When is a queen not a queen? When she's technically a king.
Christina of Sweden was one of Europe's most unusual monarchs, an intellectual ruler and patron of the arts known for flouting convention at every turn. The decisions she made about her rule, her religion, and her relationships shocked 17th century Europe—and have yet to be forgotten today.
"SHE HAS MADE FOOLS OF US ALL!"
Princess Christina of Sweden caused a stir from day one. Not only was she born during a planetary conjunction in 1626, causing the court’s astrologers to predict that the baby would grow up to be one of Sweden’s greatest princes, she was also, as she later wrote, born “entirely covered with hair” and cried with a “deep, loud voice,” causing her to be mistaken for a boy. Although her mother was disappointed to realize that the newborn was in fact a girl, and Christina herself wrote that the confusion “filled the palace with false joy,” her father, King Gustav II, was delighted. “She’ll be clever! She has made fools of us all!” he proclaimed.
Things got more unorthodox from there. Gustav made Christina his heir before he left for Germany to fight in the Thirty Years’ War, although the official title she was set to inherit was King, not Queen, of Sweden (Swedish law only recognized kings; there was no official status for queens). Accordingly, her father decreed that she should receive the education of a prince. Christina threw herself into her studies, rising at dawn for her lessons in classical Greek and Latin, theology, politics, and philosophy. She also learned fencing, hunting, horse riding, and other sports and games traditionally reserved for boys, as well as German, Dutch, Danish, French, Italian, Hebrew, and Arabic. As an adult, she became one of the best-educated women in Europe.
King Gustav II died on the battlefield in 1632, when Christina was five, making her the Queen (technically King) of the Swedes, Goths, and Vandals. Because her mother was seen as mentally unstable, her father had decreed that in the event of his death Christina should be cared by her paternal aunt, Catherine of Sweden. Indeed, the Dowager Queen’s condition was so dire that she refused to bury Gustav’s body for 18 months, regularly visiting and petting the putrefying corpse. Sweden’s chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, finally stepped in, ordering the body buried in Riddarholm Church (the resting place of Swedish kings), exiling the widow to another castle, and sending Christina to live with her aunt until she reached the age of majority.
THE GIRL KING
Oxenstierna ruled in Christina’s stead until she was 18, although she began attending council meetings at 14. Despite receiving lessons in politics from him personally, Christina clashed often with Oxenstierna, particularly regarding the Thirty Years’ War. When Oxenstierna sent his son to the Peace Congress in Westphalia to seek a hard line on negotiations, for example, Christina sent her own delegate to oppose him, seeking peace at any cost.
It’s episodes like this that cause some to describe Christina as a brilliant ruler and others as a complete disaster. Sources do agree that she invested so much money into her vast art collection that it seriously impacted the country’s economy, and in general she displayed little financial skill—she was notorious for giving away land belonging to the crown and showering her favorites in lavish finery. But she’s also credited with preventing civil war in the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War and its leftover rivalries, and her reign saw many progressive firsts, such as the establishment of the first newspaper in Sweden, in 1645.
But if Christina’s rule was controversial, her appearance and demeanor got even more attention. She wore a signature mop of unruly curls, which she rarely brushed, and regularly offended people with her blunt, unfiltered way of speaking. She was known across Europe for her blazing wit and keen intelligence—but just as well for her barroom manners and love of a dirty joke. Queen Christina, it has been said, “walked like a man, sat like a man, and could eat and swear like the roughest soldier.”
Also eyebrow-raising was Christina’s relationship with her lady-in-waiting Countess Ebba Sparre, with whom she spent most of her free time. The young queen waxed endlessly on Sparre’s brilliance and beauty, addressing her as “la belle comtesse” and referring to Sparre as her “bed-fellow.” Upon introducing the countess to an English ambassador, Christina candidly informed him that Sparre’s "insides were as beautiful as her outsides.”
Most scandalous of all, though, was the issue of Christina’s flat-out refusal to marry. In her autobiography, she wrote of “an insurmountable distaste for marriage” and “for all the things that females talked about and did.” As she became a teen, she began expressing great curiosity about Elizabeth I of England—the so-called Virgin Queen—as well as Catholic vows of celibacy. She informed her council: "I do not intend to give you reasons, [I am] simply not suited to marriage.”
Christina knew that she was expected to provide an heir, though, and she did play along for a while. When she was 16, she became secretly engaged to her first cousin, Charles Gustav, who was in love with her, before he went off to war for several years. But by the time he returned, the deal was off, and Christina resisted all future attempts by her advisors to have her married. In 1649, at age 22, she named Charles Gustav as her heir.
