ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “Human life”

The whole world in His hands

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The Holy family, Murillo

Lately, I’ve been pondering the word “Christian”. Not Christian as in “yes, I belong to the Christian faith”, more Christian in “I am a Christian” (with a lot of emphasis on the italicised word) , which, as far as I can tell, means the person in question goes to church regularly and studied his/her bible frequently. This in difference to those who are of the Christian denomination by rote, eg they were baptized as Christians but don’t have their lives revolving around their faith. Now, before I go any further, there are a lot of active Christians out there (some of which I count as dear friends) who are very good people – which is fortunate, seeing as anyone defining themselves as “Christian first” have a lot to live up to.

You see, if a person presents themselves as “Christian”, my expectations on that person are that they will live up to the most basic of Christian tenets, namely charity. These last few days, I see a lot of stuff being presented as being part of “Christian” values, but I see little indication of this being done out of an encompassing, altruistic endeavor. Stopping refugees at the borders has little to do with altruism, far more to do with promoting a “we” and “them” take on the world, as does pushing your own “moral” agenda down the throat of people with fundamentally different beliefs. As does pointing fingers at those among us who refuse to be defined by their gender in everything from who they have sex with to how they dress.

I don’t go to church regularly, nor do I read my bible all that often. I do, however, struggle daily with being a good person, even if at times that means sharing when I don’t want to, helping when I don’t have time. I try. Often, I fail. But I try—hard—to live as per the most important message in the New Testament, namely “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

ehfa-westminster-retablePlease note that others in the above sentence isn’t qualified. It doesn’t say “Do unto other Christians as you would have others do unto you.” Nor does it say “Do unto others who are like you as you would have others do unto you.” It just says “others”, which reasonably must be interpreted as meaning the entire human race. All of us, no matter race, gender or creed. It would seem Jesus really did believe in having the whole world in His hands.

So, now that we’ve established that “others” means others as in stepping-out-of-our-comfort-zone others, maybe we should analyse the rest of the sentence.

Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. If you slip on a patch of ice and fall, you’d like someone to help you up, right? So it follows that if you see someone slipping, you should hasten forward to pull them back up on their feet. Life is not always a walk in the park. There is plenty of ice out there, metaphorically speaking. One very nasty patch of ice is called war, and at present the world has I don’t know how many millions of people fleeing their homelands and the life they’ve known—not because they want to, but because they have to. They’ve slipped pretty badly, one could say, and as good human beings, and definitely as a Christian, we have an obligation to give them a helping hand. After all, it could be us out there, stuck in a patched tent with UN rations the only thing keeping starvation at bay.

slide1When people are in need, it shouldn’t matter if they’re Muslim or Jewish or Hindu or walk about dyed blue, or wear nothing but a loin cloth. It shouldn’t matter if they’re young or old, if they’re male or female. They need help. It is part of basic decency to offer it.

When some among us choose to live in same-sex relationships, this is not ground for condemnation, no matter what Leviticus might have to say on the matter. By the time Jesus came round, Leviticus was OLD stuff, probably severely outdated even back then. Besides, how on earth can anyone purporting to believe in Jesus condemn someone for loving? A good Christian should, IMO, show toleration and respect. A good Christian should, once again IMO, defend every person’s right to find happiness where they can find it – as long as they do not cause anyone else harm. A good Christian should remember “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” and reflect on the fact that there could come a time when they’re in minority. Surely, they’d want to be respected and tolerated by the surrounding majority who chose to live/believe differently from them, right?

Had He not been resurrected, I think Jesus would have been spinning like a top in the grave, groaning out loud at all the people who take His name in vain. Because that’s what you do if you loudly proclaim yourself a Christian but lack in charity and compassion. Once in heaven, Jesus won’t be all that impressed by hearing about bible-reading and church-going. It’s the actions that count, and He’ll want to know about what you did, how you contributed to alleviate the suffering of those who have little – or nothing at all.

So if you’re going to present yourself as “Christian”, please do some loving. And caring. Be tolerant and supportive. Extend that hand of yours and help, no matter who it is that has slipped on the ice.

hand-20170205_142546Actually, all of this is valid no matter what you might believe in. So let me rephrase: be a GOOD person, okay? Or try to be. The world needs good people—now more than ever. It needs us to care, to defend those who are weaker, to stand up for everyone’s right to be treated with respect. It needs us to show some basic decency and remember that the human condition is a global condition. It needs those of us who’ve attended Sunday school in those distant days of our childhood to hum “black and yellow, red and white, they’re all precious in His sight” and remember that the similarities that bind us are far, far greater than the differences.
You are my brother/sister. Here’s my hand if you need it!

Avesnes vs Dampierre – a 13th century family feud

drottning_blanka_malning_av_albert_edelfelt_fran_1877In a previous post—quite some time ago—I wrote about Blanka of Namur, Swedish queen who was immortalised by a nursery rhyme. I must admit that I knew very little about Blanka—there isn’t much to find, and other than concluding her father’s name was Jean and that she had ten siblings, I concentrated mostly on Blanka’s life in Sweden.

Now Blanka (or Blanche, as her name was spelled in French) came from a relatively illustrious family that had had the misfortune of antagonising Philippe IV of France. Antagonising this gentleman was generally a bad idea. Although Philippe had the face of an angel—hence his nickname, le Bel—he comes across as a ruthless ruler—hence his nickname the Iron King—more than willing to do whatever it took to advance his interests.

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Baldwin, setting off on Crusade

If we start at the beginning, allow me to introduce you to Guy de Dampierre. No, wait: we need to start with Guy’s formidable mother, Margaret of Flanders, born around 1202. Margaret had an unfortunate childhood in that her father, Baldwin of Hainault, took the cross and rode off to join the Fourth Crusade before she was born, and no sooner had Margaret’s mother, Marie de Champagne, recovered from the ordeal of birth but she followed her husband, leaving her two little girls in the care of their paternal uncle. Soon enough, both Baldwin and Marie were dead, and Margaret’s big sister, Jeanne, was effectively the heiress to Hainault and Flanders.

When big sister Jeanne married Fernando of Portugal (a.k.a. Ferrand of Flanders) there were plans to marry Margaret to the Earl of Salisbury, but Margaret’s guardian, Bouchard de Avesnes, put a stop to this. Instead, in 1212 Bouchard married Margaret himself, this despite the bride being only ten, twenty years younger than Bouchard. At this point, things could have taken a turn for the HEA. By all accounts, Margaret was very fond of her husband—and he of her. But Bouchard was a bellicose person, who was constantly involved in one war or another. At times, he was fighting his brother, at others, he made common cause with the English against the French. Like at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214. Big mistake, seeing as the then French king Philippe Augustus emerged victorious and wasn’t exactly known for his clemency towards those he defeated.

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It was suggested to Philippe Augustus that the best way to get to Bouchard was to have the pope declare his marriage invalid. The pope did so in 1215, but Margaret and Bouchard refused to accept his ruling and fled to Luxemburg where they settled down to do some serious begetting—three sons in three years, even if their firstborn died after a year or so.

Things conspired against Bouchard who was captured and locked up in Ghent. Pressure was brought to bear on Margaret—big sister Jeanne seems to have detested Bouchard—and according to some sources she reluctantly agreed to having her marriage annulled so that Bouchard could regain his freedom. Bouchard, just as reluctantly, agreed to the separation. The idea, apparently, was for Bouchard to ride to Rome and plead their case before the pope. Sister Jeanne, however, took the opportunity to marry Margaret off to another man, a William de Dampierre.

To say things were complicated is putting it mildly: Margaret had two sons by her first marriage, and to make matters even worse, Bouchard was still very much alive and kicking, making this second marriage borderline bigamous. (How on earth did she tell him? “Hi honey, I know we have sworn to love each other for ever, no matter what popes and kings may think, but I think I may just have made a teensy-weensy mistake. I’ve married someone else. I hope you won’t mind.” )

One wonders just why William de Dampierre was willing to marry Margaret, and given the circumstances, I’m not about to put it down to passionate love. I rather think he was gambling on Margaret becoming the next Countess of Flanders, seeing as Joan’s husband was languishing in prison after the Battle of Bouvines, thereby hindered from siring any children with his wife.

For some odd reason, Margaret quickly decided her sons from her second marriage were much more dear to her than those from her first. Maybe she was just trying to forget she had once been married to Bouchard. Maybe she genuinely preferred both her second husband and her second brood of children. Maybe it was as simple as her being aware of the fact that in the eyes of the church, her Avesnes sons were illegitimate. Whatever the case, she and William had five children before William died in 1231. Margaret chose not to remarry. Perhaps because Bouchard was still alive…

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Margaret’s seal

In 1244, several things happened. Bouchard died – some say he was executed on Countess Jeanne’s orders. Margaret was now definitely a widow, both her husbands dead and buried. That same year, Jeanne died and Margaret became Countess of Flanders, making her eldest Dampierre son, William, her co-ruler.

This did not go down well with her Avesnes sons (Duh!) Soon enough, there was major strife in Flanders and Hainault. In 1246, the French king, Louis IX, ruled that Hainault was to go to the Avesnes sons, Flanders to the Dampierre sons. Margaret refused to turn over Hainault to her son John de Avesnes, war exploded. Things came to a head in 1251 when the Avesnes sons had William assassinated. And this dear peeps, is when Guy de Dampierre, Margaret’s second Dampierre son and grandfather of the future Swedish queen, Blanche of Namur, finally steps into the limelight.

Now Guy may have been a charming gentleman, but he wasn’t the most effective of men. Or maybe his Avesnes half-brother, John, was simply a better warrior. Whatever the case, in 1253 Guy was defeated by John in battle and taken prisoner. He kicked his heels for three years before he was ransomed in 1256. Yet again, Louis of France decided that Hainault should go to the Avesnes family, Flanders to the de Dampierres. Yet again, Margaret was reluctant, but when John de Avesnes died in 1257 she agreed to have her young grandson, also a John, named as Count of Hainault—with her as his regent.

