Ever sat down to a succulent meal, let’s say Pizza, and wondered where the ruby red tomatoes adorning your meal came from? Or scrolled through Instagram and thought, who was the first celebrity? Did old empires face climate change? Well, in CUB Magazine’s Column ‘The Peculiar Past’, columnist Hannah Cragg has all the answers to your questions. Follow her as she uncovers the dust-coated ancient civilisations, to which we owe more than you might think.
We’ve swept through those long winter nights, sinister frost blotting our windows like ink on a page. We hoisted up our umbrellas, but they didn’t shelter us from the misty March morning downpours. And now, it seems summer has all but slapped us in the face with the arrival of June. But hey, I’m not here to tell you about the weather. If you didn’t already know, June is Pride Month, and I’m here to celebrate the long-standing queer history of those who came before us. Specifically, the history of the enigmatic and visionary Queen Christina of Sweden.
Now, this unique woman had a flair for the controversial. From the second she was born in 1626, Christina was already a bit of a trickster- somehow the whole palace thought she was a baby boy until they took a closer look. Nobody is quite sure how that rumour started, but the midwives and nurses defended themselves, claiming the child was ‘hairy’ and had a loud, ‘coarse’ voice. Whatever the reason, Christina’s father thought her little prank was hilarious, famously noting ‘she’ll be clever, she has made fools of us all!’ as he made plans to raise and educate her just as a boy would have been. Gustavus Adolphus, her father, seemed like a pretty swell guy (unless, of course, you were Danish) but he died fighting in the devastating Thirty Years’ War when Christina was still a child, leaving her with her quite possibly insane mother. Top advisors decided that those living arrangements weren’t exactly suitable for a nine year old, so Christina was sent to live with her aunt Catherine while her grieving mother was exiled. And life with Catherine was alright, for a while. As it happens, though, unexplained death was a pretty standard occurrence in the 1600s. So when her aunt died in 1638, presumably from yet another plague outbreak, (again, the 1600s were just like that) the young heir was left alone, with nobody to guide her.
What’s the best way to raise an (essentially) orphaned queen? Why, by giving her four mother figures, of course! That’s right, Christina was raised by four women in her teenage years: two official ladies-in-waiting and two royal governesses, partially so that she wouldn’t get particularly attached to any one figure (untimely royal deaths were a common theme, you see) and also to give her a variety of female role models and influences, considering she was very attached to her late-father. Her childhood was pretty unconventional, even by modern standards. At a time where women were restricted from accessing education, Christina received a formal royal education, usually only granted to boys. From that point on, the young queen-to-be fell in love with books and the arts. She was said to have spent up to ten hours a day studying, which is honestly pretty enviable when you’re someone who gets distracted easily like myself. By the age of fourteen, she had eight different languages under her belt, was discussing philosophy with the learned members of her court, and was shaping up to be a bright and well-educated woman, a privilege those who came before her didn’t have. While her coronation was postponed due to the war with Denmark, she was officially declared an adult and gained full power in 1644, allowing her to start working towards a peace treaty for the war that had shaped her early childhood.
With war out of the picture, she was able to steer Sweden in a direction she had a lot more interest in, and quickly became an esteemed patron of the arts. Multitudes of artists, musicians, and playwrights were invited to Stockholm from all over Europe to encourage a cultural rebirth in the city. She was such an avid art collector that the only early modern woman who rivalled her stockpile of paintings and statues was Catherine the Great, a Russian Queen who was equally obsessed with creating a cultural renaissance in her territory. There’s a reason she’s known as the ‘Minerva of the North’, after the Roman Goddess of knowledge and wisdom. Being an actress herself, Christina acted in some of the pieces, and the nation’s cultural scene flourished, even if not all the artists saw eye-to-eye. Infamously, Christina didn’t at all get along with one of her notable guests, Descartes, and like two bitter rivals working on a failing group project, they were constantly making sly remarks about each other and spent all day trying to avoid meeting face to face. Most of the time though, group projects don’t end with a philosopher dying from pneumonia, which is exactly what happened to poor Descartes- talk about giving a man the cold shoulder.
So, why is Queen Christina worth remembering this Pride Month? She was certainly influential to the development of Sweden’s cultural renaissance, but she’s not particularly remembered as a good or important Queen- after all, she was a controversial figure and eventually abdicated due to the unpopularity of her decision not to marry. Equally, she decided to convert to Catholicism in a Protestant nation, which was especially frowned upon following the Thirty Years’ War, which was essentially a conflict over religion. But the real reason I’m celebrating her reign is because she was a queer icon. In a world where most women weren’t even allowed an education, in which the bindings of class, gender, and race were generally unshakeable, Christina refused to bow to expectations. She truly lived in a world of her own, and even if she wasn’t a great Queen, her unconventional love, fashion, and desires are something we can still admire today. She often wore men’s clothes and shoes because they were much more comfortable than the tight dresses of the 17th Century. Because she thought it was a waste of time, she hardly combed her hair, and untidy, curly hair became a trademark of hers. In the face of strict societal norms, Christina chose not to conform, risking her title, her wealth, and Sweden’s stability.
