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When Isabella of Austria became Elisabeth of Denmark – the story of a young queen

In Sweden, Kristian II of Denmark has the not-so-flattering epithet ”the tyrant”. After all, it was because of his duplicity that the streets of Stockholm ran red with blood one cold November night in 1520 as one after another of the Swedish nobles who’d fought against Danish dominion were summarily executed.

In Denmark, obviously, he does not have that epithet. But that doesn’t mean the Danes rate him all that high either.

Today’s post, though, is not about Kristian. It is rather about his wife, Elisabeth. Well, actually her name was Isabella. However, I am thinking her mother always called her Isabel, seeing as she was Juana of Castile, eldest surviving daughter of their most Catholic majesties, Isabel and Fernando)

Eleanor, Charles and Isabella of Austria

Isabella was born in 1501 to Juana and her hubby, Philip the Handsome. Like most royal marriages of the time, the Juana and Philip union was an alliance, not a love match. Fernando and Isabel had many daughters and only one son (who was to die young) and considered it imperative to marry off their daughters into other royal houses so as to create strong, future bonds. One of their daughters famously ended up in England as the bride of Prince Arthur. Catalina/Katherine would go on to wed Arthur’s younger brother upon her groom’s untimely death. That, it seemed, was a love match, Katherine and Henry VIII clearly quite taken with each other. Well: at first. Before Henry started panicking about the lack of sons and found it convenient to blame Katherine—and the irregularities of their marriage, seeing as it was in general a big no-no to marry the wife or husband of your deceased sibling.

Back to Isabella. She was the third child born to Juana and Philip, a couple of years younger than the future Emperor Charles V. Her maternal grandparents we’ve already mentioned: Fernando and Isabel co-ruled Spain for many years, leading the final push of the Reconquista—it is under their reign that Boabdil, the last king of Granada, submits and goes into exile—as well as financing Cristóbal Colón’s explorations due west. They also exiled the Jews, introduced the Inquisition and were in general very intolerant of any beliefs but that the Holy Church—which does not preclude that they (well, Isabel at least) had their moments of kindness, like when she adamantly insisted the “Indians” in their new dominions be treated with respect and never be enslaved. They ended up enslaved anyway, reduced to serfs tied to large encomiendas, but Isabel’s stand would, eventually, lead to long and hard discussions about the morality in enslaving the native innocents.

Isabella’s paternal grandfather was  the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, the man who more or less lifted the Hapsburg dynasty from relative obscurity to the limelight when he wed Charles the Bold’s daughter, Mary of Burgundy. As Mary was an only child, she was the heiress to the Duchy of Burgundy, and in her veins ran the blood of more or less every royal house in Europe—including the Plantagenets, as her great-great-grandfather was John of Gaunt. With that marriage, the Hapsburgs had truly arrived, expanding their previous seat of power further to the west. By the time Charles V succeeded Maximilian (and Fernando and Isabel), the Hapsburg Empire was a huge, sprawling construct, stretching all the way from Austria to the Iberian Peninsula—and across the seas to Spanish America.

With these people up her family tree, Isabella was a much sought after bride. She was also well-dowered and well-educated. Upon her mother’s descent into recurring bouts of insanity (supposedly due to her overpowering grief at having lost her beloved husband in 1508) Isabella and two of her sisters were raised by their formidable paternal aunt, the Archduchess Margaret.

In 1513, Kristian II became king of Denmark when his father, Hans II, died. Obviously, the new king needed a wife. After all, he was over thirty, and with a crown came the responsibility to produce heirs, hence the somewhat urgent need for a spouse. Not that Kristian had any intention of spending more time than absolutely necessary with the future mother of his children. You see, Kristian had a lover since years back, called Dyveke. They’d met in Bergen when the latter was in her late teens, and he was in his twenties, and it was lust at first sight which over time converted into something far stronger. But Kristian could never marry the daughter of a Dutch merchant—which was why he (well, his envoys) approached the Hapsburgs.

Originally, Kristian had his sight set on Eleanor, the oldest of the sisters, but  Maximilian would have none of that: As the eldest, Eleanor’s future children stood very close to inheriting a mighty empire should her brothers Charles and Ferdinand die without issue. No way did the Hapsburgs want a Danish heir. No, Eleanor was deemed to valuable to be sent off to Kristian (they tried to marry her off to Henry VIII, then the French king and then, finally, she was wed to her uncle by marriage, Manuel of Portugal. When Manuel died, she would ultimately marry Francis I of France, but as that was a wedding Francis was forced to agree to so as to have his imprisoned sons returned to him, it was not exactly a happy one.)

Isabella around the time of her wedding

So instead, Kristian was offered Isabella. He agreed, and at the age of thirteen, Isabella was married to Kristian by proxy. Her grandfather stood in for the groom. A year or so later, our young bride was sent off to Denmark. Apparently, she went happily, having fallen in love with her new hubby when she received a portrait of him.  The reality was not to be as pink and fluffy as she may have hoped. Yes, she was welcomed with pomp and circumstance. Yes, they celebrated their nuptials in grand style. Yes, she was crowned in 1515, but of her hubby, she saw little. And it did not take long for her to realise that the reason for that was the fair and buxom Dyveke.

Our little teenage queen was very, very unhappy. She wrote home, and her grandfather was most irate, demanding Kristian get rid of the commoner. Kristian refused. Isabella wept some more, but fortunately for her, Dyveke died in 1517. Some say she was poisoned. Kristian deffo believed that was the case, and a Danish noble was executed for giving her poisoned cherries. Some suggest it was Isabella’s grandfather who orchestrated Dyveke’s untimely passing, but at this distance of time, we will never know.

