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Archive for the tag “Gustav II Adolf”

From royal sweetheart to Iron Lady

Kalle-nioIn October of 1611, Karl IX, king of Sweden, died. And no, one should not judge this gentleman by his umm…creative hair-do. Karl was a competent (if rather ruthless) man who used religion as an excuse to wrest the Kingdom of Sweden from his nephew, Sigismund, leaving behind a realm in order, a half-grown son and a rather impressive wife.

The recently bereaved Kristina of Holstein-Gottorp headed the regency council set up to rule Sweden until her son, Gustav II Adolf, came of age. This happened sooner rather than later, the just seventeen-year-old young king deciding in December of 1611 that he was ready to rule on his own, thank you very much. Proud mama acquiesced and so the personal rule of Gustav Adolf began.

Now, one of the things a young king needed was a wife—and heirs. Gustav Adolf probably felt he’d  solved that issue some time later. You see, our young and dashing king was in love. Head over heels in love to judge from his surviving letters to Ebba Brahe, who was two years younger than him and one of his mother’s ladies in waiting.

Ebba Brahe was by no means a bad choice. Her family belonged to the upper echelons of Swedish nobility and she was closely related to Gustav Vasa’s third queen (This Gustav was the grandfather of “our” Gustav Adolf). When Ebba’s mother died, the Dowager Queen invited Ebba to court—Kristina had been a close friend of Ebba’s mother and had promised to oversee Ebba’s education. The girl was pleasing to the eye, well-mannered and obviously intelligent, which initially had her finding favour with her new mistress. Until Kristina realised her son had fallen utterly and irrevocably in love with Ebba, pretty and manipulative little minx that she was. This was not good. Oh, no: Kristina had far loftier plans for her son.


Gustav Adolf wooing Ebba

The young king, who lived under the delusion that he could decide who to marry without his forceful mama’s consent, went as far as to offer Ebba marriage. In one of the surviving letters he asks her to raise the issue of impending nuptials with her father. After all, king or not, his bride needed her father’s consent. The reply from Magnus Brahe was a resounding no. He was not about to anger the Dowager Queen by approving a marriage she was so set against—it would make his daughter’s (and his) life hell on earth. Clearly, Kristina of Holstein-Gottorp was a respected woman, fully capable of holding her own among her male contemporaries.

Crestfallen, Gustav Adolf retired to lick his wounds. His mother was unrelenting: Ebba Brahe would not be the queen of Sweden unless it was over Kristina’s dead body. So when Gustav Adolf was next out and about in the world, bringing havoc and fear in his wake as he led the Swedish Army to more victories, he fell under the charm of a married lady and took her to bed. I imagine several people made it their objective in life to inform Ebba of her sweetheart’s betrayal. Maybe that’s why she supposedly engraved “Jag är förnöjd med lotten min och tackar Gud för nåden sin” (I am content with my place in life and thank God for his mercy) on a window. Or maybe this is a case of everyone over-interpreting a young woman’s spontaneous graffiti.

It is more likely that Ebba had long since reconciled herself to the fact that she would never be allowed to marry the man of her dreams. Her future life indicates a substantial pragmatic streak, ironically very much in line with Kristina of Holstein Gottorp’s temperament. Ebba even tried to dissuade her ardent suitor, repeating over and over again that she was not worthy to be Gustav’s wife. It drove him crazy when she said stuff like that, hence him drowning his sorrows in the welcoming arms of another woman. Erm…

Ebba Mary_Eleanor_of_Sweden_c_1630

Maria Eleonora

With mama cruelly nipping the Ebba-Gustav love story in the bud, Gustav Adolf went on to marry a princess, Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg. His mother was delighted—at first. Over the years, I suspect she came to regret her insistence on having her son wed for dynastic reasons only. The marriage was unhappy, Maria Eleonora was not the most mentally stable of people, and even worse, there were no surviving sons, only a puny little daughter, the future Kristina of Sweden. (One of Gustav Adolf’s big, big plus points is that he seems to have delighted in his daughter, confident she could become as capable a ruler as any man).

Life did not end for Ebba Brahe just because she gave up on Gustav II Adolf. In fact, well before she engraved her famous little quote her father had been approached by the dashing Jacob de la Gardie who had his heart set on Ebba. After some consideration, Ebba accepted his proposal and in 1618 the twenty-two-year-old former royal sweetheart married Jacob.

Jacob was the son of a French wannabe-monk turned condottiere turned royal counsellor and loyal servant of King Johan III of Sweden. Pontus de la Gardie was generously rewarded for his loyal service. King Johan was so fond of Pontus (born Ponce d’Escouperie , but Swedish peeps had a problem with pronouncing such a fancy name) that in 1580 he gave Pontus his own daughter, Sofia Johansdotter, as his wife. The groom was thirty-six years older than the bride but this was no impediment to getting things going, hence baby Jacob was born in 1583 as the third of three children. Sofia expired at childbirth and the sixty-three-year-old Pontus was left alone to raise his children. Seeing as he died some years later, Jacob was orphaned at a very young age and grew up to become an accomplished military commander.