I have no idea what Guy thought of all this. His domineering mother had no intention of relinquishing control anywhere, so for the coming two decades, he was co-ruler of Flanders, which probably meant he had little say in anything. Maybe he liked it that way. After all, the man sired sixteen legitimate children with two consecutive wives, so maybe he preferred spending time with his family.

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Guy himself

In 1278, Margaret decided it was time to step down. At last Guy came into his own. But in France, King Philippe IV wanted to make life difficult for the English, who traded extensively with Flanders. Obviously, the Flemish merchants—or Guy—did not share Philippe’s goal. Philippe decided to up the pressure. Did not go down well, but Guy couldn’t exactly challenge Philippe on his own. Which was why, in 1294, Guy came up with the brilliant idea of entering into an alliance with Edward I of England. How? By offering the hand of his daughter Philippa as a wife to Edward, Prince of Wales.

Philippe was having none of it. He was presently negotiating with the English king, attempting to take advantage of the difficult situation with Scotland. So he abducted Philippa and locked her up. The poor child would never regain her freedom, dying twelve years later, still a prisoner of the French king. Very sad, isn’t it? And as to Guy, Philippe decided some coercion was required to make the Count of Flanders realise just how dangerous it was to rile him. Which was why Guy and two of his sons also ended up as prisoners.

Once he’d promised never, ever to marry one of his daughters to an English prince, Guy and his sons were released. In 1297, Guy yet again allied himself with Edward I, which gave Philippe the excuse he needed to invade Flanders. And as to Edward, he made his own peace with Philippe in 1298, leaving poor Guy in the lurch. Once again, Guy was imprisoned, and this time, except for a brief period in 1302, he would not regain his freedom. In 1305, Guy died, still a prisoner of the French king.

I’m thinking many, many Flemish people heaved sighs of relief when Philippe died in 1314 – some say due to being cursed by Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Templars. (Different story: see more here) Too late for Guy, too late for Philippa, but Guy had many, many children, and his sixth son, Jean, was made Marquis of Namur.

At the advanced age of forty-three this Jean married the nineteen-year-old Marie d’Artois and over the coming twenty years she would give him eleven children—one of which was little Blanche, destined to be queen of Sweden. I’m thinking Margaret of Flanders would have liked that. Just as she would have liked that her great-great-granddaughter, Philippa of Hainault, would one day become Queen of England—even if Philippa was an Avesnes, not a Dampierre.

Put not your trust in princes

Some time ago, I wrote a post about the unfortunate Danish princess Ingeborg who was sent off to France to marry Philippe Augustus and instead ended up as Philippe’s prisoner for a number of years, this after a wedding night that somehow must have been very momentous. After all, it was the morning after that Philippe emerged from the chamber and promised he would never, ever spend another night with the woman within. Quite the little mystery, that.

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Peter of Bourbon

Today, I’m going to introduce you to yet another sad little princess. Once again, the bride is abandoned only days after the wedding, but this time we probably know why. Well, perhaps. Anyway, allow me to introduce Blanche. When we first meet her, she is twelve or so, one of Peter of Bourbon’s six daughters.

One could say that Blanche’s future fate was shaped by the Black Death. Had Princess Joan of England, Edward III’s daughter, not died of the plague while on her way to wed Pedro of Castile (sometimes known as Pedro the Cruel, sometimes as Pedro the Just – a matter of perspective and political spin, I suppose) then Pedro would not have needed a wife. Had not the pope and the French king John II jumped at the opportunity of throwing a major wrench in Edward III’s plans for a new alliance with Castile, likely she’d never have popped up on the list of potential brides. And had it not been because Pedro’s first choice among the French ladies, the purportedly drop-dead AND wise Dowager Queen Blanche of Navarra, had told him no, our little Blanche would never have travelled all the way to Castile, there to wed the Castilian king.

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Beautiful Blanche of Navarra is the lady to the right

Before we go on, I just have to digress: Blanche of Navarra was known throughout Europe for her beautiful countenance, and originally came to France to marry the future John II. However, John’s father, Philippe VI, who was recently widowed was afflicted by a serious coup de foudre and decided to marry this angelic creature himself. Did not go down well with John. What Blanche thought of all this, I have no idea, but one year later, Philippe died, supposedly due to having exhausted himself in bed. Blanche was now a twenty-year-old widow, and would remain a widow for the rest of her life. Maybe John II wanted it so. Maybe Blanche wanted it so.

Anyway, back to today’s leading lady: Blanche of Bourbon came with an impeccable pedigree. Through her mother she was the great-granddaughter of Philippe III and the cousin of the French king John II. Her father was the great-grandson of Saint Louis of France, and as Saint Louis had a Castilian mother, Blanca, little Blanche was also a distant relation of her future groom. She was also a generously dowered bride, John of France promising Pedro 300 000 gold florins, money Pedro needed to finance the ongoing civil war between him and his half-brothers.

You see, the situation in Castile was a tad messy, seeing as Pedro’s father Alfonso XI had preferred his mistress, Leonor, to Pedro’s mother, Maria. As a consequence, when Alfonso died he had only one legitimate heir—Pedro—but half a dozen or so bastard sons with Leonor. And when Pedro’s mother decided to execute her husband’s mistress, things quickly went downhill. (More about all this can be found here)

The negotiations for the Blanche and Pedro marriage took some time. By the time Blanche set off for Castile, she was almost fourteen—a big, big girl in a big, big world. Well, not such a big girl, actually. Probably rather scared, and even more so when she arrived in Valladolid only to have her groom delay the marriage. Now what?

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Maria saying hello to Pedro. (not likely!)

We are now in early 1353, and Pedro had recently met the love of his life, Maria de Padilla. No matter what the various chroniclers may think of Pedro, they do seem to agree on the fact that Maria was not only very pretty, she was also kind and a good influence on Pedro in his darker moments. But she wasn’t a princess, and the king had to contract a dynastic marriage.

Some say the reason for the delay between Blanche arriving in Spain and Pedro marrying her was due to his love for Maria—he just couldn’t countenance betraying her with another woman. The truth is probably more prosaic: Pedro had as yet not received the moneys promised him by John II of France (The huge dower was to be paid in instalments)

Anyway, in June of 1353, a reluctant Pedro finally married Blanche, more or less dragged to the altar by his mother. Three days later he abandoned her and would never again treat her as his wife, rather as his prisoner. There are various theories as to why he did this. Some say it was because he found out his bride was not a virgin (but would that have taken him three days?) and even worse, she’d welcomed one of Pedro’s half-brothers, Fadrique, to her bed. Hmm, is all I say.

Others say it was because of his love for Maria. Once wed, he realised just how unbearable life would be without the light of his life, and so decided to be forever faithful to Maria, while throwing Blanche in prison to stop her objecting. Yet again, hmm.

The third reason (and the one borne out—to some extent—by letters he sent to the pope) is that he found out he’d been duped: the French king had no intention of ever honouring his promise of 300 000 florins, and seeing as John was nowhere about for Pedro to vent his anger on, poor Blanche got it all.

Copyright Museums Sheffield / Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationWhatever the case, he must have been very, very angry, because instead of just sending Blanche home, he locked her up. A year later, he managed to convince some of his bishops to declare his marriage null and void and married Juana de Castro – but even then, he held on to poor Blanche who, as per her own letters to the pope, was kept in anything but a comfortable captivity.

Juana was also abandoned after some time—this time because the pope threatened Pedro with excommunication if he did not return to his first, true wife (Blanche)—but Pedro spent long enough with her to sire a son, even if he made it very clear that in his opinion his true wife was Maria, so his children by her had precedence. And as to Blanche, well Pedro had no intention of returning to her. Ever.

After all this marital effort, coupled with a lot of fighting and blood and gore in general—Pedro left a relatively high number of murdered people in his wake, not all of them necessarily by his hand or his orders, but still—Pedro made his home with Maria, who was to present him with four children, albeit that the only son died young. Those who’d been around for some time muttered that history was repeating itself: just like his father, Pedro was spending his time with his mistress rather than his wife. Of course, in this particular case, there were TWO wives. Very complicated, and the only one utterly delighted by this mess was Enrique of Trastámera, Pedro’s half-brother and contender for the Castilian crown.

The pope continued to thunder. Innocent IV sent letter after letter, demanding that Pedro recognise Blanche as his wife – or at least free her from her prison. In Castile, a number of romances saw the light of the day, sad little stories that all had a poor, imprisoned princess as the protagonist. Some of Pedro’s nobles began to make a lot of noise on behalf of Blanche. The French kept on insisting that she be returned to them—together with what dowry they had paid. The obvious solution would have been to send Blanche home. Instead, Pedro opted for a more creative approach.

In 1361, Blanche was being held in the royal palace at Jeréz de la Frontera, far away from anyone attempting to free her. Pedro approached the constable and told him to poison the prisoner. The constable refused and resigned his post. Pedro found a new constable who was more than happy to do as the king wished, and so poor Blanche expired. Whether she was forced to consume whatever contained the poison, I don’t know. But I hold it likely, as failure was not an option if you were serving dear Pedro. Mind you, there are some that say Blanche could have died of natural causes, but seeing as her death followed upon a sequence of assassinations, I must yet again offer up a hmm. Whatever the case, Blanche was now as dead as a rock, and Pedro could happily skip off to tell Maria the good news. She could now be queen in name as well as fact.

Unfortunately for Pedro, Maria died shortly after. So devastated was he, that for a year he wept in grief. Then he pulled himself together and went back to defending his realm, this time with the support of the Black Prince. Wily Pedro had secured an alliance with England by promising two of his daughters as brides to Edward III’s sons. Effectively, this could lead to Castile becoming a vassal state to England.