Two years later, Christina began making noise about abdicating and leaving her cousin in charge. She claimed that Sweden needed a man to rule and especially to lead the army, and also cited her heavy workload, bad eyesight, neck pain, and other physical ailments as reasons to forfeit the throne. Oxenstierna objected to this plan, as did her council. But another of her reasons eventually emerged: The queen had decided to convert to Catholicism. That was a serious no-no in Lutheran Sweden, partly because the Holy Roman Empire had been the main belligerent party in the recent Thirty Years’ War.
"GOD CREATING THE FIRST MAN"
After waffling back and forth for a few years, the Riksdag, Sweden's representative assembly, ultimately gave in and allowed Christina to resign in June of 1654, after 10 years’ rule, and accepted Charles Gustav as her successor. She was 28 years old. Christina later wrote that succeeding in her plan to make Charles king made her feel “like God creating the first man.”
At Christina's abdication ceremony, her royal regalia was methodically removed by the great officers of the realm in turn. Although they obliged in taking her sword, key, orb, and sceptre, an officer named Per Brahe, who was tasked with removing the crown, refused—in the end, she had to remove it herself.
When the ritual was over, Christina wore only an unadorned white taffeta dress. She made an impassioned speech, thanking God and her subjects, and asked Charles to take a seat in the silver throne she’d just vacated. Charles made a show of declining, then escorted her to her apartments. Christina left Sweden within a couple days. Her ultimate destination: the Vatican.
After chopping off her hair and riding south through Denmark disguised as a man for safety, Christina was eventually taken in by the Habsburg archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria at his palace in Brussels, where she converted to Catholicism in a secret ceremony. She then continued to Innsbruck, where she was received by another Catholic Habsburg archduke, Ferdinand Charles. There, on November 3, 1655, she announced her conversion to Catholicism in the city’s Hofkirche (the court church). Ferdinand Charles, who was as notorious as Christina for his extravagant tastes and terrible money management skills, threw a multi-day party for her. By the time she left for Italy five days later, her visit had nearly financially ruined him.
Now that word of Christina’s newfound Catholicism was afoot, the Vatican transformed this last leg of her journey into an all-out PR tour, with festivities held for her in five cities along her route. Six months after she left Uppsala, she landed in Rome, where Pope Alexander VII welcomed his prize convert with an opulent reception featuring 6000 onlookers and a procession of camels and elephants.
Once in Rome, 29-year-old Christina wasted no time in inspiring local gossip. Almost immediately, she began socializing with men her age, striking up a particularly close relationship with the young Cardinal Decio Azzolino, a code-breaker and one of the leaders of the liberal Squadrone Volante (Flying Squad) movement, which aspired to combat nepotism in the papal conclaves.
Rumors quickly emerged that Christina and Cardinal Azzolino were having a lusty affair. Almost as quickly, Alexander VII noticed the talk and asked them to limit the time they spent together. When that didn’t squelch the chatter, Azzolino was shipped off to Romania as punishment. Christina wrote him dozens of ardent letters, some in French, others in a code that the two had devised. Distance couldn’t keep them apart, though, and they remained lifelong friends, to meet again many years later.
THE WOULD-BE QUEEN OF NAPLES
In the summer of 1656, Christina traveled to France to meet King Louis XIV with the goal of becoming Queen of Naples. French-Italian politician Jules Mazarin was aiming to free Naples from Spanish control and transform it into a semi-independent, pro-French monarchy, and Christina, who sought financial independence from the pope, was an attractive candidate as a leader. Christina was not welcomed as warmly in Paris as she had hoped, though—Parisians were shocked by her open, unscrupulous demeanor and androgynous style, and she was criticized for the way she sat with her legs crossed, put her feet on theatre seats, and laughed at inappropriate times. It was whispered that she made advances toward more than one French noblewoman, too.
Christina still managed to charm the Sun King enough that she felt she had his approval to rule the Neapolitans (the extent of his true approval is somewhat debated). But on her way to Naples, her entourage received news that the city had been ravaged by the bubonic plague, and so she was forced to abandon the plan and head back to France. She was granted apartments by the royal court at the Palace of Fontainebleau, just outside of Paris.
Fontainebleau was the scene of another great scandal, one that seemed only slightly less shocking to Europe than her abdication. For months, Christina had suspected her master of the horse, the marchese Gian Rinaldo Monaldeschi, of sharing her plan to become Queen of Naples with the Holy See. As such, she’d been seizing his letters, in which she claimed to have found concrete proof of his betrayal. She ordered him to appear before her at the palace to answer for himself. Monaldeschi denied the charges, but Christina remained unmoved and sentenced Monaldeschi to death.
