Step inside and steal some moments in another place, another time

Archive for the tag “Sweden”

From French monk to Supreme Commander – a rather unusual career

There must be something about the Swedish air that attracts ambitious Frenchmen to our shores. Or maybe it’s the beautiful Swedish women. Or the fact that there’s so much space up here. After all, there must be a reason why Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, French marshal in Napoleon’s army, left the cultured life of Paris to become king of Sweden. Not that I intend to tell you more about this upstart from Pau who was “adopted” by Charles XIII of Sweden when, in fact, there was a perfectly good little heir named Prince Gustav who should have inherited the throne.  No, today I’m going to tell you about another Frenchman, a certain Ponce d’Escouperie. Never heard of him? Well, neither have most Swedes. They might, however, have heard of him under the name of Pontus de la Gardie. Chances are they haven’t…

8184_1318551636_4Anyway, today’s protagonist saw the light of the day back in 1520. In La Belle France, more precisely in Chaunes, Languedoc. At the time, no one had any reason to believe little Ponce was destined for anything but a relatively ordinary life. His father was a well-to-do merchant named Jacques Scorperier. In the little town of Chaunes Jacques owned two houses, a mill, a vineyard, an olive orchard and a couple of meadows and fields. Plus he had a manor called La Gardie in the neighbouring county. All in all, Jacques was comfortably off, and further to this he’d been blessed with three sons, one of whom was our Ponce.

Ponce was not the eldest. Instead, brother Etienne stood to inherit what Jacques owned. As with so many younger sons, Ponce was therefore destined for the church. Did he want to become a monk? We don’t know. Judging from his future career, I’d say he never had the temperament to really be happy as a religious man. Ponce was a man of action, not of contemplation.

Anyway: Jacques was rich enough to afford to educate his youngest son, so Ponce was sent to the university of Bologna to study. Some years later, he was accepted as a monk at a French monastery. It didn’t take long for our young man to regret his choice of career. Rather radically, he left the calm and orderly life in the monastery and became a soldier instead. I wonder what Jacques would have thought of that, but Ponce was likely more interested in how to get ahead in the world than in pleasing cher Papa.



A young Charles V

The 16th century was (unsurprisingly) full of conflict. Spain under Charles V (or I, depending if you’re counting in Spain or in the Hapsburg domains) was flexing its muscles and rapidly growing into a superpower. France was none too happy with this development, which resulted in a series of wars between France, Spain and Austria. Plus the Reformation caused new conflicts, this time between Catholics and Protestants. Ergo, an eager young mercenary had no problems finding employment.


Ponce took to fighting as a fish to the water. He rose steadily through the ranks, serving Henri II of France. In 1559, he was sent over by Henri to Scotland, there to offer his services to Marie de Guise, Mary Queen of Scots’ somewhat beleaguered (and very French & Catholic) regent and mother. By then, the Protestant movement headed by men like John Knox was racing like wildfire across the Lowlands and in 1560 Scotland officially became a Protestant country. Not exactly good news for our Catholic mercenary leader.

For some reason, Ponce took his men and went to Denmark instead of returning to France. As always in this neck of the world, the Danes and the Swedes were at loggerheads in the so-called Nordic Seven Years’ War. Perfect for an innovative and experienced mercenary captain. Fredrik II of Denmark agreed and welcomed Ponce with open arms. Fortunately for Sweden, they won this particular war. Bad news for Ponce, who was leading the defence of Varberg’s Castle. While impressive, the castle wall stood no chance against the insistent cannon fire from the Swedish artillery, and in August of 1565, Ponce saw no option but to capitulate.



Ponce in armour

Mercenaries are rarely popular. Men who fight for money rather than loyalty have always been viewed with a certain level of distrust. Besides, a captured mercenary rarely had a weeping family willing to pauper themselves to pay his ransom. The options for a captured mercenary were therefore limited: change your allegiance or lose your head. Ponce preferred to keep his head attached to his neck, which is how he ended up serving the Swedish king, Erik XIV instead.


Not everyone was delighted at the presence of this battle-hardened man among the king’s closest advisors, but Erik took a liking to Ponce. Unwise—but then Erik had moments when he was not all there. You see, Erik had two younger half-brothers and these two dukes were of the opinion that they would be far better kings than big brother. To some extent I agree with them: Erik’s bouts of mental instability came with dire consequences, like when he participated in the murder of the Sture family.

Anyway: Ponce and the eldest of Erik’s brothers, Johan, hit it off. Big time. Soon enough, Ponce had shrugged off any debt of gratitude he owed Erik and was happily aiding and abetting Johan as he planned his palace coup. In Johan’s defence, he probably felt he had no choice: there was little love lost between him and big brother Erik, especially after Johan had married Katarina Jagellonica, daughter of the Polish king, in direct contradiction of Erik’s wishes. So Johan had spent the better part of four years behind lock and key and once he was released, he was determined to ensure that never happened to him again.


Pontus John_III_of_Sweden

Johan III

By late 1568, Johan and baby brother Karl (with Ponce’s help) had turned the tables on Erik. The crowned and anointed king was locked up—in far less comfort than Johan’s imprisonment—and some months later Johan had himself proclaimed king by the assembled Riksdag (Swedish for parliament) which also deposed Erik. Well, I guess they began by deposing Erik and then handed over the crown to Johan.


Johan was grateful for Ponce’s help. So grateful, in fact, that the mercenary not only received lands and manors but was also given a title. The youngest son of  French merchant was now a member of the Swedish nobility, taking the surname de La Gardie  in honour of the manor his father had once owned. Not that all that many Frenchmen would have been impressed: Sweden was (correctly) considered a backwater. But Ponce—now renamed Pontus as this is much easier for a Swede to pronounce—was a happy man. He was also a very trusted man, representing Sweden on a number of missions to Spain, France, the Holy Roman Empire and so on. As Johan III was married to a Catholic princess, he wanted to mend the fences with the Catholic church, and who better to do that than a born and bred Catholic like Pontus? After all, the man had once been a monk. Very briefly, but still…


Pontus Sophia_Gyllenhielm_c_1561_by_unknown

Sofia Johansdotter

Johan had to tread carefully round the issue of religion. Most Swedes had embraced their new Lutheran faith with fervour and were wary of Johan’s relaxed approach to evil papists—and highly suspicious of their Polish born queen. Pontus proved he was not only good at war, but also at diplomacy plus he was wise enough to rarely flout his faith while in Sweden. A good man, King Johan III thought, so good the old warhorse deserved a bride. By now, Pontus was approaching sixty. Still hale and vigorous, but definitely old. Much, much older than Johan’s illegitimate daughter Sofia, who was in her early twenties. I wonder what she thought when her father decided she was to marry Pontus. I guess no one really asked her opinion…


In 1580, Pontus and Sofia were wed according to Catholic rites in the huge abbey church of Vadstena. Johan threw the happy couple a huge wedding and the church was filled to the brim, people standing in every available space, crammed together on the floor or on the wooden galleries above. In the midst of the ceremony, one of the galleries collapsed, injuring several of the guests and killing one of them.
“Aha!” said the righteous Swedes, “God punishes the papists.”
”See?” said the Catholics, “That’s how God treats evil heretics.”

