In October of 1611, Karl IX, king of Sweden, died. And no, one should not judge this gentleman by his umm…creative hair-do. Karl was a competent (if rather ruthless) man who used religion as an excuse to wrest the Kingdom of Sweden from his nephew, Sigismund, leaving behind a realm in order, a half-grown son and a rather impressive wife.
The recently bereaved Kristina of Holstein-Gottorp headed the regency council set up to rule Sweden until her son, Gustav II Adolf, came of age. This happened sooner rather than later, the just seventeen-year-old young king deciding in December of 1611 that he was ready to rule on his own, thank you very much. Proud mama acquiesced and so the personal rule of Gustav Adolf began.
Now, one of the things a young king needed was a wife—and heirs. Gustav Adolf probably felt he’d solved that issue some time later. You see, our young and dashing king was in love. Head over heels in love to judge from his surviving letters to Ebba Brahe, who was two years younger than him and one of his mother’s ladies in waiting.
Ebba Brahe was by no means a bad choice. Her family belonged to the upper echelons of Swedish nobility and she was closely related to Gustav Vasa’s third queen (This Gustav was the grandfather of “our” Gustav Adolf). When Ebba’s mother died, the Dowager Queen invited Ebba to court—Kristina had been a close friend of Ebba’s mother and had promised to oversee Ebba’s education. The girl was pleasing to the eye, well-mannered and obviously intelligent, which initially had her finding favour with her new mistress. Until Kristina realised her son had fallen utterly and irrevocably in love with Ebba, pretty and manipulative little minx that she was. This was not good. Oh, no: Kristina had far loftier plans for her son.
The young king, who lived under the delusion that he could decide who to marry without his forceful mama’s consent, went as far as to offer Ebba marriage. In one of the surviving letters he asks her to raise the issue of impending nuptials with her father. After all, king or not, his bride needed her father’s consent. The reply from Magnus Brahe was a resounding no. He was not about to anger the Dowager Queen by approving a marriage she was so set against—it would make his daughter’s (and his) life hell on earth. Clearly, Kristina of Holstein-Gottorp was a respected woman, fully capable of holding her own among her male contemporaries.
Crestfallen, Gustav Adolf retired to lick his wounds. His mother was unrelenting: Ebba Brahe would not be the queen of Sweden unless it was over Kristina’s dead body. So when Gustav Adolf was next out and about in the world, bringing havoc and fear in his wake as he led the Swedish Army to more victories, he fell under the charm of a married lady and took her to bed. I imagine several people made it their objective in life to inform Ebba of her sweetheart’s betrayal. Maybe that’s why she supposedly engraved “Jag är förnöjd med lotten min och tackar Gud för nåden sin” (I am content with my place in life and thank God for his mercy) on a window. Or maybe this is a case of everyone over-interpreting a young woman’s spontaneous graffiti.
It is more likely that Ebba had long since reconciled herself to the fact that she would never be allowed to marry the man of her dreams. Her future life indicates a substantial pragmatic streak, ironically very much in line with Kristina of Holstein Gottorp’s temperament. Ebba even tried to dissuade her ardent suitor, repeating over and over again that she was not worthy to be Gustav’s wife. It drove him crazy when she said stuff like that, hence him drowning his sorrows in the welcoming arms of another woman. Erm…
With mama cruelly nipping the Ebba-Gustav love story in the bud, Gustav Adolf went on to marry a princess, Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg. His mother was delighted—at first. Over the years, I suspect she came to regret her insistence on having her son wed for dynastic reasons only. The marriage was unhappy, Maria Eleonora was not the most mentally stable of people, and even worse, there were no surviving sons, only a puny little daughter, the future Kristina of Sweden. (One of Gustav Adolf’s big, big plus points is that he seems to have delighted in his daughter, confident she could become as capable a ruler as any man).
Life did not end for Ebba Brahe just because she gave up on Gustav II Adolf. In fact, well before she engraved her famous little quote her father had been approached by the dashing Jacob de la Gardie who had his heart set on Ebba. After some consideration, Ebba accepted his proposal and in 1618 the twenty-two-year-old former royal sweetheart married Jacob.
Jacob was the son of a French wannabe-monk turned condottiere turned royal counsellor and loyal servant of King Johan III of Sweden. Pontus de la Gardie was generously rewarded for his loyal service. King Johan was so fond of Pontus (born Ponce d’Escouperie , but Swedish peeps had a problem with pronouncing such a fancy name) that in 1580 he gave Pontus his own daughter, Sofia Johansdotter, as his wife. The groom was thirty-six years older than the bride but this was no impediment to getting things going, hence baby Jacob was born in 1583 as the third of three children. Sofia expired at childbirth and the sixty-three-year-old Pontus was left alone to raise his children. Seeing as he died some years later, Jacob was orphaned at a very young age and grew up to become an accomplished military commander.
By the time he wed Ebba, Jacob de la Gardie had built quite a reputation. After all, he’s one of the few non-Russians who has led a successful campaign through Russia, all the way to Moscow. At the time, Russia was a mess, one faction after the other putting forth their candidate for the new tsar. De la Gardie took advantage of the chaos to strengthen the Swedish position and so admired were his military methods that the young Gustav Adolf spent 1615 campaigning with him to learn the art of war from an expert. At the time, Gustav Adolf was still hopelessly in love with Ebba. At the time, Jacob had already proposed to Ebba. I bet they never discussed that subject over dinner…
Anyway: once wed, Jacob swept his young wife into his arms and carried her off to Reval (present day Tallinn). Jacob was the governor of the Baltic states and constantly busy with his military career. Ebba, therefore, handled their private affairs and estates.
The Jacob and Ebba union is described as being very happy. They complemented each other, with Jacob trusting his wife to capably manage their various investments. She was openly devoted to him and over nineteen years she was brought to bed of fourteen full-term children. Of these, seven would live to adulthood, the most famous being her gallant of a son, Magnus de la Gardie.
Jacob and Ebba settled in Sweden in 1628. Together, they built an impressive empire, featuring everything from palaces such as Makalös (which means Incomparable. It apparently was, which did not always please the king) to successful business ventures.
Ebba excelled at the business side of things. She was especially interested in developing the iron works she owned. Early on, she caught on to the correlation between consistent (and high) quality and premium pricing. The iron produced at the de la Gardie works was of the highest quality. In fact, the iron Ebba sold was so good she was known as Countess Iron – a true iron lady, one could say. This had Ebba laughing all the way to the bank—well, it would have, if our Ebba had not been something of a high spender, with an obvious taste for life’s luxuries. Her clothes, her jewels, her furnishings, the art that decorated her walls – all of it was sumptuous. The de la Gardies also had a huge household. Approximately one hundred people were employed by them to keep their domestic life turning smoothly, plus they had all those palaces to maintain, children to raise in adequate style, horses and dogs and carriages and landscaped gardens, preferably a la francaise. Let me tell you, it was fortunate Ebba had such a well-developed nose for business!
In her business ventures Ebba was supported mostly by one of her daughters, Maria Sofia de la Gardie. Just like her dear Mama, Maria Sofia was possessed of an innate head for business and was one of Sweden’s first industrial entrepreneurs, amassing a huge fortune. That, however, was all in the future when Ebba taught her daughter about USPs and the like.
However, not everything was roses in Ebba’s life. The seventeenth century was not always generous to powerful—and wealthy—women, and in 1651 rumours started making the rounds in Stockholm. The young queen, Kristina, had been spelled by none other than Ebba Brahe, how else to explain the queen’s firm opposition to marriage? Yes, the gossipers whispered, this was Ebba working behind the scenes and using magic to keep Queen Kristina enthralled to Ebba’s much-loved son, Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie, royal favourite par excellence.
We find such accusations mildly amusing. Ebba, however, was probably quite terrified. The accusation of witchery had a tendency to stick like tar. It was therefore fortunate that the accusers in this case were a certain Arnold Messenius and his father, Arnold Johan Messenius. As the elder Messenius had already been convicted of treason on a previous occasion and also came with the stigma of having been educated by Jesuits and potentially being a closet papist, the end result of all these whispers was that Messenius father and son were executed for treason. Ebba could breathe easy again. Well, she would have, had she not had her hands full caring for her ailing husband.
It is somewhat ironic that Jacob de la Gardie, always a man on the move, always involved in one military campaign or the other, should spend his last few years afflicted by a disease that robbed him of his eyesight, thereby making it difficult for him to leave his home. Ebba invested her considerable energies in making his life as comfortable as possible but in 1652 her husband of thirty-four years died, leaving her a very wealthy widow. I dare say she was devastated.
Ebba was to expend the rest of her life on furthering the interests of her children—and more specifically those of Magnus Gabriel—and on expanding her business empire. When she died in 1674 she left behind a considerable fortune and the persisting legend of a young heartbroken girl, who wanted nothing but to marry her king but ended up with de la Gardie instead. I think Ebba would have been most displeased by this: after all, she spent far more years as Jacob de la Gardie’s trusted and respected wife than she did as Gustav Adolf’s heart-throb. But hey, we all have a thing about tragic love stories, don’t we? Even when they’re not one hundred percent true.
2 thoughts on “From royal sweetheart to Iron Lady”
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