Christina of Sweden

Christina (1626-1689), Queen of Lutheran Sweden, who abdicated at the height of Sweden's power during the Thirty Years' War, converted to Catholicism, and spent the second half of her life in Rome.

Queen Christina is one of the most unusual monarchs in European history. Inheriting her throne at the age of six, she was raised by brilliant tutors to face a complex and dangerous political world. Intellectually gifted, with a highly complex personality, she confounded her advisors first by refusing to marry, then by voluntarily surrendering her throne, and finally by converting to Catholicism in an age of bitter religious warfare, although her Swedish kingdom was then leader of the Protestant powers. The 1933 movie Queen Christina, starring Greta Garbo, which made the queen's name familiar to 20th-century audiences is entirely misleading about the historical Queen Christina, but it is not alone; she has been the subject of extravagant praise from some observers and detestation from others—so much so, that reliable information in English has remained the exception rather than the rule.

Christina was the daughter of King Gustavus II Adolphus, one of the great military heroes of Swedish history. Entering the Thirty Years' War in 1630 when the "Protestant Cause" was at its lowest ebb, Gustavus Adolphus won a succession of sweeping victories over the armies of the Catholic Holy Roman Empire, culminating in the triumphs of Breitenfeld (1631) and Lützen (1632). At this second battle, however, Gustavus was killed, and although his generals fought on through the following two decades, none could quite match him for strategic daring or tactical elan. At his death Christina, his only child, inherited his throne. For the immediate future, power went to her regent, Axel Oxenstierna, a brilliant politician who continued Gustavus's active policy in northern Europe. He negotiated favorable terms for Sweden in its war against Denmark, settled at Bromsebro in 1644. By winning title to extensive south Baltic lands and ports for Sweden in the general pacification of Westphalia (1648), Oxenstierna showed unmistakably that Christina's Sweden had become the major power of northern Europe.

Not until December 1644, her 18th birthday, did Christina become queen in her own right, though by then she had been attending meetings of the Regency Council for two years. In the meantime, Oxenstierna had taken her away from her mentally unbalanced mother and put her education in the hands of Johannes Matthiae, a broad-minded and widely learned man, who gave her a thorough grounding in history, philosophy, theology, and the sciences, in accordance with her father's early orders that she should be raised like a boy. Matthiae nourished in her a passion for philosophy and whetted her intellectual appetite, preparing for the days when she would be one of the chief patrons of European intellectual life. She became a confident speaker of French, German, Latin, Spanish, and Italian, but her written works—letters, aphorisms, and an autobiography—suggest that, although she was surely bright, she was not the genius whom flattering courtiers described in their dedications.

As she matured, Sweden faced domestic and international crises. In the late 1640s, Swedish statesmen watched anxiously as a revolution overthrew the English monarchy and beheaded King Charles I. In Paris, the Fronde rebellion came close to unseating the French monarchy, and the boy-king Louis XIV had to flee for his life. Revolutions in these and other parts of Europe alarmed Oxenstierna, and he feared that the high taxes he had levied for war and for Christina's court expenses might spark a peasant revolt at home. In 1650, Sweden's representative assembly, the Diet, met at a time of widespread hunger following a poor harvest and protested against the power and privileges of the aristocracy, the price of food, and the costs of a foreign policy from which ordinary Swedes gained nothing. The Diet also argued that Oxenstierna's policy of giving away crown lands, in the hope that they would yield more revenue when taxed than when farmed, benefited none but the aristocracy.

Noting the Diet's formal Protestation, Oxenstierna tried to curb Christina's lavish tastes in art, architecture, and music when she began to rule in her own right—one of several sources of tension between the old servant and his new mistress. She, however, scorned Oxenstierna's efforts at frugality and defied him by giving large gifts of lands to returning veterans when the long series of wars came to an end. As the leading historian of Sweden, Michael Roberts, notes: "She had neither interest in, nor grasp of, finance; and after 1652 seems to have been cynically indifferent to the distresses of a crown she had already decided to renounce." She also rewarded her favorites, such as Magnus de la Gardie, lavishly and tactlessly, and angered Oxenstierna further by introducing men into the royal council whom he thought unsuitable but could no longer oppose.

Every 17th-century European monarchy had to think about and plan for the succession. The presence of a queen made matrimonial diplomacy even more hazardous and more necessary than usual because the wrong husband could be politically disastrous. As an adolescent Christina was in love with, and planned to marry, her cousin Charles (the future Charles X), with whom she was educated at Stegeborg Castle. The attraction was mutual and led him to hope for a throne. But as she matured Christina's ardor cooled. Though she kept alive the possibility of a marriage to Charles, it was more as a tactic to secure the succession than from affection. Her Council of Regents and her Parliament were also eager to assure a politically suitable royal marriage of this kind, which could eventuate in the birth of heirs.