Whatever the case, the accident dampened the joyous mood at the wedding, but the newlyweds still managed to party before retiring to consummate their marriage. Less than a year later, their first child, a daughter, was born. By then, Pontus and Sofia were living in Reval, Pontus having been promoted to Supreme Commander and entrusted with the task of defending Sweden’s Baltic and Finnish holdings. This he did with his usual panache, and also found the time to visit his wife often enough to keep her more or less constantly pregnant between their marriage and her death, three years later, in childbirth.


Pontus BM08012Am

Arent’s engraving

How Pontus reacted to losing his wife, I don’t know. He was suddenly left a widower with three small children but seems to have sorted out the babysitting issues with ease, which was why he could leave his little daughter and his two very young sons in 1585 to negotiate with the Russians. Unfortunately, on the way back his boat capsized. Pontus de La Gardie died of drowning and was buried in Tallinn’s Cathedral, side by side with his young wife. So distraught was Johan III by this, that he commissioned a beautiful tomb chest from the (then) famous Dutch sculptor Arent Passar.


As to the three little orphans, they were neither destitute nor totally alone. The two sons would grow up to become well-respected members of the Swedish nobility, and many, many years later, Pontus’ grandson Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie would also marry royalty and become the richest and most ostentatious man in Sweden. And probably the best educated and most well-travelled. Plus Magnus Gabriel had a sweet-tooth so large he installed an entire room in one of his castles to hold all the various sweets he (and his equally sugar-addicted wife) regularly consumed. I’m not sure our battle-hardened Ponce would have approved, but my personal opinion is that there can be little wrong with a man whose eyes light up at the thought of candy. Well, except for his teeth. Especially back then…

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…

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 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.

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!)



Shining a light into the darker corners

Sweden has the dubious honour of being second only to Third Reich Germany in the number of people sterilised against their will. It is one of those “skeletons in the closet” things, in that the Swedish establishment avoided talking about it for a number of years, preferring to bury this rather sordid aspect of our past by silence.

sterilisering 1999004100017 Helmer Widlund

Swedish healthy youth – photo Herman Widlund

However, to understand the reasons behind the Swedish legislation that called for sterilisation of those “weak of mind and morals”, we must actually dig into yet another unappetising aspect of the past, namely that of lobotomising – and sadly I must admit that here too, Sweden, together with its Nordic neighbours, leads the pack, performing 2.5 times as many lobotomies per capita as did, f.ex., the US.

It all began in the 19th century. After centuries of locking up the insane among us and forgetting about them, the scientists of the day and age now began to consider whether these poor mental wrecks could be treated somehow. Specifically, they were interested in “curing” those among the mentally insane that could be dangerous due to high aggressiveness in combination with a lot of brute strength. Most mental institutions of the time had one or two such individuals, poor things kept constantly fettered so as to ensure they did not attack their carers or the other inmates.

In 1847, there was an unfortunate accident in the US. A major explosion, and one of the men present was struck by a shard of metal that penetrated the skull bone and buried itself in the poor man’s frontal lobe. Miraculously – or not – he survived, but his previously so outgoing and positive personality was permanently changed, the damage to his brain making him surly and uncommunicative. And relatively passive. Hmm, said the scientists of the day and age, how interesting. Imagine if the person struck by that shard of steel had been an aggressive monster, would the damage have changed that personality too?

sterilisation Gottlieb_Burckhardt

Dr Burckhardt

In the 1880s a certain Doctor Gottlieb Burckhardt performed the first known cerebral surgery. His theory was that if one could disconnect certain parts of the brain from the others, then one could produce a benign effect on patients considered incurably – and violently – insane. In total, he operated on six people. One died, two showed no signs of improvement, two became calmer, and one markedly improved. The good doctor claimed a 50% success ratio, but his colleagues were not impressed – in fact, they were quite hostile to the notion of invading someone’s brain, so Dr Burckhardt never did any further attempts. But some people took note, of course, and over the years eager scientists continued to investigate further.

In 1935, American neurosurgeon John Fulton presented a paper based on tests performed on monkeys whereby a severing of the frontal lobe from the rest of the brain caused a marked reduction in aggressiveness. One Portuguese gentleman, Antonio E Moniz was very impressed and hastened home to apply this new technology on human patients. At the time, this was a crude procedure, in which holes were drilled through the temple bone of the not-so-sedated patient, and a blunt instrument inserted to root about – blindly – in the brain. Very many died, but among the survivors, quite a few became calmer – still psychotic, but no longer capable of acting out based on their hallucinations.

In 1936, Walter Freeman performed the first successful lobotomy in the US. He would go on to become the leading authority on lobotomies, and would also develop a new method whereby a long and sharp needle was inserted through the eye socket (!) instead, generally on a fully awake patient. It is said Mr Freeman would have the patient sing while he performed the surgery, and only when they started muddling the words would he be satisfied he had been successful in permanently maiming the functions of the frontal lobe.

sterilisering 2015-09-11_0953

Sweden: where we came from

Back to Sweden: By the early 1930s, Sweden was in the grips of building a Brave New World, a society built on the backs and shoulders of a clean and healthy people, where everyone contributed to the greater good. Were there racist aspects involved? To a point, yes – after all, Sweden was in the forefront when it came to race biology. Already in 1922, Sweden had its own Institute of Race Biology which had as its targets to safeguard the Aryan Swedish race from dilution. More of this in a future post – it is a complicated subject.

sterilisering FOLKHEMMET

Sweden: what we aimed for

However, the new society the Swedish Social Democrats were intent on building was not about race. It was about creating social equality, driving productivity and promoting a wholesome lifestyle. Were the poster boys and girls mostly blond and blue-eyed? Yes, but more for the obvious reason that most Swedish people were blond and blue-eyed. The Swedish Folkhemmet (The home of our people) was all about being inclusive – assuming you pulled your weight.

Folkhemmet did not want warts and wrinkles. Human warts were, for example, the mentally insane. Other such warts were the simple-minded, simply for the reason that they would not be able to contribute as they should to the new society. There were concerns about the galloping costs of caring for the insane – on average, 4 000 new patients per year were admitted to mental asylums. There were also major, major concerns that these people breed, thereby passing on their unwanted genes to the next generation and soiling the vision of the perfect society.

This is the background to the legislation of 1934, according to which people deemed mentally deficient could be forcibly sterilised. If a doctor diagnosed them as being less than all there, chances were they’d be sterilised – especially if they were women, as everyone knew weak-minded women were prone to sleeping around and becoming pregnant with all sorts. By the late mid-thirties, sterilisation was combined with that fantastic new surgical procedure, lobotomy.

