Renaissance princesses usually had one purpose in life: to wed as arranged by their male family members and, preferably, present their husbands with an heir or two. It didn’t really matter how powerful or rich your dynasty was—a woman was an asset to create new alliances, full stop. Naturally, little princesses were fully aware of their destiny. They were educated, polished and buffed into perfect future wives, capable of acting the advisor if so required, resigned to being relegated to being a mother and occasional bedmate should that be their husband’s preference.
In an age where people died relatively young, it follows that usually the brides (and grooms) were in their teens when they tied the knot—especially if they belonged to the higher echelons of society. Today’s protagonist, therefore, could be considered something of an obsolete product, seeing as, when this post opens, she is all of thirty-three and as yet unmarried. Not that this was due to her: she was unfortunate in being the youngest of four sisters, and as such, her older sisters had to be settled first. Seeing as this foursome of princesses were the daughters of Sigismund I of Poland and his wife, Bona Sforza, they weren’t about to be wed to any old duke or king. Oh, no: the daughters of the Jagiellon dynasty were expected to wed well—hence the delay in getting them all settled, one presumes. Plus, of course, Katarina’s father died while she was still relatively young, and her big brother, yet another Sigismund (but with an attached Augustus to differentiate him from his father and make him sound even greater), seems to have had a disinterested relationship with his sisters.
In Sweden, our lady of the day is known as Katarina Jagellonica. She was, according to her contemporaries, very beautiful. Only one portrait has survived, showing us a lady with golden curls. This does not necessarily mean she was fair. In her day and age, blonde hair was considered very attractive, and women used all kinds of methods to give their hair a nice golden colour—like dying it in saffron (although that should result in a rather red tone, IMO) An other alternative was to wash your hair in chamomile infusions, but that generally only helped if you were some sort of blonde to begin with. The long and the short of it is that we do not really know what Katarina looked like—but descriptions that survive label her as “beautiful”. She was also elegant, well-educated, modest and intelligent. A prize catch, if you ask me!
One person who deffo thought Katarina would look absolutely perfect in his bed was Tsar Ivan IV. In history, we know him as Ivan the Terrible, and yes, he had his very bad moments. At the time, though, Ivan was young, recently widowed and proving quite capable to bring some much needed reforms to Russia. Now, Russia and Poland were constantly at war with each other—they squabbled continuously over the area comprising the present Baltic States. One way to create a binding peace accord would be to solidify things with a marriage alliance. For some reason, Sigismund August decided to say “no”. Maybe some rumours of Ivan’s volatile temper had reached him. Or maybe he was concerned for his sister’s safety in a realm where Ivan’s previous consort was thought to have been murdered. Whatever the case, Sigismund said “njet”. According to some sources, he did so by sending Ivan a white stallion dressed in women’s garb. The tsar was enraged.
We are now in the year of our Lord 1562. Katarina was born late in 1526, and she’s likely becoming a tad desperate—remaining under her not-so-loving brother’s care is not a pleasing future. This is when a young, ambitious Swedish prince throws his hat into the ring. I give you Johan Vasa, Duke of Finland, Prince of Sweden. He is eleven years younger than Katarina, tall and red-haired. As well-educated as she is, this is a man who so loves reading his father sent concerned letters to him encouraging him to engage in other pursuits. Johan does engage in other activities: he plays tennis (a game he introduced to Sweden after a lengthy stay in England) excels at riding, and is also very busy building up his own little empire in Finland, trying very much to ignore the fact that his duchy is part of Sweden, presently ruled by Johan’s elder brother, Erik XIV.
Erik has as yet not married. He is eager to make a good dynastic marriage—his sight is set on Elizabeth I of England. Good luck with that. As Johan’s king and brother, Erik can arrange whatever marriage he wants for his brother, because yes, even princes were pawns in the wedding alliance game. Erik does not want his younger, very ambitious and gifted brother making too good a marriage. He would probably nix the Johan and Katarina union—which is why Johan doesn’t tell him about his intentions.