But once she was queen in fact as well as in name, Christina was in no hurry to tie the knot. Like Queen Elizabeth I of England a generation earlier, she realized that the promise of her hand in marriage was a more potent instrument than marriage itself. Once wed, her power would probably decline, whereas the hope of it beforehand would keep Charles, and other possible suitors, guessing as to her intentions and assure her dominance. Meanwhile, she endured rumors which alleged that she was involved in a lesbian affair with her friend Countess Ebba Sparre.

After lengthy disputes with her councillors, she agreed in 1649 to the principle that if she married it would be to Charles, but added that she could not be compelled to marry at all. She was more eager to have Charles formally recognized as her heir. Since the two of them were nearly contemporaries, it was unlikely that Charles would enjoy a long reign after her. In the meantime, he had to skulk on his estates where, according to the court gossip of the day, he spent much of his time in a drunken stupor.

Christina was therefore still unmarried when, in 1651, she told Parliament of her intention to abdicate. A collective cry of dismay from the Swedish statesmen delayed her, but in 1654 she renewed the project and this time carried it out, leaving Sweden permanently in June of that year, and traveling to the Spanish Netherlands. From there, traveling in fine style and assured (as it then seemed) of a lifelong income from her Swedish estates, she went to Innsbruck in Austria, and during her stay openly declared her conversion to Roman Catholicism. To nearly all Swedes her conversion, even more than her abdication, appeared as a horrific form of betrayal. In that age of bitter, protracted religious wars, in which Lutheran Sweden had been pitted for 30 years against the Catholic Empire, a conversion of this sort seemed not so much an act of personal conscience as a symbolic declaration of allegiance to the enemy. Why she took these steps has always been a mystery, and has continued to be the subject of a keen dispute among Swedish historians. Her often-voiced conviction that women were unsuited to rule may have played a part in the decision, but religious conviction was probably more decisive.

Generations of historians have also debated the exact sequence of events and causes surrounding this amazing set of actions. While still in Sweden, Christina had been secretive about her interest in Catholicism, because of its politically volatile implications. She had certainly been strongly impressed by the Catholic French ambassador to her court, Chanut, and by the French philosopher Rene Descartes, also a dedicated Catholic, who spent the last year of his life at her court in Stockholm (he died there of pneumonia in 1650). Next she had encountered Antonio Macedo, who was a Jesuit priest posing as the Portuguese ambassador's interpreter. Christina had several conversations with Macedo and told him that she would welcome the chance to discuss Catholicism with more members of his order. When he hurried to Rome with this news, the Father General of the order responded by sending two learned Jesuit professors, Fathers Malines and Casati, also incognito, to her court. After winning her notice by their pose as Italian noblemen, they quickly recognized that she was a thoughtful and gifted person, "a twenty-five year old sovereign so entirely removed from human conceit and with such a deep appreciation of true values that she might have been brought up in the very spirit of moral philosophy." They recalled later that "our main efforts were to prove that our sacred beliefs were beyond reason, yet that they did not conflict with reason. The queen, meanwhile, shrewdly absorbed the substance of our arguments; otherwise we should have needed a great deal of time to make our point."

Christina may have converted as early as 1652, more than a year before her abdication, but if so she did it secretly. When she went to the Netherlands in 1654, she was still accompanied by a retinue which included a Lutheran chaplain. But while there, he died and was not replaced. Christina, meanwhile, gained a reputation in those years, 1654 and 1655, for having a caustic and dismissive attitude towards all forms of Christianity, which may have been a smokescreen to allay suspicions of her conversion. At any rate, after her open confession of her new faith, scandalous tales of her atheism died away. On the other hand scurrilous rumors of her real motives, printed in an avalanche of hostile and lurid pamphlets, were to follow her to the grave and to mislead historians in the ensuing three centuries.

Arriving at Rome in high style after her stately progress through Europe, she took up residence in the Farnese Palace, alarmed Pope Alexander VII by meeting him in a red dress (the color usually reserved for Roman prostitutes) and entertained lavishly, but with little outward sign of religious fervor. Her home quickly became a salon, where intellectuals, cardinals, and noblemen met, and it inevitably became the focus of political intrigues. Despite Christina's lack of outward piety, she was the most prominent convert of the century, and Rome countered Protestant taunts with an avalanche of its own propaganda, singing her praises. She declared that other European princes should follow her lead and end the Reformation rift which had divided Europe for the last 150 years, but none did so.