Now and then, lobotomy did work. Now and then. But mostly it caused irreversible damage and permanent changes to the personality. Plus very many died, given that the procedure essentially had the doctors poking about blindly in the patients’ heads. The general take on these deaths seems to have been that it was sad that they died, but seeing as these were simple-minded, unproductive people, it was no major loss to society…

sterilisering bild1However, lobotomy was not enough to safeguard society against future generations of mentally ill or generally deficient people. No, doctors argued, lobotomy had to be combined with an extensive sterilisation scheme. Unfortunately, as per these people, the sterilisation laws of 1934 were very inflexible: sterilisation could only be done on people deemed mentally unfit. (Race, gender, social circumstances did not come into play. Officially, that is. Unofficially, men were rarely sterilised.) This had to be changed, and through vociferous lobbying, the proponents of en-masse sterilisation managed to push through new laws in 1941.

This legislation required that the patient “consent” to the measure. Instructions from the medical authorities were very clear: it was okay to bring major pressure to bear on the selected candidates to make them consent. Major pressure could be everything from threatening to take their children from them to locking them up in an asylum and throw away the key until the poor bastard relented.

Effectively, this new law opened for major possibilities when it came to sterilising the “unwanted”. Unwanted were all those who cost more than they contributed, who lacked moral backbone, who did not fit into the various pigeonholes that made up the Folkhemmet.  And yet again, it was the women who were targeted. The reason for the focus on female patients is that at the time, women were held responsible for men’s sexual behaviour. Obviously, a mentally or otherwise deficient woman would be incapable of fending off lusty males, thereby producing an endless string of offspring that would be nothing but a burden to society. After all, the costs for care and lobotomies (or the medicines that replaced them in the 1950s) was very, very high.

Women wanting an abortion would only get it if they agreed to being sterilised. Single mothers were hounded and bullied into being sterilised. Young girls of “dubious morals” were whisked off and interned until their parents reluctantly agreed to having them sterilised. Wives of men who drank too much, who beat their women and children, were urged to sterilise themselves – or lose whatever housing benefits they might have.

In 1948, Sweden implemented a child benefit system. The benefit was paid to the mother of the child, and all those wanting the benefits had to sign up. By signing up, you became registered, and if you were unmarried and a mother, society would keep a very beady eye on you. Should there be another baby while the woman was still unmarried, chances were you’d lose all benefits – unless you underwent a sterilisation.

The personal tragedies were multiple: a thirteen-year-old girl was locked up based on vague accusations from women in her village that she was sleeping around. In reality, these women were jealous of the girl, who trounced their daughters in every skiing event, but seeing as the girl trained with the boys, the mothers found it obvious she wasn’t only practising skiing, but also spreading her legs. The girl was 19 – and sterilised – when she returned home after six years in institutions.

Women of gypsy background often ended up dragged away to be sterilised. The gypsy way of life was offensive to the builders of the Folkhemmet, and people who willingly chose to live in caravans instead of in new apartments had to have something wrong with their heads, ergo it was best to sterilise them.

Priests were known to pass on suspicions about women of loose morals to the doctor who would then act with impunity. Schoolteachers did the same. In the 1950s and -60s, the doctors, teachers and priests were the pillars of society and no one was about to question their judgement.

And then, in the late 1960s, came the first setbacks. The first generation of feminists were on the move, demanding equal rights in all matters – including sexual freedom. The right to free abortion became a major issue. In Sweden, abortion had been allowed since 1938, assuming there were strong enough reasons, such as the pregnancy being the result of a brutal rape, or the future child potentially not living up to expectations on future Swedish citizens (i.e. was damaged, or potentially damaged due to its parents). All such abortions required the approval of a medical board – and was in many cases followed by a sterilisation. Now people were demanding the woman should be allowed to choose if she wanted an abortion yes or no – without presenting any reasons or being subjected to a sterilisation.

In 1974, Sweden adopted new laws on abortions, effectively rendering the 1941 laws regarding sterilisation toothless. In 1975, the sterilisation laws were repelled. During the 40 years they’d been in place, 63 000 people had been sterilised, of which 90% were women. Folkhemmet required healthy, productive citizens, and the women deemed incapable of birthing such individuals had to be stopped from conceiving – for good. A major, major tragedy, a gigantic blot on Swedish recent past – and something we must never forget!

Hail the conquering hero

GV The_Entry_of_King_Gustav_Vasa_of_Sweden_into_Stockholm_-_color

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.


A restless Swedish skeleton – of events in the aftermath of WW II

I have an acquaintance who some years ago decided to dig into her ancestry. As most parishes in this neck of the woods have kept detailed tabs on people since the early 17th century, it isn’t that difficult to construct a family tree, and most of these old records are available on line – a treat for the amateur genealogist.

Thing is, my acquaintance presumed she’d only find interesting (as in fun and exciting) things up her family tree. As one of my English colleagues now and then says, ’interesting’ is not always a positive – and in her case, the things she dug up were definitely interesting but not all that much fun. After all, finding out your great-great-grandmother was hanged for three murders is not exactly something one wants to brag about. Or maybe one does.


Photo: Pressens Bild

Sometimes, the same thing happens when you’re reading about historical events. Certain incidents in which my country has been involved make me squirm, and while I know I’m not responsible – how can I be? I was neither around nor in a position of power – I still feel a twinge of shame. Like when Sweden’s government allowed the German Wehrmacht to transport the troops going to invaded Norway through Swedish territory. Or when Sweden initially refused to accept Jewish refugees. And then we have the deportation of the Baltic soldiers…

Eh, what? Deportation? And what were Baltic soldiers doing in Sweden anyway?

In the last days of the World War II, former Wehrmacht soldiers fled the Baltic states by sea (together with thousands upon thousands of civilians) all of them determined to escape Stalin’s forces – none but the truly insane wanted to end up in Joseph’s clutches. The Soviets bombed the fragile vessels, and hundreds died in the cold waters of the Baltic Sea. During those first few days of May, over 3 000 ex-soldiers landed in Sweden, and were more or less immediately interned in one of two camps.

Most of these soldiers were German, but 167 were Estonians or Lithuanians or Latvians – young men who had voluntarily (or in some cases forcibly) enrolled in the German armies so as to fight that most hated of enemies, the Soviet Union. The Baltic States at the time were fledgling nations, having regained their independence in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the First World War. When Soviet tanks rolled in, Stalin’s orders were simple: annex the states, and kill or deport whoever doesn’t conform. Several hundred thousand were either killed or sent off to the Gulag, there to die a slow, slow death.

When Germany capitulated on 8 May 1945, one of the conditions of that capitulation was that any German POWs were to be transferred into the jurisdiction of whoever they had last been fighting. Understandably, the German soldiers fighting on the eastern front were terrified of ending up in Stalin’s less than tender care, which was why they fled to Sweden to begin with. In the case of the 167 Baltic soldiers, their situation was even worse: seeing as Stalin hand now annexed their former countries, they were labelled traitors. Traitors were generally shot.