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Pedro being murdered, with du Guesclin holding his arms

In the end, Pedro lost. In 1369 he was foully murdered by his half-brother, stabbed to death while held immobile by a rather famous French dude called Bertrand du Guesclin. Reputedly, du Guesclin had first accepted a bribe from Pedro to help him escape, then told Enrique (whom he was serving as a mercenary commander) about this. Enrique promised du Guesclin more money if he would only lead Pedro to Henry’s tent. Du Guesclin thought this was a great idea, and when Pedro and Enrique started to fight, he stood to the side. Well, until Pedro managed to land on top of Enrique. At this point, Bertrand stepped forward and grabbed hold of Pedro while saying “Ni quito ni pongo rey, pero ayudo a mi señor,” which meant “I am not really interfering here, I am simply helping my lord.” Since then, this has been used as a blanket excuse by all Spanish grandees doing as ordered, no matter if it is right or wrong.( Nah, just kidding)

blanche-john_william_waterhouse_-_fair_rosamundMaybe we can see Pedro’s bloody death as divine retribution for what he did to Blanche. A young girl had her life stolen from her, made to pay for the duplicity of others. And whether or not he had her poisoned, he had humiliated her and mistreated her, dragging her from one locked tower to the other. It is said Blanche herself never wanted to marry Pedro: she begged her father, her king, her mother and sister, to find another bride for the Castilian groom. At the time, her opinion was dismissed as unimportant – an alliance with Castile was far more important than a young girl’s misgivings. Turned out Blanche was right: the union with Pedro was all thorns no blooms, and as to that alliance, it evaporated the moment Pedro realised the French king never intended to pay the promised dowry. Poor, poor Blanche. Poor little French princess, so far from home, so very alone. Did she sit at her window and stare towards the horizon, hoping to see someone come riding to save her? If she did, she did so in vain.

A shallow nomad

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Genghis Khan with a yurt in the background

Had I lived back in the times of Genghis Khan, I would have been one of the Mongolian wives protesting loudly whenever the horde packed up and moved on.
“Leave my yurt alone,” I’d have told the fearless Mongolian warrior who was the father of my children. “Seriously, I want to put down roots, ok? You know, il faut cultiver son jardin and all that.”

I guess my nomadic husband would just have laughed. He lived for the roaming across the steppes – as did all the Mongolians. Except for me, had I been around. I like living in one place. I like sleeping in the same bed every night. Which is why it is ironic that, as of today, I have three beds I can call my own. In three different locations.

This my most recent bed addition is due to work. I start a new, exciting job tomorrow—I’ll be commuting on a weekly basis—and I’d go crazy if I didn’t have something more permanent than a hotel to spend my evenings/nights in. So despite not having one single nomadic bone in my body, here I am: three homes. Home with a capital H is the apartment in Malmö – the one with hubby in it. This is also the address the tax authorities consider my home, and we all know that if the tax authorities say something, it is useless to disagree.

Then there’s the country house – which also comes with a capital H, seeing as every rock, every piece of timber in that place calls out to my soul. And then there’s here, in the new place. As yet, this is home with a very lower case h. Especially after the last 24 hours of excitement involving an exploding microwave oven, beeping hubs and non-working dishwasher/washing machine. Also, it takes time for a place to become home – or maybe it’s a question of what it contains…

nomads-20170113_143024For me, marking a space as my home has always been related to unpacking my books. Once the book cases are up, once I’ve dusted and sorted my babies, Anna is finally in place. Yes, I want a pic or two of my kids, it’s important the two pictures my dad painted are there, but mostly it’s my literary treasures, from Kristin Lavransdotter, through Gösta Berling’s Saga, Strindberg’s collected short stories to Somerset Maugham, my Anthony Burgess books, all my historical fiction books all the way to Miguel Cervantes, Vargas Llosa and García Marquez.

These books are pretty well-travelled. They smell of old dust, of the occasional close encounter with damp. Now and then, I find a fragile sheet of paper stuck between the pages, and some of them are heavily annotated in the margins. Some are falling apart—more or less. My Tolkien books have so much scotch tape holding their spine together, I can no longer read the titles. The same goes for my Sharon K Penman books. Doesn’t matter: I recognise them anyway. In the dark.

nomads-20170115_155102Obviously, I can’t take all my books from Home to home. That would make Home home, and I do want Home to remain being Home. So I compromised and took a couple of books with me. That helped a bit. They look a bit pathetic, standing to one side of my little bookshelf, but I comfort myself with the fact that there is room for more books. Then I went out and bought myself a new teapot-slash-thermos. That helped a bit more, as did the matching mugs. Then I bought some candlesticks, added candles, and the new place was at least a home. And I stand revealed as something of a materialist, don’t I? Things. Is that what makes a home?

I think most of us would say no. And yet all of us have homes full of things. Ah, some would say, but my things come with memories. Sure they do – some of them. My books, for example, are all tied to the memory of reading them – in some cases several times. But the lamp I bought at Ikea because it was quirky, my new teapot-slash-thermos (very pretty, crap as a teapot: form over function, peeps), the roasting pan I bought some weeks ago because the old one was simply old—they are rather a consequence of that materialistic gene, I fear. And I don’t want to be a materialist. It makes me feel shallow. Oh, God: a shallow materialist—what can possibly be worse than that? Oh, right: being a nomad.

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Mongols doing some amassing

Mind you, nomads can also be materialistic. Take, for example, that Mongolian yurt back in the 12th century, one of the many yurts following the Mongolian horde west across the steppe. This was glamping before glamping had been invented, as yurts were much more than a tent. It had walls and a door and a roof. It had carpets and pillows and furniture and, in some cases, even a floor. And as the Mongolians conquered, they amassed belongings, showing us that materialism was going strong already back then.

Come to think of it, materialism has always been going strong. Us humans have had an urge to collect things since our cave-living days. Initially, because one never knew just when that piece of flint or length of rawhide might come in useful. Over time, because he who had three flints was considered much better than he who only had one. Phew. I need not worry about being shallow—I am merely acting on instinct—which is why, of course, I just HAD to buy new satin sheets for my new apartment.

Despite the sheets and the candlesticks and the odd books, it will take time for my new home to become Home. You see, the truly fundamental part is missing: my man. And not a thing in the world can compensate for the fact that when I go to bed tonight, I’ll go to bed alone.

On the day before the day

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Carl Larsson: Christmas Eve

Us Swedes are an impatient people. Or maybe it’s the proximity to the North Pole that does it – after all, Santa has to start somewhere, and so he starts with us. On Christmas Eve. While in other parts of the Christian world it is Christmas Day that is the big thing, for us northerners the 25th is a recuperative day, spent mostly in pyjamas and with a restorative at hand. I must also hasten to add that I use “Christian world” from a cultural, rather than religious, perspective. Swedes are essentially religious only once a year, on the first Sunday of Advent, when churches throughout the land are thronged. Mostly because we all like singing the hymns we’ve been singing for hundreds of years.

Anyway: back to Christmas Eve. Many, many Swedish families have built their traditions round the hour of Disney cartoons that are shown at three in the afternoon. That’s the way it’s been since back in the sixties, and originally this was the only time of the year Swedish Television showed Disney cartoons. Back then, starry-eyes tots with water-combed hair sat and stared at Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse while the adults drank mulled wine and nibbled gingerbread biscuits. These days, the young adults & children couldn’t care less about the Disney hour: they want to see Disney, they just go to the Disney Channel. But their parents go all nostalgic, recalling their own Christmases, which is why most Swedish families start off their celebrations watching Jiminy Cricket sing “When you wish upon a star.”

Once the “cultural” aspect is over and done with, it’s time for food. Swedish has contributed a couple of words to the global community: one of these words is smorgasbord, i.e. a HUGE buffet, containing everything from pickled herring to glazed ham and meatballs. In between, you’ll find such oddities as a “salad” consisting of herring, apples, onions and beets (served with cream), various types of cabbage – “brown cabbage” fried in sugar, “long cabbage” which is kale fried with sugar and boiled in cream – and lutfisk (dried fish which is soaked in lye prior to being boiled). Obviously, very few Swedish families do the whole spread.

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John Bauer – the Yule Goat

And then, after all that food, comes Santa. Well, traditionally, we don’t have a Santa. We have a Yule Goat, and originally someone would dress up as a goat to give out gifts. Plus we have our tomte, a greyer and somewhat more solemn version of the Christmas elf.
If we start with the goat, there are some that say this very old symbol for midwinter celebrations harkens back to Viking days and the god Thor. This god of thunder not only had an awesome hammer, he had two goats which pulled his chariot. Somewhere along the line, Thor’s goats transformed into the yule goat.

Hmm. I’d say the root to the goat lies in the medieval tradition of mumming. In medieval Sweden, the Hanseatic League had considerable influence, and they brought with them German Christmas traditions, one of which was for young men (apprentices) to dress up and go from house to house performing little musical plays, often centred round the nativity. Tradition had it that one of the young men should always be dressed as a goat, representing Krampus.

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Krampus in good old form

Krampus? I see you rolling your eyes and thinking this is getting complicated. Not my fault, okay? Krampus is a recurring figure in the European December traditions. Originally, he was a personification of the devil, the black to St Nicolaus’ white, if you will. Where St Nicolaus would present good children with gifts, Krampus threatened the naughty ones with spanking, and even had a big sack slung over his shoulder in which to carry off the seriously disobedient kids.

The Swedish Krampus began as a figure with birch switches and a sack, but over the centuries he switched into the giver of gifts rather than spankings. That sack of his was no longer used to carry bad children away, instead it was filled with gifts for the children, and hey presto, the Swedish Yule Goat was born, a benign creature sporting a sheepskin coat and a bulging sack.

These days, very few Swedish homes are visited by the Yule Goat. I guess we fell for peer pressure and Santa. Somewhat ironically, Santa is a modern representation of St Nicolaus, so one could say we’ve upgraded from celebrating with St Nicolaus’ devil creature to the saint himself.

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A tomte

Long before we had Santa (in Swedish Jultomte) we had the tomte. This ancient being has accompanied the Swedes through century after century, a little thing that watches us on the sly. The tomte is often tied to a place, and tradition has it that every old farm in Sweden has a tomte, a lurking little shadow who ensures the cows give milk, the hens lay, the crops are generous and the children don’t die. Well, assuming the tomte’s host is respectful and recognises his presence. An angered tomte will lead the children to drown in the icy stream, strike the cows with disease and spread rot over the harvest. All in all, a dangerous creature to rile.