Charles X, her successor in Sweden, gained a crown sooner than he had dared hope. He proved an effective—and sternly Protestant—monarch, carrying on the policy which Gustavus Adolphus had initiated, of gaining conquests in what is now Poland and North Germany, on the south shore of the Baltic. One pamphleteer noted that while the Pope had gained one lamb in Queen Christina he had lost an entire flock in Poland at the hands of Charles. Lands and tax revenues from this area strengthened the monarchy in its continuing conflict with the aristocracy, and facilitated the paradox of Sweden, a nation of very small population and indigenous resources, remaining a major European power for the best part of a century.

As for Christina, the second half of her life saw her embroiled in the complex politics of baroque Rome, in which she gained the greatest possible leverage from her royal position and felt constrained only by lack of money. When she arrived, the city was one of the focal points of a conflict between pro-French and pro-Spanish factions: France and Spain themselves were at war. At first the common view was that she was pro-Spanish, but her old friend Chanut reassured his master, Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV's chief minister, that this was not true. Sure enough, the early months of 1656 bore witness to a gradual deterioration of Christina's courtesy towards the Spanish ambassadors and her cultivation of French envoys and diplomats. She recognized that France was becoming the dominant power in Europe and that it could better serve her interests than any other nation. Among other things her income had fallen precipitously despite her precautions at the time of abdication. Since less than a quarter of the anticipated revenue was coming to her from her Swedish estates, she hoped Mazarin might offer her a substitute. In late 1656, therefore, she traveled to Paris and was again accorded a sumptuous royal welcome; she then settled down to debating with Mazarin the possibility that she might be made queen of Naples. The Kingdom of Naples, constituting what is now southern Italy, was then in Spanish hands, and making it an independent, pro-French monarchy was one of the central aims of Mazarin's diplomacy. Christina seemed a likely candidate for monarch, and the two of them signed an accord at Compiegne which drew up a timetable for the achievement of this plan.

The expedition of conquest, prepared in secrecy, was due to sail from Marseilles to Naples in February 1657, but French military commitments elsewhere led to a delay. Christina returned from Italy to France and urged Mazarin to hurry, lest he lose the element of surprise. Sure enough, an Italian member of her own entourage whom she had treated lavishly in the past but who now felt slighted, the Marquis of Monaldesco, warned the Spanish Viceroy in Naples of the impending attack. The Viceroy prepared his fortifications to repel it, and Mazarin canceled the expedition. In a fury of disappointment and rage, Christina retaliated against Monaldesco, whose mail she had intercepted, by having his throat cut in her presence at Fontainbleau Palace, despite his agonized pleas for mercy. News of this bloody act, undertaken while she was a foreign king's guest and in his house, undermined her reputation and nullified the Neapolitan scheme altogether. She had fatally underestimated its consequences for her future. Some pamphlets appeared on the streets of Paris which said Monaldesco had been her lover and that she had killed him to keep the fact a secret; others added that he was just one in a long line of murdered lovers. These allegations were groundless, but the killing was politically inept, especially for a woman who prided herself on her Machiavellian skills and diplomatic tact. In 1659, France and Spain signed the Treaty of the Pyrénées and any lingering hopes of a Neapolitan kingdom for Christina fizzled.

From then on Mazarin would make no more schemes with her and Pope Alexander VII now referred to her as "a woman born a barbarian, barbarously brought up, and living with barbarous thoughts." She returned to Rome without further hope of political power but was still resourceful enough to create one of the most refined and brilliant salons in Europe at the Palazzo Riario. For 30 more years, she remained the great anomaly in Europe, a skilled and talented queen without a realm. A circle of friends and retainers still surrounded her, led by Cardinal Azzolino, who did everything he could to repair her tarnished reputation but was careful always to answer her passionately loving letters in a tone of cold severity, lest further scandal attach itself to her name.

Unable to break the habits of a lifetime, she remained an inveterate intriguer (including an effort to become queen of Poland, and a plan to have Azzolino elected pope) but died in 1689 without making any further impact on the course of events. Without the backing of another monarchy, she lacked the resources for further expeditions, and her Swedish successor, Charles X, himself an ally of France, was careful to do nothing to encourage her. Vatican dismay at the Monaldesco affair had cooled sufficiently after 30 years that Christina the eminent convert could be given the final honor, by Pope Innocent XI, of burial in St. Peter's.

Further Reading on Christina of Sweden

Elstob, Eric. Sweden: A Political and Cultural History. Rowman &Littlefield, 1979.

Masson, Georgina. Queen Christina. London: Secker & Warburg, 1968.

Roberts, Michael. Essays in Swedish History. University of Minnesota Press, 1967.

Scott, Franklin D. Sweden: The Nation's History. University of Minnesota Press, 1977.

Stolpe, Sven. Christina of Sweden. Macmillan, 1966.

Weibull, Curt. Christina of Sweden. Bonniers:Svenska Bokforlaget, 1966.