Sweden had been neutral during the war. Well… Initially, Sweden had carefully courted Hitler’s Germany, convinced the Third Reich would win. The cultural ties between Sweden and Germany were strong, but when Germany invaded Denmark and Norway, public opinion began to change, and by the time the war was over, most Swedes considered themselves far closer to the Allies than Germany. Opportunistic? Absolutely.


Per Albin Hansson

Anyway, as Sweden was neutral, it was not obliged to honour the terms of the capitulation, e.g. the assumption was that soldiers who made it to Sweden would be granted asylum in Sweden. In the summer of 1945, the Soviet Union sent a note to the Swedish government, requesting that all those former German soldiers presently in Sweden who had been on the Eastern front on May 8th, be turned over to them. Note that the Soviets only requested those that had effectively been fighting on the front as per midnight May 8. Most of the soldiers who’d arrived in Sweden, had left before that, fleeing in the face of the Soviet advance.

On the face of things, Sweden could have handled this by simply encouraging the soldiers presently held in comfortable captivity to become civilians and sort of melt away. No one was going to expend too much effort and time in chasing down 3 000 potential soldiers in a post-war Europe that was, in many places, reduced to heaps of rubble.

Alternatively, of course, the Swedish government could have replied that they had no soldiers interned that had been at the front on May 8. This would not have been much of a lie. Instead, the Swedish government seems to have been afflicted by a burning need to prove themselves to the Allies, and what better way to do so than comply with the request from the Soviet Union? Hmm…

The government met and debated. There was a lot of fear re the powerful neighbour to the east, and the Swedish ministers had no desire to poke the Russian bear into rage. Some of the members of the cabinet were very doubtful as to the request, and one proposal was made whereby Sweden would agree to the deportation only if the UK and the US approved it. The other proposal was to acquiesce to the Soviet demand with no caveat. For some reason, the Swedish Prime Minister, Per Albin Hansson, decided to go with the latter suggestion.

To be fair to Mr Hansson, he had spent most of the war dancing some sort of uncomfortable political foxtrot, having one single goal: to keep Sweden out of the war. We may not be proud of it, but Hansson’s politics paved the ground for the huge economic boom in Sweden during the 50s and 60s. Acquiescing to the Soviet request was therefore yet another turn in this complex dance. In actual fact, the Swedish government was scared shitless by Russia. Far too aware of just how tarnished the Swedish reputation was after our passivity during WW II, the cabinet could not see how they could refuse the Russian request – or question the Soviet approach to human rights. After all, thousand upon thousands of Soviet soldiers had died in the recent war…

Stalin_portrait_1937In secret, the Swedish government informed the Soviets that they had approximately 3 000 soldiers in their camps and would be happy to deliver all of them into Soviet hands. The Soviets replied that they were glad to hear this, but the Swedish authorities had to ensure the prisoners were “healthy and strong”. Ships would be sent over in due course to collect the prisoners, but for now there was no reason to announce the upcoming deportation, as this might worry the prisoners in question. The Swedish government agreed – besides, some of them were worried this whole matter could blow up in their face once the public found out.

It is important to clarify that many of the men sheltering in Sweden were guilty of atrocities. Some of them had been instrumental in the massacre in Jews in the Baltic States, others had happily raped and plundered. But the majority were soldiers caught up in the last few months of the war, young men who in some cases no longer had a country, in others no longer had a home or a family to return to – the Allied bombing of certain parts of Germany had been extremely brutal and effective.

Whatever the case, turning them over to the Soviets was effectively putting them at the mercy of a government which did not recognise human rights, and reasonably the Swedish cabinet knew they were condemning all the deportees to extended captivity and/or death.

In preparation for the deportation, the former Wehrmacht men were moved to new camps. This time, the barracks were surrounded by barbed wire fences, and the POWs weren’t exactly stupid, so they quickly understood what their Swedish hosts were planning on doing. Some of these men had family in Sweden, people they shared their suspicions with. Rumours started. It was becoming increasingly difficult for the government to keep this under wraps.

In mid-November, the Swedish press was called to a secret press conference where the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary informed the assembled journalists what they were planning to do, while requesting the press keep this secret while security was beefed up round the camps. Two newspapers chose to go public a couple of days later. The public reaction was one of outrage – not so much on behalf of the German soldiers, but definitely when it came to the Baltic POWs, men whose countries no longer existed.

The government was adamant: the prisoners were to be deported. The Swedish Communist Party, SKP, suggested going one step further, deporting all the 30 000 civilian refugees as well. (It took SKP a long time to admit Stalin’s Soviet was far closer to hell than a Worker’s Paradise, as can be seen here). Fortunately, this request was met by a resounding “NO” from all the other parties.

Baltutlämning G Rosenlöv

Photo: G Rosenlöv

In the camps, the prisoners went on hunger strikes. Some went even further – one stabbed himself in the eye with a pen, others chopped of their fingers or committed suicide. Things were rapidly getting out of hand, and the press bayed “outrage”, members of the public protested, and in view of all this, the Swedish government decided to postpone the deportation of the Baltic POWs. The German POWs, however, were to be deported immediately.

The resulting scenes were chaotic. When the police arrived to initiate the deportation of the Germans, they were met by desperate men, men who’d used barbed wire to tie themselves to easch other, men armed with shards of glass, with razors. The resulting mess was known as bloody Friday, and 1 000 men were hospitalised as a consequence of attempted self-mutilation or suicide. Those unharmed, or only slightly wounded, were transported aboard the Soviet ship Kuban. The hospitalised Germans were transported over the coming weeks, and by December 16th, all but 540 Germans had been sent off to Soviet captivity. Of these, 310 were allowed to return home.

BaltutlämningenThe Baltic prisoners were up next. More than aware of the public opinion, the Swedish government attempted to negotiate with the Soviets, but Stalin was not to be swayed: he’d been promised the Baltic POWs, and he wanted them, full stop. The Russian bear had growled, and the Swedish government cowered and whined. On January 25th, 1946, 146 Baltic prisoners and 240 Germans were carried aboard the Soviet ship Beloostrov. One desperate lieutenant tried to kill himself with a drill. One man threw himself at the window of the bus he was in, broke it, and tried desperately to slice his veins open on the jagged glass. The men had to be dragged aboard the ship, one man managed to kill himself on the quay, and Swedes in general were horrified. The Swedish government, however, had done their duty – but the strain is said to have caused Mr Hansson’s heartattack six months later.

As stated above, no doubt some of the 2 846 men deported by the Swedish government had committed atrocious acts. They deserved to be punished for participating in massacres of Jews, in rape and pillage. But turning all of them over to the Soviets, to extended sentences in the Gulag, to execution – no.

