Great Britain has its strident Queen Elisabeth I, France has its flamboyant Marie Antoinette and Russia has its legendary Catherine the Great. For Sweden, there is one Queen to measure up against them in icon status – the notorious Queen Christina.
Born 1626, Christina was the Queen of Sweden from 1632 to 1654, although the country was governed by a regency council until she reached the age of 18.
She is known to have been an independent, outspoken and untraditional woman, and as such has ignited the imagination of novelists, play-writes and film makers throughout history.
Christina’s father was Gustav II Adolph, one of Sweden’s warrior kings, a military commander credited with the rise of Sweden as a great European power. He wanted Christina to be raised in the same way a boy would be – so Christina was an unorthodox and controversial person already at an early age. She studied 10 hours per day, could hunt and fight, was knowledgeable in politics and could speak seven languages other than Swedish.
This learned young woman who was ‘masculine’ and ‘rough around the edges’, was a great sponsor of the arts. Wanting to turn Stockholm into a centre of learning and culture, she attracted many great minds to her court. This was, however, very expensive and eventually the dream died – gaining her a reputation for being wasteful and extravagant in the process.
She was also a peace maker, negotiating peace that ended the 30 Year War. Under her reign, Sweden settled New Sweden in the USA, which is today in the area of Joe Biden’s hometown Delaware.
However, she is mostly remembered for three main things. Firstly, her refusal to marry. Secondly, her unprecedented abdication in 1654. And thirdly, her scandalous conversion to Catholicism.
Christina expressed a distaste for marriage and felt pressure to provide an heir. She realised that if she married she would effectively hand power to her husband. She is quoted as saying ‘I am unsuited for marriage.’ In today’s terms, she would have been defined as lesbian, and she had several mistresses – the most important one being Ebba Sparre, who she called ‘La Belle Comtesse.’
She gave up the throne partly because of her refusal to marry, but mostly due to her increasing unpopularity and pending religious conversion. After her abdication, she shook off the shackles of court protocol and dressed more frequently in male clothes. Historians often describe Christina as unattractive and androgynous in her physical appearance. Whether this is true, or whether her ‘ugly’ appearance was exaggerated in order to undermine her position is unknown. After her cousin took over the throne, Christina quickly left Sweden and ultimately settled in Italy. Although she made several attempts to regain power in Europe, she never succeeded and eventually died in Rome aged 62.
Queen Christina’s funeral was held at St Peters Basilica, reflecting her provenance, prominence and influence. She is one of only three women to buried in the Vatican. That alone is enough to earn her icon status.