Fortunately, the tomte doesn’t ask for much. All he wants for Christmas is a bowl of rice porridge, with plenty of cinnamon and sugar on top. Seems a very fair price, IMO. And just in case, many of us Swedish mothers and housewives will set out a bowl come Christmas Eve. For the tomte, or the elves, or whatever other being might be out there, watching over us.

Today, December 23rd, is the day we call “the day before the day”. Here I am, writing a blog post when the salmon needs curing, the ham must be glazed, the meatballs rolled, the herring pickled, the kale fried, the bread baked.

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But I will find the time on Christmas Eve to step outside into the dark with my bowl of rice porridge. Some steps from the house, and I’ll be swallowed in darkness, making my way slowly towards the barn. When I set down the bowl, it steams in the cold, and I’ll lift my eyes to the sky, to the stars that were there long, long before man first trod the Earth, that will be there long, long after we’re gone. And there, to the east, shines a bright, bright star. A star of hope in the midst of the dark, a ray of light into hearts that feel lonely and cold.

Happy Holidays to all of you. Whether Christian or not, take a moment in the winter darkness to consider the truly important things in life. Family. Friends. May you all be fortunate enough to be with those you truly care for, and may there be some moments at least of peace and quiet.

As we say in Swedish: GOD JUL!

St Lucia: the saint who lost her eyes and found the light

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Note the eyes on a stalk!

This is a post I wrote some years ago, but seeing as St Lucia’s day is an annually recurring event, I’ve decided to review, rewrite somewhat and republish ….taa-daa….today, seeing as it is December 13. Again.

For most Swedish people, Christmas sort of starts on December 13.  Today we celebrate St Lucia’s day, and I would argue that for very many Swedes, this day comes in top three under the category “traditional feast days”. Why? Because of the light. St Lucia is celebrated when winter is at its darkest. Eight days to go until the midwinter solstice, until the year finally turns. Prior to switching to the Gregorian calendar December 13 WAS in actual fact the shortest day of the year.

Anyway: this time of the year, we rise in darkness, we prepare breakfast in darkness, we drop our children off at school in darkness, we arrive at work in darkness. There is a glimmer of daylight from mid-morning until mid-afternoon, but by four (at the latest) we are back in darkness. Christmas comes as a necessary break in all this black, allowing us to light candles and huddle round the gasping little flames.

And then there’s St Lucia. luciaThis is the day when Swedish children don long white nightshirts, the girls use red ribbons or lengths of tinsel to belt the shapeless garments, the boys don’t. Instead, the boys wear white conical hats, decorated with golden stars, and in their hands they carry rods to which a big golden star has been affixed. These are the “star boys”. Most of the girls carry a lit candle in their hand, and one lucky girl carries a crown of lit candles on her head – she is the Lucia. From personal experience, I can tell you it hurts when the hot candlewax drips onto your scalp, and still most Swedish girls desire to carry that flaming headgear at least once in their lives.

So, dressed in white, carrying candles and stars, the children form into processions and start to sing. Songs about how Lucia will drive away the dark, how in the darkest hour of midwinter a Holy Child was born. Songs about believing that one day, soon, the light will return to earth. Most apt, let me tell you.

img_0214In general, the Lucia festivities take place around seven o’clock in the morning. Proud parents, younger siblings and other relatives sit in the darkened rooms, whispering to each other. There is a smell of newly brewed coffee, of gingerbread biscuits and the traditional Luciabuns, bright yellow with saffron and studded with raisins.

From the corridor comes the sound of shuffling feet, of suppressed giggles, and then, at last, young voices break out in song. The Lucia enters – slowly, given her candles – and her handmaidens follow while the star boys come in last. The gloom of the room is lit by this procession of light, and in their benches people smile and nod (mothers wipe their eyes. Mothers do that a lot when their kids perform), most of them mouthing along with the songs. Saint_Lucy_by_Domenico_di_Pace_Beccafumi

So why St Lucia? Why is a Sicilian saint so revered in  country she definitely never visited or even had heard about? It’s all about the eyes, people. For those that don’t know, St Lucia was a young, very pious woman, a firm adherent to the newfangled Christian church. It might strike us as odd to reflect on the fact that there was a time when Christianity was considered nothing but a weird sect – very weird, what with this propensity to meekly accept the tribulations of life on earth while aspiring to come to heaven after death.

I dare say St Lucia’s widowed mother tore at her hair and moaned in desperation when her adolescent and impressionable daughter wanted to consecrate her virginity to the Christian church, deciding to give away her dowry to the poor. Not at all what St Lucia’s ailing mother wanted for her pretty daughter, and so she arranged a marriage with a young man from a wealthy – but pagan – family.

Contracts were signed, and the prospective bridegroom rubbed his hands with glee at the thought of increasing his considerable fortune with Lucia’s sizeable dowry. Lucia was less than thrilled, and managed to convince her mother to go to the nearby shrine of St Agatha and pray. While there, Lucia prayed for her mother’s recovery, and miraculously the chronic illness was cured (well, that is what normally happens at the shrines of saints, right?) Lucia was happy, her mother was happy, and Lucia succeeded in convincing her mother it was best to give away her dowry to the poor – a gesture of gratitude for the mother’s miraculous cure. The poor were obviously VERY happy at being the benefactors of so much largesse. Lucia’s intended bridegroom was very unhappy – pissed off, if we’re going to be brutally honest. After all, he had a signed contract that more or less made him the owner of all those jewels now being handed out to all sort of riff-raff. 478px-Lotto,_pala_di_santa_lucia_00

The bridegroom protested to the pagan authorities, who were most upset at discovering a subversive Christian in their midst. Lucia was dragged before the court and ordered to sacrifice to the emperor. She refused, setting that pretty mouth of hers in a stubborn line. (I’m guessing here. For a story to make it down close to 17 centuries, I bet you Lucia was quite the looker. Had she been ugly, no one would have bothered to record this story of woe – after all, some things never change…)

The pagan governor, Paschasius, waved his arms about and screamed a bit. Lucia lifted her shoulders in a resigned shrug. No matter what he threatened her with, she had no intention of sacrificing to a false god.
“False?” squeaked Paschasius, his voice floating into falsetto. “How false?”
“The emperor is a man, as fallible as you or I. There is but one God, and his son is Jesus Christ,” Lucia replied, her features acquiring a dreamy look.
This is when Paschasius pulled out all the stops, ordering his soldiers to take the young girl to a nearby brothel and there defile her. Nice guy, this Paschasius.

“You can try.” Lucia sat down on the ground. The guards heaved. The guards pushed.  The guards pulled. Little Lucia could not be budged, making one think of  “and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men,couldn’t get Humpty up again“, except, of course, that Lucia was a slender girl – a very pretty, slender girl. (Once again, I’m guessing. Maybe Lucia was a very pretty, very plump girl, nice and round, like. But generally, the heroines of these ancient stories aren’t – plump, I mean.)

The guards gave up. Paschasius grumbled a bit about having to skip the defilement part, but had his soldiers stack fire wood around the sitting girl.
“I’ll burn you alive if you don’t sacrifice to the emperor,” he said.
“Do your best,” Lucia said calmly, adjusting her hair. Tapers were brought and held to the wood. Nothing happened. Oil was poured on the wood, more tapers were brought. Nothing happened. By now, Paschasius was jumping up and down in frustration. Lucia just smiled. st lucia_sword

So far, the story is more or less the same throughout the ages, but sometime in the medieval times, someone decided the story needed some further spice, which is when the rather gory detail of putting Lucia’s eyes out were added. Paschasius, as per this version, seemed to think her eyes were adequate compensation for the sacrifice she refused to perform on behalf of the emperor. He was probably motivated by spite, what with not having been able to defile her OR get a nice, bright blaze burning around her. This uncooperative bonfire is also the reason why eventually Lucia was killed with a sword, blood staining her white linen dress – in both versions of the story. (And yes, this is a bit illogical: they couldn’t defile her or burn her, but kill her with a sword worked fine. As was poking her eyes out first…)

In the “let’s poke her eyes out” version, her eyes were miraculously restored to her body when her family set off to bury her – a gift from God, giving her the light of her eyesight back. The more cynical amongst us may consider this a belated gesture, what with Lucia already being dead and all that, but at least she was now buried with her beautiful eyes (blue, I think. No wait; she was Sicilian, right? A brilliant light brown, the colour of well-aged whisky). Anyway, because of this eye thing, Lucia became the patron saint of the blind, and what is more blind than man, stumbling through the eternal darkness of midwinter? Ergo, St Lucia was venerated on the day that traditionally was the darkest of the year, the midwinter solstice that as per the Julian calendar fell on December 13. Today.

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I began this dark December day huddling before the TV, surrounded by lit candles as I watched the televised Lucia procession. Voices raised in song, a light that grew brighter as the Lucia approached, her handmaidens in tow. All the songs I know by heart – most Swedish people do – and once I was the Lucia, striding down a darkened church with candles like a fiery crown upon my head. Today we sing of the returning sun, of darkness that recedes as dawn grows brighter. No wonder us people of the north love our St Lucia, this harbinger of light in the pitch-black of a winter night.

As an addendum, I’d like to remind all those Swedes who walk about thinking that Lucia has to be blond and blue-eyes, that the original Lucia was neither blond nor blue-eyed. Chances are she had dark hair, dark eyes and a delicious olive tint to her skin. Just sayin’…

The Queen and the Cardinal – a love story?

cristina_de_suecia_a_caballo_bourdon-1It’s a tough job being a 17th century queen. Well, in this case, we’re talking ex-queen, but Christina of Sweden was a tad sensitive about the ex, so if you didn’t want her to yell at you, it was best to stick to the “Your Majesty” when addressing her. After all, there were days when Christina seriously regretted abdicating in 1654 on behalf of her cousin. There were others when she didn’t, when she remembered why she abdicated, starting with the fact that she had secretly embraced the Catholic faith, thereby making it quite, quite impossible to remain reigning queen of the Very Protestant Sweden.