Baltutlämningeb ART-INLINE-0-balt_384_96482aIt is said that the Soviet forces wasted no time. The moment they were out of Swedish territorial waters, some prisoners were supposedly dragged out on deck and shot, before being pitched overboard. The majority, however, both Germans and Baltics, arrived safe and sound on the other side of the Baltic Sea.

Of the Baltic prisoners, 3 were executed, 23 were sent off to the Gulag, and the rest were held imprisoned for a shorter period of time before being released – of which 40 were later re-arrested and sent to the Gulag. The Germans to a large extent disappeared into the dark chasm that is the Gulag – as did so many of the German soldiers unfortunate enough to be on the eastern front when the Third Reich formally capitulated. Not that many ever made it home. All of them were for ever marked by their experiences.

As stated already at the outset, this is an incident that still has Swedes twisting inside. While some representatives of the then ruling party have repeated over and over that it was the right thing to do to deport all those soldiers, public opinion remains as it was: we are ashamed. Or I am, at least.

Mr Fancy-pants and the silver throne – the life of a Swedish nobleman


Ebba Brahe

Once upon a time there was a young king who fell in love with a pretty little lady named Ebba. The king was over the moon, little Ebba was dazzled, and the Queen Mother was having none of it. Her precious son, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, needed a dynastic marriage, not some sort of tender love match with insignificant Ebba Brahe.
Gustavus Adolphus was adamant: he loved Ebba. The Queen Mother, turned her attention on poor Ebba.
“He can’t marry you,” she told Ebba brusquely. “And besides, you’d be terribly unhappy as queen.”
“I would?” said little Ebba who loved her dashing young king to bits.
“You would.” The Queen Mother leaned closer. “You’d have me to deal with – every day.” She smiled – a rather terrifying sight displaying most of her teeth and no warmth whatsoever.

Even the strongest of resolve crumbles under the unrelenting attack of a woman as determined as the Queen Mother. Soon enough, Ebba was quilling Gustavus Adolphus a long letter in which she told him she could not be the recipient of all his love – she was unworthy and he needed a better wife. I can imagine just how much Gustavus Adolphus cursed his mother, but this time Ebba would not be budged: she had been made to see reason.


Jacob De la Gardie

A love story crushed in the bud, and Gustavus Adolphus went on to marry Maria Eleonora – and a rather unhappy marriage that was – while Ebba Brahe was rewarded for listening to the Queen Mother by being married off to up-and-coming Jacob De la Gardie. I wonder, at times, if the Queen Mother did not come to regret her meddling. Gustavus Adolphus’ wife never gave him a son. Ebba bore Jacob fourteen children, many of them boys. Several of these childen died young, but one of them, Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie, grew up to be one of Queen Kristina’s favourite courtiers, which led to riches and extensive land-holdings and a fancy marriage and… In brief, Magnus Gabriel took the silver spoon he was born with and converted it into a full set of silver cutlery.

To start at the beginning, little Magnus Gabriel was born in 1622 in Reval (present day Tallinn). His father was the Governor of the region, a most able royal servant that along the way added estates and further riches to his wealth. Magnus Gabriel was the eldest, the heir, and as such he was subjected to an extensive and thorough education. Expectations were that Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie would not only follow in his proud father’s footsteps, but preferably make his own imprints bigger and deeper.

Success was important for the De la Gardie family: Jacob’s father had been a French mercenary who through a fluke of luck – and considerable skill – built himself quite the career in Sweden. These relatively unimpressive roots made both Jacob – and later on Magnus Gabriel – somewhat sensitive regarding the issue of their ancestry.

Anyway; our young lordling was not only extremely handsome, he was also a gifted young man, eager to study and learn. In this he resembled Sweden’s young queen, Kristina, who was much taken with this dashing young courtier of hers, only four years older and in no way related to her by blood, ergo a potential husband.


Maria Eufrosyne

There has been much speculation whether Kristina ever had any deeper feelings for Magnus Gabriel. She seems to have had something of a crush on Karl Gustav, her cousin, but in general Kristina’s relationship with men never went beyond the odd flirtation, and when it comes to Magnus Gabriel, we know from letters he wrote that very early on he fell in love elsewhere – with Kristina’s cousin no less, the elegant Maria Eufrosyne (sister to the flighty Eleanor, heroine of this post).

Magnus de la Gardie

Magnus Gabriel

Whatever the case, Kristina made Magnus Gabriel her own special favourite – even more so when he returned after four years on the continent, brimming with newly acquired knowledge and cultural finesse. De la Gardie had spent considerable time in France, and could therefore not only regale Kristina with stories about Paris, but also came with various suggestions as to how to modernize Kristina’s court, make it more dazzling, more fun, more erudite, more…French. His fellow courtiers groaned – especially when Kristina went all wild and crazy about ballets, roping them all in to caper about in one production after the other.

Everything Magnus Gabriel did, he did with style. His clothes were the most elegant, his boots the best polished, his servants the cleanest, his gifts the most lavish. His family had the wherewithal to fund all these excesses, and it didn’t exactly hurt that Kristina heaped him with more land, more possessions. As icing on De la Gardie’s cake, in 1647, Kristina arranged a wedding between Magnus Gabriel and his beloved Maria Eufrosyne, and the grandson of a French mercenary had thereby hit the jackpot, marrying into the royal family.


The happy couple

Needless to say, the wedding was a grand – and stylish – affair. The groom was ardently in love, the bride – to judge from her future correspondence – was pretty taken with her new husband, but despite all this initial attraction the marriage was not destined to be an entirely happy one. Poor Maria Eufrosyne was destined to birth eleven children, of which only three survived.

Magnus Gabriel was made a Privy Councillor and was called away to serve with his new brother-in-law, Karl Gustav, in the final years of the Thirty Years’ War. In 1648, Magnus was made general, and it was as a general he took part in the conquest of Prague – and the sacking that followed. Magnus was generously rewarded for his participation.

In 1650, Queen Kristina decided it was about time she was crowned. Interestingly enough, she was already toying with the idea of abdicating, being of the opinion that women were not cut out to be rulers, but apparently Kristina felt entitled to a major party first. She planned a grand affair, with interminable processions, wine spouting from fountains, innumerable roasted animals to be served to the celebrating populace, fantastic clothes and pageantry.

Magnus Gabriel was entrusted to carry the royal banner before his queen, and so enthused was he by the whole occasion that he decided it required something special, a je-ne-sais-quoi, which was why he commissioned a throne in silver to be presented to his queen. Kristina was delighted. The throne was elegant and ostentatious at the same time, an indication of just how rich our Magnus was – richer, even, than the queen, some said.

So the lady was crowned, all the while considering just how to arrange her abdication. There may have been days when she regretted expressing her intention to her Council, but Kristina had passed beyond the point of no return when she secretly arranged for a Portuguese Jesuit in disguise, a certain Macedo, to carry a personal letter from her to the Pope regarding her planned conversion to the Catholic faith.