Ebba Jacob_De_la_Gardie_1606 (1)


By the time he wed Ebba, Jacob de la Gardie had built quite a reputation. After all, he’s one of the few non-Russians who has led a successful campaign through Russia, all the way to Moscow. At the time, Russia was a mess, one faction after the other putting forth their candidate for the new tsar. De la Gardie took advantage of the chaos to strengthen the Swedish position and so admired were his military methods that the young Gustav Adolf spent 1615 campaigning with him to learn the art of war from an expert. At the time, Gustav Adolf was still hopelessly in love with Ebba. At the time, Jacob had already proposed to Ebba. I bet they never discussed that subject over dinner…

Anyway: once wed, Jacob swept his young wife into his arms and carried her off to Reval (present day Tallinn). Jacob was the governor of the Baltic states and constantly busy with his military career. Ebba, therefore, handled their private affairs and estates.

The Jacob and Ebba union is described as being very happy. They complemented each other, with Jacob trusting his wife to capably manage their various investments. She was openly devoted to him and over nineteen years she was brought to bed of fourteen full-term children. Of these, seven would live to adulthood, the most famous being her gallant of a son, Magnus de la Gardie.

Jacob and Ebba settled in Sweden in 1628. Together, they built an impressive empire, featuring everything from palaces such as Makalös (which means Incomparable. It apparently was, which did not always please the king) to successful business ventures.

Ebba excelled at the business side of things. She was especially interested in developing the iron works she owned. Early on, she caught on to the correlation between consistent (and high) quality and premium pricing. The iron produced at the de la Gardie works was of the highest quality. In fact, the iron Ebba sold was so good she was known as Countess Iron – a true iron lady, one could say. This had Ebba laughing all the way to the bank—well, it would have, if our Ebba had not been something of a high spender, with an obvious taste for life’s luxuries. Her clothes, her jewels, her furnishings, the art that decorated her walls – all of it was sumptuous. The de la Gardies also had a huge household. Approximately one hundred people were employed by them to keep their domestic life turning smoothly, plus they had all those palaces to maintain, children to raise in adequate style, horses and dogs and carriages and landscaped gardens, preferably a la francaise. Let me tell you, it was fortunate Ebba had such a well-developed nose for business!

In her business ventures Ebba was supported mostly by one of her daughters, Maria Sofia de la Gardie. Just like her dear Mama, Maria Sofia was possessed of an innate head for business and was one of Sweden’s first industrial entrepreneurs, amassing a huge fortune. That, however, was all in the future when Ebba taught her daughter about USPs and the like.

However, not everything was roses in Ebba’s life. The seventeenth century was not always generous to powerful—and wealthy—women, and in 1651 rumours started making the rounds in Stockholm. The young queen, Kristina, had been spelled by none other than Ebba Brahe, how else to explain the queen’s firm opposition to marriage? Yes, the gossipers whispered, this was Ebba working behind the scenes and using magic to keep Queen Kristina enthralled to Ebba’s much-loved son, Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie, royal favourite par excellence.

We find such accusations mildly amusing. Ebba, however, was probably quite terrified. The accusation of witchery had a tendency to stick like tar. It was therefore fortunate that the accusers in this case were a certain Arnold Messenius and his father, Arnold Johan Messenius. As the elder Messenius had already been convicted of treason on a previous occasion and also came with the stigma of having been educated by Jesuits and potentially being a closet papist, the end result of all these whispers was that Messenius father and son were executed for treason. Ebba could breathe easy again. Well, she would have, had she not had her hands full caring for her ailing husband.


Ebba as a widow

It is somewhat ironic that Jacob de la Gardie, always a man on the move, always involved in one military campaign or the other, should spend his last few years afflicted by a disease that robbed him of his eyesight, thereby making it difficult for him to leave his home. Ebba invested her considerable energies in making his life as comfortable as possible but in 1652 her husband of thirty-four years died, leaving her a very wealthy widow. I dare say she was devastated.

Ebba was to expend the rest of her life on furthering the interests of her children—and more specifically those of Magnus Gabriel—and on expanding her business empire. When she died in 1674 she left behind a considerable fortune and the persisting legend of a young heartbroken girl, who wanted nothing but to marry her king but ended up with de la Gardie instead. I think Ebba would have been most displeased by this: after all, she spent far more years as Jacob de la Gardie’s trusted and respected wife than she did as Gustav Adolf’s heart-throb. But hey, we all have a thing about tragic love stories, don’t we? Even when they’re not one hundred percent true.

Of royal oaks and sinking ships

oaks-20161008_100237Behold a baby oak. Well, baby and baby – as per my reckoning, this thin little thing is at least 7 years old, but from the perspective of an oak, I suppose that means it is an infant.