Instead, Christina moved to Rome – an early version of Escape to the Continent, if you will, albeit that 17th century Rome was a disconcerting mixture of fabulous art (think Bernini) and primitive entertainment such as forcing Jews to run naked through the streets. Christina stuck to the arty stuff – and to the various princes of the Church she regularly interacted with (She also put a stop to the tradition of making the poor Jews run naked) . Well, when she wasn’t dabbling in politics that is. Or enraging the French by executing poor Monaldesco without a preceding trial in France. But mostly, she stuck to invigorating discussions about everything from God to philosophy to the art of war – and her principal companion was one Cardinal Azzolino.

garbo_-_queen_christinaEver since Greta Garbo depicted Christina on the silver screen, people seem to believe this Swedish queen was quite the beauty. Err…no. Christina may have been extremely gifted intellectually, she rode as well as any man, and by all accounts was as adept with a rapier, but she was not drop-dead. A lot of dark hair, a beak of a nose adorning a face that had little feminine softness to it – well, except for her large eyes. Not that Christina ever expressed much interest in how she looked or dressed. Initially, because she knew it didn’t matter  whether she is pretty or not – her courtiers sucked up to her anyway, falling over their feet in their eagerness to compliment the little queen and win her favour. The little queen was too smart to take this at face value. And when men swore they loved her, chances were she’d snort. She didn’t believe in love – and she didn’t believe these men loved her. If anything, they loved her crown.

Christina grew up with few examples of loving relationships. Her father, Gustav Adolf, died when she was not yet six. Her mother, Maria Eleonora, had never reconciled herself to the disappointment of having birthed yet another daughter, not the much-longed-for son, and had a tendency to take this disappointment out on Christina, by dropping her down the stairs and the like. Gustav Adolf and Maria Eleonora were very different people: he had his sights on conquering Europe and establishing a mighty Swedish Empire, she was clinging and needy, and felt abandoned whenever he set off to fight. Accordingly, Gustav Adolf preferred to avoid his wife as much as he could, which only made her more clingy and needy.

When Gustav Adolf died at the Battle of Lützen, Sweden reeled with shock. Their gallant young king, cut down before he had presented the kingdowm with a male heir, before he had won the Thirty Years’ War! Now what? Woe, woe, and even worse, their new queen was a child of six. Maria Eleanora wailed with the best of them. In her role as grieving widow, she gave the Oscar performance of her life and would spend her nights with Gustav Adolf’s embalmed heart by her bed. Little Christina quickly learnt that love could morph into morbid obsession, which in turn could impact your sanity. Christina liked being sane and in control. Ergo, love was something to be wary of.

So when, in 1655, Christina arrived in Rome, I think it is a safe bet to assume she was relatively inexperienced when it came to matters of the heart. Yes, she’d had a teenage crush on her cousin, the future Carl X Gustav, yes, there was the matter of her infatuation with Ebba Sparre, yes, she’d flirted a bit with Swedish gallant Magnus de la Gardie, but all in all, Christina was still an innocent, had not been struck by Cupid’s arrows. Yet. Because, you see, in Rome there was that handsome cardinal, Decio Azzolino.

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Decio Azzolino

A cardinal? I hear you ask. Well, dear peeps, I hate to break it to you, but many of the cardinals of the 17th century – and the popes – weren’t exactly moral rolemodels. Those seven capital sins afflicted several of the princes of the Church, everything from greed and gluttony to lust. Those who became cardinals were not necessarily the most pious among priests. Rather, they were the most brilliant, the most ambitious, the most well-connected. In Azzolino’s case, he was among the truly brilliant, having received doctorates in law, philosphy and theology. He was also a skilled cryptographer, an able administrator, and ambitious. Some years older than Christina, he would have been in his early thirties when they first met, and by then it was well known Cardinal Azzolino liked beautiful women, had a knack for writing poetry and also had a burning interest for science.

So far in her life, Christina had openly expressed her distaste for marriage – one of the reasons she abdicated was because she refused to entertain the notion of marrying anyone as it would reduce her to a subservient status. (She was also of the firm belief women should not rule, being too weak, too affected by emotions. I dare say she considered herself something of an exception) She found love and emotions in general ridiculous and unreliable and preferred to be guided by her intellect and rational thought. In truth, she saw herself as the Minerva of the North – wise, cool, unobtainable.

christina_queen_of_sweden_1644-1654_-_google_art_projectDecio Azzolino was an attractive man who carried himself with elegance. He was also well-educated, shared Christina’s interests for science and philosphy, and was appointed to help her settle into her new life in Rome. Soon enough, he had become indispensable to her, and there are rumors suggesting she took to carrying his portrait around, extracting it from wherever she was hiding it to peek at it. Hmm. Doesn’t sound quite like Christina, but hey, maybe this was Cupid’s bolt hitting home.

As to rumors, Cardinal Azzolino was surrounded by many of them. It was said he got no work done due to all his amorous affairs, that he had a fondness for busty actresses (and Kristina seems to have been aware of this, sending him a letter in which she snarkily comments that she assumes he only spends time in the company of these lady thespians to offer his services as a priest). There is, however, no proof to support the notion of Azzolino as a serial womanizer. His love of the theatre and of the arts is well-known, but other than that, Decio Azzolini seems to have invested most of his time in church politics.

Whatever the case, soon enough “everyone” in Rome knew that Christina and Azzolino were spending their days, their nights, their mornings and afternoons together. The pope was so worried he expressed his concerns to Azzolino who replied in writing (the letter, dated 1656, still exists) stating that there was nothing untoward in his relationship with the young Swedish queen. And maybe that was true for Azzolino, but Christina herself was soon in the grips of a passion, a love so strong it would last for the rest of her life.

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Christina

Over the coming decade, Azzolino and Christina indulged in an exclusive friendship. He was fond of her, was perhaps even slightly attracted to her – but only slightly, because Christina was, as stated before, not a particularly attractive woman. But where Azzolino liked Christina – a lot – she loved him, all the way to the depth and breadth and height her soul could reach when it was safely out of sight. Some spreculate that they did, in fact, have a physical relationship during the early years of their relationship, but I’m not so sure.

How do we know that Christina loved Azzolino? Well, mainly because of the letters she wrote him – and in particular a letter dated in 1667, when she was moping in Hamburg, far from Rome and her cardinal. While Christina’s letters glow with feelings, Azolino’s missives are borderline dry – well, at least the ones that have survived are. Azzolino took the precaution of destroying most of his archives in the days before his death, and we will never know just what it was he was so anxious to reduce to ashes.

All the same, from reading her letters to him, it’s pretty clear that where she burns, where she loves, he retreats into cool friendship, going so far as to admonishing her for her emotional outbursts. Now, at the time, (and we’re in 1666 – 1667 by now) Christina was going through a rough patch. She was pushing forty and had been back to Sweden in an effort to convince the council to appoint her as regent for the new little Swedish king (Carl X Gustav died young-ish) and received a resounding “NEJ!” in reply. No way was this Catholic ex-queen going to be allowed anywhere close to the little boy.

She was also struggling with financial problems – something Azzolino helped her deal with as she had effectively given him a carte blanche to do what was needed to salvage her economy. Azzolino was of the opinion Christina needed to cut back on her expenses. She wasn’t too thrilled at having most of his letters to her consist of long lists of excessive spending she needed to curb. What she wanted were expressions of love – or at least affection – instead, she got rebukes. To add to her burdens, she was suffering health problems, some of which she was certain would be cured if only she could ensure a steady supply of fresh milk (!)

Christina was a proud woman. As proud as Lucifer. some would say. And yet, in her letters to Azzolino she grovels. She begs for scraps. She requests to be allowed to adore. This is a woman desperate to consummate her love. Unfortunately for her, he does not share her passion. Unrequited love is a bummer, people, even more so when Azzolino forbids her to love him- or at least to express such feelings for him. And while she is up north, our dear cardinal is not exactly without beautiful female company, which drives Christina crazy.

Where he in one letter assures her of his warm friendship towards her, she replies by telling him she more than deserves his friendship, seeing as she has the tenderest of passions for him. “I know I will never again be happy, but I also know I will love you until the day I die.” She speaks of love, he wants friendship… This is in the summer of 1666, and clearly the cardinal is a tad worried by her declaration of love. As the summer progresses, he turns down the temperature in his missives, warm friendship becoming cool friendship, and by September, Kristina is devastated by what she perceives as his distance. She writes: “Whatever change of heart you may experience, it will not affect me, and I will be loyal to you unto death.”

In October she writes: “I can neither change my feelings for you, nor share them with you without hurting you.” Azzolino has by now forbidden her to declare her love to him. But she perseveres. “No matter how coldly you treat me, it will not stop me from adoring you for the rest of my days.”  This is a woman writing her heart’s blood onto the paper, while the recipient is frightened rather than flattered by all that pent-up passion. After all, Azzolino was a cardinal, and to openly indulge in a carnal affair with someone as closely watched as Christina would be the equivalent of professional suicide. Plus, she wasn’t his type.

In January of 1667, Christina throws caution  to the wind and writes the following: “I would like to add that is not my intention, by the grace of God, to offend Him, or to lure you into sin ; but this intention cannot stop me from loving you unto death, and as your piety makes it impossible for you to be my lover, I find it impossible to have you as my servant. Instead, I want to live and die your slave.” (I’ve included the original French further down – for those fluent in the langauge, this may offer further nuances my translation may not convey)

cupid-piero_della_francesca_-_cupid_blindfolded_-_wga17587Wow. I can see Azzolino sitting back and fanning himself after reading that. I also suspect he’d have wondered if she was being ironic – after all, dear Decio was not known for his piety. Personally, I don’t see anything ironic in the above. I just hear the voice of a sad, heartbroken woman, fully aware of the fact that cruel Cupid has made her fall in love with an unobtainable man. Sometimes, love sucks.