Stop, stop, stop! A Swedish Queen, head of the Swedish protestant Church, colluding with a cloak-and-dagger Jesuit? Major scandal – potentially devastating scandal, even for a reigning queen. And why this desire to convert to begin with? Well, the answer to that we will never know, but we know for a fact that Kristina was educated by a very open-minded gentleman named Johannes Matteus, who, contrary to most of his contemporaries, preached tolerance among the Christian faiths.

And then there was the charming French ambassador Chanut, who introduced Kristina to Catholic thinkers such as Descartes, and who very early on began fanning her interest in the Catholic faith. Plus, of course, the Pope did his thing, sending yet another undercover Jesuit to discuss Kristina’s conversion. In actual fact, most of the important potentates within Catholic Europe seemed aware of her interest in the old faith, with Felipe IV of Spain sending a dashing ambassador to further the cause of the righteous.


Don Antonio Pimentel

Don Antonio Pimentel de Prado arrived in Stockholm in 1652. He was witty, he was educated, he was charming and bright, and he buzzed round the queen as eagerly as a happy bumblebee circles a stand of clover. Long, secret discussions about Catholicism, about what future role Kristina would play, took place. Endless musings about the relative benefits of Catholicism vs Protestantism, accompanied, I’m thinking, by excellent Spanish wine (except that Kristina didn’t drink – she stuck to water).



For a woman in love with culture, with the fine arts, with opulence and pageantry, the orthodox Swedish Lutheran Church must have felt like a gigantic yoke. For a woman who loved being admired and complimented on her intellect, all these charming Catholic ambassadors were quite the intoxicant. And when charming, libertine Pierre Bourdelot arrived to take up the role of the queen’s physician, things became even livelier. It didn’t help that Magnus Gabriel – her peacock in residence – had been taken seriously ill, thereby spending several months away from court. Without flamboyant Magnus Gabriel to balance the attraction of these Catholic Don Juans, Kristina became even more determined not only to abdicate, but also to convert.

Magnus Gabriel returned to court to find his previous position as favourite usurped by a Spanish ambassador dandy and a French doctor. He was not happy, muttering something about Catholic sycophants. He sulked, he whined, and after a rather embarrassing situation in which he told the queen “someone” had told him she suspected him of treason – a pack of lies – the queen sent him home, refusing to have any further contact with him. Magnus Gabriel was devastated. He begged, he wheedled, he sent his wife and mother to the queen, he beseeched Karl Gustav to speak on his behalf, and all this had zero effect. Kristina was royally pissed off with her former favourite – and all too aware that there were very many among her nobles who, just like Magnus Gabriel, distrusted her Catholic friends.


Karl X Gustav

Fortunately for Magnus Gabriel, in 1654 Kristina pushed her abdication through and left Sweden. In her stead, Magnus Gabriel’s brother-in-law Karl Gustav ascended the throne, having been hastily crowned immediately upon Christina’s formal abdication. Magnus Gabriel was in the clover, a boon companion to the king, holder of so many offices he’d have needed like ten modern-day business cards to present them all. However, Karl X Gustav was not quite as generous when it came to handing over estates to his favourites, and the state of the Swedish finances was dire – Kristina had little interest in numbers – so Magnus Gabriel’s purse did not exactly grow fatter.

Not that Magnus Gabriel seemed to care overmuch about balancing his books. His expenses constantly exceeded his incomes – a feat in itself as this man was loaded with estates. But Magnus Gabriel believed in noblesse oblige – well, at least when it came to appearances – and besides, he was married to the king’s sister, and of course that meant he had to live in style. Magnificent style. Exorbitant style, with over 1 000 people employed to see to his mansions and palaces, his farms and towns, his food and clothes.

To be fair to Magnus Gabriel, he didn’t only invest in his own luxurious lifestyle. He gave generously to such institutions as Uppsala University, promoted architects and artists, initiated the World’s first National Heritage organization (17th century Swedes were very eager to promote their illustrious ancient roots, trying to link us back to Noah and the ancient isle of Atlantis) and he personally paid to bring back treasures such as the Silver Bible, which Kristina had carried with her abroad and sold. (And yes, the Silver Bible, or Codex Argentus, really belongs in Prague, from which the rampaging Swedish soldiers stole it back in 1648, but this is an infected debate I prefer to side-step)


Karl XI

Karl X Gustav died most unexpectedly in 1660. Sweden was left in shock – the king who had led his army across the frozen straits to defeat the Danes, who had covered the Swedish Army in glory (well…) in the final years of the Thirty Years’ War was killed by pneumonia, and the crown now passed to a child, little Karl XI.

Magnus Gabriel was named Lord High Chancellor in Karl X Gustav’s will and as such was a member of the council which ruled Sweden under Karl XI’s minority. A dog fight ensued among the powerful nobles that sat on the council – and their wives, as represented by the rather tasteless shoving match between Maria Eufrosyne and another lady at Karl X Gustav’s funeral. The ladies had different opinions as to who was the most important…

The regency period was fraught, with the council divided by those who supported Magnus Gabriel, and those who opposed his policy of waging more wars and always siding with France. Plus there was the sensitive matter of Magnus Gabriel’s overextended finances and his tendency to now and then stick his hand in the till and award himself a royal donation or two to tide him over a personal financial crisis.

Karl XI came of age, and Magnus Gabriel remained at his side, a valued counsellor as per the king. Hmm. Not everyone agreed, and when Magnus Gabriel’s aggressive policy exploded into yet another war with Denmark, there were mutterings of High Treason – accusations that were dismissed as unfounded.

No, Magnus Gabriel was not a traitor – but he was a wastrel, a man who borrowed money everywhere and never repaid his debts. Unfortunately, his relaxed attitude to finances had led to an almost bankrupt kingdom, and the war with Denmark was the final nail in the coffin. Something had to be done – and quickly – to save Karl XIs kingdom.

The answer was simple – and so painful for the Swedish nobility that to this day The Reduction is remembered as one of the more drastic measures ever implemented by a king. What Karl XI did was simply to reclaim all lands the Crown had gifted to the nobles. All. Personal fortunes disappeared with the stroke of a quill, and in Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie’s case, he lost more or less everything he had – including the lands he’d inherited from his father and grandfather, seeing as these had also been gifts from the Crown.

The richest man in Sweden, proud owner of a number of castles and palaces, benefactor of the arts, was sent off to live out the rest of his life on one of his smaller manors, where he died in 1686, substantially poorer than when he was born. Those footsteps he was destined to fill and make bigger, had if anything shrunk, and the De la Gardie family was never to regain its former glory. Easy come, easy go, one could say: once upon a time a French mercenary landed in Sweden and made it good. Two generations later it was all gone.

ThroneSwedenSo ends the story of Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie, that flashiest of Swedish noblemen. His castles are gone, his bloodline extinct, but that silver throne – well, it still exists! These days, however, it is too fragile to do more than decorative duty while our monarch sits on another chair beside it. Me, when I stand before it, I see a man with a blond mane down to his shoulders, his bucket-topped boots polished to perfection, his breeches and short padded jacket an orgy in gold-embroidered velvet. He is smiling at his queen, bowing deeply as she sits on the chair he made for her – only for her.

