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Archive for the tag “16th century”

The princess and the beast


Gustav – a proud papa

In 1547, Gustav Vasa, King of Sweden, and his extremely fertile second wife Margareta Leijonhufvud welcomed their fourth daughter to the world. The little baby was christened Sofia, and as Gustav already had plenty of sons I imagine he was more than delighted with the new addition to his nursery. After all, a princess was a major asset to a king determined to build alliances with his neighbours, and in Gustav Vasa’s case, such alliances were extremely important as he had conquered rather than inherited the Swedish throne.

King Gustav was more than aware that in the eyes of the more established European kingdoms, he (and his country) was something of a parvenu. Until recently, Sweden had been part of the Danish kingdom – had been so since the 14th century. Now, thanks to Gustav, Sweden was rid of the Danish yoke, and to cement his dynasty’s grip on the throne Gustav had also pushed through legislation converting Sweden into a hereditary kingdom. Prior to this (and the inclusion in the Danish kingdom via the Kalmar Union under that medieval kick-ass lady Queen Margareta) the kings of Sweden had been elected—at least formally.


Sofia Vasa

To ensure he and his family were treated with adequate respect, Gustav Vasa splurged on educating his children—all of them. He also spent minor fortunes on clothes and furnishings and to really make his daughters tempting, he gave them all substantial dowries. To cap it all off, in 1556 Gustav Vasa had their portraits painted and sent off to tempt some nice young man to ask for their hand. Obviously, many an impoverished prince came sniffing, but in general Gustav Vasa was reluctant to hand over his precious daughters to men who needed their dowry—he preferred seeing them wed to men who already had nice steady incomes.

While Gustav was around to arrange the marriages of his older daughters, when he died in 1560 the thirteen-year-old Sofia was still unwed. Instead, the job of finding her an adequate husband fell to her eldest brother, Erik XIV.

Sofia 800px-Erik_XIV_and_Karin_Månsdotter

Karin soothing Erik

On the surface, Erik’s candidate Magnus of Saxe-Lauenburg ticked a lot of boxes. He was the heir to a principality and he’d been raised at the Swedish court. From Erik’s perspective, he came with the added advantage of being one hundred percent loyal to Erik, even to the extent of supporting Erik in his determination to wed Karin Månsdotter, a young illiterate girl who was the daughter of one of the royal guards. No one else supported Erik in this infatuation. After all, a king was supposed to marry so as to benefit his nation, and what possible advantage was there in marrying little Karin? To that, Erik would likely have replied that only Karin could soothe his pounding headaches, only her soft voice could lull him to sleep. (More about all that here)

Anyway: Sofia was not as taken with the wannabe groom as her brother. The story goes that when Erik first raised the issue, she blankly refused. Given future events maybe she’d witnessed Magnus pulling legs off flies or kicking little dogs, but unfortunately for Sofia, her brother was dead set on this union. Two days after her initial refusal, she gave in, probably after a lot of pressure had been brought to bear. At the time, Erik and Sofia were not on the best of terms, and this king of ours had a tendency to dangerous rages that probably scared the daylights out of his little sister.

Erik’s idea was that he would marry Karin on the same day as Magnus married Sofia. His sister stalled. Repeatedly. Erik sent her an incensed letter and ordered others to arrange the wedding on her behalf. Still, all this stalling resulted in the wedding being postponed. Instead of tying the knot in 1567 when Erik first married Karin, Sofia gained a respite until 1568, when Erik married Karin for the second time (like more officially). This time, Sofia had no choice. In carmine coloured velvet she followed Karin (soon to be Queen Karin, if only for a little while) into the church, emerging as Mrs Magnus Saxe-Lauenberg.

Sofia Francis II

Francis, Magnus’ younger brother. I guess Magnus would have looked like this

History has nothing positive to say about Magnus beyond his marital skills. He was a violent and brutal man, and soon enough poor Sofia was the recipient of his fists and boots—especially once his father had ruled Magnus unfit to rule the duchy of Saxe-Lauenberg and replaced him with his younger brother. Magnus seethed at the injustice—and took it out on his wife. Poor Sofia had nowhere to go, and initially, her family (or rather her brothers) turned a blind eye. Domestic violence was a matter best handled between man and wife.

But as the years passed, as Sofia gave birth to child after child that died, her family began to get worried. Magnus had by now been dispatched to Ösel, an island recently conquered from the Danes. There, he went as wild and crazy as always, leaving a wake of blood and pain behind him. In fact, by now Magnus was little more than a brutal highwayman, and Johan (Sofia’s second eldest brother, King of Sweden after Erik had been deposed due to insanity. Those headaches that required soothing were not your normal headaches…) wanted little to do with him. Also, all that violence had affected Sofia more than physically. The records state that she was so cruelly used by her husband it affected her mental capacity.

Sofia was weak, her husband was harsh, and soon enough he’d wasted all the money she brought to their marriage. He didn’t like that, and once he’d pawned or sold Sofia’s jewellery he obliged his wife to beg and wheedle for more funds. Initially, Johan and Karl (Sofia’s third brother) gave her money, but as the situation grew more and more out of control, her brothers realised handing over money was no way to help their sister.


King Johan

Finally, in 1578, King Johan had had enough. The abuser had to be stopped, ASAP. Magnus was arrested, all the land he’d received upon wedding Sofia was transferred to her, in her own right, and then Magnus was exiled from Sweden. Left behind was a badly scarred wife and one surviving child, a boy of eight.  Interestingly enough, over the coming years Sofia would now and then beg her brother to allow her husband to return. Johan refused, saying she did not know what was best for her. (Duh! An early sufferer of an extreme Stockholm syndrome?)

Meanwhile, Magnus continued his bitter feud with his father and brothers. It was his right to inherit Saxe-Lauenberg  (it was) and no way was he going to let his younger brother, Francis, oust him. But so unpopular was Magnus, so unappetising his reputation for violence and brutality, that the Holy Roman Emperor decided to ignore the rights of primogeniture and support baby brother Francis. This did not please Sofia. After all, she had a young son whose patrimony now was being squandered by his evil papa. King Johan was unmoved by her pleas that he help Magnus. As far as he was concerned, Magnus deserved everything he had coming and then more.

Sofia Ratzeburg_1590

Ratzeburg in 1590. I hope it had a dungeon…

In 1588 Magnus was captured by his brother and locked up in Ratzeburg Castle where he would remain until his death in 1603. Somehow, I hope his captivity was very harsh and uncomfortable.

With Magnus out of her life, Sofia concentrated on raising her son, Gustav. Truth be told, she mollycoddled the boy, and when he was sent off to his uncle’s household to be raised as befitted a noble young boy, she begged and begged that he be returned to her. So Gustav grew up spoiled and rather unbearable, at times behaving as violently as his father. Once in his teens he was taken in hand by his uncles who sent him off abroad to toughen him up and teach him some basic decency. Seems it worked, albeit that any benefits were short-lived as this young man managed to kill himself by shooting himself in the knee in 1597.

Sofia lived out the rest of her life alone. She concentrated on managing her estates (which she did dismally) and preferred to live away from the busy life at court. In letters to her, her large family urge her not to “sink too deep into her sorrows and thereby cause yourself a serious accident or fall into permanent illness” which indicates she may have been severely depressed—or maybe she’d inherited the Vasa gene for mental instability that led to Erik XIV’s deposition and her fourth brother’s totally secluded life. Ironically, that brother was named Magnus—just like the monster of a husband who “treated his princess with all unkindness, disdain and shameful slander, that she of the sorrow was caused great weakness of the head.”

Sofia died in 1611. Her life was no fairy tale despite her being a princess. In fact, it was rather the reverse…

A misunderstood misogynist? Meet John Knox!

I have a fascination with the Reformation. While we tend to simplify and see it as a spur of the moment thing caused by the sale of indulgences, the Holy Church has always had its fair share of people who have questioned its interpretation of scripture and its general approach to things. Such debates could be very vigorous. In some cases, they led to changes. In some cases, the person questioning ended up dead.

I any case, all this internal criticism came to a head in the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century, and this time the division was too deep to be healed. Ergo the Reformation, which was not, as some think, one Protestant faction versus the Holy Church. Nope: it was many, many Protestant factions versus the Holy Church. One such faction were the Calvinists, and today I have invited Marie Macpherson to tell us some more about John Knox, Calvinist reformer of Scotland.

knox-marie-macphersonMarie was born in Musselburgh, has a degree in Russian and English and wrote her PhD thesis about Russian writer Lermontov. The rich history of East Lothian – especially the Reformation period – provided the inspiration for her first fictional work, based on the early life of the Scottish reformer, John Knox. Having read both the first and now the second of Marie’s books, I’d say what she doesn’t know about John Knox is probably not worth knowing, and so, with no further ado, allow me to turn you over into her capable hands!


John Knox and the “Monstrous Regiment”

The question I’m often asked is why would I, a woman, choose to write about John Knox? Some may idolise the founding father of the Scottish Reformation as a saint – not something the iconoclast would approve of – but for many Knox is the fire-breathing, pulpit-thumping tyrant who penned that vitriolic anti-feminine tract, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.

To be fair, this was not an attack on all women but aimed at the ‘unnatural’ rule or regime of Mary Tudor in England, with sideswipes at Regent Marie de Guise in Scotland and Mary, Queen of Scots in France. Neither was Knox a rogue male chauvinist in trumpeting the view that women were inferior beings: most men of the time agreed with him using scripture to justify their argument, though none were as vociferous as the fiery Scot. He not only wanted to depose the ‘three Marys’ but, if necessary, execute the tyrants. This was tantamount to treason.


John Knox. Photo Kim Traynor, licensed under Creative Commons

But did Knox hate women? Surprisingly, the answer is no. In contrast to his abject hate and loathing of Catholic queens, Knox loved female company and formed several close relationships with women throughout his life. The twice-married father of five children was also quite the ladies’ man. The celibate Roman Catholic priest in the first half of his life made up for lost time in the second half. According to one source, “Whenever he made a journey he took around with him a certain number of women whom he used to satisfy his lusts.” Or, as someone at one of my talks remarked, “I never knew Knox was such a babe magnet.’ Needless to say, all this sheds a completely different light on Knox and contradicts his reputation as a rampant misogynist.

His relationship with his mother-in-law, Mrs Bowes, is particularly fascinating. Freed from the galleys in 1559, Knox was a pariah in Scotland but welcomed in England. Appointed minister in Berwick-upon-Tweed, he met Elizabeth Bowes, wife of the warden of Norham Castle. This middle-aged matron and mother of 15 children had been a devout Roman Catholic until the religious rug was pulled from under her. Inspired by his sermons, she developed a ‘crush’ on the charismatic Scots preacher. A religious hypochondriac, continually tortured by the devil with doubts about whether or not she was one of the elect, she poured out her heart to her substitute priest/confessor.

When she confessed to being guilty of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, Knox must have been horrified – until realising she had no idea what they were. After explaining that these consisted of pride, riotous excess, idleness that provoked filthy lusts, resulting in all abomination and unnatural filthiness, he asked, ‘In which of these, Mother, are ye guilty?’ Unfortunately her response is not recorded.