One of the palace’s priests, Father le Bel, was appointed to receive Monaldeschi’s pre-execution confession. Afterwards, the horrified priest begged Christina on his knees not to have the death sentence carried out. But his pleas were fruitless, and members of Christina’s entourage began chasing Monaldeschi around Christina's apartments at the palace. Eventually, Monaldeschi was stabbed in the stomach by one Ludovico Santinelli, but his pursuers quickly discovered he was wearing chain-mail. They then stabbed Monaldeschi in the face, before killing him with blows to the neck.
Christina paid a monastery to say masses for Monaldeschi at his burial and washed her hands of the matter, expressing no regret. She later said she was only “sorry that she had been forced to undertake this execution,” and added that “justice had been carried out for his crime and betrayal.” Rather than asking for forgiveness herself, she asked God to forgive Monaldeschi.
This was not a good look for Christina. The marchese hailed from a powerful family that was close with the papacy, and her unapologetic attitude added insult to injury. The Romans were infuriated, viewing the incident as nothing but a straight-up murder, and French public opinion was little better.
Mazarin advised her to just blame the whole thing on Santinelli, the man who'd done the stabbing, but Christina refused, asserting full responsibility for Monaldeschi’s death. She argued that it was a perfectly legal thing to do, as she had judicial rights over all members of her court as the queen regnant of Sweden, which she continued to call herself despite her abdication.
There were consequences, however. By then Anne of Austria, Louis XIV’s mother, was eager for France to be rid of the ex-queen and her freshly stained reputation, so Christina had to leave town. Although she’d planned to visit England next, her trip was discouraged by Oliver Cromwell, thanks to the Monaldeschi murder scandal and general anti-Catholic sentiment. In May of 1658, she reluctantly went back to Rome, where she knew an unhappy audience awaited.
The pope wanted nothing to do with her. Once her greatest champion and benefactor, Alexander VII hung back at his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, and made it clear that visits from Christina were not welcome. He later described her as “a woman born of a barbarian, barbarously brought up and living with barbarous thoughts [...] with a ferocious and almost intolerable pride.” Her popularity among the Romans had vanished as well. She’d gone from one of the Holy See’s most touted treasures to a tarnished embarrassment in just three and a half years.
Since the pope had cut her off, the politician Mazarin let Christina stay at his place in Rome for a while. The following summer, Cardinal Azzolino saved the day, arranging for her to move into Palazzo Riario, safely across town from the Vatican, where she once again held salons with Europe’s most esteemed artists and intellectuals. Azzolino also set her up with new servants, including a replacement for Santinelli, Monaldeschi’s disgraced executioner.
PROTECTRESS OF THE JEWS
After the scandal, Christina drifted around Europe for a few years, moving between Rome, Antwerp, and Hamburg, until Pope Alexander VII died in 1667. The new pope, Clement IX, had been installed by Azzolino’s nepotism-fighting Squadrone Volante. He was an ally of Christina’s, having been a guest at her home many times. Christina was in Hamburg when she heard the news, and was so thrilled that she tactlessly hung banners of celebration in the town. She also held a giant party at her rented mansion, replete with wine-flowing fountains—to the outrage of the Protestant population of Hamburg, who did not tolerate Catholics well. Furious locals stormed the house in an attempt to capture her, and the party ended with a riot, eight deaths, and Christina escaping out the back door in disguise.
Back in Rome, Christina occasionally locked horns with Pope Clement IX, demanding that he outlaw the chasing of Jews in the streets as part of Rome’s Carnival customs—a festival fixture since the 1400s. In August of 1686, she wrote to Pope Innocent XI to appoint herself the Protectress of the Jews of Rome, signing her declaration as la Regina (the Queen). She also established her own theatre, Tor di Nona. However, after Clement IX died, the next two popes, Clement X and his successor Innocent XI, were not friends of the theatre, with the latter forbidding women from acting, singing, or wearing low-cut gowns. Christina cheerfully ignored his laws, continuing to hire actresses in her playhouse.
Christina's tumultuous life came to an end on April 19, 1689, when she was 62. Scholars think she may have died from a combination of diabetes mellitus, a streptococcus bacterial infection, and pneumonia. Cardinal Azzolino was at her bedside at the end, and she named him her heir. Although she’d requested a simple burial in Rome’s Pantheon, the pope embalmed and displayed her—wearing a silver mask and covered in jewels and furs—in the Palazzo Riario for four days. She was buried in the Vatican’s Grotto, one of only three women who have held the honor.
Since her death, Christina has been portrayed on the stage and the screen in dozens of productions, most notably by Swedish actress Greta Garbo in the not-very-accurate Queen Christina (1933). The Girl King, released in 2015, comes slightly closer to the truth, but still hypes her alleged relationships with women over her work as a regent and activist of religious tolerance. Accuracy aside, it’s a testament to Christina’s bold individuality that people today are still discussing and debating the life of this crossdressing, troublemaking, opinionated Renaissance queen. That is, king.