Queen of Nowhere

06 06 queen christinaToday I want to tell you about Queen Christina of Sweden. She is something of a contradictory character. Not entirely good, but also a fascinating person. I didn’t want to celebrate her birth, because she caused a lot of problems for a lot of people. But celebrating her death isn’t really appropriate either, so today I am celebrating her abdication from the throne of Sweden on June 6th 1654.

Christina was born in 1626 and was made heir to the throne by her father, Gustav II. Her mother had already given birth to a stillborn daughter and a second daughter, also called Christina, who died when she was only a year old. When Christina number two was born there was, at first, some confusion over her sex and everyone thought she was a boy. This seems mainly to have been because her body was covered in hair and she cried with a “strong, hoarse voice”. When the king was informed of the mistake he replied: “She’ll be clever, she has made fools of us all.”

Gustav was very fond of his daughter and had her raised with the sort of education normally reserved for boys. She studied languages and philosophy and learned about politics. When Christina was only six, her father was killed in a battle and her mother, who was already emotionally unstable, went completely over the edge. She refused to bury her husband’s body. She kept it in an open coffin and visited it regularly. The King remained unburied for over eighteen months. So Christina’s mother was, fairly swiftly, sidelined and she was raised by an aunt.

06 06 christina and descartesChristina was hugely interested in arts and sciences and, by 1649, had amassed an enormous collection of paintings, statues, manuscripts, coins and scientific instruments. She was equally interested in opera and theatre and was a bit of an amateur actress herself. Christina wanted to make her capital, Stockholm, the “Athens of the North” and she invited many learned men to her court. Most notably, she asked René Descartes. Christina had a lot of stuff she felt she needed to learn about. Her days were long and she decided the only time she could possibly see Descartes was at five in the morning. The climate and possibly the early starts didn’t agree with poor Descartes and, sadly, he caught pneumonia and died there in 1650.

She was not officially crowned until later that year, but it wasn’t long before she was making plans to abdicate. Christina made it very clear that she had no plans to marry, ever. She admitted “an insurmountable distaste for marriage” and “for all things that females talked about and did.” Though this did not stop her having an extremely close relationship with one of her ladies in waiting, Ebba Sparre, who she describes as her ‘bed-fellow’. For most of her reign though, she pursued a punishing regime of long days, a rather ascetic existence and very little sleep. It led to a sort of nervous breakdown in 1651 and she again asked to abdicate. In 1652, under the care of a French physician, Pierre Bourdelot, she was persuaded to stop studying so hard, get more sleep and enjoy life a bit more. He also introduced her to the sonnets of Pietro Aretino.

As she never planned to marry or have children, she made arrangement to have her cousin, Carl Gustav, made her heir. Christina had, for a long time been very interested in the Catholic idea of celibacy and with Catholicism in general, which made a lot of people very uncomfortable. This may have been one of the reasons her abdication was finally accepted. Another could have been that she was just spending loads of money and had become a bit of a liability. There was an abdication ceremony at Uppsala Castle in which she removed her regalia piece by piece. She made a speech and left in a simple white gown. But she had already packed up most of her treasures and sent them on ahead.

Days later, she left Sweden disguised as a man, to make travelling easier. She journeyed through Europe, spending and partying all the way and arrived in Rome in 1655. There, she was warmly greeted by the Pope, Alexander VII, and was accepted into the Catholic faith. Her presence was widely celebrated. Firework displays, jousts, fake duels, operas and all manner of celebrations were held in her honour. Take a look at this carousel (below), which was given for her in February 1656, it’s pretty splendid. She set up home in the Palazzo Faranese and opened an academy for the enjoyment of music, theatre and literature.

06 06 carousel for christina

Of course, as soon as the Swedish government found out about her religious conversion, they cut off all her financial support. Then, she became involved in a very close relationship with a cardinal called Decio Azzolino, who was rather liberal for a Catholic, and that didn’t go down so well. But they stayed firm friends for the rest of their lives.

Cut off from her revenue, she hatched a plan to become Queen of Naples. Spain and France had been fighting over Naples for years and she had the idea that, if she were made Queen, she would pass on the crown to the King of France. When she visited France, in an attempt to organise this, the French found her extremely uncouth. At the ballet, she applauded too loudly and sat with her legs over the arm of the seat. Nevertheless, she was treated with respect by the King and his mother. It was at this time that she visited and recommended the release of Ninon de l’Enclos, who I mentioned back in November.

However, things went terribly awry when she accused her master of the horse of revealing her plans and had him executed. She had to leave France and was not particularly welcome in Rome either. Then, in 1660, her cousin. Carl Gustav died and she thought she might go back and be Queen of Sweden again, But, being a Catholic, they wouldn’t have her and she went back to Rome. She was reasonably happy there until 1666, when she returned to Sweden again and, disappointed by her reception, went to live in Hamburg. There, she found out that her patron, Pope Alexander, had died. The new Pope, Clement IX, was also a friend and had been a regular guest at her palace. She threw a party to celebrate. Citizens of Lutheran Hamburg were furious. The party ended with shooting and she was forced to leave in disguise via the back door.

Christina made a spirited attempt to be made Queen of Poland in 1668, but this also failed. She passed the rest of her years in Rome. She and Pope Clement shared a love of theatre and in 1671, she established Rome’s first public theatre. Subsequent Popes were less keen, and Innocent XI had it turned into a storeroom for grain and banned women from performing. Christina didn’t care though, she carried on putting on plays at her palace.