The letters between Christina and Azzolino went back and forth for almost two more years. Letters in which she is at times bitter, at times abjectly begging for forgiveness, terrified at the thought of losing what little affection he had for her. At the end of this period, Kristina had learnt her lesson: she no longer wrote about love, she wrote about the deep friendship they shared. She tried to find other interests and submerged herself in the study of alchemy (an interest they shared, to the extent of setting up a laboratory together in Rome) Slowly, she buried her love, her fiery passion underneath layers of steel. It displeased him to know she loved him. She, therefore, had no choice but to pretend she no longer did.

Azzolino may have been reluctant to become Christina’s lover, but he was her friend, a loyal and devoted friend throughout her life. When, in April of 1689, Christina died, Azzolino was the main beneficiary of her will. He did not live long enough to enjoy it, as he followed her to the hereafter some months later. Instead, Kristina’s collection of artworks and books fell into the hands of Azzolino’s nephew, who quickly sold it and cashed in. Said nephew also inherited his uncle’s books and stuff – and Azzolino’s severely depleated personal archive, with most of his letters to Christina (and from Christina) destroyed. We have no idea what secrets he chose to take with him to the grave. Maybe, just maybe, there was an early declaration of love from him to her? Or maybe not.

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And as promised, here’s the French version: “J’ajouterai toutefois que mon intention est de n’offenser jamais Dieu, avec sa grâce, et de ne vous donner jamais sujer d’offenser, mais cette résolution n m’empêchera pas de vous aimer jusqu’à la mort, et pusique la dévotion vous dispense d’être mon amant, je vous dispense d’être mon serviteur, car je veux vivre et mourir votre esclave.” 

 

In great ambition lies destruction

On the subject of men who carry the seeds of their own destruction within, today I’d like to introduce you to Roger Mortimer. Seems apt, given that it is 686 years today since he was executed. This is a man who epitomises the consequences of too much ambition, too much greed. He was also an extremely capable person, an experienced leader of men and a man with impressive strategical skills. Not that it helped him…

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Roger and his lady queen

Had I been able to travel back in time (yes, please!) I would actually consider dropping in on Roger and giving him the friendly advice to retire from the public eye gracefully – although that could have been difficult to do, given that he was sleeping with the Queen Isabella, mother to the very young King Edward III. Clearly, bedding with queens carries the risk of untimely and gruesome death (see my post on the Earl of Bothwell) making me conclude that maybe we as a race have more in common with spiders than I am entirely comfortable with.

Roger Mortimer was born in 1287 as the eldest son and heir of Edmind Mortimer. Of mixed Norman and Welsh descent, the Mortimers were a power to be reckoned with on the Welsh Marches, and Roger was raised to shoulder this responsibility. He seems to have spent much of his childhood with his uncle, another Roger Mortimer (Roger senior is perhaps most (in)famous for having delivered Llewellyn ap Gruffyds head to Edward I) and was by all accounts a well-educated and handsome young man, who had as many friends among the aspiring clergy as he did amongst his peers.

No sooner had Roger survived infancy but his parents began checking out potential brides. After some scouting, they decided on Joan de Geneville, a well-dowered little Irish Heiress (well, French blood figured prominently). The happy couple were wed when Roger was only fourteen, but apparently the lad knew what to do, and a year later Joan gave birth to a son, the first of the thirteen children she was to give her husband. Thirteen!  Clearly, the young couple were very affectionate, and Joan quite often accompanied her husband as he went about his massive estates.

edward_i__ii_prince_of_wales_1301In 1306, Roger was knighted by Edward I in a massive ceremony which included Edward, Prince of Wales. More or less of an age, the two young men seemed to enjoy each other’s company, even if Roger had the distinct advantage of being in control of his own purse strings (his father was dead since some years back) while the prince depended on his father. The Edward-Edward relationship was not an easy one; Edward I was a tough old man, and there were times when his son probably felt that no matter what he did, it wasn’t good enough. In retrospect, it is easy to agree with that opinion; Edward II may have been a nice man, unjustly maligned by history, but he was not much of a king.

Anyway; the old king died, the new king took over, Joan had babies as regularly as clockwork, and Roger nurtured his career, serving the king in one capacity after the other. He was handed the rather nasty job of pacifying Ireland – and specifically of routing Edmund Bruce, Robert Bruce’s younger brother who had claimed the title of King of Ireland – and set off across the Irish Sea to do his best. Roger’s first tour in Ireland was not all that successful – the Irish did not take kindly to being pacified, one could say – but when he returned for a second tour as Lieutenant Governor, Roger managed to establish control over the Emerald Isle. Edmund Bruce was killed, Roger organised the administration, filled vacant offices, inspected his own (well, his wife’s) extensive holdings, and while he was at it he founded Trinity College in Dublin.

In 1318, Roger Mortimer returned from Ireland victorious. The king was duly grateful, but also somewhat disturbed; Roger Mortimer was a tad too capable, and Edward II was getting rather sick and tired of competent – and powerful – barons who were telling him how to run his kingdom. At the time of Roger’s return, Edward was at loggerheads with his cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, the single most powerful man in England, arguably more powerful than the king himself.

Thomas of Lancaster does not come across as a particularly nice man – nor a wise one. He constantly antagonised his royal cousin, he was more than active in separating the king from his favourites (Lancaster was personally involved in the execution of Piers Gaveston, Edward II’s boon companion) and he seems to have been quite convinced the sun shone out of his own backside. Always a man to insist on his prerogatives, he constantly needled the king, causing conflicts about almost everything. At times, Lancaster’s grievances were legitimate, as in the case of the Despensers (father and son – both favourites of the king, both named Hugh) and in 1318 a stale mate had arisen between the king and his not so loyal subject.

It may be worthwhile to take the time here to point out that Roger Mortimer hated Hugh Despenser (both of them). Hugh Despenser (both of them) hated Roger Mortimer. The families’ bad blood went back a couple of generations – it was Roger’s grandfather who had killed Hugh Despenser the younger’s grandfather at Evesham. That Despenser had sided with Simon de Montfort against the king. So when Lancaster demanded that the king be counselled by a group of barons that excluded the Despensers, Roger was all for it. The king was not, but felt forced to agree.

For some years, an uneasy truce existed between the king and his barons. While there was a council of barons to officially counsel the king, he seems to have preferred to take his counsel behind locked doors from Hugh Despenser (both of them, but mostly the younger). The barons seethed. The king was in flagrant breach of his coronation oath, and people muttered about Magna Charta and faithless kings. Roger Mortimer had so far done his best to remain a loyal servant to the king, but when the king repeatedly went against law and custom to give Hugh Despenser (both of them) whatever their little hearts desired, be it another man’s land or not, something snapped in Roger. He knew the Despensers were his mortal enemies, and Mortimer had no intention of sitting around as a sitting duck for the Despensers to shoot at.

mortimer-c5b24c86e4c809e755d803f8adbe1aebIn 1321, incensed by yet another case of unlawful behaviour by Despenser that the king chose to ignore (as I said; a bad king), Mortimer allied himself with Lancaster and began a full-scale attack on Despenser land. Mortimer was a military professional with years of experience on the field – specifically on Irish bogs. He and his men squashed whatever resistance they encountered, and by the end of the summer Mortimer had his men encamped around London. His only demand was that the king exile the Despensers – and he wasn’t alone in demanding this, as a number of English barons, including Lancaster, agreed with him. The king wailed. The king gnashed his teeth. The king acquiesced, weeping as he signed the order that effectively exiled the Despensers. He must have wept even more when he signed the pardons for his rebellious barons, seeing as they’d only acted “in the interest of the realm”.

Mortimer now had TWO (Three) powerful enemies; Hugh Despenser (both of them) and the king. Not that our baron seems to have been unduly worried – or maybe he truly believed the Despenser issue had been sorted once and for all. If so, he seriously underestimated the king. Edward showed an impressive amount of ingenuity and drive, going from baron to baron to mutter about Roger Mortimer and Thomas of Lancaster. These men, the king whispered, threatened his royal rule – and not only that, but also the power of any minor baron. However, the king went on, should these minor barons ally themselves with the king, well then…

Not only were there a number of minor lords in the king’s camp. He had a number of earls who felt more than bound by their oaths to the king, albeit that they might secretly have agreed with Roger’s objections to Despenser. One such earl was Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke. This particular earl was a veteran of political intrigue, as respected by Roger Mortimer as he was by the king. Had Aymer been around to smooth things over a few months earlier, things might never have become quite as polarised. As it was, Aymer had no success in attempting a rapprochement between the king and his stubborn baron.

Things came to a head over an incident at Leeds Castle (which, just to confuse things is in Kent, nowhere close to Leeds). The castle belonged to Lord Badlesmere, and when he wasn’t around it was his lady wife who did the running of things. This lady had the temerity to refuse the queen entry to the castle, and this insult was just the excuse King Edward needed. In a matter of weeks, he had the castle besieged. The garrison surrendered on the promise of their lives, but were summarily hanged anyway. Poor Lady Badlesmere was dragged off to the Tower with her children – one of which was Roger Mortimer’s little daughter-in-law.

Shit, one could say. Mortimer decided to do some pow-wowing with Lancaster and trotted off up to Pontrefact Castle. In the south, the king continued raising an army, and suddenly the tables were turned, with Mortimer having to flee the advancing might of the king. Had Thomas of Lancaster held true to his vow to Mortimer and joined forces with him, chances are the king would have been defeated. As it was, Lancaster chose to sit in the north and sulk, muttering that he had never liked Badlesmere.

Mortimer retired beyond the Severn, but he was a pragmatic man – and a realist – and knew his chances of holding out in the long run were extremely slim. Which was when the Earl of Pembroke approached him and suggested he submit to the king, who, Pembroke said, would be merciful. Pissed off as hell, yes, but merciful.