Nevertheless, their intimacy has led to prurient speculation. The notorious cupboard incident at Alnwick where Knox confessed, “In very deed I thought nae creature had been temptit as I was,” has been wheeled out as evidence of adultery. But this vision of Knox lurking behind the linen cupboard to snatch a furtive embrace with his ‘belovit mother’ has been dismissed as fantasy. To quash rumours, Knox wrote a letter to the faithful explaining that the cause of his familiarity with Mrs Bowes was neither flesh nor blood but entirely of the spirit. More likely, Mrs Bowes was a maternal figure, the soft feminine presence Knox craved in a male dominated life. Though he endured her outpourings with the patience of a saint, she drove him to distraction at times with her “fasherie and nuisance”. She sounds like the mother-in-law from hell – and a novelist’s dream.

At the age of 33 he married Mrs Bowes’s 16 year-old-daughter, causing accusations of cradle snatching to be flung at him. However, in an age when women frequently died in childbirth, it was quite common for an older man to take a young wife. More shocking was Mrs Bowes’s decision to abandon her husband and family and follow her daughter and son-in-law to Geneva. Nevertheless, Marjory proved to be the perfect wife for Knox, not only his dear bedfellow but his helpmeet and secretary. Calvin certainly approved, calling her “the most delightful of wives” and “a rare find”. In Geneva, she gave birth to two sons and her premature death in 1560 left Knox in “no small heaviness”.

Invited to London in 1552 as one of King Edward VI’s court preachers, Knox lodged with the Lockes, a family of wealthy London mercers. He forged an intense relationship with Henry Locke’s young wife Anna, an intelligent, educated woman who wrote poetry and translated Calvin’s writings.

Whether or Anna was, according to Robert Louis Stevenson, the love of Knox’s life, she certainly became a life-long confidante and correspondent and his letters give some insight into the private man. In stark contrast to the image of the bully and brute, they reveal his sensitive ‘feminine’ side’. Exiled in Geneva, he expressed thirst and langour for her presence: “Sometimes I sobbed fearing what should become of you”, he wrote, fearing for her life during Mary Tudor’s persecution. So much so that he invited Anna and her children to Geneva where their ménage-à-quatre dashed any hopes Knox may have had of living a quiet scholarly life. Did these domestic troubles drive the hen-pecked Knox to distraction and fuel the flames for his infamous tract?

knox-firstblastPublished anonymously in 1557, Knox’s First Blast was not only misjudged. Drawing howls of horror from all sides – including John Calvin – it was grossly mistimed. Despite his famous gift of prophecy, he failed to foresee Mary Tudor’s death in November 1558 or the accession of yet another queen – albeit a Protestant one.

Though Knox tried to mince his words, the young Queen Elizabeth I was not at all amused and refused his request for safe passage through England. When Knox finally arrived in 1559, Scotland was in the brunt of civil war and he took up the fight against the Regent, Mary of Guise. Her death in June 1560 heralded the triumph of Protestantism in Scotland.

In December 1560, Knox and Mary Stewart both suffered personal tragedies: the unexpected death of his wife, Marjory, and her husband, King François. Despite these common losses, the elderly widower and the young widow could not be more different and clashed in a series of famous meetings. The staunch Protestant believed the people had the right to depose an ungodly ruler while the devout Roman Catholic queen believed in the divine right of a monarch to rule. Thus she was furious when Knox dared to challenge her marriage to Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley.


“Must he nag so?”

Neither was she pleased when, after being widowed for three years, 50-year-old Knox took another 17 year-old bride. Mary “stormeth wonderfully”, not only because he’d wed her distant cousin, Margaret Stewart, without royal consent but because it brought Knox into the family. Catholic commentators even accused him of having used the black arts to secure the match.

Whatever his secret, Knox managed to sire three daughters within six years. As well as fulfilling her role as bedfellow, Margaret acted as Knox’s secretary and PA. But the fact that, after his death, the merry widow wed Andrew Ker of Fawdonside who had held a pistol to Mary Stewart’s pregnant belly during David Riccio’s murder, suggests a more spirited character than Marjory.

knox-louise_rayner_john_knoxs_house_edinburghDespite his success in establishing the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, Knox became increasingly embittered in his final years as he realised that religion was not a priority for many of the lords reneging to the queen’s side. In November 1572, Knox died in his bed rather than atop a burning pyre, as he’d always feared, in James Mossman’s house, now known as John Knox House, on High Street. A plaque in the car park outside St Giles Cathedral marks where he was buried – perhaps next to his beloved, tragic Marjory.


I rather like the idea of Mary, Queen of Scots, “storming wonderfully” 🙂 Thank you, Marie for this interesting post, and should you want to know more about Marie and her books, I recommend you visit her Amazon page. You can also connect on FB or Twitter.

As to her book, I recently read The second blast of the trumpet, and here is my review:

knox-2bott-book-covervWriting a book about John Knox comes with its own particular challenges—principally that of creating some sympathy for a man mostly remembered as a harsh and uncompromising reformer of the church. Fortunately, Ms Macpherson manages to do just that, presenting us with a complex character who is self-righteous and weak in turns, thereby inspiring the odd bout of tenderness

The book covers the period 1549 to 1559. It continues the story begun in Ms Macpherson’s first book, The First Blast of the Trumpet, and for the sake of clarity—and enjoyment—I recommend reading them in order.

Had this book been only about John Knox’s efforts to promote his religious doctrine, it could quickly have become boring. Luckily, there is an unfolding romance within, with Knox being struck with Cupid’s arrow the first time he claps eyes on little Marjory Bowes. Not that Marjory reciprocates his feelings – not initially – but over the years she develops a special fondness for this bearded and passionate man. As does Marjory’s mother. Ms Macpherson handles the resulting tensions with aplomb and a certain tongue-in-cheek, resulting in a very colourful Mrs Bowes.

Ms Macpherson is an accomplished writer. The prose is fluid, the historical details elegantly inserted, the descriptions vivid. All in all, this is an engaging read, my only quibble being the rather abrupt ending. I am looking forward to reading the next instalment in the Knox Saga!

A Catholic recusant in the court of Elizabeth I

In the aftermath of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg (and yes, I know it isn’t entirely certain he did nail them, but it makes for a forceful image, doesn’t it? Much more forceful than politely handing them over to the bishop) the people in Europe were to live through decades—even centuries—of religious confusion. The Holy Church fell apart, with some adhering to the old ways, some embracing the new.


Edward VI, with his dying father Henry VIII in bed. An allegorical transfer of power

In England, Henry VIII chose to break with Rome and make himself head of the Church of England (this, as we all know, due to personal issues: he really, really wanted a divorce, and the Pope refused to give him one). At heart, Henry VIII was a Catholic, and the Church of England under him adopted some aspects of the Reformation but retained a lot of the colour, pageantry and rites of the Catholic Church. Things changed under Henry VIII’s son. Edward VI was VERY Protestant, and the Church of England developed accordingly, even if things were brought to a grinding halt when Mary I ascended the throne, determined to lead her subjects back into the welcoming fold of the Catholic Church. By then, things had gone too far. Too many of the English had embraced the reformed faith and had no desire whatsoever to return to the fold, no matter how welcoming.

In 1559, Elizabeth I ascended the throne. A Protestant Princess became a Protestant Queen, and no matter that she supposedly said she had no desire to open windows into men’s souls, Elizabeth ruled a country where Catholics were viewed with distrust. These recusants were potential papist spies, and then there was the infected matter of Elizabeth’s cousin and long-time prisoner, Mary Queen of Scots, who was a Catholic—with a claim on the English throne. No, it is safe to say that in the second half of the 16th century the smart thing was to be a Protestant. Especially if you were planning on a career at court—and a long life.


Supposedly, Mary FitzAlan, Philip’s mother

After this somewhat lengthy preamble, it is time to introduce today’s protagonist. Philip Howard was born 1557, straight into the upper echelons of English nobility. His father, Thomas Howard, was the 4th Duke of Norfolk, his mother the heiress to the Earl of Arundel. Not that Philip ever got the opportunity to develop a relationship with his mother, as she died at seventeen after having given birth to him. The Howard family was a powerful family, descended from Thomas of Brotherton, Edward I’s son, through his impressive daughter Margaret. Philip’s Catholic great-grandfather, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, had been instrumental in helping Mary I secure her throne, but Philip’s father had been educated by Protestants and had turned his back on the “old religion”.

Thomas was a busy up-and-coming man and needed a wife. Accordingly, he didn’t remain a widower for long. Philip was presented with a step-mother, and over the coming years, the Howard nursery expanded with four more children. And then wife number two died as well. Thomas Howard married Elizabeth Leyburne, widow to a Thomas Dacre and mother of three little girls (and a son who died young).


Thomas Howard, Philip’s father

Elizabeth was a devout Catholic, something that didn’t exactly thrill her new husband. When she lay dying, a scant seven months or so after the wedding, she begged to be allowed to see a priest, but her husband refused. Maybe he was distraught—Elizabeth had gone into premature labour, and the baby died with her—maybe he considered it too much of a risk to allow a Catholic priest to visit his home. Or maybe he was just being pigheaded.Whatever the case, poor Elizabeth died uncomforted. This time, Thomas didn’t marry again. Instead, he married his three sons to his three step-daughters. A complicated “let’s keep it in the family” game.

Philip Howard was twelve when he married Anne Dacre. This was also the year when his father was accused of planning to marry Mary, Queen of Scots. The Duke wiggled out of that one, but some years later he was back kicking his heels in the Tower, now accused of participating in the Ridolfi plot, whereby the plotters intended to supplant Elizabeth with Mary, Queen of Scots. The evidence tying Howard to the plot are somewhat tenuous, but in June of 1572 he was executed for treason.

At the time, Philip Howard was fifteen. His father’s vast estates were attainted and fell to the crown, but fortunately for Philip, his maternal grandfather left an impressive inheritance, and so he became the Earl of Arundel – not quite as fancy as being a Duke, but definitely better than being an impoverished lordling.


The young Philip.

The Philip – Anne marriage was not exactly a bed of roses, at least not initially. Anne was devout, and her upbringing had her leaning towards the Catholic faith. The Howard family had its own sizeable share of Catholic recusants, but Philip was not one of them, and he wasn’t thrilled to have a wife whose religion could cause him major problems at court. After all, Philip intended to spend a lot of time at court, where he very quickly had become one of Elizabeth’s favourites.

Things, however, happened. Philip began developing an affection for his wife – and for her religious preferences. He witnessed a debate at the Tower between Jesuits and Protestants in the early 1580’s that definitely swung him in matters of religion but for some years more he sat on the fence. Not so his wife, who converted in 1582. When the queen found out, Anne was placed under house arrest, a whole year of solitude during which she gave birth to a daughter whom she promptly named Elizabeth. (For her mother, not her queen, I imagine)

The queen relented, Anne was released and rushed into her husband’s arms. No longer the foppish courtier of his early youth, Philip had developed a serious—and devout—side. The queen’s treatment of his wife had not served to deter him from conversion, instead it made him all that more determined to become a Catholic, just like Anne. Philip probably never had the intention of going public with his conversion, but he lived in an age where every major household had a bevy of servants, and quite a few of those servants also acted as informers on their masters, which was how Queen Elizabeth found out that her erstwhile favourite and second cousin had decided to become a recusant.