Hubby has recently scythed the meadows, but whenever he comes across an oak sapling, he detours, saying we have a responsibility to ensure a new generation of quercus robur. It’s not as if there is a scarcity of oaks in our neck of the woods, but as hubby reminds me, they take a loooong time to grow.

oaks-20161008_100510This oak is reckoned to be 300 years old. No way can I reach round the trunk. All I can do is gawk at it in awe. And climb it. This oak stands sentinel over our yard, and one day I’m going to put a rope swing in it. Well, maybe, seeing as there is this huge stone wall behind it, and I don’t want people falling off to land with a splat on the stones.

It used to be that all Swedish oaks belonged to the king. No matter where they grew, on whose land, every single oak had an invisible “for royal use only” stamp on it. Those not of royal blood were forbidden to as much as break off a twig, and any oak sapling found growing on your land had to be left alone to grow into maturity. Only with royal dispensation could an oak be taken down, and many are the writs where the king graciously has allowed yeoman this or that to take down an oak to use as posts in a new build or for a new door. Armed with such a writ, the happy recipient could essentially take down any oak that took his fancy in the neighbourhood – e.g., the tree did not have to grow on his land.

Should someone be foolish enough to poach an oak (and I imagine this would be an endeavour which is very, very difficult. It’s not as if you stuff an oak into your rucksack and skip off, humming Waltzing Matilda) the consequences were severe: for the first offence, the penalty was 40 Swedish Daler, roughly the equivalent of 1-2 full year’s wages. The second offense cost you 80 Daler, and third time round, you lost your life.


Sweden’s oldest oak, estimated to be 1000 years old

So why all this hullabaloo re an oak? Ah. The answer to that lies in Sweden’s ambitions to expand beyond its natural borders. Sweden wanted more. Sweden wanted recognition as a force to reckon with. Sweden needed a navy, and at the time, ships were built of oaks. On average, 2 000 oaks were required to build one ship. If you wanted a navy, that meant a lot of oaks. Very, very many oaks.

Obviously, things didn’t always go according to plan. Take the proud ship Vasa, for example, built in the early 17th century. The then king, Gustav II Adolf, was a bellicose sort – he was also a self-proclaimed defender of the Protestant faith in the Thirty Years’ War. Over time, Gustav II Adolf became the figurehead of the various Protestant armies fighting the might of the Holy Roman Empire. While I have no intention to dig myself into the complexities of the Thirty Years’ War, suffice it to say that what began as a religious conflict (The Holy Roman Emperor wanting to impose Catholicism on his unruly Bavarian subjects) quickly escalated into a political conflict in which various European countries saw an opportunity to once and for all curb the power of the Hapsburg Emperors.

Neither here nor there in this post. Let us instead get back to the proud ship Vasa. This, our most famous Swedish ship ever, was built by a Dutchman named Henrik Hybertsson, and if we’re going to be picky, it wasn’t even named Vasa, it was actually named Vasen, which is Swedish for sheaf. Why a sheaf? Because it figured prominently on the Vasa dynasty’s coat of arms. Now, of course, everyone knows it as Vasa, so insisting on using its correct name will probably be a useless exercise.


Battle of Oliwa, in which the Swedish navy suffered severe losses

Work on the Vasa began in 1625. Gustav II Adolf commissioned four ships at the same time – he was desperate for more ships to transport his troops across to the continent and also do some harrying when so needed, like when keeping the Danish king Christian IV firmly on his mat. Besides, his ongoing war with Poland had cost him quite some ships in various naval battles, and he needed them replaced. Like ASAP.

Our Dutchman Henrik was delighted at receiving an order for four ships – two larger, two smaller – and soon enough the shipyard rang with the sound of axes and hammers. Not that Henrik did much chopping, sawing or hammering himself: he was the designer, responsible for constructing a ship that would handle the seas and whatever storms may come her way.


Gustav II Adolf

Now Henrik was no novice – he’d been building ships since ages. But the king wanted more than your average ship with 12 cannon on one gun deck. Gustav II Adolf wanted TWO gun decks, and he wanted all of 72 cannons. Plus, he wanted the standard superstructures, which allowed for firing platforms from which to shoot down at your enemies. A (not so) lean, mean killing machine powered by sails. Gustav II Adolf likely salivated at the thought.

At the time, ships with two gun decks were still very rare. The technology was unproven, and the trade-off between more guns and less stability was as yet not fully understood. Not that it mattered: what the king wanted, the king would get, and so Henrik began working on the initial design sometime in 1625. These were presented to the king who reviewed and approved them. With the project having been given a royal go-ahead, oaks were ordered to be cut down en masse. Sails were ordered from France, rigging and hemp rope from Holland.