It is testament to Pembroke’s reputation that Mortimer took him at his word, but what happened next would for ever sully Pembroke’s honour. Mortimer rode to Shrewsbury and submitted to the king, only to be brusquely informed that whatever Pembroke may have promised was no longer valid, and Mortimer should prepare himslef to die – and die gruesomly. In chains, Mortimer was dragged off to the Tower, there to await his final date with the executioner.

That date never happened. Despenser must have begged the king on his bare knees to rid the world of Mortimer, but whatever bursts of initiative had inflamed Edward in 1321 now petered out. Plus, he had an angry country on his hands, given the number of barons he had summarily executed in the aftermath of Mortimer’s rebellion – starting with his own cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, who was first defeated by the royal forces at the Battle of Boroughbridge, then convicted of treason and summarily beheaded.

Mortimer was therefore allowed to languish in captivity – alive, but deprived. However, hawks like Mortimer don’t like being cooped up, and in August of 1323, Mortimer escaped from the Tower, having first ensured the guards had been served drugged wine at their annual celebration of St Peter. The king’s Greatest Traitor was free – and hot-footed it to France, while back home his wife and children remained prisoners of the king.

mortimer-isabella2In France, Mortimer was to join forces with Queen Isabella, King Edward’s disgruntled wife (read more here) Actually, they did more than join forces – they sort of joined everything together, indulging in a passionate affair. I imagine Edward choked on his wine at the thought of his wife in the arms of his rebellious baron. He must have choked even more when he realised just what a threat those two were to his throne – in particular as Isabella had her eldest son, the future Edward III, with her.

Well, we all know how that ended, don’t we? Isabella returned to England in 1326, accompanied by Mortimer and her son. Edward and Hugh Despenser  fled westwards but were captured. Edward was imprisoned at Kenilworth and subsequently forced to abdicate. Hugh was subjected to a mock trial and a gruesome execution. Mortimer, dear peeps, had arrived. Together with Isabella, he controlled the young king and through him, the kingdom. Let’s just say that not everyone cheered at this development.

eduard3Mortimer turned his impressive organisational skills to ordering the kingdom, hiring competent officers throughout the realm. Good men, to be sure, these officers were officially the king’s men, but most of them were loyal to Mortimer first, the king second. As it should be, Mortimer probably felt. Not so much, the young Edward III thought. For now, the young king was not in a position to strike back, and initially he seems to have respected and even liked Mortimer. But as the years passed, Edward began choimping at the bit, increasingly concerned when it seemed neither of his regents (his Mama was as involved as Mortimer in running things on his behalf) had any intention of stepping down.

Late in 1328, various of the barons rebelled, led by Henry of Lancaster (brother to the dead Thomas) Lancaster demanded that he be regent, seeing as he was closer kin to the king and also a much more important baron than the upstart Mortimer. This did not go down well with Mortimer – or Isabella. And as to being a more important baron, well that was easily solved: in October 1328, Mortimer became the 1st Earl of March. Lancaster likely choked. So, more importantly, did Edward III, who felt strongarmed into giving Mortimer the title.

Anyway: in early 1329 the rebels were crushed, and Mortimer and Isabella were magnanimous in defeat, exacting fines rather than lives. Things, it seemed, had settled down, except that the kingdom was constantly plagued by rumors that the old king was alive, rumours that could potentially escalate into rebellion as men flocked to the standards of Edward II, preferring him to being ruled by an upstart marcher lord and an adulterous queen.

Officially, Edward II died already back in September of 1327. He was interred in Gloucester in December of that same year, but there are a lot of oddities re this death – like the fact that no one actually saw the dead king prior to him already having been covered by cerecloths (part of the conservation process). Also, there were murmurs as to whether the king had died or been murdered, with fingers pointing not so discreetly at Mortimer. In truth, a very infected situation, even more so when more and more people started circulating teh theory that the king was alive but imprisoned.

So, was Edward II dead? Well, I am of the opinion that he probably wasn’t – several historians agree with me, but just as many are convinced Edward II did die in 1327. Even if he was dead, I have problems believeing Isabella and Mortimer would have ordered his death – an anointed king was an anointed king, however much deposed he was. But what I believe is neither here nor ther – if nothing else because the barons back in the 14th century wouldn’t give a rat’s arse about what I might think. After all, they were living these turbulent times, not reading about them with a nice cuppa close at hand.

One of the barons who genuinely seems to have believed Edward II was still alive was the drop-dead gorgeous Edmund, Earl of Kent, much younger half-brother of Edward II. Edmund even went as far as to consider how to break Edward out of captivity, and some of his missives ended up in Mortimer’s hand. What followed is one of the blacker stains on Mortimer, because at parliament in Winchester in march 130, he effectively manipulated teh procedings in such a way that he gave the young king no option but to condemn his uncle to death.

Edmund was terrified. He pleaded and begged for his life, but there was nothing to do – Edward had his hands tied and couldn’t pardon him without showing weakness. And so Kent was hauled out to die in his shirt on a cold March day. Except that the executioner had fled, not wanting any part in this. Hours of waiting ensued, the condemned man shivering in his shirt unrtil someone was found willing to cut his head off. Not pretty. At all. Edwrad would never forgive Mortimer for this – an intelligent young man, he realised just how elegantly Mortimer had played his cards to assure himself of this grisly outcome.

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Mortimer being seized

From that moment on, the clock was ticking for Mortimer. And, as described in this post, in October of 1330, the young king and his companions acted, entering the castle of Nottingham through a secret passage to take Mortimer captive and haul him off to London where he was to stand trial on a number of charges – including murdering the former king. (Elegantly played by Edward III. By accusing Mortimer of this crime, he effectively killed off any speculation that his father might still be alive. Clearly, Edward had learnt a thing or two from his regents)

Mortimer was not accorded a fair trial. Bound and gagged, he was not given the opportunity to speak in his defence. Just like at Hugh Despenser’s trial, four years before, the outcome was given. Mortimer was condemned to die, but was spared the horrors of being hanged, drawn and quartered, He was “just” to be drawn and hanged.

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The fall of Icarus – Blondell

On the cold morning of November 29, 1330, he was led out to the waiting horses, dressed in the black velvet tunic he’d worn to Edward II’s funeral. He was tied to the horses, dragged through the streets of London all the way to Tyburn. By then his tunic was in tatters, and what remained was torn of him, so that he stood naked while the noose was tightened round his neck. Some final words, a prayer, and up he went, life being strangled out of him as the noose tightened. And so, dear peeps, died Roger Mortimer, a man so driven by ambition he did not realise just how close he was flying to the sun until it was too late.

Personally, I have a fondness for Mortimer, which is probably why I’ve built my entire 14th century series round his rise and fall. It is also why I’ll be raising a glass in honour of his memory today. A man larger than life deserves as much, methinks.

Sleeping with the enemy – a royal duty

Throughout history, Denmark and Sweden have mostly been at war. Sometimes, Denmark has had the upper hand – mostly, in fact – but now and then Sweden has stomped their southern neighbours into the dust, like they did in the 17th century. Along the way, Sweden took over substantial lands previously belonging to Denmark, and this did not go down well with the Danes.

In 1658, Denmark was forced into a humiliating treaty whereby they gave up the entire province of Scania (which is the southern-most tip of present day Sweden). Why the treaty? Well, it all had to do with the very intrepid Swedish king Karl X Gustav, nephew of Gustav II Adolf, who surprised the Danes by leading his army across the ice to the south of Denmark, thereby attacking them in the back while they were expecting the Swedes to come across the seas to the north.

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Little Karl

Fortunately, as per the Danes, Karl X Gustav was not long for this world. He died in 1660 and suddenly the mighty Sweden had a five-year-old child as king, the as yet very puny and un-martial Karl XI. Hmm, thought the Danes, maybe now would be a good time to reclaim some of that lost territory? Not. The little king had an impressive mother and good men around him to keep him and his reign safe, so for now the Danes had to hold their peace. Besides, Fredrik III of Denmark had learnt at his own expense not to bait the Swedish wolf, and preferred to live out his last few years in peace.

Karl XI was not the most socially gifted of people. He was interested in facts, in war and in numbers. He was also determined not to let that French pompous king by the name of Louis XIV hog all the limelight – which didn’t work out all that well. After all Louis was king of France, while Karl XI was king of Sweden. And while Sweden in the second half of the 17th century was big – much, much bigger than France – it wasn’t exactly the centre of the world. Rather the reverse, actually.

From the day of Karl XI’s birth, his potential wedding was a hot topic of discussion – as it was for any prince or princess of the blood. In little Karl’s case, a suitable bride was found very close to home: he had a cousin, Juliana, who was brought to court to be raised with her future husband. Now Juliana came with something of a blemish – or rather her mother did, having admitted to her husband that she’d had an affair with a French Lute player. Obviously, expectations were that nurture would beat any adulterous genes little Juliana might possess, and things were ticking along quite nicely – until Juliana gave birth to a child while out riding in a carriage with her prospective mother-in-law. The Queen Mother was not amused. Juliana, of course was disgraced and discarded as a bride-to-be. Karl himself seems not to have cared overmuch. (More about Juliana – and her mother – can be found here)

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Ulrika Eleonora as a child

Instead, Karl decided to follow his council’s advice and do what most young princes did: he was going to wed where it suited his political interests best, which is why, in 1675, he sent off an embassy to Copenhagen to request the hand in marriage of Ulrika Eleonora, youngest sister to the new Danish king, Christian V. At the time, Christian V was already planning war on Sweden. The lands his father had lost called to him, so to say, and Christian considered himself a far better general and leader than his father – and superior in all things to the young Swedish king, at the time a slight youth of twenty who had not begun shaving regularly.

Being of a devious inclination (but that may be the Swede in me), Christian V chose to pretend he was all for this match. In fact, to really lull the Swedes into a sensation of false security he encouraged his sister to accept the proposal – without telling her of his double-dealing. Ulrika Eleonora is one of those people in history who mostly impress by being good and kind, and in this case she innocently agreed to the match, being more than mortified by the fact that her stiff skirts did not allow her to curtsey properly to the Swedish ambassador.

