not made it down through history), and so she begged her siblings and all her close relatives to intercede on her behalf.
It took years before Märta ungraciously granted Malin and Erik an audience. They were invited to Hörningsholm Manor, but were lodged in the bathhouse, far from the manor itself. Had I been Erik I’d have said “sod it” and departed immediately, but he was concerned for his heavily pregnant wife. (Seriously, this Erik Stenbock comes across as quite the dream boat: constant, handsome, determined and conscientious)
At long last, they were ordered to present themselves. Dressed in black, the young couple crawled on their hands and knees all the way down the hall to where Märta was sitting. Only then, with both of them in abject prostration before her, could Märta find it in her to utter words of forgiveness. Somehow, I don’t think the future mother-daughter relationship was all that warm and cuddly…
Malin and Erik went on to have four children – and relatively long lives. It is doubtful, however, if these lives were entirely happy, as Erik was forced into exile in 1598. Me, being a romantic, hope that before that date there were plenty of moments of quiet joy. It seems to me they deserved it.