In 1627, Henrik died, and the responsibility for the half-finished ship passed to yet another Dutch Henrik, this time with the patronym Jacobson. Things progressed more or less as planned, and in 1628, it was time for the first stability test. Thirty soldiers in full kit were to run back and forth over the deck under the eagle eye of Klas Fleming, the Vice Admiral. The purpose of the test was to set the ship rolling, and see how she handled the motion. After only three test runs, Fleming aborted the tests, fearing she was about to capsize. I imagine him groping for a huge handkerchief and mopping his sweaty brow, all the while debating just how – or if – to tell the king this ship of his was dangerously unstable.


Vasa, prior to sailing

There is nothing to indicate Fleming ever informed his king about the result of the stability tests. Instead,  Gustav II Adolf kept on sending letter after letter asking about his ship. He ordered it to be lavishly decorated, he asked about the cannon, of which 64 had now been delivered. Despite certain misgivings, the work went ahead, and in August of 1628, the ship was ready. Crowds assembled to watch this huge construction set off on its first journey. The crew was allowed to take their family with them on the first short leg of the journey, and in general it was all very festive. Flags snapped in the wind, there was beer, there was food, it was sunny if windy, and at long last the ship glided away from the pier.

For the first few hundred metres, the ship was towed, but once on open water, she unfurled her sails. The cannon ports were opened, and a massive salute was fired, causing people to cheer and clap their hands over their ears. Behold the might of Sweden, this huge impressive warship decorated in gold and red and blue, with three masts and all those cannon snouts poking from the open ports.

oaks-bok20A sudden gust of wind had the ship heeling to port. She righted herself ponderously. Yet another gust of wind, and she tilted heavily to the left – so heavily that water gushed in through the open cannon ports. In a matter of minutes, the ship sank, settling on the seabed 32 metres below. Thirty or so people died, most of them trapped inside. The top of the masts stuck up over the surface, with survivors holding on for dear life, and from all over, small craft came to the rescue, dragging half-drowned sailors out of the water. And so, dear readers, ended the glorious career of the Vasa – like ten minutes after it started.

ekskogen-visingsoWell, there you have it: She sailed, she sank, and thanks to that disaster, we have an almost perfectly preserved 17th century ship to gawk at in the Vasa museum – a ship made of oak (as is the museum itself). With Vasa, an equivalent of 2000 royal oaks or so sank into the deep. Fortunately, those Swedish kings of the past were wise enough to plant new oaks to replace those they’d used, ensuring a continuous supply of oaks well into our times. Not that we use oaks for warships anymore – we use steel. Instead, those oaks planted by our kings as late as in the early 19th century or so, have now grown into magnificent forests, like this one on Visingsö. A sea of oaks, where the wind rustles through leaves that are vivid light green in spring, shifting through dark green to a faded, yellowing hue in autumn.

“A beautiful tree,” hubby says, patting the bark of our biggest oak. Yes, because these days it is ours. The king no longer owns every single oak in Sweden – a sure sign of progress, right?  The oaks, of course, couldn’t care less who owns them. They live out their long, long lives, from acorn to rotting trunk, in one place, their branches spreading protectively over the ground beneath them.  But hubby is right: it’s a beautiful, beautiful tree.

The bloodied shirts of a dead king

GIIA Gustav_II_of_SwedenThey found him in the aftermath of the Battle of Lützen, 382 years ago today. His looted body was naked except for the three knee length linen shirts he had worn as protection against the cold. What little hair he had left was stuck to his skull, covered in blood and gore. There, in the mud, lay Sweden’s hope, its most renowned warrior king. The man who had led the Protestant forces to repeated victories in the Thirty Years’ War, who had ridden with his army back and forth across the war-plagued Europe, would never again sit astride his favourite horse, Streiff. King Gustav II Adolf was dead, leaving a nation in shock. Who now to lead Sweden to future glory? Who to captain the victorious Swedish troops in Europe?

GIIA ytterstaskjortan

one of the shirts GA died in

The king had been thoroughly killed. A bullet had punctured his lung, he had toppled from his saddle and been dragged along by his temperamental horse, deeper into the ongoing melee. Someone had stabbed at him with a sword. Several someones actually. And as a coup-de-grace, he’d been shot through the head before his killers plundered him. It was probably a question of unknown identity: the Austrian emperor would have preferred to capture the Swedish king, this constant thorn up his backside, and use him as a bargaining chip – after all, even without their king the Swedes carried the day at Lützen.

At the time of his death, Gustav II Adolf was a month or so short of thirty-eight, and had been king for more than twenty years – a capable king, possessed of an excellent education, a sharp intellect and a defined vision of what he wanted Sweden to become. He definitely had no intention of allowing his realm to linger in the backwaters of Europe, no Gustav II Adolf intended to make his mark on the world, and if this required that he literally take Sweden by the scruff of its neck and drag it into the future, so be it.