06 06 queen christina 1685She continued to be a bit of a rebel, supplying the world with her unsolicited opinions, long after she had lost her rights to rule. When Louis XIV revoked the rights of French Protestants, she wrote him a letter of objection. In 1686, she made the Pope put an end to an awful practice of chasing Jews through the streets at Carnival. Then, she issued a declaration pronouncing all Roman Jews under her protection and signed it ‘the Queen’.

When she died, in 1689, she left all her treasures to her old friend Cardinal Azzolino and they passed almost immediately to his nephew, who sold them. Many of her books are now part of the Vatican library. Most of her paintings went to France and many are now in the National Museum of Scotland.

On balance, I really like Queen Christina. She upset a lot of people, but she did what she wanted and she didn’t care. Certainly, she walked off with a lot stuff that almost definitely should have stayed in Sweden but, in 1697, her castle burnt down and it would all have been destroyed anyway. She is one of only three women to have been buried in the Vatican.


11 10 ninon de l'enclosToday I am celebrating the birthday of Ninon de l’Enclos, a courtesan, freethinker and patron of the arts who was born in Paris in 1620. Her mother was a devout Catholic, but her father, a professional musician, was much more of a free spirit. He taught her to play the lute and the clavichord and took her with him around the salons of Paris. In 1632, he was exiled from France following a duel over another man’s wife. Ninon identified much more with her father, so she must have found life difficult with her fanatical mother. She did not see that her mother’s religion brought her happiness and began to believe that it was all nonsense. She also resolved never to marry. To this end, she allowed herself to be ‘ruined’ by a cousin of the king, to make sure her mother couldn’t marry her off. Her mother put her in a convent.

Having sworn not to marry, Ninon had three choices, she could join the Church, become a governess or become a courtesan. The Church was definitely out as she didn’t believe in God. She left the convent less that a year later, when her mother died. Governess would have been boring. She was soon back in the salons again and well on her way to becoming one of Paris’s most celebrated courtesans. The Salons of Paris were places where people who were interested in literature and philosophy gathered together to amuse one another and exchange ideas.

Ninon was also famous for being beautiful and for retaining her beauty far into old age. In fact, some believed that when she was eighteen, she was visited by a mysterious white haired old man who is known only as the Noctambule (the sleepwalker). He told her that he had come to bestow on her one of three gifts. She must choose which she wanted: Riches, glory or eternal beauty. He told her that he had wandered the earth for six thousand years and had only made this offer to four other people: Semiramis, Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, and Diane de Poitiers. Ninon was the fifth and last person he would ask. She chose beauty and he asked her to write her name on a black tablet. In return for this gift, he would visit her once more, three days before her death and she must give him her soul. Good story, but it was probably made up by a drunken priest who was a bit obsessed with her.

Although she had a succession of wealthy lovers, she was never supported by any of them. Her independence was important to her. Her lovers had to understand that she needed to accept paid assignations with other men. They also had to understand that they couldn’t keep her. When she said it was over, it was over. She rarely had a relationship that lasted longer that three month and she was perfectly happy with that. Her behaviour was considered a scandal amongst more devout circles of Paris, not just for her numerous affairs, but also for her non-belief in God. In 1656 she was imprisoned in the Convent of the Madelonnettes at the behest of Queen Anne of Austria, who was then regent of France. But she was visited by Queen Christine, the exiled queen of Sweden, who intervened on her behalf and she was soon released.

By 1667, she was running a salon of her own at the Hôtel de Sagonne. She offered lectures on the subject of love; both how to win love and how to properly end an affair. Men had to pay for her advice, but women, she taught for free. Her salon became a safe meeting place for people who, like herself, were sceptical about Christianity. She believed that it was possible to live a moral life without being a Christian. Philosophically, she was a neo-Epicurean which means that she felt pleasure was the most important thing in life and that pain should always be avoided. She argued that, while wealth, power, honour and virtue might contribute to our happiness, it is the enjoyment of pleasure that really drives us and we shouldn’t feel guilty about it. Christianity, she felt, was responsible for making us ashamed of pleasure and that was wrong: “They preferred the austerities of deserts and rocks to the pleasures of a garden bursting with flowers.”

For her, sex was the pinnacle of human pleasure, but in order for it be really great, men and women should treat each other with equal respect. In seventeenth century France, women were expected to be pleasant and amusing and men intellectual and commanding. She said men should be more sympathetic and amusing and women shouldn’t be afraid of being clever.

Ninon believed that love is an instinct which knows no reason. It is an amoral passion that will die if you try to refine it with moral codes like chivalry. She has this to say about it:

“If you attempt to walk in the footsteps of our ancient heroes of the romances and attempt to develop great and restrained sentiments, you will soon discover that this alleged heroism only turns love into a sad and occasionally lethal folly. Love in fact is fanaticism. If you separate it from the romantic baggage public opinion has added to it, it will soon give you its proper sort of pleasure and happiness. Trust me: If it were reason that designed the affairs of the heart, love would be insipid.”

When people thought that is was terribly immoral of her to be always falling in love with someone new, her reply was that love should not be the subject of either praise or blame. It would be the same as deciding whether being thirsty was a good or a bad thing.

She lived a long and happy life and died when she was eighty-five. In her will she left money to the nine-year-old son of her accountant to buy books. He grew up to be the famous writer, historian and philosopher, Voltaire. Want to know if the Noctambule came back for her like he promised? He did but, as she did not believe in God, she had no soul to give him and he had to go away empty handed.