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An expensive folly – of an impressive castle and its somewhat less impressive master

Today, I am taking you on a guided tour through the past of one of Sweden’s most imposing surviving baroque castles, Läckö. I’ve had this castle on my bucket list for yonks—being a 17th century enthusiast sort of makes a visit mandatory—and some days ago, I finally made it there, standing for a silent moment before the imposing whitewashed structure with its various towers.

But Läckö was not always the palace it became in the 17th century. No, it has its roots much further back. Back in the 13th century, the Holy Roman Church was very busy consolidating its position in Sweden. One of the more prominent peeps was the bishop of Skara, Brynolf Algotsson. At the time, Brynolf’s see comprised more or less a third of Sweden, a huge chunk of land surrounding our biggest lake, Vänern. As a totally unrelated aside, it is said that if we were to assemble all the people living on this planet of ours and had them stand on the (one assumes frozen) surface of Vänern, every single one of the many, many billions would fit. Right: neither here nor there: back to Brynolf.

Our Brynolf not only had to sort the ecclesiastical issues within his gigantic see. He also had to build defensive structures to safeguard his lands against Danes and Norwegians, constant thorns in the side of the Swedish nation. Which is why, one sunny day, he was more than delighted when he came upon the perfect defensive position on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Vänern.

A narrow channel of water carved out a small island, with cliffs on three sides. Very nice, thought Brynolf, but what really had him concluding this was the perfect spot for his new castle was the natural well from which burbled fresh, clear water. “A sign of God,” Bishop Brynolf said, which is how the foundations of the castle of Läckö came to be built.

For its first few centuries, Läckö was principally a fortress, albeit with some comfortable apartments to house the bishop when he came for a visit. These wall paintings are from the early 16th century, adding a decorative element to the whitewashed walls. But in 1527, the new king, Gustav Vasa, initiated the Reformation, and soon enough the large landholdings controlled by the church became royal property.

Läckö was no exception, but though it was a fine enough place, Gustav Vasa had no particular desire to make it into one of his private abodes—he had other castles, more conveniently placed close to Stockholm. So Läckö was passed around a bit, depending on who the king felt like rewarding with its rich incomes.

In 1615, Läckö passed into the hands of Jacob de la Gardie. Regular readers of this blog may recall a post about Jacob’s dad, Pontus de la Gardie, who as a relatively impoverished French nobleman and ex-monk (!) came to Sweden in search of fame and fortune. He found both, one could say, becoming a loyal supporter of King Johan III. So favoured was he, that Johan offered Pontus his illegitimate daughter, Sofia, as his bride. Pontus was delighted, swept his bride off to Estonia where he was presently in charge of managing the Swedish conquests. Sofia died while giving birth to Jacob, and some years later Pontus drowned.

Jacob de la Gardie

Jacob and his older siblings were now orphans, but clearly their dear Papa had gifted them with his ambitious streak, as both Pontus’ sons were to become very successful men. Jacob de la Gardie is mainly remembered as the only person who has successfully conquered Moscow, bringing the Russians to their knees. ( Yes, yes: I know Napoleon made it to Moscow, but the tsar refused to give up, hence Napoleon’s ignominious retreat through the frozen expanses of Russia, his men dying like flies of cold and starvation)

It was because of his successes in Russia that Jacob was made a count and given Läckö Castle, including acres upon acres of land. To Jacob, Läckö was one of his many castles. He and his wife, Ebba, were among the richest in Sweden. But for Jacob’s eldest son, Magnus Gabriel, Läckö was the jewel in his crown, a place he lavished endless amounts of time and money on.

Magnus Gabriel could afford to do so: as a royal favourite and with a huge inheritance –at one time he had more than 100 manors/castles under his control—he could spend extravagantly on everything from books to silver-plated interiors in his various chapels.

Magnus Gabriel was of the firm opinion that Sweden lacked a certain je-ne-sais-quoi. In this, he was in total agreement with Queen Kristina, who was delighted to find a kindred spirit in Magnus Gabriel, a man her own (young) age who recognised the importance of dragging Sweden out of its murky traditions by introducing modern (i.e. mostly French) music and literature, dance and education. The general opinion among the Swedes of the time was that there was no time for such fripperies, seeing as Sweden was involved in the Thirty Years’ War.

“The most handsome man in the world”

Queen Kristina disagreed and managed to lure French musicians and dancers to Stockholm. She even managed to entice Rene Descartes to come and visit, which ended rather badly for Descartes, who succumbed to pneumonia in Stockholm. Just like Kristina, Magnus Gabriel was well-educated and spoke several languages. In difference to Kristina, he was at liberty to travel, and he spent substantial amounts of time in France as an ambassador, where he became quite popular with the French court. Louis XIV considered him the most handsome man in the world, and I imagine Magnus Gabriel had his fair share of swooning damsels. After all, he not only had the looks, he was also filthy rich, a 17th century equivalent to the billionaires that star in all those billionaire romances that are so popular.

Magnus Gabriel returned to France with his mind full of plans for his various castles. In Läckö, he commenced upon a total renovation, very much focused on portraying Sweden’s successes in the ongoing war. One large room—the banqueting room, although now it is called the king’s room—he decorated with paintings celebrating each and every Swedish victory in the Thirty Year’s War. One wall is totally dominated by a painting of Gustav II Adolf, Queen Kristina’s father, who rides in on a magnificent steed to free Europe from the chains of Catholic oppression (I’m not entirely sure that’s how the peeps in certain parts of present day Germany would have described things….)

Gustav II Adolf as the Protestant Hero, a.k.a. the Lion of the North
Putto with a crown

Room after glorious room, with intricately painted ceilings, with furnishings that cost minor fortunes—Magnus Gabriel spared no expense. I was especially entranced by the little three-dimensional puttis that hung from the ceiling in the banqueting room. One of them is holding a crown, and the most honoured guest would be seated under it, a reminder to everyone else in the room who had teh highest status.

 

The thing about Magnus Gabriel was that while he was undoubtedly charming and well-educated, a capable diplomat and enthusiastic proponent of making Sweden more civilised, more culturally equal to such nations as France, he was also a profligate spender. The man had umpteen residences, and he invested fortunes in rebuilding and decorating his various homes. It was fortunate he was so very, very rich. It would also prove fortunate that Queen Kristina arranged such a good marriage for Magnus Gabriel, effectively making him royal kin when he married Maria Eufrosyne, cousin to the queen.

Queen Kristina, in a portrait from Läckö Castle

Queen Kristina was very fond of her cousin, with whom she’d effectively grown up. Some traditions say that the queen knew that Maria Eufrosyne had been secretly in love with Magnus Gabriel for years, hence the arranged marriage. Other traditions insinuate that the queen had a tendresse for the dashing count but knew that she couldn’t marry him so she gave him the second-best, her cousin. Hmm. I don’t think Kristina was ever in love with Magnus Gabriel—she had a deeply serious side which he seems to have lacked. Nor does the marriage between Magnus Gabriel and Maria Eufrosyne seem to have been very happy, but this may be due to all the babies they lost. Poor Maria Eufrosyne was to give birth eleven times, but only three children survived to adulthood.

Other than being a wastrel, Magnus Gabriel was also lacking somewhat when it came to delivering actual results. He considered himself an excellent military leader, but would prove time and time again that he was mediocre at best, a catastrophe at other times. He was also easily bored, especially by such tasks that he felt beneath him, which often led to him simply not doing them. In 1653, he and Kristina had a total falling out and Magnus Gabriel was exiled from Stockholm, ordered to stay well away from the queen. He spent most of that time in Läckö with his family, despairing over his future.

One of the putti that decorate the banqueting chamber at Läckö Castle, celebrating the new king, Karl X Gustaf

Fortunately for Magnus Gabriel, Kristina decided to abdicate and pursue other interests (more on that here and here) and in her place, Maria Eufrosyne’s brother, Karl X Gustaf became king. Oh joys of joys! Magnus Gabriel was in from the cold, and to truly celebrate his new status he splurged on his wife’s apartments in Läckö. After all, she was no longer just Maria Eufrosyne: with her brother being king, she was a princess, and as such deserved to have the best rooms in the house.

Maria Eufrosyne’s bedchamber. The door to the right leads to her “sugar room”. She had something of a sweet-tooth…

Karl X Gustav died relatively young and Magnus Gabriel became the regent for the very young Karl XI. At last, our handsome man was at the top of the heap, second only to God! Too bad that Magnus Gabriel lacked the competences required to govern Sweden capably. Instead of focussing on strengthening the army and keeping an eye on the wily Danes, he encouraged the nobility to go wild and crazy on renovating (or building new) palaces, on embracing culture in all its forms and guises. To pay for all this, he generously handed over more and more of the royal lands to various nobles, shrinking the base of the king’s income substantially.

Karl XI

And then, one day Karl XI had reached his majority. The first thing our young king had to do was ride out against the Danes who’d decided to try and reclaim Scania from Sweden. Problem was—or so Karl XI discovered—that there really was no army, as Magnus Gabriel had never bothered with such unimportant things as ensuring armouries were full and soldiers were trained. Still, our young king managed to overcome these odds and hold off the Danes (see more here), and his marriage to Danish princess Ulrika Eleonora helped established an uneasy peace. But he was angry with Magnus Gabriel, amgry with all thse greedy noblemen who’d happily accepted more land, more riches without thinking twice about their duties to the crown.

Karl XI implemented the so called “reduction”. One noble family after the other had their land holdings recalled, forced to return to the king what had so recently been given to them by the king. But Karl XI didn’t stop there: no, he began reclaiming lands from decades back, citing that it had severely weakened Sweden—and its king—to have so much land in the hands of various nobles.

He took a particularly harsh revenge on Magnus Gabriel. Remember how he once had over 100 manor and castles? When the king was done with him, Magnus Gabriel was left with two, and no mater how he begged, he wasn’t allowed to keep his beloved Läckö. The king wanted it—or rather, he wanted the excellent stud farm on its lands. But I also think it pleased our young king to really rub Magnus Gabriel’s nose in the dirt.

For a man incapable of economising, being left with only two castles was a major catastrophe. Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie died some years later, poor as a pauper. And as to that gem in his crown, Läckö Castle, well, things looked a bit dire for a while. No one really wanted to live there, as it was rather far from Stockholm. Plus, with time its magnificent interiors became dated. For years and years it stood empty, and the local farmers used it to store grain in, all those magnificent ceilings rising over burlap sack after burlap sack of wheat or oats.

Turns out it was fortunate the farmers did that, as the grain absorbed the humidity that would otherwise have rotted the painted ceilings and what was left of Magnus Gabriel’s interiors.

Once upon a time, Läckö was a small defensive structure controlling the waters of Lake Vänern. Today, Läckö Castle is a museum, offering a glimpse into the magnificence of the very rich during the (very short) time when Sweden was a super-power. It also offers some insight into one man’s obsession with beautiful things, with art and with culture. But as the story of Magnus Gabriel proves, a glittering surface is never enough. Lacking grit and commitment, even the most handsome man in Europe ended his life impoverished and ridiculed—but at least he left us Läckö!

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