She was twenty-eight when she abdicated the crown in 1654. By then, she’d been a queen for twenty-two years, and she was, frankly, sick and tired of it. Or so she thought. Christina of Sweden wanted more out of life than to be the reigning queen of a small Lutheran country stuck in the cold north of Europe. Or so she thought. Plus, of course, Christina had seen the light when it came to religion and had therefore decided she no longer wanted to be a Lutheran – she wanted to be a Catholic. Or so she thought.
The pope was ecstatic when he heard the young Swedish queen wanted to convert. Major, major feather in his cap, to have the queen of staunchly Protestant Sweden embrace the True Faith. Not that the pope himself could take any of the credit – that honour belonged to a certain French ambassador, Monsieur Pierre Chanut, and his Spanish counterpart, Señor Antonio Pimentel. Plus a couple of Jesuits travelling undercover in Sweden. (Most dangerous: had they been caught, they’d have died – painfully)
The pope would have preferred it if Christina had converted while still a queen, thereby returning the entire (at the time very large) Kingdom of Sweden to the folds of the Catholic Church. Had she done so, chances are she’d have died painfully as well – as a heretic witch. Her Swedish subjects were not entirely enamoured of their hyper-intelligent ruler. After all, she was a woman, an unwed woman who showed no signs of wanting to do her duty and give the country an heir. An unnatural woman, people muttered. No, they said, things would be much better with a man at the helm.
As it happens, Christina agreed: she considered it self-evident that women did not make good rulers – or so she said – which was one of the official reasons for her abdication. She couldn’t very well tell anyone she also wanted to convert.
Christina was often nicknamed Pallas Athena. The lady was impressively well-educated and also possessed a razor-sharp intellect and a gift for languages (she spoke, read & wrote seven). At the early age of twenty-two, she had actively participated in drawing up the Treaty of Westphalia which in 1648 ended the Thirty Years’ War. Visitors to her court were amazed by her erudition and her intellectual curiosity. Rene Descartes, the famous French philosopher (you know, the “cogito, ergo sum” guy), was more than happy to visit with her in Stockholm, but after weeks of rising before dawn to start his lessons with Her Majesty around daybreak and continue on for most of the day, his health suffered and he died of pneumonia in Stockholm. Christina was impressed by his intellect, not so much by his frailty.
Anyway: in 1654, Christina set off for Rome there to live happily ever after – or so she hoped. She converted, was hailed as some sort of saint by the Catholic world, was loudly repudiated by her Protestant countrymen, and arrived in Rome draped in a legend. Here came the virgin queen of Sweden, a lady so concerned with her spiritual well-being she had taken the major step of turning her back on her country, her family and her subjects – all for the sake of God. Hmm.
Christina had grown up in a strict religious environment. Protestants at the time did not easily lend themselves to cheer when it came to religious matters. God was a constant, brooding presence and every single Protestant knew that either you lived a righteous life – no sinning, please – while developing your faith, or chances were you ended up in hell. The Protestant God was a finger-shaking God who did not encourage a zest for life. The Catholic God, on the other hand, was a somewhat more forgiving God – He’d been around for long enough to know people are weak, even the good ones will now and then sin. In the Catholic Church there was this wonderful concept of confession, penance and forgiveness – a chance to wipe the slate clean. In the Protestant church, sins were tallied up…
Christina arrived in Rome and was all fired up with her new religion – or rather the freedom offered by it. But at the time, the Catholic Church was in the grips of its own Puritan movement – very much due to Spanish influence – and while it was definitely very different from back in Sweden, it was not perhaps quite as free as Christina had hoped. She was reprimanded for chattering through Mass. She was frowned upon for making disparaging comments about the princes of the Church. She was scolded for appearing before certain cardinals with far too much décolletage. Christina sniffed. To her, faith was an intellectual pastime, not a book of etiquette.
Despite enjoying the heady life in Rome, Christina had certain issues. One of them was the fact that Protestant Sweden refused to pay her the money that had been agreed upon when she abdicated. The Swedish government felt they’d been misled by their former queen (true) and found it distasteful to support her as she cavorted through the streets of Rome as a Catholic.
Also, Christina had throughout her life been treated with the respect and deference due to a ruler. She still insisted people approach her as they approached royalty in general, but the truth of the matter was that she was no longer a queen. At all. Had she been too hasty in giving up her throne? Christina pursed her lips and drummed her fingers on the armrest of her chair. Was there perhaps another crown around she could grab?
Christina’s eyes fell on Naples. Very, very much they fell on Naples, already a most infected issue between France and Spain. Since some centuries back, Naples was Spanish. Naples did not want to be Spanish – or rather the upper Neapolitans did not want to be Spanish – they wanted to rule themselves. The average Neapolitan couldn’t care less: life under one lord or the other was pretty much the same – oppressive and difficulty. Christina became very close with a certain Pompeo Colonna, Prince of Gallicano, and a loud advocate of an independent Naples, but who to place on the Neapolitan throne without tearing this budding nation apart due to war between the various noble families?
