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Archive for the tag “Religious upheaval”

The loyal sister – the life of a renaissance princess

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 JohanIII

Johan III

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.

Anna Simmler_Catherine_Jagiellon

Johan and Katarina in captivity, with baby Sigismund

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.

Anna Žygimont_Vaza._Жыгімонт_Ваза

A young Sigismund

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?)

Anna Vasa Elbfas_Portrait_of_a_lady_with_a_fan_(detail)

Anna Vasa

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 Charles_IX_of_Sweden

Uncle Karl, future Karl IX

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 Sigismund_of_Poland

Sigismund in his heyday

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.

One very incendiary little book…

CovenantersIn a simplified version of history, the Scottish Covenanter movement sprang from a smouldering fire to a huge bonfire through the actions of one Jenny Geddes. A devout member of the Scottish Kirk, Jenny was in St Giles that day in 1637 when the dean chose to read from the new Book of Common Prayer, and so incensed was she by these proposed changes to her familiar liturgy that she stood up and spontaneously hurled her stool at the poor dean. Hmm.

Whether spontaneous or not – and a lot of things point to this being a well-planned protest – it is a fact that when the new Book of Common Prayer was introduced, the majority of the Scots were already convinced this was a fiendish attempt at weaning them away from the true religion as advocated by the Scottish Kirk, luring them into the dangerous waters of popery there to drown spiritually.

Had Charles I understood just what havoc his insistence on implementing this new Prayer Book was to have, he would probably have desisted. Maybe. However, being anything but prophetic, Charles I took a mulish approach to the loud protests from Scotland, and in so doing fanned the flames of religious fervour into a devastating inferno that was to consume his three kingdoms and ultimately cost him his life.

Henrietta_Maria_and_Charles_ICharles I was neither unintelligent nor uneducated – rather the reverse, in fact – but he does seem to have had a tendency to compensate his short stature with an authoritarian approach to most things in life. As anointed king, he firmly believed it was his responsibility and duty to care for his subjects, leading them up the right path in all matters, including faith. Minor obstacles such as the said subjects reluctance to follow him down the chosen path, mainly because they did not agree with their king’s opinion in matters of faith, were generally ignored by Charles, who to further undermine his religious credibility in his kingdoms (minus Ireland, one presumes) committed the faux-pas of marrying a catholic princess – not a popular move in a time and age when the whole of Europe was a battlefield between the Protestants of the north and the Catholics of the south.

So what was the argument about? What were those principles of faith that had the majority of the English – and Scottish – citizens of the seventeenth century walking about with their knickers in a twist? (Not that all that many of them had any knickers to twist in the first place …) Well, to answer that we must leapfrog backwards a century to the heady age of the Reformation.

In England, Henry VIII proclaimed himself the Head of the Anglican Church in 1534, disbanded the clerical orders and severed his ties with Rome. But the rituals remained virtually unchanged, the Anglican Church building on the medieval (and therefore catholic) rites that were already well-established within the kingdom. After all, Henry VIII did not break with the pope due to an urgent desire to reform, but rather for the far more crass reason of wanting to exchange his wife.

In Scotland, the Reformation was led by John Knox, a disciple of Calvin himself, but was ultimately a bid for Scottish independence from the French interests as represented by Marie de Guise, mother of Mary Queen of Scots. The hundred or so Scottish nobles who were involved in this matter probably found it convenient to set a religious label on their actions – it had a better ring to it than to admit they were only doing this to protect their own interests. However, in difference to England, the Reformed Scottish Kirk very quickly divested itself of “popish” ritual and practise, emphasising instead the importance of the Word (scripture) and faith.

By the seventeenth century, the Scottish Kirk was a robust and thriving organisation in which the local parishes played a strong role while the overall leadership lay with the General Assembly.  It was also an organisation dominated by leaders who shuddered at the thought of having their cleansed and purified Kirk besmirched by the papist trappings that still lingered in the Anglican Church. So when Charles I decided to harmonize the religious practices in his three kingdoms by advocating a Book of Common Prayer he was throwing in a lit fuse in a munitions store, and eventually the whole thing exploded in his face.

Covenanters 2A Book of Common Prayer valid in all three kingdoms was not a new idea. Already James VI & I had tried to go down that way, but having far better political instincts than his unfortunate son, he backed off in the light of the Scottish protests. In difference to Charles, James understood his Scottish subjects, having spent his first 37 years as king of Scotland only. Charles on the other hand was born in Scotland, but he was raised and educated in England, and his first visit to Scotland as an adult was for his coronation in 1633. As stated above, Charles was also somewhat jealous of his royal prerogative, and where his father would have been open to discussions about the incendiary book – if nothing else out of intellectual curiosity – Charles refused to budge. He was the king and knew best what his subjects needed to fortify their spiritual life.

The Scottish Kirk wasn’t about to keel over without a fight. Upon hearing that Charles was planning a new Book of Common Prayer, the Kirk began its countermoves which involved all the parishes but also a massive PR effort with a number of printed documents (pamphlets, tracts) defending its principal tenets of faith.

Long before the Book of Common Prayer had been published, “everyone” in Scotland knew that it was full of potentially popish garbage, and matrons in Edinburgh were heard protesting about this terrible little book well in advance of Jenny’s little stunt with her stool.

On Sunday 23 July 1637, a number of loyalist ministers and bishops set out to their respective churches to use the new Book of Common Prayer for the first time. By the time the sun set, all of them had realised that implementing the new liturgy was a bad idea. Very bad. Unfortunately, they never got Charles to understand this. Over the coming months the protests did not abate – rather the reverse – and when Charles finally grasped just how serious the situation was, it had already snowballed into an unstoppable avalanche.

The protest culminated in the document known as the National Covenant. Drafted by Alexander Henderson , the Covenant was an elegant piece of work that professed the Kirk’s loyalty to God and the king – in that order – thereby attempting to avoid being labelled as treasonous. The Covenant also listed the acts of parliament against superstitious and papist rites, an oath to uphold the true reformed religion, plus an oblique reference to the king’s obligation to uphold the kirk. More importantly, there were a lot of things NOT SAID in the covenant, but implicit in the entire document was a clear threat: “Back off our Kirk, Mr King, or beware of the consequences.”

Covenanters Charles iCharles I recognised the Covenant for what it was; a thrown gauntlet telling him that should he not hold to his coronation oaths, well then … Unfortunately for him – and the thousands upon thousands of civilians that were to lose their lives, homes, families in the coming conflict – Charles severely underestimated his adversary, calmly convinced that his forces would prevail against whatever army the covenanters might put together. Seriously? Religious rabble-rousers? Pah! The royal might would grind them into submission. But it didn’t. Scotland was riddled with veterans from the Thirty Years’ War, battle-hardened men who combined their martial skills with religious fervour. Even worse, the Covenanters inspired people of similar beliefs in England to also take up arms.

charles_executionFor close to a decade, Charles’ kingdoms would be ravaged by religious wars, brother turning aginst brother, families sundered and thousands upon thousands left dead on the various battlefields. As we all know, it did not end well for Charles: his family driven into exile, the monarchy overturned, and, finally, that cold January day in 1649 when his head was severed from his body.

And all of this because of a book…Just goes to show one should never understimate the power of the written word, hey? Although, to be honest, it wasn’t ALL about the book – Charles had the uncanny ability of rubbing his subjects up the wrong way on a number of issues. But that, I think, we’ll save for some other day.

(This post was originally written for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog back in 2012. Since then, it has been somewhat modified)

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