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.

 

 

 

Woman of the Week: Ada Lovelace (née Augusta Ada Byron)

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Ada in 1840 (by Alfred Edward Chalon)

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) is known as the ‘mother of modern computing’, but not by nearly enough of the world. The only legitimate child of the famous poet, Lord Byron, she deserves fame in her own right for her contributions to computing and mathematics, a field vastly different from her father’s.

Ada never knew Lord Byron, thanks in part to his dying when she was just 8 years old, but more specifically due to her mother, Anne Isabella Milbanke, maintaining a violent dislike for her husband, who she considered insane. Hoping to discourage any similar tendencies in their only offspring, she encouraged Ada to study mathematics and science, which she believed would help subdue poetic (and thus insane) proclivities.

Whether due to her mother’s grooming or her own natural talent, Ada’s zest for innovation and learning manifested at an early age. When she was just 12, Ada was designing wings to allow human flight, using her anatomical observations of birds to determine the size, shape and materials that would best achieve her goal.

Her education was enhanced greatly by the opportunity of having Mary Somerville, one of the first known female scientists, as a tutor. Becoming close friends with the Scottish mathematician, it was Somerville who both encouraged her studies in higher mathematics and who would eventually introduce her to Charles Babbage in 1833. The 17 year old scholar quickly gained his respect and began an extensive correspondence with him in which they discussed mathematics and Babbage’s invention, an early calculator he called the difference machine. Babbage clearly respected his gifted protégée, coming to refer to her as the ‘Enchantress of Number’.

Ada shed her famous father’s name in 1835, upon marrying William King, later the first Earl of Lovelace. Fortunately, King appears to have supported her scholastic pursuits, and together the couple enjoyed the society of various known academics of the time including Michael Faraday and Charles Dickens. Family life didn’t prevent Ada’s continuing endeavours – in fact, her most famous contributions were made only after the birth of her third and last child.

In 1842, Ada started translating a French work describing Babbage’s newest computational concept, called Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage. However, the notes and algorithms that she added to the basic translation were so abundant that by the time it was published, the work was largely her own.

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Though not visually impressive, the Bernouli algorithm is recognised today as the world’s first computer program

There remains contention regarding whether Ada herself wrote an algorithm intended to compute Bernouli numbers, widely considered to be the first known computer program. While it is certain that she worked on it, some scholars believe that the actual calculations were performed by Babbage, with Ada only editing it and specifically correcting a major error made by the older mathematician. Regardless of the exact details, it was remarkable work for the 26 year old that gives Ada and Babbage every right to their titles as the ‘mother and father’ of computer programming.  In addition, Ada is credited with being the first to recognise the wider application of using algorithms for any sort of information, such as music or language, by converting the data into numerical form. Today, this concept seems meaninglessly abstruse or glaringly self-evident: at the time, it was revolutionary.

“[The Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations…” – (notes on Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage, 1843)

Sadly, from 1843, Ada’s health declined and she began to drink heavily and rely on opiates prescribed as painkillers, causing her moods to be erratic. Her habit of gambling resulted in huge debts after she tried unsuccessfully to devise a mathematical model allowing for large wins, and this minor scandal was exacerbated by rumours of affairs with various men. She died tragically young in 1852, aged just 36, from uterine cancer.

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A portrait of Ada in 1836, jokingly described thus in a letter: “I conclude [the artist] is bent on displaying the whole expanse of my capacious jaw bone upon which the word Mathematics should be written.” (by Margaret Carpenter)