Gustav Adolf became king upon the death of his father, Karl IX, the last remaining son of the “Father of the Swedish nation”, Gustav Vasa. Hmm. Not so sure Gustav Vasa was the father of our nation, but he did oversee a number of important changes, foremost among these the Reformation and the implementation of a hereditary kingdom. Prior to Gustav Vasa, Swedish kings were elected. After Gustav Vasa, they were born to the throne.
Gustav Vasa was married several times and left a bevy of children behind when he died, among which were four sons. One of these suffered from recurring bouts of insanity and was generally kept well away from the centre of things by his siblings. The eldest, Erik, became king but was deposed some years later by the second eldest, Johan, who in turn claimed the throne, supported by baby brother Karl. Erik died nine years later, supposedly through the consumption of poisoned pea-soup. His brothers, it seemed, preferred to make sure Erik was well and truly dead.(For my post on Erik, please visit here)

GIIA Charles_IX_of_Sweden

Karl, Gustav Adolf’s dad

Johan lived a long time – a very, very long time as per Karl. Even worse, Johan married Katarina Jagellonica of Poland and had a son by her, Sigismund, so by the time Johan died there was an adult male heir ready to claim the Swedish crown. Fortunately for Karl, Sigismund came with the severe disadvantage of being a papist – in the decades after the Reformation the Swedes had embraced their new religion with a fervour bordering on fanaticism. Karl called for rebellion to defend the true faith, and while most of the nobility stood to the side, uncomfortable with challenging the rightful king, the people of Sweden placed themselves on Karl’s side. After some years of strife, Karl was formally elected regent and some years later became king. Those who had opposed him paid a very high price – Karl was not a man to believe in leniency towards your enemies.

Gustav Adolf was born in 1594, and his entire childhood was impacted by his father’s determined bid for the crown. It would seem Karl was an engaged parent – if with a somewhat creative approach to hair styling  – ensuring his son was given the best possible education. In this, Karl was aided by his formidable wife, Kristina of Holstein-Gottorp, to whom he entrusted not only his heir but also his kingdom when he  was called away. (It is an ironic little detail that Kristina was originally intended as Sigismund’s wife, but instead she ended up married to his uncle, a man more than twenty years her senior). When Karl died in 1611, his wife was given a prominent role in the council that was to rule Sweden until the young king came of age.

Gustav Adolf did not inherit a secure throne. What his father had conquered by force, had spent his twilight years defending by force, others now wanted to wrest from the boy-king Gustav Adolf by force. At war with Denmark, Poland and Russia, Sweden’s defences were spread pitifully thin, and the Danish king, Christian IV, saw the demise of Karl IX as an open invitation to expand his area of influence.

GIIA bröllopsdräkt

Clothes fit for a king…

In December of 1611, some weeks after his seventeenth birthday, Gustav II Adolf was considered old enough to handle his own affairs and took over the royal powers from the council. A bright-eyed teenager surveyed the kingdom he had inherited and found it severely lacking. Not only had he inherited a kingdom at war on three fronts, but he was also the king of an embarrassingly backward nation. Time for reform, he decided, and turned to the man who was to be his most trusted and loyal advisor throughout his life, Axel Oxenstierna. Where the king had vision, Axel had the capacity of converting vision to strategies and ensure they were implemented.

GIIA Axel_Oxenstierna_1635

Axel as an older man

Over a number of years, these two set about re-organising the structure of government in Sweden, they founded the first national bank in the world, built new towns, ensured better roads, revamped the educational system and created a more efficient tax system. (Not so sure this won the king any standing ovations ). Oh, and while they were at it, the young king succeeded in forcing the Danish king to sue for peace, thereby establishing himself as a power to be reckoned with when it came to war.

In Poland, Sigismund sniffed and vowed to reclaim what was his. Most of Gustav Adolf’s extensive kin on his father’s side agreed with Sigismund, considering Gustav Adolf a par venue, an upstart with no right whatsoever to the Swedish throne. After all, should Sigismund not be acceptable due to his religion, Gustav Adolf had another cousin who stood closer to the throne than he did, namely old king Johan’s youngest son, also named Johan. This youth, however, found it wise to abstain from his claims to the throne, but all in all, Gustav Adolf felt anything but secure – which was probably why he expended so much effort on always looking and acting the part of a king.

GIIA skjorta

Yet another royal bloodied shirt.Check out the lace.

One way of vindicating his claim to the throne was by creating a personal myth around himself. To create a personal myth in the early seventeenth century, a young king needed to show valour, bleed a little, if you will. Gustav Adolf most certainly did that, being always very much at the head of his armed forces. And so as to really bring home to his subjects just how much he was risking for their sake, Gustav Adolf decided that his bloodied clothes were to be conserved and exhibited to the people, tangible mementos of his bravery. (This is why even today we can gawk at the shirts he wore when he died, peer at the embalming sheets in which his body was wrapped, and study the various suits of clothes he’d worn when he was shot in one skirmish or the other.)

All of this exposure to linen splotched with royal blood worked. The Swedish people embraced their young warrior king, cheering him on as he won victory after victory against the Poles and the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor.

