The female touch – of a renaissance king and his wives
Gustav Eriksson Vasa is something of a national hero in Sweden. Okay, so we don’t do national heroes all that well, so while we credit him with freeing Sweden from the unbearable Danish yoke as represented by Christian II, we also consider Gustav Vasa as something of a grasping bastard.
If we start with the Danish angle, Christian II (nicknamed “The Tyrant” in Sweden, which shows just how much we love him) trod Sweden underfoot in the early decades of the 16th century, and is also responsible for one of the bloodier massacres in Early Swedish History, the Stockholm Bloodbath. Christian’s intention was to murder all leading Swedish male nobles. Luckily for Gustav Vasa, he wasn’t in Stockholm on that particular November day in 1520. Instead, he swore to avenge his father, his uncles, his cousins, his…long list.
By 1523, Vasa had achieved his goal. Christian II and his acolytes were on the run, and our Gustav, supported by the brave Swedish yeomanry, re-established Sweden as an independent kingdom, with, unsurprisingly, Gustav Vasa as its king. At the time, Gustav was around 28 or so, and, unusually for the times, unmarried. I suppose having spent the last three years on the run and fighting for his life and his country had made him less than inclined to burden himself with a wife, but once seated on the Swedish throne, Vasa turned his attention to finding a woman and begetting an heir.
Gustav Vasa had grown up surrounded by formidable women. His aunt, Kristina Gyllenstierna, had led the defence of Stockholm against the Danes, often to be found on the ramparts with her men. His mother, Cecilia, had been hauled off to captivity by Christian II in the aftermath of Stockholm’s Bloodbath, together with her younger daughters. Christian promised Cecilia her freedom if she would convince her son to submit, and supposedly Cecilia tried. Hmm. Having seen her husband, her brothers, her uncles, die in Stockholm, I’m not entirely sure Cecilia trusted Christian’s intentions. Neither did Kristina, imprisoned with Cecilia.
Whatever the case, upon hearing Gustav Vasa had been crowned Swedish king, Christian supposedly had Cecilia sew a sack out of burlap, tied her up in it, and threw her in the sea to drown. The somewhat more pragmatic truth is that Cecilia succumbed to the plague – conditions in the prison she shared with all the other Swedish ladies were rather nasty. Not only Cecilia died: her two young daughters also died in Denmark.
Gustav liked women. Not in the sense of involving himself in numerous carnal relationships, but rather from the perspective of enjoying their company. So when he set out to choose a wife, he wasn’t looking for a pretty little thing to impregnate and ignore, no, he wanted a companion. He also needed to build alliances – Sweden was still a weak and shaky country, and no matter that Denmark was struggling with its own internal affairs (Christian II was subsequently deposed, forced to flee into exile with his family) it still posed a threat.
Gustav’s first wife was therefore a foreign lady, Catherine of Saxe-Lauenburg. This young woman came with the benefit of having a sister who was already married to the new Danish king, Christian III. Gustav Vasa hoped that familial ties would smooth the way to a permanent peace with his southern, somewhat bellicose, neighbour.
Catherine was unhappy in Sweden. Eighteen years old to Gustav’s thirty-six, she considered her husband old, Stockholm depressingly rustic, and the Swedes lacking in anything resembling polish. Probably quite true, but her open criticism resulted in an unhappy and rocky marriage, which ended when Catherine died after a fall at the age of twenty-two (Lurid legend has it that Gustav beat her to death with an axe. Seeing as her bones show no sign of such brutality, we can put this down to Danish propaganda…) She left behind a little son, the future king Erik XIV.
In 1536, Gustav married again. Now a robust forty, the king needed to fill his nursey – one puny little boy was not enough to ensure the survival of his bloodline. As per contemporary descriptions, Gustav Vasa was quite an attractive man, sporting an impressive beard, tightly cropped blond hair and an excellent physique. Something of a slave under fashion, Gustav was a flamboyant dresser, and seemingly carried off revealing hose with panache. So despite his advanced age, he attracted his fair share of female looks, and his second wife, Margareta Leijonhuvud, seems to have been quite taken with her husband, even if he was twice her age.
Mind you, things didn’t get off to a brilliant start, seeing as Margareta was promised elsewhere – and supposedly was very infatuated with young Svante Sture, her original intended. It is said that when Gustav came to press his suit, Magareta was so distraught she scurried up to hide in the attic. Gustav, however, was a determined man, and followed her up there. Somehow, he convinced her to say yes, and once she’d done so, she never looked back.
Margareta was twenty years old when she and Gustav married in September of 1536. Of impeccable bloodlines, she too had lost male relatives en masse at the Stockholm Bloodbath and had been raised in a household where politics were discussed openly at the dinner table. In difference to the unfortunate Catherine, Margareta had the skills and knowledge required to offer her husband relevant advice – and to judge from their correspondence, he gladly took it.
