Biography of Christina, Unconventional Queen of Sweden

Christina of Sweden, about 1650
Hulton Fine Art Collection / Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

Queen Christina of Sweden (Dec. 18, 1626—April 19, 1689) reigned for nearly 22 years, from Nov. 6, 1632, to June 5, 1654. She's remembered for her abdication and her conversion from Lutheranism to Roman Catholicism. She also was known for being an unusually well-educated woman for her time, a patron of the arts, and, according to rumors, a lesbian and an intersexual. She was formally crowned in 1650.

Fast Facts: Queen Christina of Sweden

Known For: Independent-minded queen of Sweden

Also Known As: Christina Vasa, Kristina Wasa, Maria Christina Alexandra, Count Dohna, Minerva of the North, Protectress of the Jews at Rome

Born: Dec. 18, 1626, in Stockholm, Sweden

Parents: King Gustavus Adolphus Vasa, Maria Eleonora

Died: April 19, 1689, in Rome, Italy

Early Life

Christina was born Dec. 18, 1626, to King Gustavus Adolphus Vasa of Sweden and Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg, now a state in Germany. She was her father's only surviving legitimate child, and thus his only heir. Her mother was a German princess, daughter of John Sigismund, elector of Brandenburg, and granddaughter of 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. 

Her childhood came during a long European cold spell called the "Little Ice Age" and the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), when Sweden sided with other Protestant nations against the Habsburg Empire, a Catholic power centered in Austria. Her father's role in the Thirty Years' War may have turned the tide from the Catholics to the Protestants. He was considered a master of military tactics and instituted political reforms, including expanding education and the rights of the peasantry. After his death in 1632, he was designated "the Great" (Magnus) by the Swedish Estates of the Realm.

Her mother, disappointed to have had a girl, showed little affection for her. Her father was frequently away at war, and Maria Eleonora's mental state was made worse by those absences. As a baby, Christina was subjected to several suspicious accidents.

Christina's father ordered that she be educated as a boy. She became known for her education and for her patronage of learning and the arts. She was referred to as the "Minerva of the North," referring to the Roman goddess of the arts, and the Swedish capital Stockholm became known as "Athens of the North." 

Queen

When her father was killed in battle in 1632, the 6-year-old girl became Queen Christina. Her mother, who was described as being "hysterical" in her grief, was excluded from being part of the regency. Lord High Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna ruled Sweden as regent until Queen Christina was of age. Oxenstierna had been an adviser to Christina's father and continued in that role after Christina was crowned.

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

Reigning

Even during the regency, Christina followed her own mind. Against Oxenstierna's advice, she initiated the end of the Thirty Years' War, culminating with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

She launched a "Court of Learning" by virtue of her patronage of art, theater, and music. Her efforts attracted French philosopher Rene Descartes, who came to Stockholm and stayed for two years. His plans to establish an academy in Stockholm collapsed when he suddenly became ill with pneumonia and died in 1650.

Her coronation finally came in 1650 in a ceremony attended by her mother.

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. 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 difficult to apply modern classifications such as "lesbian" to people in a time when such categorizations were not known. They shared a bed at times, but this practice did not necessarily imply a sexual relationship. The countess married and left the 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, 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.

She finally abdicated officially in 1654. Supposed reasons were that she didn't want to marry or that she wanted to convert the state religion from Lutheranism to Roman Catholicism, but the real motive is still argued by historians. Her mother opposed her abdication, but Christina provided that her mother's allowance would be secure even without her daughter ruling Sweden.

Rome

Christina, now calling herself Maria Christina Alexandra, left Sweden a few days after her official abdication, traveling disguised 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 that became a lively center of culture as a salon.

She had converted to Roman Catholicism by the time she arrived in Rome. The former queen became a favorite of the Vatican in the religious "battle for the hearts and minds" of 17th century Europe. She was aligned with a 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

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 in her presence. 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 adviser, Cardinal Decio Azzolino, was rumored to be her lover, and in one scheme Christina attempted to win the papacy for Azzolino.

Christina died on April 19, 1689, at age 62, having named Cardinal Azzolino as her sole heir. She was buried in St. Peter's Basilica, an unusual honor for a woman.

Legacy

Queen Christina's "abnormal" interest (for her era) in pursuits normally reserved for males, occasional dressing in male attire, and persistent stories about her relationships have led to 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. The results were inconclusive, though they indicated that her skeleton was typically female in structure.

Her life spanned Renaissance Sweden to Baroque Rome and left a record of a woman who, through privilege and strength of character, challenged what it meant to be a woman in her era. She also left behind her thoughts in letters, maxims, an unfinished autobiography, and notes in the margins of her books.

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