Elizabeth I, not only queen but also head of the Church of England

Queen Elizabeth ordered Philip to be placed under house arrest. Unlike his wife, Philip chose to flee. One wonders why: did he have reason to suspect the house arrest would be permanent? That the queen would never release him? That he would be assassinated? The present mood at court was very anti-Catholic, so maybe his fears were warranted.
Whatever the case, Philip decided to flee to France, but was betrayed and captured at sea. He was brought back to England where he was thrown into the Tower in 1585, sentenced to pay a fine of 10 000 pounds and to remain imprisoned at the queen’s pleasure. His wife was ordered to leave London and retire to the country, and no matter how much Philip begged, the queen refused permission for his wife and newborn son to visit him. Not one of Queen Elizabeth’s better moments…

Things might have ended differently for Philip had it not been for his Spanish namesake. In 1588, Philip II of Spain ordered the Great Armada to invade England under the auspices of restoring the True Religion, thereby doing every Catholic in England a huge disfavour – including Philip Howard.

As we all know, the threat of invasion came to nothing, and the English people rejoiced. Not so Philip Howard, who was now tried for treason, for having prayed for the Armada’s success and for having been party to a plan to excommunicate Queen Elizabeth. (As an aside, it is somewhat interesting that the excommunication threat be brought up: as a Protestant Monarch, why should Elizabeth care about a papal bull excommunicating her? Shows just how ingrained the Old Religion still was…)

Of course, Philip was found guilty and was attainted. For the coming years, he lived in constant fear that this would be the day he was dragged out to be beheaded, but in actual fact Queen Elizabeth never signed his execution order – even if no one had the charity to tell him so. Philip spent his days in relatively comfortable captivity in the Beauchamp Tower, accompanied by a dog that he used as a go-between to other prisoners. But he worried constantly for his family, knowing full well the future of his children now depended on the fortitude of his wife. (Fortunately, Anne Dacre was one tough cookie, so she rose to the challenge admirably.)


Philip languishing in captivity

Some of his despair shines through in the inscription he carved on the stone above the chimney in Beauchamp Tower. In a spidery handwriting it reads “quanto plus afflictions pro Christo in hoc saeculo, tanto plus gloriae cum Christo in future” which translates as the more affliction we suffer in the name of Christ in this world, the greater the glory at Christ’s side in the next. Not sure just how much comfort he could draw from that.

Interestingly enough, Philip Howard always had a “Get out of jail” card at his disposal. All he had to do was recant, embrace the Protestant faith, and he would be forgiven, his estates restored to him. But he never did. Not even when he lay dying and yet again begged the queen to allow his wife and children to visit him, did he ever consider denying his faith. It must have been a terrible temptation for the ailing man. All he had to do, as per the queen, was to attend a Protestant Service and he would have the joy of his family at his side and be restored to all his honours – and her favour. An hour or so of lip service, and he would be allowed to hold his wife’s hand one last time, lay eyes on his son and daughter. One measly service and he would buy his children an easier life, himself a respectable death.

Some people are an unknown quantity until life throws them into the fires of fate. Some emerge strengthened by the experience, some crumble to ashes. Philip Howard belonged to the former, which is why he refused to give in. In a last burst of inspiration, he had the following message conveyed to the queen: “Tell Her majesty if my religion be the cause for which I suffer, sorry I am that I have but one life to lose.” And so Philip Howard died, alone in his tower on a cold October day of 1595. He had spent more than ten years behind the walls of the Tower for the single sin of being a Catholic. I wonder if Elizabeth ever felt a sting of shame – she should, IMO.

After Philip’s death, the queen withheld the possessions that should rightfully go to his widow. But Anne was no milksop and she fought for her rights, for the rights of her otherwise impoverished children. So successful was she, that ultimately her son, yet another Thomas Howard, was restored to his title as Earl of Arundel. And in the fullness of time, this Thomas Howard’s descendants would yet again become the Dukes of Norfolk – which they remain until today – but that would have to wait another hundred years or so.
As to Philip, his body was first buried together with that of his father, executed twenty-three years earlier. But in 1624, his widow (who, as you can work out, lived a long, long life) had his remains transferred to Arundel, where they still lie.

Philip Howard was canonised by the pope in 1970.

The female touch – of a renaissance king and his wives

Gustav Eriksson Vasa is something of a national hero in Sweden. Okay, so we don’t do national heroes all that well, so while we credit him with freeing Sweden from the unbearable Danish yoke as represented by Christian II, we also consider Gustav Vasa as something of a grasping bastard.

christianiibIf we start with the Danish angle, Christian II (nicknamed “The Tyrant” in Sweden, which shows just how much we love him) trod Sweden underfoot in the early decades of the 16th century, and is also responsible for one of the bloodier massacres in Early Swedish History, the Stockholm Bloodbath. Christian’s intention was to murder all leading Swedish male nobles. Luckily for Gustav Vasa, he wasn’t in Stockholm on that particular November day in 1520. Instead, he swore to avenge his father, his uncles, his cousins, his…long list.

By 1523, Vasa had achieved his goal. Christian II and his acolytes were on the run, and our Gustav, supported by the brave Swedish yeomanry, re-established Sweden as an independent kingdom, with, unsurprisingly, Gustav Vasa as its king. At the time, Gustav was around 28 or so, and, unusually for the times, unmarried. I suppose having spent the last three years on the run and fighting for his life and his country had made him less than inclined to burden himself with a wife, but once seated on the Swedish throne, Vasa turned his attention to finding a woman and begetting an heir.

Gustav Vasa had grown up surrounded by formidable women. His aunt, Kristina Gyllenstierna, had led the defence of Stockholm against the Danes, often to be found on the ramparts with her men. His mother, Cecilia, had been hauled off to captivity by Christian II in the aftermath of Stockholm’s Bloodbath, together with her younger daughters. Christian promised Cecilia her freedom if she would convince her son to submit, and supposedly Cecilia tried. Hmm. Having seen her husband, her brothers, her uncles, die in Stockholm, I’m not entirely sure Cecilia trusted Christian’s intentions. Neither did Kristina, imprisoned with Cecilia.

Whatever the case, upon hearing Gustav Vasa had been crowned Swedish king, Christian supposedly had Cecilia sew a sack out of burlap, tied her up in it, and threw her in the sea to drown. The somewhat more pragmatic truth is that Cecilia succumbed to the plague – conditions in the prison she shared with all the other Swedish ladies were rather nasty. Not only Cecilia died: her two young daughters also died in Denmark.

gustav_vasaGustav liked women. Not in the sense of involving himself in numerous carnal relationships, but rather from the perspective of enjoying their company. So when he set out to choose a wife, he wasn’t looking for a pretty little thing to impregnate and ignore, no, he wanted a companion. He also needed to build alliances – Sweden was still a weak and shaky country, and no matter that Denmark was struggling with its own internal affairs (Christian II was subsequently deposed, forced to flee into exile with his family) it still posed a threat.

Gustav’s first wife was therefore a foreign lady, Catherine of Saxe-Lauenburg. This young woman came with the benefit of having a sister who was already married to the new Danish king, Christian III. Gustav Vasa hoped that familial ties would smooth the way to a permanent peace with his southern, somewhat bellicose, neighbour.

Catherine was unhappy in Sweden. Eighteen years old to Gustav’s thirty-six, she considered her husband old, Stockholm depressingly rustic, and the Swedes lacking in anything resembling polish. Probably quite true, but her open criticism resulted in an unhappy and rocky marriage, which ended when Catherine died after a fall at the age of twenty-two (Lurid legend has it that Gustav beat her to death with an axe. Seeing as her bones show no sign of such brutality, we can put this down to Danish propaganda…) She left behind a little son, the future king Erik XIV.

In 1536, Gustav married again. Now a robust forty, the king needed to fill his nursey – one puny little boy was not enough to ensure the survival of his bloodline. As per contemporary descriptions, Gustav Vasa was quite an attractive man, sporting an impressive beard, tightly cropped blond hair and an excellent physique. Something of a slave under fashion, Gustav was a flamboyant dresser, and seemingly carried off revealing hose with panache. So despite his advanced age, he attracted his fair share of female looks, and his second wife, Margareta Leijonhuvud, seems to have been quite taken with her husband, even if he was twice her age.

Mind you, things didn’t get off to a brilliant start, seeing as Margareta was promised elsewhere – and supposedly was very infatuated with young Svante Sture, her original intended. It is said that when Gustav came to press his suit, Magareta was so distraught she scurried up to hide in the attic. Gustav, however, was a determined man, and followed her up there. Somehow, he convinced her to say yes, and once she’d done so, she never looked back.



Margareta was twenty years old when she and Gustav married in September of 1536. Of impeccable bloodlines, she too had lost male relatives en masse at the Stockholm Bloodbath and had been raised in a household where politics were discussed openly at the dinner table. In difference to the unfortunate Catherine, Margareta had the skills and knowledge required to offer her husband relevant advice – and to judge from their correspondence, he gladly took it.

Theirs was a happy marriage. Gustav was devoted to his wife (nowhere is there as much as an insinuation that Gustav ever strayed from the marital bed) and she to him, presenting him with ten children of which eight would survive to adulthood. His letters to her often began “To Margareta, my dearest heart”, and she would usually direct herself to “my most beloved lord”. He trusted her to manage their various homes, to hire staff, arrange their financial affairs, administer justice when he wasn’t around, and in general act as his second-in-command. In return, her various siblings made advantageous marriages – but Margareta was made responsible of ensuring they did not mistreat their tenant farmers. (Gustav had the utmost respect for the Swedish farmers: he knew first hand that these doughty men made formidable fighters when riled – after all, these were the men who’d helped him oust the Danes)


“Honey, maybe you should…”

Like all wise consorts in this day and age, Margareta rarely challenged her husband in public. Should her opinions differ from his, she saved any discussion for when they were alone, and even then, she would abstain from open criticism. Men like Gustav responded better to murmured cajoling than ultimatums. Margareta, as all medieval queens, was also expected to intercede with the king for those who begged her to do so. Like all successful consorts, Margareta was selective in who she chose to plead for. She seems to have done a lot of manoeuvring on behalf of her youngest sister Märta who had ended up married with dashing Svante Sture. Maybe Margareta still retained a soft spot for the young man she once hoped to wed.

Margareta also oversaw the schooling of the royal children. Gustav Vasa was a great believer in education, and especially his sons were given tutors that would help expand their knowledge of the world. That Margareta was allowed to take control over the education of her children is interesting seeing as she was a devout Catholic. Gustav Vasa reformed the Swedish Church early on in his reign – he needed the money the dissolution of the various monasteries would bring – but he was relatively lenient when it came to the question of faith as such. As long as people toed the line when it came to his laws, as long as they paid their taxes, he left it up to them to worship God as they pleased. Accordingly, his children had Catholic tutors, Protestant tutors, Calvinist tutors. Simply put, Margareta and Gustav wanted the best tutors, no matter what their religious beliefs might be.


Gustav with his eldest son, Erik, receiving a copy of the first-ever Bible in Swedish

Just how much Gustav trusted his wife was made evident in 1544, when Sweden was formally converted to a hereditary kingdom. By then, Gustav had three sons to secure the hold of the Vasa dynasty on the Swedish throne, Erik, Johan and Magnus. There would be one more before Margareta and Gustav were done, the future Karl IX. There were also a couple of daughters – valuable pawns in Gustav’s search for alliances – and I imagine Gustav smiled into his beard as he studied his growing family.

