She was a woman who wished she was a man; a queen who aspired to be a scholar; a Protestant who turned to Rome; a monarch who loved power but gave up her crown. Such were the paradoxes of Queen Christina of Sweden. She was one of those people who seemed born to hit the headlines. The daughter and only child of Gustavus Adolphus, the most famous prince of his age; queen of Sweden at the age of six, when her father was killed in 1632 on a German battlefield in the Thirty Years’ War, the idol of European intellectuals while still more than a little girl; the despair of her councillors and country on account of her resolute refusal to marry; a source of universal astonishment for her dramatic renunciation of her throne at the age of twenty-seven; the toast of Catholic Europe when, to the horror of her fellow Protestants, she announced her conversion to Rome; volatile, capricious, extravagant, her habits and manners eccentric, her sexual inclinations bizarre.
No doubt all royal personages in the seventeenth-century lived their lives in a blaze of publicity, but somehow Christina contrived to obtain more than her fair share. If, at the end, she suffered the usual consequences of over-exposure, and died half-forgotten by the world, she had sufficiently impressed contemporaries with the brilliance and strangeness of her personality to remain a source of puzzlement to later generations.
The determination to impress and to puzzle was, of course, a deliberate part of the act. ”One should aspire to be not a copy lbut an orgina,” she once wrote, and no one could deny that she had done everything possible to live up to her own maxim. Everything about her, starting with her own appearance, belied the ordinary and the expected. The court painters naturally did their best to make the royal sitter’s portrait conform to the conventional canons of taste, but the sallow face, the strong, hooked nose, the protruding, slightly myopic eyes, and the unkempt, loosely hanging hair; all these features, like the queen’s entire character, somehow refused to conform.
No queen was less queenly, in the conventional sense of the word, nor any woman less womanly. On this, all observers were agreed. ”Despite her sex there is nothing feminine about her.
Her voice is that of a man and likewise her manner of speech, her movements and gestures. …although she rides sidesaddle, she sways and bends her body in such a way that, unless one sees her from close quarters, it is easy to take her for a man. When she goes riding she wears a hat and waistcoat in the Spanish style. Only her skirt betrays her womanhood…She seldom wears ornaments of gold and silver. Her hair she combs only once a week, at times no more than once a fortnight. On Sundays she takes half an hour to dress, on weekdays a quarter of an hour only. Sometimes, in the course of conversation, I have noticed that her clothes have been flecked with ink because she writes so much. Sometimes I have even noticed them to be ragged.” ”…very lively in her movements, actions and speech; without royal reserve in her unaffected behavior and extremely friendly to each and everyone in her manner, discourse and return of greetings; and on the whole intended by nature as a man, but become a woman, displaying qualities from both sexes in her vitality, aspirations and mode of living…”
Hardly, one would have thought, the most prepossessing of characters. yet the fact remains that she impressed, dazzled and exercised an apparently irresistible attraction over some of the best minds in seventeenth-century Europe. By the time she came of age in 1644, she knew most of the leading European languages; she spoke Latin as if it were her native tongue; she had a smattering of Greek, Hebrew and Arabic; and she had read widely in philosophy, theology, mathematics and astronomy.
”She is not womanly” To Christina, as to most of her contemporaries, few words would have been more gratifying. To be born a woman was, in seventeenth-century eyes, to be born at a disadvantage; but to be born a woman on the throne was a disaster. Only rarely had some great queen, like Elizabeth I of England, managed to prevail over the fatal disabilities of her sex. When times were insecure, and all times were insecure in those days, the firm hand of a man at the tiller was regarded as essential, if the ship were not to run aground or founder on the rocks of rebellion. To no country did this rule of state apply more forcefully than to Sweden. A remote and barbaric outpost of Europe during the sixteenth-century, it had suddenly, early in the seventeenth-century, become a great continental power.
This had been achieved in a few short years by the military genius of Christina’s father, Gustavus Adolphus, by the courage and disciplined organization of his armies, and by the skillful exploitation of a European demand for two of Sweden’s few exportable commodities, copper and iron.