The Funerals of a Prince

Last year for Midsummer, I wrote a little post describing just how we celebrate this the shortest night of the year up here in Scandinavia. Tonight, I am sitting in the late twilight watching the antics of the swifts, and I am preoccupied with the ghost of a long-gone man – or rather his death. You see, tomorrow on June 20 it is 204 years since the death of Axel von Fersen.

Axel von Fersen, porträtt av Peter Dreuillon. Bild: Lars Ekelund/Östergötlands museum“Axel who?” some of you may ask. Other will shrug and think I should get over it – the dude’s been dead two centuries. I suppose it is the manner of his death that preys on me – such an undeserved ending to a magnificent life. I’m not sure Axel would have used the adjective magnificent to describe his life; after all, he never married, he never had children. It seems his heart died with Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, and while the man did not remain celibate for the rest of his life, he never expressed an interest for a long-term relationship.

We will never know how intimate Axel and Marie Antoinette truly were. I hope, for their sake, that there were days and moments of joy and utter bliss.

I am not the only one sending a thought or two Axel’s way today, and should you want to read more about this reputedly extremely handsome, vibrantly intelligent and generally very swoon-worthy man, why not visit Mme Gilfurt’s salon?

But now, without any further ado I give you my short story, The Funerals of a Prince. Requisceat in Pace, Axel von Fersen!

Axel von Fersen thanked the barber and dried his face before going over to select his waistcoat for the day. Not the red one, nor the one in pale yellow silk embroidered with rosebuds, but maybe the French one, grey with peonies in black and silver? His valet extended a black, simple waistcoat.
“I’m not in mourning,” Axel said, shaking his head.
“The country is,” the valet said with an edge to his voice.
The man should be reprimanded for his effrontery, but Axel chose not to – after all, Henrik had been with him for decades.

He fingered the grey waistcoat, thrown back to 1784 and a magnificent evening in Versailles. “Pour mon beau Suedois” the label had said on the package containing the garment. He raised the cloth to his nose and sniffed, imagining he could feel the scent of the peonies in her basket – large, heavy flowers in white and pink. Fool, he chided himself, if anything this smelled of dust and dry wood. But he had made his choice, and a few moments later he was standing before the mirror admiring his appearance.
“You’re a vain old goat,” he told his mirrored image as he tugged the embroidered sleeves of his black coat into place. He twirled and threw a look out the window, concluding that while the day had dawned bright, there would be rain later on – the cloud banks to the east promised as much.

Some moments later he entered the dining room. The polished walnut table, the silverware and fine French crystal threw sparkling reflections to dance on the light wallpaper, patterned with a discreet fleur-de-lis. As always, he stopped at the portrait that hung opposite his customary seat. Her blue eyes smiled at him and he smiled back, touched his fingers to her painted lips and turned to greet his sister.
“You should marry,” Sofia said, giving the portrait an irritated look.
“I don’t want to.” This topic was most tedious, with Sofia harping on about the joys of married life. He had his own conceptions of domestic bliss, a heady couple of months at the Petit Trianon back in the seventeen-eighties.
“What about children?”
He shrugged; the only woman he had wanted to have children with had been unattainable. Sofia exhaled but seemed to recognise the futility of further discussing this subject. Instead she sat back and inspected him.
“Most elegant,” she said.
Axel raised a brow. When was he not elegant?
“And sober,” she added, eyeing the grey waistcoat with a slight frown.
“Of course sober, this is a day of great sorrow for the nation.” But not for him or for the others who like him had protested at the election of a foreigner – and a Danish prince, no less – as heir to the Swedish throne. He grinned.
“It’s not funny! For days, men have been roaming Stockholm’s streets, screaming that you poisoned him.”
“But I didn’t, he died of a seizure.” Axel shoved away his plate. He no longer felt hungry.
“Maybe you shouldn’t go,” Sofia said, looking worried.
“I have no choice. As Marshal of the Realm it is I that must receive the Crown Prince’s body and lead the funerary procession.”
Sofia pursed her lips. “I don’t like it.”
He leaned forward to clasp her hand. “It will blow over. And maybe this time the king will do what is right and name his grandnephew as heir.”
“Axel…” Sofia sighed. “You know I agree with you – of course Prince Gustav should be heir – but to broach the subject again …”
“I must,” he said.
She rolled her eyes, making him laugh.
As he made to leave she rose and came over to kiss his cheek. “Be careful,” she said.
“I always am,” he replied before kissing her in return.

“This is not wise,” General Isaac Silfversparre said. “You would do best to return home – or ride south.”
“I can’t. It’s my duty to escort the body.” But Axel wasn’t looking forward to it, not when even in this secluded yard he could hear the mob baying his name.
“But …”
Axel waved him silent. “A rabble, Isaac.” He studied the six white horses that were to draw his gilded carriage and nodded his approval. The dark red harnesses were spotless, the horses had been groomed to a shine, and the lackeys that were to walk three to a side by the carriage were as resplendent in their white outfits as were the horses.
“A drunk, dangerous rabble,” Isaac protested. “A rabble that screams their prince has been murdered – by you.”
Axel shook his head. “To hide would be tantamount to admitting there’s truth in these ludicrous accusations. Besides, you and your men will see me safe.”
With Isaac at his heels he inspected the procession, starting with the simple cart on which rested the prince’s coffin. Dirty and mud spattered after the long haul from southern Sweden, it made Axel frown.
“Why hasn’t it been properly cleaned?” he asked. The contrast to his carriage was glaring, even more so given the winded appearance of the eight black horses that were to pull it.
“No time,” one of the officers said. “We got in very late last night.”
For some moments Axel considered whether to delay the proceedings and give the hearse an overhaul. He settled for yelling for some grooms and setting them to work on the horses.
“I still think it’s unwise,” Isaac said once the whole procession was lined up. He nodded at the ceremonial staff Axel was carrying. “At least go armed.”
“Not part of the protocol,” Axel said. He undid the ribbon that tied back his grey hair and arranged it to lie loose around his head. “I hate wearing it like this – it makes me look old.”
“Protocol,” Isaac said with a crooked smile before opening the door of the carriage for him.

He should have stayed at home – or at least gone armed. His carriage jerked forward one foot at the time, and all around were screaming, angry people that called him murderer and worse. This must have been what it had been like for her, that October day in 1793 when she was carted through the Parisian crowds. In a simple white dress, her hair hacked off, she had still retained her dignity, sitting immobile while people hurled eggs and rotten foodstuffs, screamed obscenities at her. He shook himself; not at all the same. Any moment now they’d reach the church and the soldiers would disperse the rabble.