Theirs was a happy marriage. Gustav was devoted to his wife (nowhere is there as much as an insinuation that Gustav ever strayed from the marital bed) and she to him, presenting him with ten children of which eight would survive to adulthood. His letters to her often began “To Margareta, my dearest heart”, and she would usually direct herself to “my most beloved lord”. He trusted her to manage their various homes, to hire staff, arrange their financial affairs, administer justice when he wasn’t around, and in general act as his second-in-command. In return, her various siblings made advantageous marriages – but Margareta was made responsible of ensuring they did not mistreat their tenant farmers. (Gustav had the utmost respect for the Swedish farmers: he knew first hand that these doughty men made formidable fighters when riled – after all, these were the men who’d helped him oust the Danes)
Like all wise consorts in this day and age, Margareta rarely challenged her husband in public. Should her opinions differ from his, she saved any discussion for when they were alone, and even then, she would abstain from open criticism. Men like Gustav responded better to murmured cajoling than ultimatums. Margareta, as all medieval queens, was also expected to intercede with the king for those who begged her to do so. Like all successful consorts, Margareta was selective in who she chose to plead for. She seems to have done a lot of manoeuvring on behalf of her youngest sister Märta who had ended up married with dashing Svante Sture. Maybe Margareta still retained a soft spot for the young man she once hoped to wed.
Margareta also oversaw the schooling of the royal children. Gustav Vasa was a great believer in education, and especially his sons were given tutors that would help expand their knowledge of the world. That Margareta was allowed to take control over the education of her children is interesting seeing as she was a devout Catholic. Gustav Vasa reformed the Swedish Church early on in his reign – he needed the money the dissolution of the various monasteries would bring – but he was relatively lenient when it came to the question of faith as such. As long as people toed the line when it came to his laws, as long as they paid their taxes, he left it up to them to worship God as they pleased. Accordingly, his children had Catholic tutors, Protestant tutors, Calvinist tutors. Simply put, Margareta and Gustav wanted the best tutors, no matter what their religious beliefs might be.
Just how much Gustav trusted his wife was made evident in 1544, when Sweden was formally converted to a hereditary kingdom. By then, Gustav had three sons to secure the hold of the Vasa dynasty on the Swedish throne, Erik, Johan and Magnus. There would be one more before Margareta and Gustav were done, the future Karl IX. There were also a couple of daughters – valuable pawns in Gustav’s search for alliances – and I imagine Gustav smiled into his beard as he studied his growing family.
Anyway, in 1544 Gustav also decided that should he die before his sons were of an age to rule, Margareta was to act as regent. To reinforce her power, he granted her several of Sweden’s more important castles to hold in her own name until the heir of the throne came of age. Suddenly, Margareta was in a position to wield substantial power should she want to. She didn’t, expressing fervently that she hoped she would never live to see the day when she had to make her way through life without her beloved husband. Went down well with hubby, I imagine…
Margareta was granted her wish. In 1551, she sickened and died, leaving behind a distraught husband and eight children, the youngest no more than a year old. It is said there was a solar eclipse on the day she died, the heavens as affected by her death as was her husband and her family. She was buried with adequate pomp and circumstance in Uppsala Cathedral, sharing a tomb with Gustav’s first wife. When Gustav Vasa died nine years later, he was buried between them.
Gustav was very affected by Margareta’s death. Now well into his fifties, he’d grown accustomed to having her see to his physical comfort, to having her always at his side. The king decided to marry again – something everyone expected him to do, as he needed someone to help him raise all those children. After some scouting about, his eye fell on Katarina Stenbock, a pretty blonde girl who was forty years his junior. She was also Margareta’s niece, which caused some problems – the church was not happy with what they considered to be a marriage within the prohibited degree.
Katarina herself was not thrilled. Yet again, the chosen bride was already promised elsewhere, and I imagine exchanging the vision of sleeping with a man her own age to that of sleeping with a man old enough to be her grandfather must have been…err…difficult. But no one asked Katarina’s opinion – her family was eager to see her wed to the king, thereby ensuring a future of preferences. So in 1552, Katarina married Gustav in a splendid ceremony where her new step-daughters (and cousins) in red silk surrounded the bride in pink.
Katarina and Gustav never achieved the relationship Gustav had had with Margareta. Hers were big shoes to fill, and besides the age difference must have made it difficult for them to find all that much to chit-chat about. Being of an age with her step-children, Katarina was probably prone to take their part in any conflict with their father – and there were conflicts, as the ageing Gustav grew increasingly short of temper while his children chafed under his control.
Plus, of course, there was the major, major scandal when one of Gustav’s daughters, Cecilia, was caught in the very compromising situation of having a half-naked man in her bedroom. Gustav blamed Katarina for not having exercised sufficient control over Cecilia. Reputedly, Katarina told him Cecilia wasn’t her daughter, but his.
Katarina never gave Gustav any children, although to judge from some oblique comments in various documents she was probably pregnant on some occasions. Neither was she put in the same position of trust as Margareta, Gustav mostly using her as his housekeeper and step-mother to his children. He never corresponded with her as he did with Margareta, preferring to write directly to his elder daughters instead.
In the end, Katarina was relegated to being his nurse. Gustav took his time dying and hated being bedridden – something he took out on poor Katarina, blaming her for the fact that his children rarely came to visit. Truth was, they avoided their father and his foul temper during his last months on earth…
When Gustav died in 1560, Katarina was left to the mercy of her step-sons. Gustav had left instructions that she be given an income and lands in keeping with her status as dowager queen, but he had never specified either amounts or lands. Fortunately for Katarina, her step-sons were fond of her, so she wasn’t exactly left destitute.
Katarina survived her husband for well over six decades. She never married again, never wore anything but widow’s weeds, and when she finally died, at the very advanced age of 86 years, she too was buried with her husband in Uppsala Cathedral. And there, to this day, they lie: the king, his first dynastic wife, his beloved second wife, and his housekeeper third wife. And let me tell you, if skeletons can hold hands, then Gustav’s finger bones are tightly interlinked with those of Margareta, the wife he adored.