Woman of the Week: Queen Christina Alexandra (née Kristina Augusta Wasa)

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Christina aged approximately 16, between 1640 and 1642 (by Jacob Henry Elbfas)

Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) isn’t one of the few queens that people actually know about, but it certainly isn’t because her life and character don’t merit the recognition. Literally from the moment she was born, Christina was causing scandals. Apparently born with unusual quantities of hair and a ‘strong, hoarse voice’, the birthing attendants initially believed the infant to be a male, which entertained her father, Gustav II Adolf, immensely. ‘She’ll be clever,’ he said, ‘she has made fools of us all!’

 

 

 

In fact, the strange stories about her birth, as well as her reportedly masculine behaviour and appearance, has lead modern historians to theorise that she may have had one or more unacknowledged disorders, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (which can cause hirsutism and obesity), Pervasive Developmental Disorder (encompassing behavioural disorders such as autism), or Disorder of Sex Development (involving abnormal development of sexual characteristics), although her skeleton was judged ‘typically female’ when analysed in 1965.

Having no other children, Gustav arranged for his daughter to be raised exactly as a male heir would have been, from studying statecraft and sciences to learning to fence and hunt bears. It wasn’t surprising, then, that she became known as ‘the Girl King’ when at age 6, she inherited her father’s kingdom after his death in the Thirty Year’s War – even at her coronation, her official title was ‘King of the Swedes, Goths and Wends’.

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Christina depicted on horseback in a portrait intended to gain favour with Philip IV of Spain, in 1653 (by Sébastien Bourdon)

Due to her youth, Sweden was ruled by a Privy Council until she came of age at 18, but Christina attended council meetings from the age of 14, showing a keen interest in politics and diplomacy. She is reported to have spent 10 hours a day at her studies, learning up to 8 languages other than her native Swedish and developing an interest in culture, religion and art that would last throughout her life.

As reigning queen, Christina continued to be an enthusiastic patron of the arts, gathering scholars, musicians and artists to her court, among which were philosopher René Descartes and kabbalist Menasseh Ben Israel, as well as various prominent Jesuits. It was her discussions with these last that finally convinced the young Queen that she should convert to Catholicism – a significant decision, considering that at the time, it was illegal to be Catholic in the country of Sweden. The punishment for such an offence? Only execution.

Nonetheless, Christina was determined. She had already made her first cousin, Charles X Gustav, her heir in 1649, and in 1652, after strong opposition from her advisors, Christina abdicated in favour of her heir, citing her desire to remain celibate as the reason for her decision. Immediately after the ceremonies were concluded, she disguised herself in men’s clothing so as to pass herself off as ‘Count Dohna’ whilst travelling through Denmark, a country still hostile to Swedish monarchy, on her way to Rome.

The true reasons for Christina’s celibacy may not have been purely religious motives, however. Christina’s sexuality remains a mystery even now, as she was rumoured to have romantic liaisons with both men and women but had no public relationships throughout her life. She was conjectured to have had relationships with both Charles Gustav and her long-time friend and bookkeeper, Decio Azzolino, but also with a female friend, Ebba Sparre, who is frequently alleged to have been the Queen’s lover due to the Queen’s description of her as her ‘bed-fellow’, and the intensely emotional letters written between them, which included the Queen declaring that she would always love Ebba.

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Monument to Christina in St Peter’s Basilica, ordered by Pope Innocent XII in 1702

Upon reaching Rome, Christina enjoyed considerable popularity, becoming famous as the monarch who gave up her country for her love of God. She spent the remainder of her life maintaining her extensive patronage of the arts whilst living in Italy and France. Though she made a failed attempt to regain the Swedish throne after the death of Charles X Gustav, Christina ultimately never returned to power and died in relative peace in 1689 in her palace in Rome, leaving her autobiography unfinished. Contrary to her wishes, Pope Innocent XI arranged for her to be buried with great ceremony in the Grotte Vatican beneath the St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, making her the third woman ever to be interred there.

 

 

 

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Woman of the Week: Desirée Clary (née Bernardine Eugénie Désirée Clary)

Desirée Clary (1777-1860) was a woman who knew how to climb the social ladder. Born the daughter of a reasonably wealthy silk merchant in Marseilles, she ended up being the Queen of two nations and a political informant within the French government. That begs the question – well, how? The answer is simple, as technically all she had to do was marry the right man, but the story is far more interesting.

It starts just after the French Revolution, when in 1794 Desirée became engaged to a young soldier from Corse called Bonaparte, but the arrangement was broken off so that Desirée’s older sister, Julie, could marry him instead. A bad deal for Desirée? Not really, considering that the change was suggested by Bonaparte’s younger brother, who had his eye on Desirée himself – another soldier, very recently elevated to the status of general, whose first name just so happened to be Napoleon.

In another turn of events that ended up being a blessing in surprise, Napoleon soon abandoned Desirée to become involved with Josephine de Beauharnais, a wealthy and influential widow in the Parisian ‘set’. Throughout his life, though, he maintained a respect and affection for his one-time fiancée that would give her a unique position within the inner machinations of the French government.

Returning to Paris after a sojourn in Italy with her sister, Desirée soon found herself romantically linked to another French general, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who she married in 1798. Bernadotte was already a well-known and well-liked figure in the military before Napoleon’s rise to power, and was seen by many as the ideal alternative to the despotic Bonaparte. As the wife and ex-fiancee of these two powerful rivals, Desirée had to contend with both factions trying to use her as a political pawn.

Though Bonaparte hoped to end Bernadotte’s military and political influence in 1809, when he stripped the other man of the Marshal’s baton (and rank) that he had bestowed upon him in 1804, a healthy dose of karma helped to balance the scales again. Bernadotte’s benevolent treatment of some Swedish prisoners brought him to the attention of the aging, heirless King Charles XIII of Sweden, who eventually adopted him as his royal heir.

Thus Desirée became the Crown Princess, and inevitably, after the old King’s death in 1818, the Queen of Sweden and Norway. Finding the -20 weather that greeted her upon her first arrival in Sweden to be rather not to her taste, Desirée flatly refused to stay in her adopted kingdom and returned to Paris instead, where she remained for 12 years.

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Desirée as Queen Consort in 1822 (by Fredric Westin)

Whilst there, though her personal relationship with Bernadotte drifted into insignificance, she stayed in close contact with him so as to provide Sweden with the latest political news in Europe and France. By receiving important personages like Talleyrand and
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, and playing on her lingering intimacy with Napoleon, she helped to mediate political conflicts between the country of her birth and that of which she became Queen, despite a self-professed lack of interest in politics and government.

Though Desirée did eventually move permanently to Sweden in 1823, to remain until her death, the French habits and expectations that she clung to were at odds with Swedish culture, and she never truly adapted to – or was adopted by – the nation with the enthusiasm of her husband.