Anyway, in 1544 Gustav also decided that should he die before his sons were of an age to rule, Margareta was to act as regent. To reinforce her power, he granted her several of Sweden’s more important castles to hold in her own name until the heir of the throne came of age. Suddenly, Margareta was in a position to wield substantial power should she want to. She didn’t, expressing fervently that she hoped she would never live to see the day when she had to make her way through life without her beloved husband. Went down well with hubby, I imagine…

Margareta was granted her wish. In 1551, she sickened and died, leaving behind a distraught husband and eight children, the youngest no more than a year old. It is said there was a solar eclipse on the day she died, the heavens as affected by her death as was her husband and her family. She was buried with adequate pomp and circumstance in Uppsala Cathedral, sharing a tomb with Gustav’s first wife. When Gustav Vasa died nine years later, he was buried between them.


Gustav, pushing sixty

Gustav was very affected by Margareta’s death. Now well into his fifties, he’d grown accustomed to having her see to his physical comfort, to having her always at his side. The king decided to marry again – something everyone expected him to do, as he needed someone to help him raise all those children. After some scouting about, his eye fell on Katarina Stenbock, a pretty blonde girl who was forty years his junior. She was also Margareta’s niece, which caused some problems – the church was not happy with what they considered to be a marriage within the prohibited degree.

Katarina herself was not thrilled. Yet again, the chosen bride was already promised elsewhere, and I imagine exchanging the vision of sleeping with a man her own age to that of sleeping with a man old enough to be her grandfather must have been…err…difficult. But no one asked Katarina’s opinion – her family was eager to see her wed to the king, thereby ensuring a future of preferences. So in 1552, Katarina married Gustav in a splendid ceremony where her new step-daughters (and cousins) in red silk surrounded the bride in pink.

Katarina and Gustav never achieved the relationship Gustav had had with Margareta. Hers were big shoes to fill, and besides the age difference must have made it difficult for them to find all that much to chit-chat about. Being of an age with her step-children, Katarina was probably prone to take their part in any conflict with their father – and there were conflicts, as the ageing Gustav grew increasingly short of temper while his children chafed under his control.

Plus, of course, there was the major, major scandal when one of Gustav’s daughters, Cecilia, was caught in the very compromising situation of having a half-naked man in her bedroom. Gustav blamed Katarina for not having exercised sufficient control over Cecilia. Reputedly, Katarina told him Cecilia wasn’t her daughter, but his.



Katarina never gave Gustav any children, although to judge from some oblique comments in various documents she was probably pregnant on some occasions. Neither was she put in the same position of trust as Margareta, Gustav mostly using her as his housekeeper and step-mother to his children. He never corresponded with her as he did with Margareta, preferring to write directly to his elder daughters instead.

In the end, Katarina was relegated to being his nurse. Gustav took his time dying and hated being bedridden – something he took out on poor Katarina, blaming her for the fact that his children rarely came to visit. Truth was, they avoided their father and his foul temper during his last months on earth…

When Gustav died in 1560, Katarina was left to the mercy of her step-sons. Gustav had left instructions that she be given an income and lands in keeping with her status as dowager queen, but he had never specified either amounts or lands. Fortunately for Katarina, her step-sons were fond of her, so she wasn’t exactly left destitute.

Katarina survived her husband for well over six decades. She never married again, never wore anything but widow’s weeds, and when she finally died, at the very advanced age of 86 years, she too was buried with her husband in Uppsala Cathedral. And there, to this day, they lie: the king, his first dynastic wife, his beloved second wife, and his housekeeper third wife. And let me tell you, if skeletons can hold hands, then Gustav’s finger bones are tightly interlinked with those of Margareta, the wife he adored.

Of names and unsung heroes

“If I have a son, I’m going to name him Guatemoc,” second son said from the backseat of the car.
“Guatemoc. The last hero of the Aztec people, a warrior who died with his honour intact.”
“Ah.” I chose not to comment further. Some ideas are best killed by silence rather than arguments, and knowing second son, too voluble a protest against the idea of a future grandson named Guatemoc might very well result in an innocent Swedish babe being lumbered with this historically proud name.

Anyway, as a consequence of this discussion I felt compelled to find out more about this (in my ears) unsung hero. Having grown up in South America, having celebrated 12 of October as the “Día de la Raza” on numerous occasions (and these days the feast day has been renamed to Día de la Hispanidad, i.e. a celebration of Hispanic culture rather than the sovereignty of the Spanish race – much better name, I think), I considered myself to have a pretty good grasp of the Spanish Conquest of America. My mother ensured I not only heard the panegyrics, but handed me Bartolomé de las Casas very critical and contemporary description of the conquest, reminding me over and over again that history is always written by the winner. But despite all this, Guatemoc did not ring a bell.



In Peru, Francisco Pizarro conquered the mighty Inca Empire with a handful of soldiers and a huge portion of sly cunning. The fate of the last Inca Emperor, Atahualpa, I have touched upon in a previous post, but so far I don’t think I’ve written about Montezuma and dear old Hernán. In difference to most of the Spanish Conquistadores, Hernán was an educated man, a younger son in a minor noble family. His parents wanted him to be a lawyer, but after two years kicking his heels in Salamance, Hernán decided the life of law was not for him, which was why, at the age of nineteen, he set out for the New World and its beckoning riches.

Initially, there weren’t any riches. Hernán ended up in Cuba where there were no mountains of gold, no rubies littering the ground. But he, like many others, heard of endless riches in mainland Mexico. Which was why this ruthless and greedy adventurer landed in México in 1519 on an exploratory expedition. Some months later, he was safely ensconced in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán, an honoured guest of the mighty Aztec emperor, Montezuma.

What happened afterwards is all a bit hazy. The Aztec nobility were none too happy when their Spanish “guests” kept on extending their stay, and at some point they grumbled so loudly Montezuma suggested it might be wise for the Spanish leave – for a while.

“Hmm,” said Cortés, who had just received word a certain Pánfilo de Narváez had landed in Mexico, here with an order from the governor of Cuba to arrest Hernán for having set off on an “unauthorised invasion of Mexico”. (Yes, even the Spanish had some standards. Well: the governor was seriously pissed off at losing his share of the expected booty…) Anyway: Hernán set off to deal with Pánfilo, and despite being severely outnumbered, he took his would-be-arrester prisoner.

Left behind in Tenochtitlán were a large number of Spanish under the command of Pedro de Alvarado. After all, Cortés had no intention of returning to the Aztec capital only to find its gates barred to him. So while Hernán was trussing up Pánofilo, the Spanish in Tenochtitlán decided to liven things up a bit. The Aztecs were celebrating the feast of Toxcatl, the temple grounds filled to bursting with celebrating people, when the armed Spanish barred the gates and then proceeded to kill as many of the defenceless natives as they could. The ground grew muddy with blood and entrails, people attempted to scale the walls to escape the murdering conquistadores – who would later claim they’d only intervened to stop the planned human sacrifices.

The massacre provoked a rebellion. The Spanish retreated to Montezuma’s palace, and their former host was now their hostage, a shield with which to protect themselves from the angered mob. Hernán returned to a situation that had escalated beyond the point of return. In one last bid to calm the people, he forced Montezuma to step out on his balcony and appeal to his people to lay down their arms.


Montezuma – dumped

As per the Spanish, the heathen Aztecs were having none of this and pelted their emperor with so many stones and other objects that he died some days later. As per indigenous narratives, it was the Spanish who killed Montezuma, dumping his body on the streets while fleeing Tenochtitlán and its angry Aztec warriors.

Not that Cortés was planning on going anywhere far: he had his sights firmly set on the Aztec empire, and he struck an alliance with the Tlaxcalans, offering them their freedom from Aztec dominance if they just sided with the Spanish. Seeing as the Aztecs were anything but nice and cuddly overlords, the Tlaxcalans jumped at the offer. Cortés prepared for war.

Meanwhile, in Tenochtitlán, my son’s hero Guatemoc had just emerged from the shadows. A nephew of Montezuma, he assumed the role of Aztec ruler and reinforced his claim by marrying Montezuma’s twelve-year-old daughter. By then, his people were not only fighting the Spanish – they had just been ravaged by a small-pox epidemic that had them dying like flies.

Despite all this, Guatemoc was not about to roll over before the Spanish and their allies. His Aztec warriors thoroughly agreed with this approach to things, and for close to a year, the determined Aztecs fought for their world. Beset on all sides, it was a losing battle, and late in 1521, the last Aztec emperor was captured by Cortés. Reputedly, Guatemoc demanded that Cortés kill him there and then, but Cortés refused, expressing how impressed he was by the young leader’s bravery.


The capture of Guatemoc

With Guatemoc’s surrender, the Aztec empire had submitted, defeated by the 800 or so remaining Spanish adventurers. Magnanimous in victory, Cortés allowed the defeated to retire from Tenochtitlán, but as per various versions, this magnanimity turned sour when he and his men did not discover the stockpiles of gold they had hoped for. Guatemoc was therefore subjected to torture, the Spanish demanding he reveal where the treasure was hidden. Problem was, there wasn’t all that much treasure…To judge from the painting below, Guatemoc took it all stoically (he practically dangles his own foot in the fire, doesn’t he?)


Guatemoc being tortured

Somehow, Guatemoc and Hernán repaired their relationship after the torture incident. To be honest, Guatemoc had no choice, just as he had no choice when Cortés ordered him to accompany Cortés on his expedition to Honduras. There, Cortés purportedly heard of a secret plot to kill him, led by Guatemoc and two others. Taking no chances, Cortés had Guatemoc hanged – on extremely scanty evidence. Once again, some narratives state that Cortés fabricated the plot, others say he genuinely belived in it.

Whatever the case, Guatemoc was dead as a log, and Cortés was plagued by insomnia for years – guilt, some said, Guatemoc coming back to haunt him. Not entirely impossible, especially not after Cortés moved Guatemoc’s wife in to live with him and got her with child…


Cesare, Machiavelli’s famous Prince

“Quite the man, that Guatemoc,” I commented to second son some days after doing my reading.
“Eh?” He looked up from his book. “Oh, him.” He smiled. “Well, you don’t need to worry, I’ve decided to not name my future son after him.” He held up his reading matter. “Machiavelli has a much better ring to it, don’t you think?”
Why does he do this to me? But at least this time I know who the potential namesake of my potential grandson is. I guess one must always count the small blessings, right? And if I play my cards right, maybe I can move him towards Cesare rather than Machiavelli. Cesare Belfrage – has quite the ring, IMO.


An Appropriate Death for a Woman

Today, I thought I’d treat you to one of my short stories. And as such stories should work without an extensive introduction, without further ado allow me to begin:

“No sooner has a man found his bed but he is dragged out of it,” Eskil Gyllenstierna complained. He hastened down the narrow cobbled street towards the royal castle, keeping a firm hold on Kristina’s arm. “Three days of drinking has my head near on split in two – I had hoped for a nice, long nap.”
“At least you enjoyed the coronation celebrations.” It had been a lavish affair, presided over by a triumphant Christian II. Kristina grimaced; it had been like swallowing bile to watch the Danish king crowned king of Sweden. Had not Sten died, none of this would have happened. Kristina sucked in a breath, trying to dull the jab of grief her husband’s name elicited.
“Why a coronation in November?” Eskil took a sharp turn to the right, skipping over a pile of horse dung.
“Why not?” Kristina slipped and clutched at her brother. “As his majesty is so fond of reminding us, he is king and can do as he pleases.”
“King for now,” Eskil muttered, throwing her a sharp look out of red-shot eyes.
“It should be Nils on the throne,” Eskil muttered.