It’s no secret that the Queen had at least one female lover. She was staunchly opposed to marriage for her whole life, instead choosing the company of women. Her most notable lover, noblewoman Ebba Sparre, shared a bed with her most nights. And no, they probably weren’t just ‘gals being pals’- Christina simply adored Ebba, affectionately calling her ‘Belle’ and spending most of the time she wasn’t obsessively studying with her companion. The Queen even referred to Ebba as her ‘bed-fellow’ on more than one occasion, and was rather open about their intimacy, even to foreign ambassadors. Christina would continue to write pining love letters to Ebba Sparre for her entire life, even after leaving the country. Rumours about the unconventional relationship ran rife throughout Sweden, but Christina, ever the rebel, didn’t let them get to her. Controversially, she declared to her entire court that she would not marry, and instead left her cousin Charles as heir. Because she actually held the title of King, not Queen (it’s more common than you think- Jadwiga, the celebrated monarch of Poland also held the title King instead of Queen, despite being a woman), she had the authority to make that choice and had full power as a monarch. Christina was a Queen in love, could anything stop her?
As it happens, yeah, there are forces stronger than love- namely the Christian church. They weren’t so chuffed with the idea of her converting to Catholicism, and something tells me they weren’t too pleased with her female lover, either. They put so much pressure on her to marry that she suffered from a nervous breakdown, collapsing in 1651. Her prescription? ‘Stop working so hard and read some erotic poetry’. No, I’m not joking. Either way, it must have worked, because by 1652 she was back on her feet, causing more chaos. All her artistic endeavours were draining Sweden’s bank account, and her decision to execute the royal historian, as well as his son, for criticising her and potentially conspiring against her reign, didn’t sit too well with the people of Sweden. In 1654, with all the surmounting pressure around her rule and mannerisms, she officially abdicated. The man appointed to remove her regalia during the abdication ceremony, Per Brahe, couldn’t bear to take off her crown. With trembling hands and tears in his eyes, he refused to do it. But Christina, determined to leave her beloved state, removed the crown herself, whisked herself away, and was never seen again… or not.
See, us queer folk never just fizzle out. We don’t let ourselves be forgotten. And Christina, well, she was no exception. She still had chaos to stir throughout Europe. Contemporaries called her an ‘extraordinary creature’, and while that may seem a little bit demeaning, Christina took it in her stride. She essentially did a tour of Europe, popping up in different cities for months at a time, then disappearing from each as quickly as she arrived. Though, like most of us uni students, she wasn’t all that great with her finances, so she sold much of her art collection and arranged loans with many states. She basically embodied the early modern equivalent of selling half your clothes on Depop so you can afford a good night out. The Archduke of Austria, was almost completely bankrupt after entertaining Christina’s expensive tastes. Her next stop? The Vatican, where she became best friends with the Pope. He was thoroughly impressed with Christina’s uniqueness, and took her in, giving her a wing of her own inside the Vatican, as well as giving her a second name- Alexandra- which, of course, was the femininine version of his own name, Alexander.
Following a couple of misadventures in Europe, including an attempt to become Queen of Naples, an unpopular execution, and a party for the Pope gone wrong (yes, in that order), the chaotic regent settled in Rome for the fourth time in 1668, under the company of a different Pope. She oversaw the construction of Rome’s first public theatre in 1671, but each successive Pope began to fear the theatre’s effect on religious morality more than the last, until under Pope Innocent XI, Christina’s beloved theatre was turned into a grain warehouse in a tragic act of cultural deGRAINation. Sorry, I had to. Anyway, Christina’s presence in Rome had huge implications, particularly for minorities and historically marginalised groups- she declared herself the protector of Roman Jews, who were often terrorised and chased through the streets, in 1686, and was tolerant of people from all walks of life. Except those she executed. But hey, we all have our flaws. Perhaps she felt solidarity with their plight, being the victim of homophobia (although, back then there wasn’t such a concept) and comments on her appearance her whole life.
Christina may have died in 1689, but her legacy as the queer woman who shook early modern Europe remains. Described as a woman that ‘walked like a man, sat and rode like a man, and could eat and swear like the roughest soldiers’, Christina was no stranger to androgyny, but she took no shame in it. Throughout her incomplete autobiography, she plays with the idea of being a masculine woman, which was unheard of at the time in Europe. From her letters we can guess that she had romantic relationships with at least three other women, including a singer. We’ll never know the exact details of her love life, but Christina wasn’t exactly one for labels, anyway. What I’m trying to say is that queerness is not a new thing. It’s not a trend. Hell, the word ‘sapphic’, meaning a woman who loves women, stems directly from an ancient Greek poet, Sappho, who loved women so amorously that the concept was named after her. Homosexuality has been with us since the first paintings danced across cave walls, since our ancestors spoke their first words, since we built our stone walls and broke them down again. Christina may have been considered an oddity in her time, but people have always loved their own sex, secretly or not, in the dark or holding hands in the light. I chose to share the intriguing story of one Queen’s life, but there are so many other untold stories out there to read this Pride Month. Don’t let them be forgotten. Our long queer history cannot, and will not, fade.
CUB’s Hannah Cragg is a QM historian with a passion for all things Incan. In writing ‘The Peculiar Past’ column she aims to spread her appreciation and passion for forgotten and untold histories. Adding to her impressive character is her skill at playing cello and the bass as well as her previous residence in five different countries.