GIIA Gustav_II_Adolph_&_Mary_Eleanor

Gustav Adolf and his wife

Being a king bent on establishing his family’s undisputable right to the throne came with certain costs. In Gustav Adolf’s case, this meant he had to give up the woman he’d loved passionately throughout his teenage years and instead look for a wife among the established ruling house of Europe. Which is how he ended up with Maria Eleonora – a most beautiful woman, to be sure, but also a teensy, weensy bit eccentric, clinging like a weed to her husband. (For more about Maria Eleonora, read my post about her)

When he rode off to war, Maria Eleonora wept and grieved, when he came back home, she wept and rejoiced, only to weep yet again when he set off on a new campaign. Having grown up with a strong and capable mother, this must have been something of a trial for Gustav Adolf, but he was initially very fond of his wife, and maybe her dramatic scenes massaged his male ego – besides, Maria Eleonora probably looked very fetching while on her knees begging him not to leave her…

Maria Eleonora failed in giving her husband a male heir. Four children, and all they had to show for it was a hirsute, sallow daughter, the future Queen Kristina. Gustav Adolf loved his daughter, recognising some of his own brilliant intellect in the little girl who was destined to be his heir. Maria Eleonora, on the other hand, showed little affection for her daughter and there are indications she actively hurt the child, which is why Gustav Adolf made arrangements for the girl to live with his elder sister.

GIIA porträttIn 1630, Gustav Adolf set foot on German soil, intent on shoring up the crumbling Protestant faction in the ongoing bloody conflict with the Holy Roman Emperor. The emperor had every intention of eradicating Protestantism, and at present he was very much on top of things, with one Protestant state after the other succumbing to the emperor’s armies. By the 1630’s, continental Europe was ten years into the extended war known as the Thirty Years’ War, with religion being the excuse used by both sides in what was essentially a political power struggle. Enter Gustav Adolf, defender of the Protestant faith. Weeelll… Enter Gustav Adolf, eager for glory and recognition by his European peers, is probably more correct.

GIIA Streiff

Streiff, GA’s horse – still on view in Stockholm

Whatever his motivations, Gustav Adolf was an experienced and renowned battle commander, sending a much needed injection of hope into the despairing Protestants. With him came an impressive array of Swedish troops, trained to fight “the new way”, i.e. Gustav Adolf deployed his troops so as to utilise speed and flexibility rather than sheer numbers. Under Gustav Adolf’s tutelage, Swedish cavalry advanced in wedge formation at full gallop rather than at a stately trot, and with a pistol in one hand, a sword in the other, these horsed troops had their opponents quaking with fear. His infantry was never more than three lines deep, making it easy for the men to break and reform. An excellent utilisation of artillery caused chaos among the enemy lines – and provided the back-up needed by the infantry to advance.

GIIA Battle_of_LutzenA brilliant general, Gustav Adolf carved a swathe through Germany, receiving a hero’s welcome from the beleaguered Protestant nations. (Interestingly enough, the Swedish war effort was financed by Catholic France via Cardinal Richelieu, who saw in the Swedish king an excellent way of curtailing the powerful Austrian Hapsburgs.) At the battle of Breitenfeld, the emperor’s troops were thoroughly defeated, and Gustav Adolf set his sights on Vienna, intent on bringing the emperor to the negotiating table. It was not to be. Instead, the Lion of the North was destined to hit the dust on the very cold morning of November 6, 1632, at the Battle of Lützen.

GIIA hjärteduk

The cloth in which the king’s heart was wrapped

He left behind a child queen and a devastated wife – so devastated, in fact, that she slept with his heart beside her for years, insisting that the cloth the heart had been wrapped in while embalming the body be given to her to carry on her person (and let us hope she never succumbed to the desire to blow her nose in it…) He also left behind an ably governed nation, a country that could boast a legal and institutional structure as advanced – if not more – than most of its neighbours. The empire Gustav Adolf won on the battlefields in Poland and Germany was to prove as ephemeral as the fog that draped the battlefield the day he died, but to this day he remains our warrior king, the only Swedish king to have been honoured by the title “the Great”.

P.S. Should you ever make it to Stockholm, I recommend that you visit The Royal Armoury (Livrustkammaren) if nothing else because of the magnificent collection of clothes from the 17th century and onward – including Gustav Adolf’s bloodied shirts.

Holding on to his heart – of grief and crazy queens

Maria_EleonoraOnce upon a time, there was a very pretty little girl who grew up pampered and cosseted by her parents. Because her blood line was quite impeccable  and because she was so very, very pretty, her parents had high hopes for a good marriage for Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg, and she seemed happy enough to go along with their plans. Not all that surprising, as this was the 17th century, and Maria Eleonora was brought up to show adequate devotion to her parents and God – or maybe that should be the other way around.

Born in 1599 in Köningsberg, Maria Eleonora combined her blonde good looks with a strong Protestant faith. Due to her father’s somewhat strained finances and her mother’s very strict Lutheran approach to life, Maria Eleonora’s education was not the best, restricted to practical skills and Bible instead of including French, Latin or the like. Despite this, she and her sisters were not short on offers of marriage – the house of Brandenburg was ancient and well-connected.

One of Maria Eleonora’s suitors was the young and energetic king of Sweden, Gustav II Adolf. Now this was a young man who combined an excellent education with impressive brain power and a gigantic ambition, thereby making him one of the movers and shakers of the time. One would therefore suppose Maria Eleonora’s parents would be thrilled to bits when he showed up on their doorstep, hoping to wed their daughter, but instead Maria Eleonora’s father flatly refused. Why, might one wonder, and the answer is to be found in the political instability of the time. The house of Brandenburg was dependent on good relationships with Poland, and in Poland king Sigismund III was still sulking because his cousins had wrested the Swedish crown from him a couple of decades earlier.

Gustav II Adolf needed a dynastic marriage. Had he been allowed to choose, he would have married Ebba Brahe, a Swedish noblewoman with whom he was head over heels in love with, but Gustav II Adolf’s mother said “no way” and being a dutiful son – or a pragmatic young king – Gustav II Adolf bid his beloved Ebba farewell and set off in search of other arms. Maria Eleonora was pleasing to the eye, and Gustav II Adolf figured that if he had to marry out of duty, he could at least combine some pleasure with it, so he was rather put out when his suit was refused. Fortunately, Maria Eleonora’s father died in 1620, and Gustav II Adolf decided to visit her incognito, determined to sway Maria Eleonora’s mother into giving him her daughter’s hand.

Gustav_II_of_SwedenObviously, Gustav II Adolf could be both persuasive and charming, because some months later Maria Eleonora’s mother arranged for her daughter (and herself) to be smuggled out of Preussen and to Sweden. Maria Elonora’a brother fumed and cursed, but by then it was too late as no sooner had Maria Eleonora set foot in Sweden but she was married to the most eager bridegroom. Not that Maria Eleonora was reluctant, not at all; she was madly in love with her dashing young king. In fact, it soon became very apparent that Maria Eleonora’s passionate love for her husband bordered on mental instability. In his presence, she glowed like the sun. In his absence, she was depressed and fearful, going into hysterics if he was delayed in returning home or – God forbid – was wounded. Given that Gustav II Adolf spent most of his time away from home, and most of that time embroiled in one battle or the other, poor Maria Eleonora must have led a dark and difficult life.

To make matters worse, Maria Eleonora seemed incapable of giving her husband the lusty heir he desired. Her first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, and in the aftermath Maria Eleonora’s behaviour bordered on the seriously deranged. Her emotional volatility, her outbursts of rage and grief, caused most of the court to stay well away from her, and even her husband found her behaviour more than trying. One year into the marriage, and everyone knew that Gustav II Adolf found little solace and happiness with his wife, being more than a little concerned about her mental health.

Maria_Eleonora_of_BrandenburgStill; the king needed an heir, and now and then Maria Eleonora reverted to being the delightful young woman Gustav II Adolf had found so attractive. More pregnancies, one resulting in a girl that lived only a year, the next in a stillborn son. The Swedish government was getting worried; should Gustav II Adolf die without an heir, that Polish dude they’d ousted back in 1599 could potentially come into his own. Pressure built – on the king, but even more on his wife. Poor Maria Eleonora must have felt seriously deficient; the one thing she was expected to do, she couldn’t deliver on. And then in early 1626, the queen became pregnant again, and the court cavorted with joy. Well, not the queen, obviously, as this time the pregnancy had to succeed, so no cavorting allowed.


The Polish dude, Sigismund

Everyone was sure it was a boy. The king, his Lord Chancellor, the queen herself, the court astrologers, the queen’s dwarfs, her ladies-in-waiting – all of them were quite convinced that this time the queen would be delivered of the male heir the kingdom so desired. In early December 1626 the baby was born, covered in a hairy pelt that only left face and arms uncovered. A boy! A healthy (if very, very hairy) boy! Who cared about the baby’s big nose, about all that hair that covered it? A prince, Gustav II Adolf had a son! Hang on a minute… Closer inspection revealed that under all that hair the little baby was a girl. Utter silence. No one wanted to tell the king the news. Even more, no one was volunteering to tell the queen – she was too weak after her recent ordeal.

The king took it quite well, all things considered. He ordered for the country to rejoice as if the baby had been a son, and was more than happy with his healthy little daughter whom he named Christina. (Want to know more about Christina? See my post on her here) Maria Eleonora, however, had a fit, screaming that she didn’t want to see this monster, this ugly daughter with which God had seen fit to punish her. It is said the queen actually tried to injure her child, and throughout Christina’s early childhood there were a number of odd accidents: the child was dropped head first on the floor, permanently injuring her shoulder; a beam fell over the cradle; little Christina tumbled down stairs. This, dear reader, was but a mild southerly breeze compared with the emotional distress Maria Eleonora would put her daughter through some years later..