Kristina Death_of_Sten_Sture_the_Younger

Sten, dying…

“It should have been Sten,” Kristina corrected. Her Sten, dead in his prime, killed by a Danish cannon back in January of 1520, and now here they were, hastening to bow and scrape to the Danish king. At times the wheel of fortune turned too quickly.
“Sten would have wanted it to be Nils.”
“Nils is a boy. We must be patient.” Kristina smiled at the thought of her eldest son. Keep him safe, she admonished herself. Make sure he makes it to manhood, and then we’ll see if Christian II sits as easily on his throne. The thought revived her somewhat; her son, a future king.

Just as they hurried over the bridge leading to the castle, Kristina placed a hand on Eskil’s arm. “No heroics, dear brother. I have no idea why the king has convened this meeting of nobles so late in the day, but promise me you will not do anything to draw the royal eye.”
Eskil smirked and pulled himself up straight, presenting her with the full glory of his presence. A handsome man, Eskil was also vain and had expended a small fortune on his garments. His doublet was of French damask, his hose was of silk, and the lace at collars and cuffs was from the nunnery of Vadstena – as fine, if not better, than the Brussels lace the Danes favoured.
“I shall melt into the background,” Eskil said. “Well, try to, at least.”
Kristina laughed. “You do that.” She patted him fondly on his cheek.

The great hall of the castle was thronged with people. Kristina and Eskil moved through the crowd, greeting friends and relatives. No other women, Kristina noted, throwing a nervous look in the direction of the silent guards that stood at every door.
“I don’t like this,” she muttered to Erik Vasa, her brother-in-law. She gestured at the guards. “They’re all heavily armed.”
Erik gave her a bleary look, making Kristina sigh. Vasa was not the brightest of men, and even less so when in his cups. His companion, however, straightened up and studied the guards, his features setting in a scowl.
“You’re right.” Joakim Brahe shifted on his feet. “I don’t like this either.”

Kristina ChristianIIb

Christian II

“Don’t be silly. The king is merely displaying his power. And…” Erik broke off as the king entered, accompanied by a bevy of Danish nobles. In black – not surprising, as Christian II was much taken with the sobriety of the Holy Roman Emperor’s court – and with a fur lined cloak that hung almost to the floor, he strode down the room, the light of the candles and torches reflecting off his rings and the jewel-encrusted embroidery that adorned his chest . Thick reddish hair, a well-groomed reddish beard, a longish nose that some people whispered made him look like a Jew, and dark eyes under reddish eyebrows – the Danish king looked more like a well-to-do merchant than he did a king, but that was an opinion Kristina kept to herself.

Among the king’s men, Kristina caught sight of the recently reinstated Archbishop Trolle. The churchman saw her, wrinkled his nose and turned away, the heavy robes of his office swirling round him.
“What is he doing here?” she hissed to Eskil.
“Trolle!” Kristina swallowed nervously. The Archbishop had been deposed by the Swedish parliament several years ago, effectively decapitating the Danish faction in Sweden – to no use, given that the Danes had emerged victorious. Kristina crossed herself and groped for the crucifix she kept hanging at her waist. It was a blatant breach of canonical law to depose an archbishop, and the parliament had only done so after days of deliberation –and at the instigation of her dead husband. It had been bad enough to witness a most hale and hearty Archbishop Trolle perform the coronation rituals some days ago, but for the man to be here, looking as smug as a bedbug in a brothel, no, it didn’t sit right.
“I smell a rat,” Kristina said, eyeing the guards that not only stood by the doors, but also lined the walls. Joakim muttered an agreement, but her brother’s reply was lost in his bow, and Kristina curtsied deeply when the king passed by.
“Ah, our Lady of Stockholm,” the king said, motioning for Kristina to rise.
“Your Grace,” she replied, a sensation of disquiet rippling through her at his use of that particular title.

In the aftermath of her husband’s death, she had headed the opposition against the Danish king, refusing to surrender Stockholm. Only when she saw no other option, had she negotiated a truce with the king, demanding amnesty. The king had agreed, but it was said that Christian II had a long memory – and no reputation for leniency. She smoothed nervously at her stomacher, her skirts, while Christian regarded her in silence. Kristina was hard put to refrain from squirming. She didn’t like the way the king’s mouth seemed to be pursed round a smile wanting to break forth, nor the brightness in his eyes – as if he walked about in a fever of expectation. 

The king continued his stroll towards the raised dais upon which sat his chair. The archbishop whispered something in the king’s ear, and Christian smiled widely – to Kristina a most blood-curdling vision.
“We must leave.” Kristina urged her brother towards one of the doors. As if on cue, the doors banged shut. Bolts were drawn and the guards unsheathed their swords. Some heartbeats of silence were followed by a wave of loud mutters as the assembled Swedish nobility looked at each other, at the heavily armed guards, at the king.

Christian II took his time, regarding his audience until the mutters died away. He sat down, arranged his cloak and displayed his teeth in a victorious grin.
“The day of reckoning is here,” the king said.
“Reckoning?” Joakim Brahe’s voice carried like a war horn. “What reckoning, my liege?”
“For your past sins, of course,” the king replied.
Kristina pushed her way forward. “You gave your word.” A deep breath to calm her racing heart and she approached the king, cleaving a path through the assembled men as if she were Moses parting the Red Sea. “You gave amnesty for all previous perceived traitorous actions, you promised clemency to all. Those were the terms of my surrender, Your Grace.”
Christian sat back and stroked his beard. “Maybe I lied,” he said mildly.
“True kings don’t lie. They give their word and hold to it.” She raised her chin, refusing to break eye-contact.
“What an innocent you are at times.” The king chuckled, eyeing Kristina as if she were an enervating chit of a girl, no more. He sat up straight and his expression hardened. “How dare you presume to tell me how kings should behave? You, an upstart female I should have drowned in a barrel for your rebellious resistance to my rule?” He stopped to draw breath, and the silence was such that should one have spilt a drop of water, it would have echoed like thunder in the vast hall. The archbishop placed a hand on the royal shoulder. With an irritated shrug, the king waved him away.


Kristina – hmm…

“I have never rebelled against anyone,” Kristina said. “I have but defended my country from the rapacious grasp of others.” There was a collective gasp from the men surrounding her, and she thought she could hear Eskil moan her name. Too late; she’d thrown caution in the wind, and from the expression on Christian’s face she would pay dearly. Lord, keep my sons safe, she prayed. Whatever fate You burden me with, please keep them safe. Once again, she clasped the crucifix in her hand.
“You I will deal with later,” the king said. “But first, we will listen to Archbishop Trolle.” He waved his hand at the archbishop who stood, cleared his throat and proceeded to speak.

Kristina’s head reeled. Accusations of heresy? The archbishop droned on, insisting that all those nobles who had actively participated in deposing him were nothing more than heretics, and as such deserved to be punished as such.
“You promised!” she yelled, interrupting the archbishop’s monologue. She pointed at the king. “You gave amnesty for all acts against Danish interests, including that of deposing your pet archbishop.”
The king smirked and opened his arms wide. “Alas, it is out of my hands. The Church demands restitution, not me.”
“But you swore…”
“Silence!” the king roared. “As I said, it is out of my hands.”
From all over the room, loud voices rose, yelling that this was a farce, a violation of the newly anointed king’s oaths. Men pressed forward, demanding that the lying archbishop be thrown out.
“He’s the rebel!” Joakim Brahe screamed. “It was Trolle who betrayed his country, not the other way around.”

Trolle backed away from the angered mob, eyes darting in the direction of his king. Christian gestured, and the guards closest drew their swords, using them to force the crowd away from the dais. The king rose to his feet. “Either you listen to what the archbishop has to say in silence, or I will have you all thrown into the dungeons.”
“He is speaking of heresy!” someone yelled. “We all know what that means. If found guilty, we die!”
The king held up his hands in a placating gesture. “You will be accorded a fair hearing – as your king, I promise you that.”
“Our king?” Kristina closed her eyes when she recognised her brother’s voice. “Our true leader lies dead since ten months back,” Eskil continued. “And we all know Trolle just wants to get his own back.” He spat in the direction of the archbishop. “A pox on you, Gustav Trolle. You are no archbishop of ours, you’re just a cur, grovelling at your Danish master’s feet.”
There was a slap, and Eskil staggered back, holding his hand to his face. One of the guards shook his sword at him. “Next time I use the cutting edge, not the flat.”

The archbishop resumed his litany. Kristina swayed when she was named as one of the heretics, as was her deceased husband, her brothers, Joakim Brahe, Erik Vasa – everyone who had supported her husband was on the archbishop’s list – truly a divine coincidence, she thought bitterly. Voices were raised in protest, people screamed and yelled, and at one point something flew through the air to land with a splat on the archbishop’s robes. At the king’s command, the accused noblemen were dragged off at sword point to be locked up for the night. As Kristina was manhandled past the archbishop, she spat at his feet.
“May you rot in hell for what you just did to your countrymen.”
“I live to serve God and my king,” Trolle replied mildly, turning his back on her.

After a sleepless night, Kristina rose just before dawn and kneeled down by the eastern window, her eyes affixed on the returning light as she said her prayers.
“Mother of God, give me resolve,” she whispered. “Help me through this day, my Lady.” She crossed herself and got to her feet. She could hear the guards shuffling on their feet in the antechamber, saying something in that ugly language of theirs.
When the guards came to fetch her, Kristina was standing in the middle of the room, back straight, hands clasped lightly in front of her. She took a deep breath. She would show no fear. She took yet another breath and raised her chin. Show no fear. She moved towards the waiting guards.

Kristina Stockholm_Bloodbath

The bloodbath – a bishop is being killed to the left

The travesty of a trial was concluded by noon. A council of bishops found the accused guilty of heresy, and with barely contained glee the king sprang into action. One by one, the condemned men were dragged out into the central square, there to be beheaded – or hanged, depending on their station. Kristina was hauled to the window to watch as her brothers, her brother-in-law, her cousins and her menfolk in general, were decapitated.
“Eskil!” she shrieked when he was dragged fighting towards the rudimentary block. “Eskil,” she sobbed when his head was tossed into the fountain. The cobbles of the square ran red with blood, the gallows groaned under the weight of all those slowly spinning bodies, and Kristina was hoarse with weeping, her eyes so bloated she could scarcely see.