They were well into the older parts of town, the street made narrower by the tall houses that lined it on both sides. Shops had been closed, most of the windows at the lower levels were shuttered and the teeming mass of people closed like a sea around the procession. The gilded carriage lurched to a stop. Axel cringed when yet another windowpane was broken by a flying stone. A hailstorm of stones, and with some surprise he registered he’d been hit, was bleeding from the head.
“My lord!” The door was yanked open, and a man Axel recognised as Sergeant Bartholin took hold of him. “This way, my lord.”
“I can’t, I must …”
“They’ll kill you!” the sergeant roared, pulling at him. They tumbled out of the carriage, and there was Isaac Silfversparre.
“Run!” Isaac screamed. Run? How, when surrounded by so many people with fingers tearing at his coat, his adornments? A doorway and Axel rushed for it, with Isaac on one side and the sergeant on the other.

Axel winced when he cracked his forehead against the door lintel. They were in a stuffy taproom, the dark beamed ceiling so low the whole space was suffused in permanent dusk, no matter the small windows that gave on the street. The room was full of men, most of them merchants given their well-cut if somewhat sober garments.

Pipe smoke stung Axel’s eyes, there was a smell of overcooked cabbage, and the table in front of him was sticky with spilled beer. At present, Axel didn’t care, sliding down to sit on the offered stool. He gulped air and leaned back against the wall. He was too old for this. His pulse raced through his head, his breathing loud and irregular.
Axel wiped at his face and stared down at his bloodied hand. “The body, the prince …”
“It’s you they want,” Isaac said, handing him a glass of schnapps. In general, Axel disliked the burning, oily taste of this liquor, but today it sent welcome warmth through his system.
“More,” he croaked, holding out the empty glass.

Axel closed his eyes, trying to regain some sort of control. From the street came angry howls, and to Axel’s dismay he couldn’t stop himself from flinching at the sound.
Courage,” he whispered. But he was having problems finding it, incapable of suppressing the tremors that rushed through him as the rabble outside chanted his name. He groped for the locket he always carried on his person and lifted it to his lips. “Give me strength, ma reine.” She swam before him, young and carefree, and he smiled at this faded image from his youth. It helped; he squared his shoulders and adjusted his clothes as well as he could what with the damage done to them.

“That’s him!”
The bellow had Isaac leaping to his feet, dragging Axel to stand behind him.
“Murderer!” someone yelled, and a bottle came flying through the room.
“I’m no …” Axel began, but Isaac was already shoving him towards the door, while the sergeant took up position before them, sword drawn. Instinctively, Axel dropped his hand to where his sword should have been. He gave Isaac a faint smile.
“I should have listened to your advice.”
“You should,” Isaac nodded. “But we can talk about that later.”
Axel hung back at the door. From behind came the grating sound of steel on steel, irate voices screaming his name. Outside, the crowd heaved and surged.
“No choice,” Isaac said. “If we stay here…” As if on cue, the sergeant shrieked.

Out through the door and into the press of men, with Isaac dragging Axel along in his wake.
“Don’t let go,” Isaac yelled over his shoulder. “Hold on to me.”
Easy to say, very difficult to do. Hands closed on Axel’s arms, they pulled and tugged.
“Unhand me!” Axel bellowed, and for some seconds the crowd complied, enough that Axel should be able to keep his grip on Isaac. A blow to his head made him reel, there was a ripping sound when his coat was torn off, and still Axel held on, one hand raised to shield his head, the other welded to Isaac’s belt.
He howled when the stout stick came down on his forearm. Again, and he could no longer hold on.
“Axel!” Isaac screamed.
Axel couldn’t reply, air driven out of him by a savage blow to his side.
“Make for the square,” Axel heard Isaac yell. “The troops there will help you.”
The square. A mere hundred yards away, an interminable distance filled with men that kicked and hit him, spat him in the face. Axel fought back, he bit and scratched. When he punched a lout in the gut he created a gap, enough for him to break free and run for the far end of the square where the Royal Lifeguards were standing in formation.
“To me!” he yelled, and one of the soldiers moved towards him but a sharp command had him shuffling back in line. What? No, this was not right, this was … Axel elbowed one of his assailants and screamed for help.

Axel v F dödHe yelled himself hoarse, yet the soldiers stood like rocks as the rabble attacked him, scourged him, yanked off tufts of his hair. Die like this? How was a man to meet his end with dignity and courage while being torn apart by a raging horde? God in heaven, but it hurt when cudgels rained blows on his back and unprotected head. He screamed. Hands lifted him high, carrying him like a trophy. Had she been as frightened, that last day? Had it been fear, not courage, that had his beloved sitting like a statue while the dancing, singing crowd jeered, chanting that soon the Austrian bitch would die?

He was thrown to the ground, grunting with the impact. A booted heel on his hand, and he called for his mother when the bones in his fingers were pulverised. He crawled, the crowd cheered.
Here at last came help. Two officers shouldered their way through the crowd and helped him up. He couldn’t quite stand, one leg folding beneath him for a couple of paces. His precious waistcoat was in tatters and there was a rip down his breeches that revealed too much of his thigh.
“Thank you,” he said, clinging to an arm. His head was ringing, so he didn’t fully follow what was being said, catching no more than the odd word. Accuse him of murder?
“What?” he said, blinking his eyes clear of blood and tears.
“A ruse,” the officer holding him mumbled. “We will see you safe, my lord. Just walk with us to the court house.”
Axel relaxed. It was over, he wouldn’t die, not today, not like this. And next time he saw that dratted Carl – pardon, His Majesty the King – he’d demand an explanation. No man but the king himself could have stopped the troops from interceding.

They were almost at the court house when someone yelled that why wait for a trial, why not kill the murderer now? A responding howl rose from the mob, shrivelling Axel’s guts. He gripped the officer’s arm and held on for dear life, but to no avail. He lost his hold, fell face first onto the cobbles. They dragged him backwards, the skin on his face tore on the uneven ground. Up, get up! He regained his feet, ducked a blow and retaliated with such force the man collapsed like a pricked pig’s bladder.
“Death to the murderer!” someone yelled.
“Death! Death!” the crowd cheered.
“No! Please, I …” The punch filled his mouth with blood and teeth. He couldn’t see properly. Mon Dieu! He fell to his knees. The gold chain round his neck broke. His locket … He groped, closed his whole hand around it, curling together as booted feet struck his back, his head.
“Marie Antoinette,” he whispered when they flipped him over. Her smiling face hovered above him. A savage kick to his genitals brought him back to the brutal present. He jerked with pain. How long had this gone on? There was a sickening crunch, an unbearable weight on his chest. I die… the thought fluttered through his brain. With a rattle the air from his crushed ribcage was expelled through his bloodied mouth. His hand flew open and the locket rolled away. 

This story was first written for the HNS Short Story competition in 2012 and I was very honoured when it won third place. It has been published together with the other shortlisted stories in The Beggar at the Gate and other stories, published by HNS. For those of you who enjoy a good short story in various historical settings, this may be just the book for you!


Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: