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One strong Mama – of a queen and her children

ChristinaOldenburgSwedenSome weeks ago, I wrote a post about Gustav II Adolf, our Swedish hero king. Today I thought we’d spend some time with his mother, a most capable lady – so capable she was as a matter of course included in the council when important matters were to be discussed. Whatever other faults her husband, Karl IX, may have had, he was definitely not a misogynist (probably inculcated from an early age: Karl IX’s mother was not exactly a retiring violet).

So allow me to introduce Kristina of Holstein-Gottorp, born in April of 1573 to Adolf of Holstein-Gottorp and his wife, Kristina. And yes, there is an element of repetitive naming here, but there’s very little I can do about that – back then people liked naming their kids after themselves – or their parents.  Come to think of it, many people still do.

Holstein-Gottorp was not exactly a huge place, but the pedigree was impeccable – the House of Oldenburg could count kings and queens en masse among its various branches – and little Kristina was considered quite the marital prize, coming with the added benefit of being of the right faith, namely a Protestant. At the time, the faith issue was infected – putting it mildly. No matter how staunch a Protestant, this was still an extremely new religious fad, at most stretching back two generations. I assume the proximity in time to the separation from the Holy Church made it very important for people to really express their devoutness – on both sides of the great divide.

It is therefore a bit strange that Kristina was proposed as a bride to Prince Sigismund, the soon to be Catholic king of Poland and Sweden. Maybe a Protestant wife was seen as a possibility to placate the Swedes, by now very convinced Protestants. Whatever the case, the plans fell through, and instead Kristina was wed to Sigismund’s uncle, Duke Karl.

Karl_IXKarl was a widower (his first wife and Kristina were cousins), twenty-three years her senior, and in need of a male heir. He was also in need of a strengthened alliance with the German Protestants, which sort of came as part of the Kristina package. Was Karl already at this point in time planning to challenge his nephew, Prince Sigismund for the throne of Sweden? We don’t really know, but with his new bride – and the soon to come male heir – he had definitely improved his chances markedly.

Kristina was very much a product of her time: pious, well-educated and raised to be her husband’s help-meet, not his equal. Her personality, however, made the help-meet/equal thing somewhat fuzzy, and Karl was not adverse to listening to his intelligent wife, whom he described as a strong woman, robust enough to handle a “real man” grabbing her (?). All in all, he was quite taken with his young, rather formidable wife – this was a woman for whom frugality was second nature, who was opinionated and harsh. A marriage made in heaven, one could say, and they seem to have been quite content with each other – happily planning the future of their little dynasty.


In 1594, Sigismund became king. Karl and Kristina were less than thrilled – but somewhat preoccupied with the birth of their first son, the future Gustav II Adolf. Once the baby had been pronounced healthy and been adequately christened, Karl initiated his campaign to oust Sigismund, claiming it was quite impossible for good Protestants to live under the chafing yoke of a Catholic king. As a matter of fact, Sigismund had worked that one out himself, and was careful to include Swedish – very Protestant – grandees in his council. Not enough, blustered Karl, it would be but a matter of time before the devious Polish king would sneak popish traditions back into the everyday life of Sweden. Anathema, apparently, and while the nobility had no major beef with Sigismund, who by all accounts was a relatively capable king, the freeholders and yeomen most certainly did, inflamed by Karl’s anti-Catholic rhetoric.

Kristina, one assumes, stood on the side-lines and cheered her husband on. After all, the lady had a son to think of, and little Gustav Adolf was made for the ermine – at least in his fond mama’s eyes. So when Sigismund was effectively thrown out in 1598, Kristina and Karl probably did a series of complicated high-five moves. (Of course they had high-five moves back then: they just called them something different)

Karl was a wily character, possessed of an astute political mind. Instead of claiming the throne outright, he convinced the Swedish parliament to declare him Protector of the Realm, and was content to remain as an uncrowned king for a further nine years. At some point, though, Karl needed to become king – how else to pass his throne to his eldest son? So in 1607 he graciously accepted Parliament’s request that he ascend the throne, and that same year he and his wife were crowned king and queen of Sweden.

477px-Gustav_II_Adolf_by_MerianFour years later, Karl was dead. The new king was not yet seventeen, and Kristina acted as de-facto regent for two months before Gustav II Adolf was judged  an adult and capable of managing his own affairs (at the age of just seventeen…) Not that Kristina faded into the woodwork and left him to it: she expected her eldest son to heed her advice, and sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t. I dare say the mother-son relationship could have experienced something of a deep freeze due to this contest of wills if it hadn’t been for the fact that Kristina had a younger son to care for, little Karl Filip.

Karl Filip was seven years younger than Gustav Adolf. The pampered baby of the family, the child Kristina loved the most. A child of ten when his father died, Karl Filip was a duke in his own right, and his forceful mother assumed control of his lands, fending off the new king’s attempts at centralising certain aspects of trade and commerce. At times, Kristina and Gustav Adolf did not see eye to eye, putting it mildly, and her insistence that the little duke should be allowed to act autonomously, independent of the Swedish state in all matters of export and import trade, drove something of a wedge between Kristina and her royal son.

In 1611, the city of Novgorod named little Karl Filip their candidate to become the new Russian Czar. Kristina was less than thrilled, she considered her son far too young for such a massive responsibility  – and Moscow was very far away. What Karl Filip might have thought is unknown, but he did set out for Russia in 1613 to press his claim, but by then the Russians had already chosen a Romanov as their new Czar, and Karl Filip had no option but skulk back home to his duchy – and his Mama.


Kristina supervised her youngest son’s life in detail, but she was not beyond meddling in her eldest son’s life either, and when it came to matters of the heart, Kristina considered herself the resident expert. To marry for love was for fools, she scoffed. Her eldest son needed a dynastic marriage, not a love match. So when Gustav II Adolf expressed his fondness for Kristina’s lady-in-waiting, Ebba Brahe – in fact, Gustav Adolf wanted to marry her – Kristina nipped that particular romance rather brutally in the bud. Gustav Adolf insisted: Ebba was the love of his life, he claimed (and the letters between the courting couple indicate they were very much in love). Psshah! Kristina snorted: kings could not afford to marry for love.

Kristina got her way: Ebba was married elsewhere (and happily married, it seems) while her son wed Maria Eleonora (a rather unhappy marriage). Not that this was Kristina’s first foray into the complex world of marital relationships. In 1612, she had more or less forced her fourteen-year-old daughter, Maria Elisabet, to marry Duke Johan, son to the previous Swedish king, Johan III. The two people in question did not like each other – at all. They were also first cousins, which had the Church muttering that they were far too closely related for this marriage to be a good idea. Further to this, Johan wasn’t exactly thrilled to be burdened with a sickly wife – Maria Elisabet had some sort of chronic disease that resulted in recurring fits and “weak nerves”. Kristina hitched her shoulders and pushed the wedding through anyway, thereby consolidating her power position in the country, as Duke Johan was very firmly under her thumb. The marriage was an utter disaster. Six years later, Maria Elisabet was dead.

Maybe Kristina did learn a lesson from her daughter’s unhappiness. She never attempted to force her precious Karl Filip to marry, even if she did forbid him from marrying yet another of her ladies-in-waiting, Elisabet Ribbing. This her youngest son was more devious than her elder. Ignoring his mother’s command, he married his beloved in secret, with only the bride’s sister as their witness. The happily married couple lived mostly apart – Karl Filip was overseas, fighting in his brother’s army. When they did meet, they snuck off for moments of privacy, right under Kristina’s nose.

Karl Filip died in 1622 of  dysentery. His secret bride was pregnant at the time, and only by producing the written proof of her marriage could she salvage her reputation. To Kristina’s credit, she rallied to her daughter-in-law’s support  and took care of the little baby girl, raising her as her own until her own death in 1625.

Her contemporaries considered Kristina an outstanding woman: a loyal and pious wife, a capable mistress of numerous households, an excellent business manager, a heated defender of her rights. Her husband repeatedly expressed his faith in her intellect and judgement, and her eldest son was sufficiently independent from her to be able to acknowledge her strengths – after all, he was as stubborn and persevering as she was. But as to her other children, I have moments when I think they felt she was just too much – in every sense. Maria Elisabet was forced to wed when she definitely did not want to, Karl Filip had to sneak behind his mother’s back.  Sad, somehow. Very sad.






3 thoughts on “One strong Mama – of a queen and her children”

  1. Pingback: From royal sweetheart to Iron Lady | ANNA BELFRAGE

  2. Pingback: From royal sweetheart to Iron Lady - Anna Belfrage

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