A soft chuckle from behind her made her turn. The king was standing a yard or so away, studying her with interest.
“What? Are you not enjoying the spectacle?”
She shook her head, incapable of speech.
The king laughed again. “Tomorrow we will burn their bodies – and as we speak I am having your husband disinterred to burn him with them.”
Kristina moaned a ‘no’, sinking down to her knees. “Please, my liege, leave Sten to rest in peace.”
The king regarded her with amusement. “So you beg for the body of your husband, but not for your life.”
Kristina swallowed. She’d thought herself reprieved. Her hands rose to her neck. She didn’t want to die.
“You will burn in hell everlasting for this,” she told him.
“And you will die. But I won’t drag you out to the square to meet your death like your menfolk have. It would be quite inappropriate, for a woman to die like that.”
“Inappropriate.” Eyes reminiscent of pebbles drilled into hers. “So, my lady, I give you a choice. Do you prefer burning at the stake or being buried alive?”
She collapsed to the floor, her head filling with the sound of Christian’s laughter. All she could see were the toes of his boots. To burn or be buried alive – two appropriate deaths for a rebellious woman. Show no fear. Kristina Gyllenstierna crawled on the floor, clutching at the king’s leg.
“Mercy.” Show no fear. “Mercy, my liege.”
The king just laughed and laughed.

(And if you want to read Kristina Gyllenstierna’s full story, go here!)



Hail the conquering hero

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Gustav Vasa enters Stockholm as depicted by Carl Larsson

On June 6, 1523, Gustav Eriksson Vasa entered Stockholm after having freed Sweden from the yoke of Danish oppression. At last the sacrifices made by those who’d fought the Danes and lost it all – like his aunt, Kristina Gyllenstierna – were vindicated. Where some years earlier the main square of Stockholm had run red and sticky with the blood of the + 80 men executed by Danish king Christain II (or, as we call him, Christian the Tyrant) now it ran with celebratory wine and ale as the people acclaimed Gustav as their new king.

Not that they knew it then, but Gustav would be the last Swedish king to be elected by his people. Some years later, he’d implement a herditary kingdom which effectively guaranteed that his sons would inherit after his death. But on this sunny June day, Gustav Eriksson mostly celebrated that he was alive, that he had vanquished the Danes and thereby exacted some retribution for the death of his father and other close kin. He was young, he was strong and the world was his oyster.

To this day, we celebrate Gustav Vasa’s entry into a liberated Stockholm – which is why the 6th of June is a red-letter day in Sweden, the Day of the Swedish Flag. Nice and nationalistic, one could say, even if for most Swedes it’s yet another opportunity to eat herring and new potatoes (that’s how we celebrate the big things in life during the summer months).

I’ve written several posts about this period in Swedish history:

My lady of Stockholm – a fighter in skirts is about Gustav’s aunt and her determined and stubborn resistance against the far more powerful Danes. Did not end well, one could say…

The jilted suitor is about Gustav’s son, Erik XIV, and his pursuit of Elizabeth I of England. She was wise enough to refuse him, seeing as he went quite, quite mad.

From sinful princess to pirate – the colourful life of Gustav’s daughter, Cecilia, who was not only caught in flagrante with a young man while still unwed and then went on to harry English merchant ships in the Baltic Sea.

The female touch – of a renaissance king and his wives is about Gustav and his three wives. I must hand it to him: he might have had an awful haircut, but he always treated his women with respect.


El Manco de Lepanto – or how to be a successful writer with only one hand

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Honoré Daumier – Don Quijote

Ask people what they know about Miguel de Cervantes, and they’ll say he’s the bloke who wrote Don Quijote. Tick. Some will go on to say he and Shakespeare died on the same day, April 23, 1616, thereby depriving the world of two literary giants in one fell swoop. This is not strictly correct, but I’ll give them a tick in the box anyway. If we’re going to be precise, Cervantes died April 22 and was buried April 23. Besides, in 1616 Spain had already adopted the Gregorian calendar since some decades back, while England was still using the Julian calendar. This means that when Shakespeare cocked up his toes on April 23 in England, this was May 3 in Spain, so no, they did not die on the same day.

What few people know is that Miguel de Cervantes led a life exciting enough to qualify as a novel as fantastic as the story of the somewhat demented hidalgo (Spanish for “son of someone of means”) Don Quijote and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza. In fact, Miguel de Cervantes was a man of action, who through his adventures and their consequences ended up too damaged to continue being a man of action, and so instead he turned to accounting – and writing. Most fortunate, I would add, as a world without Don Quijote would have been a poorer world. After all, where would we be without this honourable old fool who charged windmills while astride his bony nag, so ineptly named Rocinante?

But let us start at the beginning, which in Miguel’s case would mean going back to 1547. To be quite honest, we don’t know on what day he was born, but he was baptised on October 9, and as he was given the name Miguel it is assumed he was born on September 29, the day of St Michael.

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Carlos V – Tizian

At the time, Spain was growing into an impressive empire. Pizarro and Cortez had conquered the vast native empires of the Incas and the Aztecs, and further to that the present king of Spain, Carlos V & I, was also the Holy Roman Emperor, thereby controlling a sizeable chunk of Europe outside of Spain. The Spanish were destined to be the most influential people in Europe – or so they thought – buoyed not only be the gold that flowed in from the colonies, but also by their faith in God. Spain at the time was a nation afflicted with religious fervour – the relatively recent efforts to regain control from the Muslim Moors had left the Spanish somewhat more fanatic when it came to matters of faith than their European brethren.

Not that little Miguel cared one way or the other: as the second son of seven children born to a rather impoverished and deaf surgeon, Miguel seems to have spent most of his childhood on the move as his father attempted to avoid his creditors and find new employment. Miguel’s education was thereby sketchy at best, but it is thought he spent some time with the Jesuits. And then, in 1569, Miguel hastily left Spain. Very hastily.

Some say this is due to the fact that there was a warrant for his arrest. A Miguel de Cervantes had seriously wounded a certain Antonio Sigura – this we know, based on a legal document dated 1569. What we don’t know is whether this Miguel is our Miguel, but the dates match, and given Miguel’s future career it is not unlikely he knew how to handle a sword already as a youth. Whatever the case, Miguel ended up in Rome, kicked his heels and gawked at Renaissance art for a while, and then – driven, I imagine, by a shrinking purse – he showed up in Naples and joined the Spanish Navy.

At the time, Spain was at war. To be correct, Spain was almost always at war – a consequence of being a big empire is that your borders are extremely long and volatile. Ask the Romans… By 1570, the Spanish King was Philip II, and he was “only” the King of Spain as Charles V chose to bequeath the Holy Roman Empire part of his patrimony to his brother rather than his son. Mind you, there was more than enough of Spain as it was, what with Portugal, the American colonies, Flanders, Naples, and an assortment of little Spanish enclaves here and there.

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Suleiman the Magnificent w a magnificent turban (Tizian?)

In 1570, Spain’s major headache was the Ottoman Empire. Under the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire had gone from being a disturbance in the eastern part of the Mediterranean, to being a force to be reckoned with, Ottoman ships controlling most of the Mediterranean. By 1570, Suleiman was dead since some years back, and his successor, Selim II, was neither as capable nor as determined as his father. Selim is often accused of leaving most of the actual governing in the hands of his Grand Vizier, but this may rather reflect the fact that Selim was less inclined to take part personally in battle than his father was.

Whether at Selim’s direct orders or thos of his Gran Vizier, In 1571, the Ottomans invaded Cyprus. At the time, Cyprus was on a downward slope, the previously so rich – and Christian – kingdom reduced to a couple of Christian enclaves.  The little Venetian colony of Famagusta held out bravely against the besieging Turks, but ultimately they stood no chance. Despite having been promised leniency if they surrendered, the unfortunate leaders of the Famagusta colony were flayed alive and then hanged from one of the Ottoman’s galleys so as to send the Christians a clear eff-off message. Didn’t work, one could say…

When news of the fall of Famagusta reached Italy, various European countries had already decided enough was enough. The time had come to teach the Ottomans a lesson, and under the leadership of Spain, the various nations who made up the Holy League prepared to strike back.

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Juan de Austria

A huge Christian fleet was put together, led by the dashing Juan de Austria, Philip II’s illegitimate half-brother, and sailing under a banner blessed by the pope. Upon hearing of the atrocities at Famagusta, the gigantic navy set off, and on one of those ships sailed Miguel de Cervantes, together with his brother, Rodrigo.

The two young men were eager for battle and the opportunity to distinguish themselves, and at Lepanto the Christian ships finally encountered the Ottoman fleet. At the time, Miguel was suffering a fever, but he refused to stay below deck, hastening to join his comrades in the bloody battle. Miguel himself was badly wounded, suffering two chest wounds and a permanent maiming of his left hand.

Miguel Lepanto_f1While the two opposing navies were more or less of the same size, the Holy League had twice as many guns as did the Ottomans, and it was the guns -modern technology, no less – that would prove decisive. I suppose the fact that the Ottoman galleys were powered by slaves – most of them Christian – might also have worked in favour of the Holy League. Whatever the case, the battle of Lepanto was a rout. Of approximately 250 ships, the Ottomans lost close to 200, of which 50 were sunk. The Holy League lost 17 ships in total. And the true winners of the day were all those enslaved oarsmen, who suddenly – and happily – were freed.

The Battle of Lepanto is considered something of a watershed in European history, not because of any permanent damage inflicted on the Ottomans – there wasn’t any, they were back in good form some five years later – but because the Ottomans stopped their expansion along the northern Mediterranean cost. None of this would have mattered to poor, injured Miguel. Having your hand shot to pieces in 1571 was more or less a sentence of death what with how primitive medical science was, but somehow Miguel survived, and some months later he re-joined his ship, insisting a non-existent left hand was no problem. None.

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Miguel went on to prove he could manage very well with only five fingers, and after several years of further service he decided to return home in 1575, together with his brother. They boarded a galley named Sol and settled down to a couple of weeks of sun, sea and the 16th century equivalent of piña colada, both of them eager to return home to their family. Unfortunately for them, the Sol was captured just off the Catalan coast, and Miguel and Rodrigo were carried off to Algiers were they were sold as slaves. Because Miguel had letters addressed to Philip II on his person, his new owner assumed he was a rich man and decided to keep him imprisoned while waiting for the demanded ransom.

Christians held for ransom were kept in the bagnios – slave prisons. During the day they were set to work, at night they were locked in. Conditions were not exactly pleasant, but compared to being a galley slave, it was something of a winning ticket. Miguel decided to escape. His first attempt failed due to the guide he’d hired abandoning them after a day. Cervantes had no option but to return to Algiers, and was there fitted with manacles and chains and thrown into a dark cell. The second attempt involved a hidden cavern, fifteen nervous Spanish prisoners, and a Spanish ship, but it all failed due to a snitch. Miguel assumed all responsibility and spent the coming five months in harsh conditions. The third attempt – Miguel was nothing if not persevering – involved sending a messenger to Oran. The messenger was discovered, and Miguel was condemned to two thousand lashes – a death sentence. However, so many interceded on his behalf that the sentence was commuted. The fourth attempt at escaping Algiers was betrayed by a Spanish monk who was given a jar of butter as a reward. This time, the bey had had enough, and Miguel was already aboard the galley that was to transport him to Constantinople when his ransom arrived.

In 1580, five years and more after he was captured, Miguel de Cervantes returned to Spain. His valour at Lepanto did him no favours: Juan de Austria was dead, and Philip II had little love for the men who had fought for his brother. Besides, Miguel was deeply in debt due to the ransom, and after some years doing this and that (including getting married, but that didn’t work out), he finally ended up working as a purchasing agent for the Spanish Navy. An insecure position, and soon enough Miguel was in jail, accused of taking bribes – or giving bribes – of tampering with the accounts, of short-changing the peasants – or the navy.

