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Of treason and its consequences

In a little town in southern Sweden stands a magnificent baroque church, the Church of Holy Trinity, inaugurated in the early seventeenth century. At the time, the present somnolent town of Kristianstad was a bustling metropolis (in relative terms) a centre of administration in the Danish kingdom. Yup; Danish. When the church was built, most of southern Sweden belonged to Denmark, but over the coming decades things were to change, the map of Scandinavia being redrawn to leave Denmark much smaller and Sweden that much larger.

Holy Trinity Church in Kristianstad (photo by D Castor)
Holy Trinity Church in Kristianstad (photo by D Castor)

In the church, plaques in old Danish jostle with those in old Swedish, and the church is also the final resting place of Hedevig, daughter of Christian IV of Denmark, and her husvand, Ebbe Ulfeldt. Most Danish people shudder upon hearing the name Ulfeldt, synonymous to them with betrayal and treason – a bit like Benedict Arnold for modern day Americans.

While Ebbe was no paragon of virtues – among his vices was his tendency to abuse his wife – it isn’t the man whose remains lie rattling under the church floor in Kristianstad who deserves the title “greatest Danish traitor ever” no, that honour goes to Corfitz Ulfeldt. (Despite the same surname the two men were not closely related.)

Corfitz Ulfeldt
Corfitz Ulfeldt

Corfitz and Ebbe both lived in the seventeenth century, and apart from their common surname they were also brothers-in-law, both of them married to daughters of the king, Christian IV. Both occupied important positions (although Corfitz would have been hard put not to laugh had anyone compared him, the Stewart of the Realm, with insignificant Ebbe who was stuck in the backwaters of Kristianstad), both would at one point change allegiance from Denmark to Sweden – the equivalent of men loyal to Robert Bruce setting spurs to their horses to offer their services to England. But where Ebbe had a wife who despised him, Corfitz was blessed with Leonora Christina, a spouse so loyal she reaches almost biblical proportions.

Leonora Christina and her siblings were born out of the morganatic marriage between Christian IV and Kirsten Munk. (A morganatic marriage is a marriage where the issue have no succession rights, typically between a male member of the royal family or high nobility and a woman of lower rank.) While Christian IV would go on to divorce Kirsten for infidelity, he retained a special fondness for Leonora Cristina, and it seems she was as fiercely devoted to her father as she was to her husband.

Of course, there were no expectations of a love match when fifteen year old Leonora Christina was wed to Corfitz Ulfeldt. No, this was the king rewarding his favourite councillor and what better way to do so than to give the man a wife close to twenty years his junior? Whatever the case, Leonora Christina seem to have been totally stricken. Corfitz less so, as is proved by his behaviour in their latter years. However, to give the man his due, the marriage was perceived as happy by their contemporaries.

Corfitz and his wife
Corfitz and his wife

At the time of their marriage Corfitz was the brightest star in the Danish court, Well-educated, well-travelled, accomplished in all matters a nobleman should be accomplished in, he was also a skilled manipulator and convinced he was the best thing since sliced bread. (This well before there being any sliced bread, thereby showing you just how self-inflated dear Corfitz was.)

Eight years into their marriage, Corfitz was no longer quite as admired. He hadn’t exactly distinguished himself in the recent war with Sweden and when the king died so did Corfitz’ principal ally. The new king, Fredrik III, was less than enamoured of Corfitz and his wife, both of whom he considered to be rather too full of themselves. Fredrik intended to rule without Corfitz, and as to Leonora Christine her malicious wit and lack of tact had made her persona-non-grata at the new queen’s court. To further strain the Ulfeldts’ relationship with the new royals was the accusation that Corfitz’ mistress Dina Vinhofvers had attempted to poison the new king and queen at Corfitz’ behest.

1n 1651 Ulfeldt and his wife saw fit to leave Copenhagen, and then followed a number of incomprehensible (from a Danish perspective) actions whereby Corfitz liased with the Swedish king to trounce the Danish forces in southern Sweden, forcing one of the most humiliating capitulations in Danish history. Corfitz was now a rising star in Sweden, but ever the malcontent he grumbled that his share of the cake was too small, his new fiefdom too paltry, and so he began conspiring against his new king. In 1659 Corfitz was condemned to death for treason in Sweden but was amnestied and returned to Copenhagen, there to attempt to heal the breach with his erstwhile king. That didn’t go very well. In fact, it didn’t go at all, and so Corfitz was thrown in prison.

Leonora Christina – a king’s daughter, but never a princess

Throughout this decade and more of changing fortunes, Leonora Christina was ever at her husband’s side. She dressed as a man when needed, lived through a number of dangerous incidents, among them being held at gunpoint. Fredrik III searched high and low for his former courtier and his half-sister, and there were a number of occasions when Corfitz and Leonora Christina had to flee head over heels to evade the persistent Danish troops. Personally, I think Leonora Christina rather enjoyed these adventurous years and the proximity they afforded with her husband. As to Corfitz, I guess he was so used to being adored and admired by his wife that he thought it quite normal that she should follow him through thick and thin – which included the severe imprisonment they faced upon their return to Denmark.

