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From sinful princess to pirate – meet Cecilia Vasa


There are princesses and princesses. In a previous post, we have touched upon the frail, ethereal princesses that develop bruises from sleeping on a pea. I’m not so sure there are all that many of those… Neither, I can confidently state, are there all that many princesses like Cecilia, Swedish princess, apple of her father’s eye (well, initially at least) and beyond any doubt one of the first people to sort of link “Swedish” and “Sin”. This was not something her father appreciated. Her father was prickly when it came to matters royal, this as a consequence of not really being royal, no matter that he was king of Sweden. I know; confusing, isn’t it?

An anachronistic depiction of a victorious Gustav Vasa entering Stockholm

Let’s take a step back: Cecilia’s proud dad, Gustav Vasa, was king by conquest. Okay, so he was eagerly cheered on by his countrymen, seeing as he reconquered Sweden from the pesky Danes, but if we’re going to be quite correct, Gustav’s royal roots were very shallow – like non-existent. Not that it mattered, seeing as Gustav was a capable king – a tad rapacious, to be sure, happily jumping onto the Protestant bandwagon so as to get his hands on all those tempting church assets, but all in all, a good king.

Gustav had three wives. Cecilia was one of many, many children born to wife number 2 and arrived squalling lustfully (one presumes, given future behaviour) in 1540.  At the time, little girls were expected to be pretty and obedient (something the 16th century has in common with like 99% of all other periods) but Cecilia did not live up to the expectations. Wayward and wild, charming and witty, she was probably one of those kids it is fun to read about, not always so fun to parent, no matter that you love them to bits. Ask Gustav – or his long-suffering wife.

Gustav believed in education – even more so  for his own litter of princes and princesses, if nothing else to reaffirm their lofty status. Erik, his eldest was a true Renaissance man (and eventually went off his rocker, but that had nothing to do with his education). Cecilia was as well-educated as the rest, but someone forgot to sign her up for comportment classes, something which would cause her father substantial grief some years down the line.

To consolidate his position as king, Gustav used his children to establish ties with political allies. Cecilia was just as much a pawn in all this as her other siblings, and in 1558 or so, Gustav Vasa concluded a treaty with Ostfriesland, dependent on the young ruler, Edzard II, wedding one of his daughters. He got the choice of Katarina and Cecilia, and being a wise man chose Katarina, the more sedate of the two. Edzard was accompanied by his brother, John, and after the nuptials in Stockholm, Katarina and her new husband began the long journey to the south, accompanied by Cecilia and John.

Pic by Alexandru Babus (albabus)

For some days, they stayed at Vadstena Castle, guests of Magnus, yet another of Gustav’s sons (definitely off his rocker. Gustav was somewhat unfortunate in this area). Katarina and her new husband spent most of their time with each other – as expected and encouraged. Unencouraged, Cecilia and John also spent most of their time together, but when it was discovered that a lot of that time was between curfew and dawn, in Cecilia’s bedchamber, mayhem broke out.

One of the guards became suspicious after seeing a man clamber in through Cecilia’s window. It happened one night, it happened two. It happened some more and the guard swallowed nervously and decided it was his duty to inform Cecilia’s oldest brother, Erik (as yet very sane). Erik was all about propriety in his sisters, not so much for himself, and he was quite upset, but decided to act with certain deviousness. He posted a sentry to keep an eye on comings and goings, and once the as yet unidentified male yet again clambered into fair Cecilia’s room, Erik dispatched a group of men to storm through her room where they found the unknown man quite without his hose. Naked from waist down, so to say… Even worse, the man was identified as John of Ostfriesland

Gustav_Vasa (1)
Gustav Vasa, before his daughter gave him grey hair

The scandal exploded like a plugged cannon – skyhigh. A princess, cavorting in bed with a man! Erik made a huge thing of it, locking John up in one of the castle’s towers, holding lengthy interrogations before an interested auditorium. Cecilia and John were dragged back to Stockholm, with the hapless Katarina and Ezard dragged along with them.

Gustav was livid. With his fool of  an eldest son for not handling this with more discretion, with his headstrong daughter for shaming him, with Katarina for not keeping an eye on her wild sister. As to John… well, let’s just say that young man spent a number of uncomfortable months in Stockholm. Most of his rage the king directed at Cecilia, tearing at her hair, shaking her like a terrier shakes a rat. But when he recounted the incident to his third wife (who was probably very happy  she wasn’t Cecilia’s mother) he wept, for himself but also for his daughter, branded a whore before all Europe because of Erik’s clumsy handling of the matter.

Several months later, John was allowed to leave after swearing that Cecilia’s virginity remained intact. Whether it was, is an open question…Interestingly enough, the obvious solution to all this, namely that John be forced to marry Cecilia, was never considered by Gustav. He had no intention of wasting two daughters on a country as insignificant as Ostfriesland.

So there was Cecilia, with a tarnished reputation, an irritated elder brother and a less than warm relationship with her father. Her value on the marital market was severely deflated, and where Cecilia once could have aspired to the male gems of the Northern European principalities, this was no longer the case. After all, not all that many believed in John’s avowals that Cecilia remained pure and untouched.

