In 1568, a little Swedish princess saw the light of the day. I am proud to report she is a namesake of mine and was therefore baptised Anna. There, dear readers, all similarities between me and this princess end, but hey, one must work with what one has, right?
Anna was the daughter of Prince Johan of Sweden, Duke of Finland, and his wife, Katarina Jagellonica, Polish princess. As the younger brother of a reigning king, Johan should have acquired Erik XIV’s permission to marry Katarina, but Johan chose to negotiate his own marriage which further strained the relationship between the two brothers. Even worse, from Erik’s point of view, with Katarina came some very powerful connections, and he was already suspicious of his brother, whom he perceived as worryingly ambitious.
The Johan-Katarina marriage came with one major challenge: Katarina was a Catholic, while Johan was the son of the man who’d pushed through the Reformation in Sweden and had accordingly been educated as a Lutheran. Johan seems to have been pretty relaxed about all this religious stuff, investing a lot of effort on trying to bridge the divide between Lutherans and Catholics. “It’s not as if there’s any major difference between us,” he may have argued. More fool he, as it would turn out – but not until Johan himself was safely dead and buried.
Right: let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Anna saw the light of the world in May of 1568 and she was likely the result of an intense celebration between her father (at the time 31 years or so) and her mother (all of 42 years old). Why a celebration? Well, the Erik and Johan relationship tanked after Johan’s unauthorised marriage and in 1563 Johan and Katarina were locked up at the castle of Gripsholm. Erik gave Katarina the opportunity to go home to Poland. She refused, saying it was her duty to remain by her husband’s side. It was probably a good thing for Johan that she did refuse, as her presence made it difficult for Johan’s jailers to be as harsh as Erik’s most trusted servant, Jöran Persson, wanted them to be. Jöran Persson is the closest Sweden gets to Thomas Cromwell, a man of low birth who rose to be chief whisperer in the royal ear. In the fullness of time Jöran was to die a horrible death on the orders of Johan. I guess this just proves one should never, ever kick the one who’s down…
By 1567, Erik’s mental health was in severe decline and the nobility managed to set him aside and free Johan. Hence my comment about celebrations – maybe Katarina and Johan went a bit wild and crazy in their marital bed, drunk on freedom and a return to the lap of luxury. Mind you, they already had a son, Sigismund, born while they were imprisoned, but I imagine that begetting was more about comforting each other than joy.
A year or so after Anna’s birth, Johan became king of Sweden. Little Anna was therefore raised as a royal princess, which in this case meant being the recipient of an excellent education. As her mother was a Catholic, Anna was raised as one too, and this caused some muttering among the recently reformed Swedish nobility, many of whom had embraced the Lutheran faith with ardour. It wasn’t so much Anna being a Catholic that worried them—it was the fact her brother was being raised as one that did. A future Catholic king in the Protestant kingdom of Sweden? A collective shudder ran through the high and mighty.
The years passed. We know very little of Anna’s early years. We know negotiations for a marriage started early, but nothing came to fruition. In 1583, Katarina died. It is said that Anna was present at her mother’s bedside and heard the Jesuit priest assure the dying woman that she didn’t need to worry about Purgatory as it didn’t really exist, it was just something the Church had made up. Anna supposedly suffered so severe a disillusion that no sooner had her mother died but she began drifting towards the Lutheran faith. I think the explanation is much simpler: with Anna’s mother gone, there was no formative Catholic influence in her proximity. In 1584, Anna formally converted to Lutheranism.
This was not good according to Anna’s aunt and namesake, Queen Anna of Poland. She tried to convince Johan to send Anna to Poland to be raised there, but Johan refused, just as he refused to countenance a marriage between Anna and one of the Hapsburgs. Johan was doing a religious tightrope act so as to keep his nobles relatively happy and wedding his daughter to an arch-Catholic archduke would not have gone down well.
Throughout all this, big brother Sigismund remained a staunch Catholic. In his case, he didn’t really have a choice. As designated heir to Poland (and Poland was a much, much bigger and grander kingdom that Sweden) he had to be Catholic. In 1587, Sigismund became king of Poland. When he travelled to his coronation, he was accompanied by his sister.
In Sweden, it had been Sigismund who was viewed askance. In Poland, the prelates and nobles took one look at the vivacious and bright Anna Vasa and decided they hated her for her influence over their young king but primarily for her heretic ways. (As Anna had been baptised a Catholic and then converted, she was considered a heretic, a bit like the Cathars. And we all know what happened to the poor Cathars, right?)
After two years in Poland, Anna returned home to Sweden. Along the way she was involved in a conflict between her father and his councillors who begged her to intercede for them. She did so, and as a consequence a lifelong friendship between her and a certain Erik Sparre took root. Her father was not exactly delighted at her meddling, but the Vasa family was accustomed to having their fair share of bright and temperamental women so he probably wasn’t surprised by his daughter’s excursion into the world of politics.
The princess’ uncle, Duke Karl, was less enthusiastic. While he too was a man who respected strong women (he married one, for starters) he seems to have developed an intense dislike of his niece, going so far as to call her a meddling evil witch in his correspondence to her brother. But this was as yet in the future.