Gustavus_Adolphus_at_the_Battle_at_BreitenfeldGustav II Adolf continued his expansive, somewhat bellicose policy. In 1632, things caught up with him, and Sweden’s foremost hero king was ignominiously killed on the battlefield of Lützen. First he was shot in the back, then he was dragged along by his horse, his foot caught in the stirrup. He seems to have managed freeing himself from the horse – despite his wound – but ended up shot in the head instead. After the battle – which the Swedes won – the king was found face down in the mud, robbed of everything but his shirt.

Maria Eleonora went bonkers. She wept, she tore her clothes, she wept some more. She shrieked in despair, she was inconsolable, lamenting her cruel fate, to be robbed of the light of her life when they were still both so young. At the time of his death, Maria Eleonora had been in Germany, and so she hastened to kneel by her husband’s body, insisting it was her right as his wife to see to his body. She had him embalmed (very much against his will), selected the clothes the corpse was clad in, the fabrics for his bier. All the while she wept and moaned, embracing her dead husband as if he were still alive. Most uncomfortable for the Swedish nobles who witnessed all this – such excessive grief was frowned upon, very far from the Lutheran ideal of silent stoicism in the face of adversity.

In 1633, the embalmed king and his widow returned to Sweden and were met formally by the little queen. At seven,Christina was a precocious and active child, who considered her mother more or less a stranger. Due to all those accidents in Christina’s early life, the king had entrusted his daughter to his sister rather than the child’s mother. Now, however, Maria Eleonora greeted Christina as if she was the only thing worth living for. In Christina’s words “I embraced the queen my mother, she drowned me with her tears and nearly smothered me in her arms”. Yet again, Maria Eleonora wept and bemoaned the death of her beloved husband, yet again there were instances when she had to be forcibly removed from the king’s body, fingers gripping at his clothes. Had Gustav II Adolf been alive, he would have been shocked by the spectacle she made of herself. As it was, it was left to little Christina to handle her deranged mother. Later in life, Christina was to comment that “my mother carried out the role of mourning to perfection”.

800px-Hellqvist_-_Gustaf_IITo make matters worse, Maria Eleonora did everything she could to stop Gustav II Adolf’s burial. His heart she kept in a separate casket, and for over a year she procastinated, demanding that the king be set in a coffin big enough for two as she had no intention of allowing him to be buried without her. At night, she slept in the marital bed, now bedecked in black as was her entire room, with the casket containing her husband’s heart hanging above her. Very often, she insisted Christina sleep with her, and one can only imagine what that must have been like for such a small child, to attempt to sleep while above her head swung the golden container that held her father’s heart…

In 1634, 19 months after his death, Gustav II Adolf was at last buried – despite his widow’s protests. Marie Eleonora developed a sudden fondness for her daughter and insisted she was to have a major say in her daughter’s upbringing and future marriage. Not at all in line with Gustav II Adolf’s instructions – he had little confidence in his wife’s capabilities. The council and the queen mother were in constant conflict, poor little Christina being the object of this lethal tug-of-war. When Maria Eleonora had the bad taste to offer Christina as a bride to Christian IV of Denmark, Sweden’s archenemy, things went from bad to worse. The Council had had enough; in 1636, Christina was removed from her mother’s custody and returned to the safety of her aunt’s household.



From that moment on, Christina’s relationship to her mother was destined to be rather distant. Maria Eleonora retired from Stockholm to one of her castles and submerged herself in her own shadow court, rarely finding the opportunity to visit her daughter – well, unless she needed her royal daughter to bail her out, as Maria Eleonora went through money with the speed of lightning. (A trait her daughter to some extent inherited; Christina had an eye for life’s little luxuries)


Stockholm back then

When Christina was fourteen, Maria Eleonora decided to leave Sweden – she never liked the place anyway; far too much forest, far too many snotty men, far too few creature comforts – and spent the following decade in Denmark and present day Germany. But she was back in Stockholm in time to attend her daughter’s splendid coronation, and adult Christina seems to have had a far more relaxed relationship to her mother than young Christina ever did. In 1655, Maria Eleonora died, and was at last reunited with her husband. I’m not quite sure our embalmed hero king welcomed her with open arms…

In fairness to Maria Eleonora, she appears to us today as depicted in her husband’s letters to his Lord Chancellor and best friend, Axel von Oxenstierna, and  the minutes of the Swedish Council’s meetings. The king was frustrated by his overly devoted and unstable wife, Axel didn’t like her, and the Council found her a meddling woman with a negative influence on her daughter. Is this a fair depiction of Maria Eleonora? Probably not. Was she an entirely stable and supporting wife & mother? Nope. In retrospect, maybe it was unfortunate that Maria Eleonora’s mother succumbed to young Gustav II Adolf’s charms and gave him her daughter’s hand in marriage. On the other hand, no Maria Eleonora, no Christina, and I sort of like Christina.

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