Johan does, however, manage to give Sigismund the impression that Erik is fully aware of things. Sigismund perks up at the thought of a Swedish-Polish alliance against Russia. And hey, Katarina is getting old—seriously old—which lowers her value in the marriage market. So Sigismund says yes, and in October of 1562 the just thirty-six year old Katarina marries her twenty-five year-old prince in Riga. Do little cherubs sing in joy? Not much. But the two are more compatible than one would think, and life is about to give them a serious lesson in how to bond ASAP.
The trip back to Johan’s castle in Åbo (present day Turkku) turns into something of a disaster. After their ship freezes due to inclement weather, they make for Reval, there to find a new ship. It’s not exactly a little group that goes traipsing through the dark woods. Katarina is bringing her entire household with her, including furniture, pots and pans, mirrors, jewels, clothes, bedlinen, books, candlesticks, mirrors—plus all the servants. Cart after groaning cart is transported on bad roads, and all the while Johan is getting antsier and antsier, because somehow Tsar Ivan has heard of their misfortunes and has sent 5 000 men after them, determined to haul Katarina off somewhere in punishment for having refused his suit. I’m just saying: some men, you do NOT want to get on their bad side, and Ivan is to prove a persevering dude.
By Christmas, our married couple is back in Åbo. Time to relax and enjoy the peace, one would think. Except that by now Erik is fully informed of what Johan has been doing behind his back, and seeing as Erik is as suspicious as they come, he worries Johan has married Katarina so as to strengthen his position and challenge Erik for the throne. Johan has probably toyed with the idea. This gent excels at the long game. Unfortunately, by marrying without Erik’s permission, Johan has effectively committed treason, further compounded when he does not rush to prostrate himself at big brother’s feet and beg for forgiveness.
Erik isn’t about to let the Duke of Finland grow from strength to strength. In the spring of 1563, he therefore launches an invasion. Johan and Katarina are now royal prisoners. The humiliation is compounded by the fact that the man in charge of their interrogation is one Jöran Persson, the lowborn son of a priest who serves as Erik XIV’s most trusted counsellor. Jöran has proved useful to the king, handing down orders of execution as they were candy so as to rid the reign of unwanted elements.
Erik realises executing Johan might be foolish. Instead, he (represented by Jöran) tries to separate Katarina from her husband by offering the Polish princess to stay in comfort while the marriage is annulled. Katarina supposedly pulls of her wedding ring and shows Jöran the inscription: Nemo nisi mors – Nothing but death will part us. Then, she shakes out her skirts, raises her chin and goes to join her husband. She may look proud and brave, but inside she is probably terrified—even more so when Jöran obliges the not-so-happy couple to stand on deck as they are transported to their imprisonment in Gripsholm Castle to ensure they get a good look at the dismembered men of their household who’ve been staked along the shore.
Captivity is not all bad. There are books, there is wine, there is plenty of time to really get to know each other. Johan is restless—all Vasa men are restless—but finds some solace in intellectual pursuits. They study theology together. They drink wine. They drink more wine. They spend time in bed. They discover that they are very compatible. In fact, during the years at Gripsholm, Johan and Katarina develop a very strong bond, further cemented by the birth of a little daughter, Isabella, and a son, Sigismund.
The son thing does not please Erik. He is as yet unwed and has no heir, which effectively means Sigismund is third in line to the throne after Johan. In general, though, Erik seems to prefer to ignore the existence of his brother and his Polish wife—even when Johan sends him letter after desperate letter, begging him to send a doctor because little Isabella is ailing. Erik never sends the doctor. Isabella dies. Johan will never forgive his brother for the death of his daughter.
In 1567, Katarina is pushing forty-one. They’ve been imprisoned for four years, and I imagine things are getting a bit old. Yes, she has her favourite dwarf, Dorothea, with her. Yes, she has a loving husband and a baby son. Still: I imagine her pacing the grounds, craning her neck back to study the migrating birds and wishing she too was as free. Things are about to get worse. Remember Ivan? Well, he and Erik have been at loggerheads for a while but have concluded they would both benefit from a peace treaty. Ivan has one non-negotiable condition: he wants Katarina.
“Okay,” says Erik.
