Biography of Queen Christina of Sweden

Christina of Sweden, about 1650
Christina of Sweden, about 1650. From a painting by David Beck. Hulton Fine Art Collection / Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

Reigning queen of Sweden from November 6, 1632 to June 5, 1654, Christina of Sweden is know for ruling Sweden in her own right.  She's also remembered for her abdication and conversion from Lutheran Protestantism to Roman Catholicism. She's also known as an unusually well educated woman for her time, for her patronage of the arts, and for rumors of lesbianism and intersexuality.  She was formally crowned in 1650.

Heritage and Family

Christina was born on December 8 or 17, in 1626, and lived until April 19, 1689.  Her parents were King Gustavus Adolphus Vasa of Sweden and his wife, Maria Eleanora of Brandenburg. Christina was her father's only surviving legitimate child, and thus his only heir. 

Maria Eleanora was a German princess, daughter of John Sigismund, Elector of Brandenburg. Her maternal grandfather was Albert Frederick, Duke of Prussia.  She married Gustavus Adolphus against the will of her brother, George William who had by that time succeeded to the office of Elector of Brandenberg.  She was reputed to be very beautiful. Maria Eleanora had been sought as a bride for a prince of Poland and for Charles Stuart, British royal heir.

Gustavus Adolphus, part of the Vasa dynasty of Sweden, was the son of Duke Charles and a cousin of Sigismund, Sweden's king. As part of religious wars between Protestants and Catholics, Gustavus' father forced Sigismund, a Catholic, out of power, and replaced him first as regent then as King Charles IX.

Gustavus' part in the Thirty Years' War may have turned the tide from the Catholics to the Protestants. He was in 1633, after his death, styled "the Great" (Magnus) by the Swedish Estates of the Realm.  He was considered a master of military tactics, and instituted political reforms, including expanding education and the rights of the peasantry.

Childhood and Education

Her childhood was during the long cold spell in Europe called the "Little Ice Age."  Her childhood was also during the time of the Thirty Years' War (1618 - 1648), when Sweden sided with other Protestant powers against the Habsburg Empire, a Catholic power centered in Austria.

Her mother, disappointed that she was a girl, tried to injure her, and showed little affection for her.  As a baby, Christina was subject of several suspicious accidents.  Her father was frequently away at war, and Maria Eleonora's mental state was made worse in those absences.

Christina's father ordered that she be educated as a boy would be, she became known for her learning and for her patronage of learning and the arts as the "Minerva of the North" and Stockholm became known as "Athens of the North."  

Accession as Queen

When her father was killed in battle in 1632, the six-year-old girl became Queen Christina. Her mother was excluded, over her own protestations, from being part of the regency, and she was described as "hysterical" in her grief.  

Christina's mother's parental rights were terminated in 1636. Maria Eleonora continued to attempt to visit Christina. The government tried to settle Maria Eleonora first in Denmark then back to her home in Germany, but her homeland would not take her until Christina secured for her an allowance to support her.

Ruling Queen

Ruling at the head of government as regent until Queen Christina was of age was the Lord High Chancellor of Sweden, Axel Oxenstierna, an advisor who had served Christina's father and who continued as her advisor after she was crowned. It was against his advice that she initiated the end of the Thirty Years War, culminating with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

Queen Christina launched a "Court of Learning" by her patronage of art, theater, and music. The French philosopher Rene Descartes came to Stockholm, where he lived for two years. His plans for an Academy in Stockholm came to nothing when he suddenly became ill and died in 1650.

Christina's coronation was delayed until 1650, and her mother attended the ceremony.

Relationships

Queen Christina appointed her cousin, Carl Gustav (Karl Charles Gustavus) as her successor. Some historians believe that she was romantically linked to him earlier, but they never married, and instead, her relationship with lady-in-waiting Countess Ebbe "Belle" Sparre launched rumors of lesbianism.

Surviving letters from Christina to the Countess are easily described as love letters, though it is always difficult to apply modern classifications like "lesbian" to people in another time when such classifications were not known. Though they shared a bed at times, this practice did not at that time necessarily imply a sexual relationship. The Countess married and left court before Christina's abdication, but they continued to exchange passionate letters.

Abdication

Difficulties with issues of taxation and governance, and problematic relations with Poland plagued Christina's last years as Queen of Sweden, and in 1651 she first proposed that she abdicate. Her council convinced her to stay, but she had some sort of breakdown and spent much time confined to her rooms, consulting with Father Antonio Macedo.

She finally did abdicate officially in 1654. Her actual reasons for abdicating are still argued by historians.Her mother opposed her daughter's abdication, and Christina provided that her mother's allowance would be secure even without her daughter ruling Sweden.  

Christina in Rome

Christina, now calling herself Maria Christina Alexandra, left Sweden a few days after her official abdication, traveling in disguise as a man. When her mother died in 1655, Christina was living in Brussels. She made her way to Rome, where she lived in a palazzo filled with art and books and which became a lively center of culture as a salon.

Christina converted to Roman Catholicism perhaps by 1652 but more likely in 1655 and certainly by the time she arrived in Rome. The former Queen Christina became a favorite of the Vatican in the religious "battle for the hearts and minds" of 17th century Europe. She was aligned with a particularly free-thinking branch of Roman Catholicism.

Christina also embroiled herself in political and religious intrigue, first between the French and Spanish factions in Rome.

Failed Schemes and Royal Aspirations

In 1656, Christina launched an attempt to become Queen of Naples. A member of Christina's household, the Marquis of Monaldesco, betrayed plans of Christina and the French to the Spanish Viceroy of Naples. Christina retaliated by having Monaldesco executed summarily in her presence, defending her action as her right. For this act, she was for some time marginalized in Roman society, though she eventually became involved again in church politics.

In another failed scheme, Christina attempted to have herself made Queen of Poland. Her confidant and advisor, Decio Azzolino, a cardinal, was widely rumored to be her lover, and in one scheme Christina attempted to win the Papacy for Azzolino.

Christina's Death

Christina died in 1689, aged 63. She named Cardinal Azzolino as her sole heir. She was buried in St. Peter's, an unusual honor for a woman.

Christina's Reputation

Christina's "abnormal" interest (for her time) in pursuits normally reserved for males, occasional dressing in male attire, and persistent stories about her personal relationships, have led to many disagreements among historians as to the nature of her sexuality. In 1965, her body was exhumed for testing, to see if she had signs of hermaphroditism or intersexuality, but the results were inconclusive.

More Facts

Also known as: Christina Vasa; Kristina Wasa; Maria Christina Alexandra; Count Dohna; Minerva of the North; Protectress of the Jews at Rome

Places: Stockholm, Sweden; Rome, Italy

Religion: Protestant - Lutheran, Roman Catholic, accused of atheism

Books About Queen Christina of Sweden

  • Veronica Buckley. Christina, Queen of Sweden: The Restless Life of a European Eccentric. 2005.
  • Joanne Mattern.  Queen Christina of Sweden. 2009.
  • Marcia Landy and Amy Villarejo. Queen Christina.  1995.