Johan died in 1592. Sigismund was the new king of Sweden. The cheering was decidedly muted, most of the nobility having long since decided a Lutheran nation like Sweden needed a Lutheran king. How fortunate that the man closest to the throne bar Sigismund was the very staunch Protestant Duke Karl who did what he could to fan the flames of religious fanaticism ever higher.
Anna was at the time living in Sweden having been granted the castle of Stegeborg. There she held court and surrounded herself with friends and courtiers. One of her ladies in waiting was a Margareta Brahe, sister-in-law twice over to Erik Sparre mentioned above. She and Anna were very close, as was Anna and Margareta’s brother Gustav Brahe. This young gentleman had a major crush on Anna – reciprocated, it would seem. Rumours abounded about their love life and Duke Karl, this man of high morals, openly accused his niece of having taken Gustav as her lover. Well, he did it somewhat more subtly, pointing finger at Margareta and accusing her of smuggling her brother into Anna’s bedchamber. What happened next, he did not detail. I guess Duke Karl was an early fan of the “dot,dot, dot” type of writing.
There was a third Brahe sibling in Anna’s household, namely the younger sister Sigrid. Now Sigrid was very much in love with a certain Johan Gyllenstierna, but her parents had decreed that she should marry Erik Bielke instead. There were rumours Bielke had syphilis, which for obvious reasons didn’t exactly have Sigrid jumping about with joy. Besides, it was Johan she loved and adored.
Anna decided to act. On an ordinary Wednesday, she arranged a wedding between Sigrid and Johan. This was unheard of—Anna had no right to do so. The Bielke family went ballistic and demanded restitution. The Brahe parents were as upset, but one did not yell at a princess, so they yelled at their silly, inconsiderate daughter instead. However, a wedding was a wedding and could not be reversed and soon enough every man and his dog in Sweden was taking sides. Well, okay: not every man and his dog, obviously. Only those that counted, i.e. those with lands and power. Plus their wives who did not hesitate to voice their opinions.
The Bielke family demanded that the officiating priest be castrated (!) and that Johan be condemned to death for stealing a bride already betrothed. Things were looking rather nasty and when Anna begged Duke Karl to help her sort the mess he just snorted and told her she had better clean up her own mess or witness Johan Gyllenstierna’s beautiful head be permanently severed from his body. It helped that Anna was the king’s sister. After days of hard negotiation she managed to convince the Bielke family to accept monetary restitution instead of Johan’s head. The happy couple was also placed under house arrest for a year. Not necessarily a hardship if you were young and very much in love…
This incident soured the relationship between Anna and Duke Karl. Things took a turn for the worse as the opposition to Sigismund grew, captained by Duke Karl. Anna was infallibly loyal to her brother, reminding the Swedes he was their anointed king. But Anna’s voice was one voice and a female voice at that. Ranged against her were not only Duke Karl and many of the more powerful noble families but also the Swedish Lutheran Church.
Sweden was quickly slipping through Sigismund’s fingers. Influenced by his Polish advisors, the papal nuntio Germanico Malaspina and his Jesuit confessors, he was determined to revoke the prohibition against worship outside the Swedish Lutheran Church, this to protect his Catholic subjects. Did not go down well. Many were the grumbling Swedes who reminded their new king that there were no papists in their fair country—they’d made sure of that, thank you very much. (There were, of course, but most of them kept a very low profile) Even worse, Sigismund—or rather his Polish advisors—were clearly of the opinion that Sweden was nothing more than a puppet state, subservient to Poland.
In all this, Anna did her best to negotiate. Her brother listened to what she said but the papal nuntio detested her and made it very clear that following an apostate’s advice was like walking down the paved road to hell. Duke Karl didn’t do much listening. He was beyond that, his eyes lighting up whenever he thought of just how close to his fingers the Swedish crown dangled.
In 1598, Sigismund was defeated at the battle of Stångebro and in 1599 he was deposed by parliament and replaced by…ta-daa…Duke Karl, now become Karl IX. To cement his hold on his new throne, Karl did some cleansing. Among those who ended up with their heads chopped off was Erik Sparre, Anna’s friend. In the proceedings leading up to his execution, Karl had Anna’s home ransacked, looking for proof that she had helped Sparre. A couple of letters in code were found, but by then Anna was no longer in Sweden – she had accompanied her brother back to Poland.
Anna was to live out the rest of her life in Poland, usually far from court where she was viewed with suspicion by Sigismund’s Catholic courtiers—even more so as she never hesitated to speak up in defence of the Lutheran minority in Poland. Sigismund and Anna remained very close and he always valued her advice. She never married, even if negotiations for a marriage continued until 1609.
She died in 1625 and her griefstruck brother wanted to give her a grand burial in Krakow. The Polish Church refused. So did the pope. A heretic was a heretic and no way was Anna Vasa to defile the resting place of her Catholic forebears. It took nine years before Anna was finally laid to rest, but not in Krakow as her brother had wished but in the far more modest church of St Mary in Torun. As she was buried according to Lutheran rites, none of her Polish relatives attended. Instead, Anna’s nephew sent one of his few Protestant magnates to represent him. Not that Anna cared. She hadn’t done so for nine long years.