“Ahem,” Christina said, before pointing out that she had ample experience of being a queen. Plus she’d be neutral in any squabbles between the Naples aristocracy. And she did look quite imposing in ermine. (She did. Not exactly beautiful, but powerful)
A plan was spun – a plan that required the approval of dear Cardinal Mazarin, with whom Christina regularly corresponded and to whom she signed off to as “your dear friend”. So in 1656 off she went to visit Paris where she was amused by Louis XIV and his open adoration of Maria Mancini, plus also met Mazarin to discuss her plans. The general idea was to have France back an uprising in Naples that would oust the Spanish – very much in line with France’s ambitions to curb Spanish influence.
Things were never to get much beyond the planning phase. You see, there was a young Neapolitan involved, a certain Gian Rinaldo Monaldesco, officially Christina’s Master of the Horse. This young gent did not approve of ousting the Spanish and replacing them with a Swedish ex-queen backed by the French.
In 1657, Christina was back in France and staying in Fontainebleau. What exactly transpired to have Christina discover Monaldesco’s treason is a bit uncertain. We know she found compromising letters, and that she also suspected him of reading her letters. To whom Monaldesco was sending these tidbits remains uncertain, although I’d bet it was someone in Madrid. Whatever the case, in November of 1657, Christina decided to act, and she started off by requesting the presence of Father le Bel, the prior of a nearby monastery.
The prior was entrusted with a sealed package and told to make himself available at short notice. When Christina so required, she expected this man of God to come hot-footing to attend her – with the sealed package she’d just handed him.
Some days later, Father le Bel was summoned. He was shown to the Galerie des Cerfs (the gallery of the deer). “In the middle of the room stood the queen, talking to a person she called the marquis. I was later told this was the marquis Monaldesco. I went forward to greet the queen. Other than the marquis, there were three more men in the gallery. Two were standing at a distance of four feet from the queen, one of them stood immediately behind her majesty.” The three men all carried swords.
Christina now requested that Prior le Bel return the package to her. Silence descended as she broke the seals, the heavy paper crackling when she slowly unfolded the package (she’d have taken her time: Christina loved the theatre and knew everything about dramatic gestures). She handed them to Monaldesco, and asked if she recognised them.
“No,” Monaldesco replied, but as per the good prior his voice shook. As the documents the queen presented him with were copies, I imagine Monaldesco thought he’d be able to bluff himself out of this rather nasty situation. Except that the queen then produced the originals. The marquis fell to his knees before her, blaming others and begging for mercy. At a signal, the three other men pulled their rapiers. As per the prior “they would not return them to their scabbards until they’d executed the marquis.” But this was not yet, seeing as Monaldesco still held out hope.
The marquis rose to his feet and begged to be allowed to speak in his defence. Christina listened patiently. For two hours Monaldesco protested his innocence, while the queen listened, asked questions, listened some more. At some point she turned to the prior and asked him that he remember she was giving Monaldesco ample opportunity to defend himself. Not that it helped.
Eventually, Monaldesco handed Christina some crumpled documents and a set of keys. This, apparently, confirmed his guilt and the queen asked the prior to help Monaldesco prepare himself for death. The prior was shocked. Together with Monaldesco he fell at the queen’s feet and begged for mercy. The queen was adamant. She could not forgive treason – especially not from a man with whom she had shared so many confidences.
The queen left. A panicked Monaldesco begged the prior to intercede, and our Father le Bel hastened after the queen, but she had made her mind up, calmly informing the prior that she’d condemned men to die horribly for far lesser crimes than those committed by Monaldesco.
The brave prior then raised the somewhat sensitive question as to whether Christina had the right to try – and condemn – a man in France. After all, she wasn’t the queen of France. I don’t think Christina took that all too well, reminding the prior that as far as she was concerned, she was a queen, Monaldesco was her subject and he’d betrayed her. Full stop. Father le Bel wisely chose not to remind her that she was no longer a queen…
Unmoved by the prior’s pleading, the queen insisted the execution (?) go ahead. The marquis was shoved against a wall, one of the men sank his sword into Monaldesco’s belly. Unarmed, Monaldesco tried to defend himself with his hands and lost three fingers. There were blows to his face, to his head – the marquis was wearing a breastplate under his clothes. Only when one of the men managed to sink his blade into Monaldesco’s neck, did the poor man die – but according to our prior, it took him fifteen minutes to do so. Christina, I believe, was pleased: the traitor was dead.
A man dying a bloody death in Fontainebleau did not go down well in France. Just as the prior had pointed out, Christina had no authority in la France. Truth be told, she no longer had any authority anyway – but she preferred to ignore this. Due to the somewhat clandestine nature of the Naples operation, neither Christina nor Mazarin could ever explain why Monaldesco had to die and this caused the wildest of rumours to spread, chief among them the one which had Christina murdering Monaldesco because he’d cheated on her – a classic crime passionnel.
Christina probably wrinkled her (large) nose at the thought: she involved in a love affair with her Master of the Horse? Not likely! No, so far into her life (and she was now an aged thirty-one) Christina had never experienced the throes of passion. That, however, was about to change. Soon enough, Christina was to meet the man who would take her heart and wring it – but that, dear peeps, is a story for another day.