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My lady of Stockholm – a fighter in skirts

KristinaGyllenstaty01crop In November 1520, Lady Kristina Gyllenstierna was dragged before the victorious Danish king and given the choice of dying by burning at the stake or by being buried alive. Needless to say, this 25-year-old woman wasn’t too keen on either of the options. Besides, why should she be condemned to die, when all she had done was hold Stockholm against the invading Danes?

Let’s take this from the beginning. In the early 16th century, Sweden was a country in  turmoil. Kings came, kings went, one powerful family after the other took control over the country – or what they could hold of it. Most of what today is southern Sweden was Danish, a large part of the western forests were Norwegian (indirectly Danish) and the colony of Finland was restless.

Kristina was born around 1495, and from 1511, when she married 18-year-old Sten Sture, she was at the centre of the tumultuous Swedish political arena. Her young husband was the regent of the country,  and as the warring factions couldn’t quite agree on who to elect as king (Sweden was a bit backwards: as late as the 16th century, kings were elected, rather than the throne being hereditary) this meant Sten was the de facto king – and young Kristina was his queen.


Other powers were claiming the right to Sweden, first and foremost Christian II of Denmark, who considered Sweden part of his hereditary kingdom (Christian II was of the House of Oldenburg, kings of Denmark since the mid-fifteenth century – the present Queen of Denmark is also an Oldenburg). The Swedes were less than enthused: since the dawn of time, Swedes and Danes had been at each others throats, and this Christian fellow was viewed with distrust by the Swedish nobility. Once he was in power, he’d oust them and replace them with his Danish followers. The leader of the Danish party in Sweden was Archbishop Gustav Trolle, and as a precaution the Swedish parliament relieved him of his position, not wanting to be stabbed in the back by the powerful church.

Sten Sture was a capable leader, despite his youth, and twice he bested the Danish forces, driving off the would be invaders. Unfortunately, early in 1520, Sten Sture was hit by a cannon ball and died, and the Swedish resistance began to crumble.

Sten Sture’s death, on a sled after being hit by a cannon ball

Christian II ate his way into Sweden, bit by bit. By May 1520, the only relevant remaining resistance was concentrated in Stockholm (Christian II wasn’t all that interested in personally visiting the dark, forested interiors of Sweden – which meant approximately 70- 80% of the country). And leading the beleaguered town of Stockholm was Kristina, recently widowed and determined to ensure her husband hadn’t died in vain.


After months of siege, Kristina realised she would never win. So instead she negotiated with the Danish king, and once she had his promise of amnesty, she handed over the keys to Stockholm. The Danish king was all grace and mild words, and Kristina could at last relax, take the time to mourn her recently dead husband and young son. Except, of course, that the Danish king had other, far more devious plans…

In November of 1520, Christian II was crowned King of Sweden. This joyous occasion was duly celebrated with a huge party, attended by the flower of Swedish nobility. Two days on, and the participants were probably mostly drunk and lightheaded from lack of sleep – all except the king and his most trusted  counselor, the reinstated Archbishop Trolle. Come November 7, the doors were locked and Archbishop Trolle stood up, cleared his throat (and boy, must he have enjoyed this moment) and proceeded to accuse most of the noblemen present of heresy, this due to having taken it upon themselves to separate an archbishop from his archbishopric.

Kristina protested. She produced the document whereby Christian II had promised amnesty, and pointed out that Trolle had been relieved of his duties by an unanimous parliament. The king sadly shook his head. This was out of his hands, he sighed, because this was a crime against the Holy Church, and who was he, a mere king, to meddle in divine justice? I can imagine a satisfied smirk decorating his royal lips as one by one the accused noblemen were led out – headed by two rebellious bishops no less, and either decapitated or drowned in Stockholm’s main square. Over eighty men were executed – not all of them noblemen – all for the sin of heresy. How coincidental that all of the murdered men were also firm supporters of Sten Sture and his wife, fair Kristina…

This event is known as Stockholm’s bloodbath and earned Christian II the nickname of Tyrant. (In Sweden, we always call him Kristian Tyrann – no numbers necessary).

Things didn’t stop here. Deciding to make an example, Christian, aided and abetted by that treacherous Trolle,had Sten Sture and his young son disinterred and burnt as heretics. I would imagine Kristina was requested to participate at this gruesome event, after which she was – as related already in the beginning of this post – given the choice of how to die…

To the left, the bishops are being decapitated, to the left, Sten Sture’s coffin is being dug up

In the event, Kristina wasn’t murdered. Together with her mother, her two young sons,  and a number of other Swedish noblewomen she was carted off to Copenhagen and the infamous Blåtårn. I suppose Christian’s intention was to keep her there, but things happened, as they say, and in 1523 Christian was forced to flee his kingdoms and seek refuge in the Netherlands.

As a consequence, Kristina was given her freedom and she returned to Sweden to pick up the shattered pieces of her life as well as she could. Not yet thirty, she had already buried one husband, defied a king, defended a city, had children die from her, seen her brothers decapitated in Stockholm’s bloodbath, watched her husband’s remain being burnt and sat for years in captivity. One would assume that after all those experiences, Kristina yearned for a life of peace and quiet.  Or maybe she didn’t, but Sweden’s new king, Gustav Vasa, took no chances, ensuring Kristina kept a low profile for the rest of her life.

Kristina, as per a contemporary carving on an altarpiece

Fortunately,  she died before her surviving son and her grandsons were murdered by Gustav Vasa’s son, Erik XIV, accused of crimes they had never committed. I think that would have been too much, even for a woman of such fortitude as Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna, brave and devoted wife to Sten Sture, defender of Stockholm, a true warrior queen.

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