Katarina has a major panic attack. So does Johan, because truth be told, there is nothing he can do to stop Erik from handing over his wife to the Russians. Erik, however, delays, all too aware that public opinion would not approve of him sending his sister-in-law into what could potentially be a dire captivity. Plus, Erik has other things to worry about. Like the fact that he went totally crazy in May of 1567 and stabbed Nils Sture to death. Nils, together with his father and brother, were imprisoned on rather vague charges of treason. The king, in a fit of rage, burst in on them and sank his dagger into Nils.
Now, the Sture family is one of Sweden’s most powerful noble families. When the rest of the nobility hear of the king’s vile actions, they begin to grumble. Loudly. They’ve been grumbling for some time. They don’t like it that the king spends all his time with Karin, the daughter of one of his men-at-arms. They do not like Erik’s tendency to rely more on the advice of Jöran Persson (lowborn knave that he is) than theirs. They’re doubtful to the whole “let’s lock Johan up and throw away the key” thing. But to have a king who murders one of their own—no, no way.
Erik seems to have been struggling with serious mental issues throughout 1567. So afflicted is he that the Royal Council takes over the ruling of the country. Despite Jöran Persson’s protests, they decide to set Johan and Katarina free. They even sentence Jöran to death, but no one is particularly eager to do the actual executing, worried that once Erik regains his wits, he may be seriously displeased. After all, Erik still is the king. An anointed king, no less…
Erik emerges from his mental fog late in 1567. By then, Johan has crawled adequately and is allowed to remain free—albeit Erik has him under surveillance. The Russian-Swedish peace talks are still ongoing, and Erik still stands by his word to hand Katarina over. Fortunately, Katarina is pregnant, and Erik cannot very well hand over an unborn child of the Vasa dynasty. By the time the baby is born, the Russian delegation has been chased from Sweden.
With his wife safely by his side, Johan decides it is time to act. Together with his youngest brother, Karl, he starts planning a coup. Erik makes things rather easy for them when it comes to light he’s married Karin, his long-time mistress, in secret in July of 1567.
“What?” screech the high-born ladies and gents of Sweden. “The daughter of a man-at-arms, an upstart serving wench, to be our queen?”
Karin, IMO, seems to have been a sweet and gentle woman, but such qualities count for little in a hierarchical society. Erik’s marriage drags his illustrious lineage (well…) into the cesspit.
In July of 1568, Erik marries Karin officially and has her crowned the day after. Neither Johan nor Karl attend the festivities—they’re planning revolution. The day after the coronation, the fighting breaks out. By late September, Erik has no choice but to give up. It is now Johan’s turn to imprison his dear brother, and for the coming nine years, Erik will be kept under lock and key until he fortuitously dies of a bowl of pea-soup. Poisoned, of course…
Katarina becomes Queen of Sweden, a role she has all the qualifications for. She is educated, modest, intelligent, fertile—well, at least fertile enough to have produced one precious son and one surviving daughter, Anna—and has the blood of kings in her veins. Besides, it is evident she and her husband are close, she his rock when he needs it, he her harbour when the storms of life surround them. As it should be, IMO.
All those years of uncertainty, of waiting for a husband, of surviving imprisonment, of fearing for her own life have come to an end. Katarina is not only a queen, she is also a respected mother and a beloved wife. When she dies in 15xx, Johan sits beside her right to the bitter end. The last thing she sees is his face, his auburn hair and long beard—albeit by now streaked with grey. He clasps her hand and kisses her brow. “Go with God,” he whispers—and she does.
So ended the life of Katarina Jagellonica, Catholic princess, Queen of Sweden. Her son, Sigismund, would go on to be king of Poland but would not sit for long on the Swedish throne—his faith was an issue. Where Johan was influenced by Katarina and showed great tolerance towards Catholics, his younger brother, Karl, was to storm to the forefront after Johan’s death, claiming that Sweden was a Protestant nation and needed a Protestant king. By then, religious tolerance was a thing of the past—but you can read more about all that here!
P.S. In case you’re wondering, Johan exacted his revenge on Jöran. The man was subjected to a horrifically cruel death. Well-deserved, according to Johan—and Katarina.