It is while he was in prison in the late 1590s that Miguel probably began writing El ingenioso hidaldo Don Quijote de la Mancha. By then, he’d already published the first book in a planned six-book series, La Galatea – and as the lot of authors has not changed overmuch, he did not become rich enough to quit his day-job. In fact, Miguel de Cervantes led a penurious existence until 1605, when, at long last, he published the first part of Don Quijote. In a matter of weeks, it was apparent the world had seen its first bestseller. People loved the story, loved the writing, loved the characters.

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G Doré – illustration of “the captive”

Those that knew something of Miguel’s own life, surely recognised the story of “the captive” told right at the end: a man, captured by Ottoman pirates and carried to Algiers, there to be held in dismal captivity – ring a bell, anyone? Of course, in difference to poor Miguel, “the captive” in Don Quijote receives some compensation for his suffering in the beautiful Lela Zoraida, the Moorish lady who falls in love with the Christian captive and subsequently organises his escape and flees with him. A Happily Ever After long before the term was coined…

Being the author of a bestseller does not make you automatically rich – it makes your publisher rich. Miguel de Cervantes was to live out the rest of his life on relatively small means, but attracted sufficient patrons to allow him to write full time. Fortunate, as otherwise Don Quijote Part II may never have seen the light of the day.

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Miguel Cervantes as per J Jauregui – but we’re not sure this is the great man…

In 1616, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra died of diabetes. With him died one of the most original and gifted literary minds the world has known. And to this day, we don’t even know what he truly looked like. We do know, however, that he was immensely proud of the damage to his left hand, proof that he, Miguel, had taken part in the greatest naval conflict of his time. El manco de Lepanto, they called him – the one-handed man from Lepanto. How fortunate for us all it wasn’t his writing hand that got shot to pieces that October day of 1571!

No nose & a burst bladder – poor man!

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Eduard Ender, Tycho Brahe to the left, Rudolf II lounging…(c) Museum of the History of Science; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Today’s post is about a gentleman who is mostly famous for two things, one of which is not having a nose. It is strange, isn’t it, what peculiar aspects of people go down as truly noteworthy for future generations, and in this particular case the loss of a nose clearly overshadows the impressive intellect and exciting life of the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. As a Swede, I feel obliged to point out Brahe sounds very Swedish. In fact, had he been born a century later,he would have been Swedish. Unfortunately, he wasn’t. Lucky Danes…

Anyway: our hero of the day was born in December of 1546, one of a set of twins. Where Tycho thrived, his twin brother did not, dying within days. Tycho’s father, Otte Brahe, was the proud proprietor of Knutstorp’s Castle, at the time more of a modern and elegant abode than a fortified construction. Otte was an ambitious man who spent a lot of time at court, and I imagine he was more than pleased when his wife presented him with a healthy male heir. Other than little Tycho, Otte and his wife had a daughter and were to be blessed with yet another girl some years down the line.

Otte had a brother, Jörgen. This gentleman was very high in the Danish king’s favour, and just like Otte he had contracted an advantageous marriage. Unfortunately, Jörgen and his wife were childless. For some odd reason, at some point Otte and his wife had promised Jörgen that they’d hand over one of their own childen to Jörgen to raise as his own.
“A boy,” Jörgen demanded. (After all, what use was a girl?)
“Yes, yes, of course a boy,” Otte replied, but I’m thinking he kept his fingers crossed, coerced into making a promise he had no intention of keeping – unless he and his Beate were blessed with several sons.

Jörgen waited and waited for the promised child. When brother Otte made no move to hand over little Tycho – the only male child – Jörgen took things in his own hands and abducted Tycho, who at the time was around two. One can only imagine the grief this caused to Beate and Otte, but for some strange reason they never attempted to reclaim their son. Maybe Jörgen had a gigantic IOU on Otte, or maybe there was a sinister secret in Otte’s past, but whatever the case, Otte stood aside and allowed his heir to be raised by Jörgen.

Early on, it became apparent Tycho was nothing short of brilliant. When other boys were galloping about waving wooden swords, our Tycho was pondering the beauty of algebra, and at the early age of twelve he began his studies at the University of Copenhagen. His uncle wanted Tycho to study law. So Tycho did, but early on he became fascinated with astronomy – the solar eclipse of 1560 played a mayor part – and was soon conducting extensive studies in astronomy on the side, adequately tutored by various university professors who recognised the boy’s obvious talents for science.

Jörgen was not pleased. Tycho was destined for a career as a civil servant, not that of a romantic star-gazer. Tycho heatedly argued there was nothing romantic about astronomy, it was a science, thank you very much. Jörgen scoffed and in 1562 bundled the adolescent Tycho off to Leipzig where Tycho was expected to study more law. Tycho somehow added astronomy to his curriculum – in secret.

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Frederick II

In 1565, Jörgen Brahe died, this as a consequence of pneumonia he contracted while saving the Danish king, Frederick II from drowning. At the time, Tycho was in Rostock, officially still studying law while in reality spending his days immersed in his beloved astronomy. At the time, the study of the heavenly bodies was conducted without telescopes – it was more a matter of quadrants and astrolabes and complex mathematical calculations.

It was while at Rostock that Tycho had one of the more formative encounters of his life. You see, in December of 1566, Tycho fought a sword duel against a certain Manderup Parsberg. One would have thought the duel was about a fair damsel, hot passion burning through the loins of both young men. Nope. This duel was not fuelled by such base motivations. Tycho and Manderup had spent most of December arguing about a mathematical formula, and apparently at some point Tycho decided enough was enough and challenged his opponent to a duel. Not, I would argue, the most logical approach to sorting a mathematical conundrum, and the end result was that Manderup somehow managed to cut off Tycho’s nose. Young Tycho was disfigured for life.

As per legend, Tycho took to wearing a silver nose. Or maybe a gold nose. In actual fact, he probably had several prosthetics – a sort of mix and match approach which allowed him to use his silver nose when wearing black, his gold version for the more extravagant celebrations, while for everyday wear he’d probably opt for copper, a somewhat lighter material. As per the examinations of Brahe’s remains (and the poor man has been exhumed a couple of times – more of that later) it seems he mostly wore a brass nose – maybe he felt it went better with his general skin tone.

When Tycho returned to Denmark in 1567, our young hero was not only recognised as being a brilliant rising star in the field of astronomy, but this stuff with his nose had made him a celebrity, and we all know that being a celebrity – for whatever reasons – has a way of opening doors. Plus, Tycho had his dead uncle, whose selfless actions to save the king had forever engraved the name “Brahe” in the king’s grateful heart.

With Jörgen dead, Otte chose to reassert himself in his son’s life and insisted he should take up law. This Tycho did grudgingly, managing to find time to make various study trips abroad to further his astronomical interests. Otte died in 1571, and free of any parental guidance Tycho decided to devote himself full time to his passion: the stars.

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The king was all for it. He needed a personal astronomer, and he was deeply suspicious of all these foreign princes (mostly German) who wanted to lure Tycho into their service. So the king granted Tycho the island of Ven where Tycho built a magnificent castle-slash-observatory called Uranienborg. Tycho was as happy as a calf in clover: he had his observatory, he had sufficient backing from the king to build ever more exact instruments, and he was also in love.

Tycho’s lady was a certain Kirsten, the daughter of a Lutheran minister. Strangely enough, they never married, they just lived together for thirty-odd years, a lifelong relationship that resulted in a  number of children. Denmark, being rather progressive for the times, considered a permanent relationship between a man and a woman that had lasted for longer than three years as a valid marriage – the children would inherit goods and wealth but no titles or land. Maybe that is why Kirsten’s father didn’t insist on a formal marriage – Tycho was a nobleman, and for him to marry a mere minister’s daughter would be to marry well beneath his status.

There are various stories from Tycho’s years as the golden boy of Danish astronomy. First of all, he became very rich. The king’s favour ensured a steady flow of funds as did his students at Uranienborg, his academic books – among other things he was one of the first to discover the supernova phenomenum.It was an open secret that Tycho Brahe had extensive laboratories at Uranienborg dedicated to the science of alchemy, and every now and then there’d be a snide comment or two insinuating that maybe his riches were due to his black arts.

Secondly, he gave impressive parties. People went a bit wild and crazy as demonstrated by the story surrounding Tycho’s tame moose who apparently joined in at these events, one time drinking so much beer the poor animal fell down the stairs and died. And then, of course, there were the rumours about Tycho and the queen…

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The Danish queen was one Sophie of Mecklenburg-Güstrow. Twenty-three years younger than her husband, she’d been wed at the age of fourteen and while it seems she rubbed along moderately well with Frederick II, she was sufficiently disturbed by the king’s immoderate drinking, eating and whoring to send her three eldest children to be raised by her parents. Sophie was a well-educated lady with a keen interest in science. In the 16th century, astronomy was a bit of a fad among the royals – consider Catherine de Medici in France, for example – and so Sophie was more than happy to spend time with the gifted and handsome Tycho. Too much time, some said.

Whether or not there was any truth in these rumours, they were to come back and bite Tycho. Some say Shakespeare was inspired by the whispered stories of the Danish queen and Tycho, that this was the starting point for setting Hamlet in Denmark. Seeing as no one ever accused Sophie – or Tycho – of having poisoned Frederick II, I find this doubtful.

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Christian IV and Tycho Brahe

In 1588, Frederick died and his young son Christian IV became the new king of Denmark. I have a lot of time for Christian – well, except for his obsession with witches. Just like his brother-in-law James VI&I, Christian saw witches everywhere, leading to quite the spike in executed “witches” – but Christian had no time for Tycho. The astronomer and the king quarrelled repeatedly (Christian had also heard those rumours about his mother and Tycho), and in 1597 Tycho saw no option but to leave Denmark for good. A king given to believing in witches could very well insist an astronomer with a fascination for the ancient art of alchemy was nothing but a sorcerer, and Tycho, understandably, had no desire to end his days at the stake.

What Denmark did not want, the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II was more than delighted to welcome to his court. So in 1599 Tycho moved to Prague, was given an observatory by Rudolf – and en extremely gifted assistant, Johannes Kepler. Over the coming years, Tycho compiled his extensive data regarding the positioning of the stars (and it is considered his detailed work in this area is nothing less than impressive, given the instruments he had at his disposal) and argued happily with Kepler regarding the geocentric versus heliocentric view of the universe.


Tycho – but they painted him with a nose

Kepler, just like Copernicus, argued for a heliocentric view – i.e. the planets revolve around the sun. The Church proposed a geocentric view, i.e. the sun, the moon and all other heavenly bodies orbited round the Earth. Tycho Brahe proposed a compromise: his empirical observations made it difficult for him to embrace a geocentric view, but neither was he willing to support a heliocentric theory – Brahe was a devout man and argued that it was impossible to disregard what Scripture had to say on the matter – so he suggested a geo-heliocentric theory. Umm…Talk about wanting to eat your cake and have it.

Very briefly, Tycho’s theory proposed that the Earth was a “lazy” celestial body, and so it couldn’t orbit round anything. Instead, Tycho stated that the sun and the moon orbited round the stationary slothful Earth, while all other planets revolved around the sun. Kepler tore at his hair and groaned out loud at this nonsense but never managed to convince Tycho he was wrong.

In 1601, Tycho was invited to attend a banquet. As always, beer and wine flowed, and as per Kepler at some point Tycho began complaining about his full bladder – but etiquette forbade him to leave the room. So instead, Tycho pressed his thighs together and gritted his teeth, refusing to give in to his bodily needs. No sooner was the banquet over but he staggered outside to relieve himself, but somehow his bladder had stopped functioning and so he could only pass a very small amount of urine – under considerable pain. As Kepler writes things, eleven days later, Brahe was dead of a burst bladder. This is the second thing Tycho Brahe is famous for: his burst bladder. Except, of course, that some insist he was murdered…

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Johannes Kepler

Tycho Brahe has been exhumed twice. When the first exhumation revealed high levels of mercury in Tycho’s remaining hair, the murder theory had a field day. Two potential villains emerged: Christain IV, to rid himself of his mother’s purported lover, or Johannes Kepler, determined to get his hands on Tycho Brahe’s extensive academic data. My money would have been on Kepler who was quick to take possession of all Tycho’s writings after his death.

However, the most recent exhumation indicates the mercury levels were normal for a person living in Tycho’s time and indulging in alchemical experiments. Instead, the latest investigation concluded the poor man had, in fact, died of a burst bladder – or a galloping case of uremia.

So there you have it: Tycho Brahe, the noseless man who died most ignobly due to his weak bladder. Not, I feel, the most fitting of epitaphs for a man who laid most of the groundwork for Kepler’s astronomical work. Obviously, Tycho Brahe is no longer in a position to care, but when next in Prague why not visit his tomb and whisper that yes, you know about his nose and his bladder, but you also know much more: like how he was abducted by his uncle, fought a duel for a mathematical principle, loved his woman for three decades, was a brilliant scientist, and, apparently, incredibly polite. How else to explain not sneaking out to relieve himself at than banquet?


Love conquers all – even the mother from hell

Valentine dicksee-romeo-and-juliet-on-the-balconyGiven today’s date, I thought it appropriate to bring you a story of how love can survive, no matter what obstacles. Mind you, it is my experience that love is at times fickle rather than constant – very few of us can go about more than a decade waiting and hoping that one day the love of our life will, in fact, land in our arms. When faced with such dire prospects, the heart – ever sanguine – has a tendency to look elsewhere. But not, I am happy to report, in this case, lifted from real life.

Once upon a time there was a young man named Erik Stenbock. Born in 1538, he belonged in the higher levels of Swedish nobility – his lineage stretched back into the mists of time, which in Sweden’s case was somewhere around the beginning of the 14th century, and he was the younger brother of the Gustav I’s third wife, Katarina Stenbock. This Katarina is quite the impressive lady: close to 40 years her husband’s junior – younger even than her eldest step-children – she managed to win not only her elderly husband’s affections but also those of his multiple children.

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Katarina, Erik’s sister & Queen of Sweden

To make matters somewhat complicated, Katarina was the niece of Gustav I’s second wife, yet another imposing lady named Margareta Leijonhufud. This lady was actually contracted to marry a certain Svante Sture, but when the king’s beady eyes fixed on her, she had no choice but to acquiesce. Svante, they say, was utterly distraught. So distraught, in fact, that he threw herself at the feet of his former betrothed and begged her not to do this, leave him agonising in the flames of love. As he was grovelling, the king entered, not at all pleased by the touching tableau played out in front of him.
“What is this?” he roared, and Margareta, a quick thinker, immediately responded that Svante had come to beg the hand of her sister, Märta.
“So be it,” said the king, and so Svante found himself married to that most impressive force of nature, Märta Leijonhufud, known to history as King Märta on account of the iron hand with which she ruled her household.

Back to Erik. The nephew of a defunct queen, the brother of another, he was also the nephew of Märta, and for various reasons he spent a lot of his childhood at his aunt’s. Märta and Svante had been richly blessed when it came to children. Ten little Sture babies made it through the dangerous years of early infancy, and one of these babies was a pretty little girl called Malin, a year or so younger than Erik.

Erik fell in love with his cousin. Malin reciprocated, quite swept off her feet by her handsome cousin. Prior to the Reformation, a dispensation would have been required for cousins to marry. Post Reformation, such alliances were frowned upon by the church but they definitely happened – powerful noble families had a tendency to make their own rules. For some reason Märta was not at all enthused by the idea of wedding her daughter to her nephew. Instead, she “took advice” from the archbishop and pronounced such a union to be displeasing to God. Malin was devastated. Erik was crushed – but determined not to give up.

The loving couple pledged their troth in secret. I’m thinking rosemary and locks of hair, perhaps the exchange of a simple ring. As far as Erik and Malin were concerned, they were bound to each other for eternity. As far as Märta was concerned, she’d squashed the ridiculous notion of marriage once and for all.

At the time, Erik was around twenty. A young man, making his way up in a world that was somewhat perilous and fraught after the demise of Gustav I in 1560. The king’s eldest son, Erik XIV was not an entirely well man – intelligent, well-educated, charming and quite handsome, he was given to bouts of despair and insanity. Not qualities one wants in a king, and the nobles of his court found it tricky to manoeuvre in these murky waters.

Erik XIV had a particular fixation on the Sture family. You see, Svante Sture was the son of a man named Sven Sture (and a most amazing woman named Kristina Gyllenstierna) who had as much of a claim on the Swedish throne as did Erik XIV’s father, the now very dead Gustav I. While Svante Sture never did anything to indicate he was at all interested in claiming the throne, Erik XIV had his suspicions.

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Svante Sture

In 1567, the king succumbed to yet another bout of insanity during which he had Svante and two of his sons arrested. They were then brutally murdered – one of them stabbed to death by the king himself. Märta was understandably distraught – and enraged. She was definitely not in the mood to listen to Erik Stenbock’s repeated requests that he be allowed to marry pretty Malin. The two (not so) young people were forbidden to see each other, and that, as per Märta, was that. She had other matters to attend to, first and foremost to avenge the murders of her beloved husband and sons.

I can’t say I fault Märta’s priorities. She had many children to watch out for, and the death of her husband and her two eldest sons must have been a major blow. The Swedish court was in a state of shock at what their king had done. Erik XIV himself scampered off to hide for some days and emerged in control of himself. Thing were tense, putting it mildly, and it took the payment of a huge amount of silver in compensation for the murdered men to restore some element of peace.

Valentine fouddcyt2zwj807mb8hmSvante Sture and his sons were buried in Uppsala – a most magnificent spectacle in which the bloodied clothes they’d died in were elaborately displayed. And for those of you who like stuff like that, the clothes are still around and can be viewed in Uppsala. (I just had to include a pic – isn’t it impressive they’ve survived since 1567?)

Throughout all this, Malin refused to marry whatever suitors Märta brought before her. Her heart was set on her Erik Stenbock, and it was either him or no one.
“Fine,” said Märta, “be an old maid then. I don’t care. I have plenty of other children to carry on the family name.” As Malin was fast approaching thirty, she already was an old maid as per the standards of the day.

Erik Stenbock, meanwhile, withstood the mounting pressure to marry. It was Malin or no one, and his parents, his siblings, they all went cap in hand to Märta to beg her to reconsider. Needless to say, she refused. It would be a sin to allow them to wed, she repeated over and over again. I dare say her recent bereavement had made her bitter – she had no tolerance for such fripperies as true love. Besides, Märta had her attention and considerable energy focussed elsewhere: she had decided it was time to change the regent.

Erik XIV had two younger half-brothers. One of them, Johan, was by all accounts a capable man – and definitely not insane. Fretting under the yoke of his older brother, Johan planned rebellion, and Märta was more than happy to assist, pledging all the blood money she got from Erik XIV to finance the revolt.

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Johan III

Erik XIV didn’t help his cause by marrying the illiterate daughter of a man-at arms – no matter how beautiful a love story it makes (see more here) In 1568 Erik XIV was deposed and spent the rest of his life incarcerated in one or other of the royal castles. Instead, his brother became Johan III, and Märta was in the agreeable position of having a king who was indebted to her – and was her nephew.

The new king was also Erik Stenbock’s cousin – as was the new king’s younger brother, Duke Karl. Our not so young hero remained determined to win his bride, and after more than a decade pleading and begging, he was fast approaching a point where he saw no choice but to act. During all this time, he had remained in secret correspondence with his beloved, and in 1573, the by now 35-year-old ardent lover set his plan in motion.

Duke Karl loaned him 200 men-at-arms, Erik Stenbock himself arranged for a sleigh and a strong, spirited horse. The soldiers were carefully placed round Hörningsholm Manor, where the fair Malin lived with the rest of her huge family. Quite brazenly, Erik then drove the sleigh right up to the front door and invited Malin to take a moonlit ride with him. She, of course, knew of the plan and so she graciously agreed. Her older sister, who was tasked with the job of ensuring Malin and Erik never met, felt sorry for the unhappy two and allowed Malin to accompany him for a short ride. After all, what would be the harm in that?

In only the clothes she was wearing and a thick cloak, Malin ascended the sleigh. The horse took off. Belatedly, big sister Sigrid realised the sleigh was not taking a little turn in the yard – it was making a beeline for the frozen lake. Enraged (and probably weak at the knees at the thought of her mother’s ire) she ordered the sleigh to be pursued – which was when all those soldiers materialised, creating a protective barrier that allowed Erik to make his getaway with his beloved Malin.

Märta did not take it well. I imagine a lot of things went crashing against the wall. This was unacceptable – her own daughter to so humiliate her and flagrantly disobey her. No: She was having none of it. Märta stormed off to the king, rather unsubtly reminded him of how much he owed her and demanded that Erik be imprisoned, all his lands and titles taken from him.

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Queen Catherine Jagellonica – Johan III’s wife

At first, Johan acquiesced, and poor Erik was thrown into a dungeon. But soon enough people were coming out of the woodwork demanding that Johan reinstate Erik and allow the man to wed the woman he’d remained constant to for over fifteen years. Johan’s wife, his sisters, his brother, his counsellors, every nobleman of any standing in the land – they all came to plead Erik’s cause.

The king relented. In 1574 Erik and Malin were finally wed, and one would have thought it was time for the happily ever after. But Malin wished desperately to be reconciled with her mother (one wonders why: maybe the softer sides of Märta have not made it down through history), and so she begged her siblings and all her close relatives to intercede on her behalf.

It took years before Märta ungraciously granted Malin and Erik an audience. They were invited to Hörningsholm Manor, but were lodged in the bathhouse, far from the manor itself. Had I been Erik I’d have said “sod it” and departed immediately, but he was concerned for his heavily pregnant wife. (Seriously, this Erik Stenbock comes across as quite the dream boat: constant, handsome, determined and conscientious)

At long last, they were ordered to present themselves. Dressed in black, the young couple crawled on their hands and knees all the way down the hall to where Märta was sitting. Only then, with both of them in abject prostration before her, could Märta find it in her to utter words of forgiveness. Somehow, I don’t think the future mother-daughter relationship was all that warm and cuddly…

Malin and Erik went on to have four children – and relatively long lives. It is doubtful, however, if these lives were entirely happy, as Erik was forced into exile in 1598. Me, being a romantic, hope that before that date there were plenty of moments of quiet joy. It seems to me they deserved it.

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