In 1661, after more than a year of harsh captivity, Fredrik released his prisoners in a spectacle that totally degraded Ulfeldt. Corfitz must have been either a very stupid or demented man, because instead of grovelling and achieving some sort of peaceful relationship with his sovereign he went on a little tour abroad and combined his sightseeing trip with conspiring against Fredrik – again. This time the king’s patience had run out. In July of 1663 Ulfeldt was impeached as a traitor, his property and lands were confiscated and Corfitz was condemned to be beheaded and quartered. Corfitz succeeded in fleeing the country. He was never to see his wife again, nor does he seem to have made all that much of an effort to do so. He certainly doesn’t seem to have cared all that much about how his actions might impinge on her life…

So what of Leonora Christina? Loyal as ever, in 1663 she set out for England and Charles II, requesting that he repay the loans she and her husband had given him while he was a penurious exile. Charles smiled, invited her to his court and promptly turned her over to the Danes, thereby strengthening his relationship with the ruling Danish king and saving himself a sizeable amount of money.

Leonora Christina was yet again held as a prisoner. Despite being questioned repeatedly she refused to admit her husband guilty of any crimes. She was promised her husband’s pardon if she agreed to sign away the last of her properties to the king, leaving her – and her children – destitute. She never hesitated, signing away everything to save her man. It was a ruse, of course, the king had no intention of ever pardoning Corfitz. Instead, a shocked Leonora Christina was taken to watch the burning of her husband. No one told her it was an effigy, no one saw fit to tell her Corfitz had fled Denmark.

In 1664, Corfitz died abroad. By then, Leonora Christina was living in squalor as a prisoner in the Blå Torn, the tower in which she was to spend the coming two decades of her life. She was never accused of a crime, she was never given a trial. Instead, she was locked away and it is said the conditions in which she were held for the first few years were appalling. (Think rats and damp, think cruel wardens and mouldy food, think clothes turning to rags, think dark – always dark – and cold)  Only upon the death of Fredrik III were there some slight improvements, his son being somewhat more lenient towards his dashing half-aunt. Leonora Christina spent her years in prison writing Jammers Minde (A Memory of Lament) in which she detailed her life – in particular her years as a royal prisoner.

The Blå Torn (Blue Tower) in which Leonora Christina was held prisoner.

Today, most historians agree that Corfitz Ulfeldt was a flawed character, a borderline megalomaniac who became drunk on power. Leonora Christina has the benefit of being able to address us directly through her written memoir, but the balanced woman we meet in those pages is probably very different from the royal adventuress who followed her husband into exile and treason, who defied convention and ties of family loyalty – for him. I hope she thought he was worth it. Sadly, I don’t think she did.

The Church of Holy Trinity in Kristianstad is considered one of the most beautiful baroque churches in the world. It is also a reminder of the fact that not so long ago this part of Sweden belonged to Denmark. Before Corfitz, that is. Before him and his besotted wife who gladly bankrolled the Swedish campaign to once and for all oust the Danes from the Scandinavian peninsula.

15 thoughts on “Of treason and its consequences”

  1. Thank you for sharing this Anna, I so love European history. I have to say, you certainly provide quite the detailed history lesson. Really nice, informative post, I enjoyed it very much..

    1. They do? Tell me more!(It’s interesting all the interconnection between Scotland and Scandinavia: Scottish mercenaries were a building block in Gustavus Adolphus armies & many of them became Swedish citizens. A century o so later, Scottish people emigrated en masse after Culloden, and quite a few ended up in Sweden, bringing with them business acumen and new thinking. Way up north in Sweden there are huge former swamills that were started and developed by… Scots!)

      1. This connection between Scotland and Sweden is fascinating. I’ve been exploring much earlier links in the 14th century. Robert the Bruce’s sister, Isabel, married Eric II of Norway. Their daughter married Duke Valdemar who, along with his brother Eric, was starved to death by King Birger. You’ll know more about this no doubt, Anna.
        Jeanette Harvey

      2. Ah yes; the famous Magnusson brothers… First Erik and Valdemar took Birger as a prisoner (they visisted him at his manor Håtuna) and held him under lock and key until he agreed to share his kingdom in three equal parts. The Danish and Norwegian king meddled, Birger regained hsi freedom and for ten long years he planned his revenge until that fateful feast in Nyköping (a somnolent little town these days, somewhat busier back then) when he drank his brothers under the table and then took them prisoners. It is said he locked the prison and tgrew the key into the river. Whatever the case, his brothers never saw the light of day again – they probably starved to death. Birger didn’t fare much better as the people rose in revolt on behalf of his brothers… Messy story, messy ending with no winners and so many losers.

  2. What an incredibly interesting story, Anna. I love (not only the name) Leonora Christina but her amazing life. The fact that she wrote her memoirs in prison (and that she had such an incredible life) now makes me want to read Jammers Minde. I just looked it up on google to find I can download this as a free ebook. Thank you so much for introducing me to this story 😀

    1. Leonora Christina does not strike me as the type that sat and waited for life to happen, so yes, she probably played an active part – but first violin was her beloved Corfitz. Dianne, she also had one hell of a mother, Kirsten Munk. Yes, she is a fascinating character and I am glad you thought so as well 🙂

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