Some months later, war exploded. Christian immediately rescinded on his promise to wed his sister to the soon-to-be Swedish loser, but his sister insisted she had given her word – and her heart (which seems strange as she’d never clapped eyes on Karl) – to the Swedish king.
“He’s the enemy!” the somewhat upset Danish Dowager Queen said. “You can’t go to bed with him.”
“Of course, I can. It’s my duty to do so – as his wife,” Ulrika Eleonora said, her eyes acquiring a somewhat misty look.
Difficult situation, one could say, even more so when the Danish princess made a point of taking a personal interest in the Swedish prisoners of war that soon began streaming into Copenhagen. You see, initially Christian seemed to be winning. Rephrase: he was winning, big time, with the very young Karl pushed further and further north. Until, in December of 1676, the Swedish army pulverised the Danish forces at the battle of Lund, with over 10 000 men killed in one day.

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The victorious Karl

The war continued – and not only in Scandinavia. France allied itself with Sweden against Holland who were allied with Denmark, more nations joined in, and it was all quite the mess – until the French defeated the forces of present day Netherlands in 1678. Louis XIV, who considered himself the senior member in the Swedish-French coalition (duh!) pushed through a treaty in 1678 without consulting Sweden, and so, according to Louis, things were neatly concluded.

The Swedes were miffed at having the French treat on their behalf without consulting with them. Never mind that the Swedes got everything they wanted from the treaty, this was a matter of national pride. Who did the French think they were, lording it over everyone, hey? Too right, the Danes agreed, after all they were perfectly capable of negotiating their own treaty with Sweden, weren’t they? And so the Swedes and Danes met in Lund where they did just that: negotiate a treaty that was already signed (!)

As part of that treaty, the matter of the royal marriage was yet again raised by the Swedish representatives. At the time, Karl lived under the assumption that his match with Ulrika Eleonora was as dead as any of the poor frozen corpses that had recently decorated the field in Lund. No one thought to inform him that this particular corpse was now back to living and breathing again – in fact, the king was presented with a fait accompli – his Danish princess would soon be his wife.

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Ulrika Eleonora

Karl took this pretty much in stride, albeit that he was heard to grumble a bit about Ulrika Eleonora’s purported plainness (they had still not seen each other). And yes, to judge from her portraits, Ulrika Eleonora was not a major looker, having been gifted by an oversized nose that sort of dwarfed all her other features, but Karl was not exactly prince Charming either.

In the spring of 1680, the Swedish nobleman Johan Gyllenstierna was dispatched to Copenhagen to fetch the bride-to-be. Now Johan had quite the ostentatious streak in him – in contrast, Karl XI was anything but, being somewhat miserly when it came to spending money – so Johan arrived in Copenhagen in style travelling with an entourage of 130 people and close to seventy horses.

In Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen, there were balls and dinners and more balls and more dinners, and everyone was waiting for Karl to ask Johan to bring Ulrika Eleonora over to Sweden. Instead, Karl prevaricated. Twice, Johan was forced to delay their departure on the king’s orders, but when Karl tried to delay things a third time, Johan refused to comply.

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Karl striking a pose

One doesn’t exactly get the picture of an eager bridegroom, even less so when Johan had to remind his king that maybe he should send his fiancée some gifts – she’d sent him plenty. At long last Karl sent over a pearl necklace and some matching earrings, and then managed to really irritate Johan by absolutely refusing to take apart in a huge, public wedding. Nope, the king said, he wanted something small and private, with no family present except for Ulrika Eleonora’s two brothers. Johan scratched his hair in despair. The French ambassador was insisting he be invited! Tough, Karl said.
“You’re not stopping me,” the French ambassador, a gentleman by the name of Feuquières said. “I’m coming whether you like it or not.”

Karl couldn’t very well stop the stubborn Frenchman – but he could make it uncomfortable for him, by ordering his noblemen not to offer him lodgings. Feuquières , however, was a man of the world and found lodgings on his own in the insignificant town of Halmstad where the wedding was to be held.

Karl sniffed. He was adamant that the wedding ceremony be private, and so he rode out to meet his bride in the late afternoon, suggested they travel over to the nearby manor of Skottorp, and then more or less surprised everyone by insisting the wedding go ahead just before midnight. A blushing bride, her not quite as enthusiastic groom, the groom’s mother, an assortment of noblemen and that was it. No fuss, no major expense – just like Karl liked it.

After the wedding ceremony, Karl retired to eat dinner with two of his officers. Ulrika was served a light dinner in her mother-in-law’s rooms. At one o’clock in the morning, she was escorted to the bridal chamber and her waiting husband. Whatever transpired between them, we don’t know, but come four in the morning Karl was already up and about. I imagine he looked quite smug when Feuquières popped up to offer his congratulations.

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The happy family

Whether these congratulations were also extended to the new queen of Sweden, I don’t know. In fact, I don’t think there was all that much to congratulate her about, as in Karl’s life other things would always be far more important and interesting than his wife. He did, however, perform his marital duties regularly if with little passion, and over the coming years Ulrika Eleonora would be brought to bed of five sons and two daughters. All but one of the sons died very young, their deaths having the single upside of bringing the grieving king and his wife closer together.

In 1693, Ulrika Eleonora died. By then, the shy, dutiful and kind Danish princess had won the hearts of her subjects – even that of her husband. In an uncharacteristically emotional entry in his diary he writes “I have lost a Godfearing, virtuous and very dear wife, leaving me in despair and grief.” She was 36 years old. Four years later, Karl also died, leaving behind yet another very young king, the fifteen-year-old Karl XII.

Twinkle, twinke, little star

light-800px-petrus_van_schendel_lekture_bei_kerzenlichtThe dark has come upon us. With the resetting of the clocks – away from what we call “summer time” to “winter time” – the days become that much shorter, daylight fading already around four thirty or so in the afternoon. That’s what you get for living up here in the north – dark, dark winters are the price we pay for light, light summers.

Usually, the clocks are reset at the end of October, around All Hallows. Until relatively recently, All Hallows and its modern version Halloween was not really celebrated in our neck of the woods. We did not drown in false spiderwebs, orange lanterns and various other spooky ingredients. Pumpkins were more or less unknown, and as to donning a masquerade costume and going partying, nope, not done.

All Hallows was a serious affair – had been for thousands of years, long before it was even known as All Hallows. The Christian Church was smart enough to adopt existing holidays, and in this particular case, those ancient Christian missionaries appropiated the Celtic celebration of Samhain, originally a day to mark the midway point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

light-mary-magdalene-800px-georges_de_la_tour_007Mind you, Samhain was more than that: our long-gone ancestors believed that Samhain was when the veil  between the living and the dead was at its sheerest, a day in which the restless souls of those who were dead and not at peace could come back to haunt the living. It was also a day in which fairies and other non-human spirits could travel between their realm and ours – and reasonably, this meant that the unsuspecting among the humans could be lured to step across the great divide into the unknown, from which they might not return.

The early Christian missionaries likely felt a frisson or two of fear. Maybe they also believed that the souls of the dead were abroad on this dark day – how else to explain that just on this date the Christian Church decided to celebrate All Hallows (or All Saints), which included not only all saints and known martyrs, but also dead relatives and friends. Smart move by the church, IMO.

In some countries, the celebration of the dead takes on rather impressive proportions. In Mexico, the holiday Día de Muertos (or Día de los Muertos), the day of the dead, has roots in Aztec culture but has somehow merged with the Catholic feasts brought to Mexico by the Spanish Conqistadores. In Spain, All Saints was something of a fiesta – one has to applaud the Spanish for making fiestas of everything, even the celebration of the dead – and these days the Mexican holiday is a chaotic mix of indigenous traditions and Spanish partying, often culminating in the families having major picnics in the cemetaries, close to their dead.

light-femme-a-la-chandelle-godfried-schalckenNot so here in Sweden. The Protestant Church has always been much more austere than the Catholic Church – not so much fiesta, far more fidgeting on worn pews while listening to loooong sermons about the innate wickedness of humanity. All Hallows, accordingly, was not defined by relaxed family get-togethers at which one commemorated the dead by toasting them and having a party. Nope, here All Hallows was all about ensuring the graves were neat and tidy, faded flowers tidied away and replaced by evergreen wreaths.

The older generation still do this: the last weekend of October, off they go, driving from grave to grave to ensure they are tidy before the winter. The younger generation doesn’t – to some extent because most of us don’t have any graves to visit – our parents have been cremated and rarely rest beneath a stone marker. (As an aside, I find it a bit sad that so many don’t have a headstone anymore – no solid evidence reminding the generations to come that once they lived and breathed)

As a final touch, the graves are adorned with a candle. A little fluttering flame, an offering of light to those permanently trapped in the dark. Come evening, our cemetaries are dotted with these little flames, miniature earthbound stars that burn through the coming nights and days.

Soon enough, Sweden will see such miniature lights everywhere: we combat the December dark by lighting our candles, by draping our evergreens with fairy lights. But for now, the candles are for those that went before, those that we sometimes imagine (or hope) sit way up high and gaze down on us. Twinklings stars above, gasping flickers of lights below – a remembrance of our dead, those that gave us life and live on in memories and mannerisms, in how we bake our family recipes, in the traditions we uphold.

A vast sea of anonymous ancestors precede us – an equally vast sea of unknown descendants will hopefully come after us. In the greater context, our time on Earth is very short, an inhalation, no more, when measured against the infinity of time. But for the little while we live, we are a spark of light, a little burst of energy that shouts to Cosmos that we are here – for now.

light-st-josephthecarpenterbygeorgesdelatourThe dark is here. It swoops down and envelops the Northern countries, several months in which light becomes precious. And on All Hallows, we light our candles for those that no longer are among us, a fluttering flame to tell them we still think of them, we still remember them. And as long as we remember, they’re still around, somehow. As long as we mention their names, laugh at the memories we have of them – or cry – as long as they still touch our lives, they remain, to some extent, alive.

 

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