Erik XIV

Gustav died, Erik became king and promptly imprisoned his half-brother Johan. Cecilia was livid at this treatment of her favourite brother. Erik was just as livid at her temerity in meddling with politics, silly female that she was. Well, that didn’t go down well, even less so when Erik decided to turn a beady eye on his sister’s frivolous behaviour. Rules were put in place and enforced, Cecilia was ever accompanied by a chaperone, and given that all this didn’t markedly curb Cecilia’s high spirits (she somehow managed to arrange nightly parties, one of which was rudely interrupted by Erik) it was obviously time the tarnished princess was married – preferably to someone who could keep her in check. Huh. Good luck with that one…

Her husband was the relatively obscure Catholic margrave Christopher II of Baden-Rodemarck. No question as to who wore the pants in that relationship, but they do seem to have been reasonably happy to begin with – plus they shared a common tendency to overspend severely. Ask the English. The English? Yup. In 1565, Cecilia went to England, arrived in London in September of 1565 and was delivered of her first son some days later. She was there to put Erik forward as a prospective husband for Elizabeth (more about that here), but also to inform herself about privateers. Erik had this idea about diverting into a lucrative sideline of piracy in the Baltic Sea, this to damage Danish and German trade-routes – and line his coffers, one assumes.

By all accounts, Cecilia and Elizabeth got on like a house on fire. Initially, that is. Because the longer Cecilia and Christopher stayed in London, the larger their debts grew as Cecilia and Christopher indulged in major consumerism – of everything. At one point, Christopher had to disguise himself to avoid their angry creditors, and in 1566 they attempted to sneak out of England but were stopped at Dover where everything of value was taken from them on behalf of their creditors. (And, as some of you may know, Cecilia left England not only without much in the way of worldly goods, but also a maid short. Little Helena Snakenborg chose to stay behind & would go on to become a marchioness and one of Elizabeth’s most trusted ladies.)

Johan III

Years of boredom, penury and constant persecution for being a Protestant in mostly Catholic Baden-Rodemack followed, interspersed with the birth of five more sons. In all that religious turmoil, Cecilia petitioned her brother Johan for permission to return to Sweden (In the intervening years, Johan had wiggled out of captivity, turned the tables on Erik – very much helped by Erik’s irrational behaviour – and was now King of Sweden). She was welcomed home, and as she was given coastal lands plus a number of ships, Cecilia decided to make good on the information she’d gathered in England  about privateers and become a pirate, albeit with a Letter of the Marque issued by Johan. By all accounts, she was good at it, mostly targeting English ships – her little vendetta against that nation of merchants and shop-keepers that had taken everything she had of value in Dover.

In 1575, Cecilia’s husband died, and her son’s relatives refused to recognise her as regent during his minority, among other things because she was a Protestant. They also confiscated her dower lands in Baden-Rodemack. Being of a practical (and somewhat grasping) mind, Cecilia rather hastily converted to Catholicism.

One could have thought this would have led to horrified reactions in Sweden, but at the time the hard lines between Protestants and Catholics had not been drawn up. After all, Johan III had a Catholic queen and a Catholic son and frequently allied himself with Spain when it suited his political interests. Which it did quite often, and so it was that in 1578 he urged his recently converted sister to establish a good relationship with the Spanish legate, Francisco de Eraso.

Johan III had plans. Together with the Spanish, he was to attack Copenhagen, empty it of pesky Danes who were to be forcibly relocated to the New World (!) and replaced by Spanish settlers. Spain would thereby secure control over all major trade routes, Sweden would once and for all be rid of their hereditary enemy, and as icing on the cake, Johan hoped Spain would help him in his ongoing conflicts with Russia. He also suggested Cecilia be given the role of governor in one of Spain’s many territories. Cecilia was put in charge of all the negotiations, resulting in her spending many, many hours with Francisco. (I’m thinking he was one of those men who did hose justice, plus he had soulful dark eyes)

What happened between Cecilia and Eraso is not entirely clear. Was he the love of her life or a mere dalliance? Whatever the case, when Spain kept on procrastinating, Johan became suspicious, and Eraso was thrown in jail, accused of treason. In a desperate move, Cecilia attempted to free him, but instead she was also captured and hauled before her brother the king. Somehow, she talked herself out of things and wisely chose to leave Sweden for her son’s lands in Baden-Rodemack.

Eraso was booted out of Sweden, followed Cecilia to Baden-Rodemack, and moved in with her, which is why Eraso is presumed to be the father of the little girl Cecilia gave birth to in 1579. Major scandal, of course, and Cecilia’s son ordered that the baby be turned over to the nuns. In due course, the baby grew up, took vows and only in 1622 was Cecilia allowed to meet her by now very adult daughter. We don’t know how Ceclia took this enforced separation from her daughter – to be followed by her separation from Eraso, who went on to do other things. One imagines she didn’t like it much, but whether princess or not, in some matters women had no say. At all. Especially if they’d done something as immoral as having a baby out of wedlock…

Cecilia got over things – she was a resilient woman – and was destined to live for very many more years. Years in which she lost her lands, regained them, lost them again, was constantly hounded by creditors, saw her son thrown out of Baden-Rodemack, witnessed the birth of the thirty-year-war, encouraged her sons to fight for the Spanish, begged her brothers to be allowed home to Sweden (denied), saw her grandson reinstated as ruler of Baden-Rodemack, negotiated with popes and ambassadors, By the time she died, at the ripe old age of 87, she had outlived all her sons. Her illegitimate daughter remained a nun, a stranger. And as to Eraso, well, there was no HEA.

Cecilia was buried in Rodemack, far from the land of her birth. Opinionated and determined, this princess most definitely livened up the times she lived in. Somehow, I think her opportunistic father would have approved, even if he probably wished her an easier and happier life. But then, life is as it is, and all we can affect is how we handle whatever curve-balls come our way. Ask Cecilia – she would know.

15 thoughts on “From sinful princess to pirate – meet Cecilia Vasa”

  1. Thank you for a most interesting post. I had never heard of Cecillia or her family. She does sound like the kind of child who would give parents white hair long before their time.

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  7. Am now reading den gyllene harnalen so just doing some fact checking. Nice article, a good read. But what does HEA mean ?

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