Without the love of his life around to distract him, Kristian was to discover his wife was quite pleasing. She was also attractive and intelligent—and evidently fertile, presenting her husband with a son in 1518. I imagine Isabella could relax somewhat after the arrival of baby John, but just about a year later, she was delivered of twin boys, both of whom died in infancy. Isabella was not quite eighteen and had already given birth to three children and lost two. In 1520, she gave birth to a daughter, Dorothea. Her pregnancy coincided with Kristian’s extended stay in Stockholm (orchestrating the massacre of the Swedish nobles took some time), and in his absence, she was his regent, indicating that the Kristian-Isabella relationship had gone from strength to strength. Except, of course, that Kristian called her Elisabeth, the Danish version of her name, as did her new subjects.

For a very short while, Isabella—oops, Elisabeth—was the queen of both Denmark, Norway and Sweden. But in August of  1521, the Swedes rebelled and ousted Kristian. Elisabeth was pregnant with yet another child at the time, and in September of 1521, her daughter Christina was born.

Kristian II

The relationship with the Swedes was fraiught—even more so as Kristian had carried off several of the high-born Swedish women and incarcerated them. According to Swedish propaganda, he was starving the poor women. According to that same propaganda, the Swedish ladies would have died had not the good and kindly Queen Elisabeth pleaded for them and ensured they were fed adequately. Casting Elisabeth in the role of the good cop was probably a wise political move: slandering her was to slander the mighty house of Hapsburg, and by now everyone in Europe—including the Swedes—had realised that would be unwise. Having said that, Kristian does come across as vindictive, so maybe his wife had to appeal to his decency to make sure their prisoners did not starve.
“We cannot let them die, husband,” she may have said, busy adjusting the exquisite linen coif that adorned the head of her newborn babe. “How would that reflect on us?”
Many of the Swedish female prisoners did die. Whether that was due to lack of food or pestilence is up for discussion.

Kristian had other things on his mind than a few inconsequential female captives. He had plans to undermine the position of the Danish nobles by granting more rights to the commoners, but the powers that were, i.e. the nobles were not happy about this. At all. What Elisabeth may have thought of all this, I do not know. She came from a family that always defended their prerogatives, so I imagine she understood where the angry Danish nobles were coming from. However, being a smart cookie, she also understood that Kristian was determined to do this so as to primarily strengthen his own position vis-a-vis the nobility.

Tensions escalated during 1522. Other than the war with Sweden—because Kristian insisted he was the rightful king—he’d also managed to anger the mighty Hanseatic League by attempting to set up his own trading company and raising the tolls for anyone passing through the straits of Öresund into the Baltic Sea. The German merchants were not amused and joined forces with Sweden. The Danish nobles were tired of war, worried about the laws the king had implemented which, among other things, outlawed the practice of selling peasants from one estate to the other. The clergy felt threatened by the king’s laws that allowed the clergy to marry. “He’s embracing the Protestant faith!” they exclaimed.

Kristian was, indeed, quite taken by the Protestant faith—but he hadn’t renounced the old faith.

Kristian seriously underestimated the opposition – an unfortunate habit of his. And so, in January of 1523, Elisabeth gave birth to a stillborn son, just about at the same time as the Danish nobles deposed Kristian and elected his uncle, Fredrick, as their new king. Some months later, a now destitute Kristian was forced into exile, accompanied by his wife and their three surviving children. Our young protagonist had overnight lost it all—but at least she still had her powerful family.

Charles V – with that rather impressive Hapsburg jaw…

Kristian clearly hoped the young emperor, Charles V, would come to his aid and help him reclaim his throne. There was just a teensy-weensy problem: during those first few months of exile, Kristian corresponded regularly with Martin Luther, and at some point he converted, even going as far as commissioning a translation of the Bible ito Danish. This did not please that staunch defender of the faith, Charles. Nor did it please him that his sister also seemed to be dabbling in heresy.

The infected issue of faith meant that Kristian did not receive any help from the Hapsburgs. It also meant that their exile was not as comfortable as it could be, especially after word reached the Hapsburgs that Elisabeth had celebrated communion according to Protestant rites in Nurnberg. The potential fallout could be devastating for the little family, and Kristian instructed his wife to be more circumspect.

It seemed she followed his advice, and when Elisabeth died a couple of years later, not quite twenty-five, the Hapsburgs loudly proclaimed she’d died a good Catholic. The fact that she’d celebrated communion according to both Protestant and Catholic rites before she died was neither here nor there.

A young woman—a mother was dead. Three little children were leftr motherless, and their father does not seem to have known what to do. The Hapsburgs, however, acted with impressive speed to ensure the children were kept safe from heresy, and soon enough John, Dorothea and Christina were in Ghent, under the supervision of their aunt, Mary, Queen of Hungary – and Archduchess Margaret.

Personally, I think the children were fortunate to end up with these forceful ladies. Their father was too swept up in his grand plans to retake the Danish crown to really care for them, and in 1531 he would ride north, now with the support of Charles V, seeing as Kristian had now returned to the Catholic fold.

Kristian was never to return. Instead, his plans failed and he ended up imprisoned for life in Denmark. His children were now effectively fatherless as well, and soon enough, there were only two of them left alive, as John died in 1532.

Isabella’s children: Dorothea, John and Christina

Isabella of Austria led a short life. Along the way, she became Elisabeth, queen of Denmark, Norway and—for a short while—Sweden. She had it all and lost it all due to her husband.
Rumour has it that when Kristian was deposed, the new king wrote Elisabeth a letter in which he invited her and the children to stay in Denmark, because he intended them no harm. “Your husband, however, must leave,” he wrote.
In response, Elisabeth wrote ubi rex meus, ibi regnum meum – “my kingdom lies where my king is”.
I hope Elisabeth had days when she truly felt that Kristian was her king in all ways. Days when she looked at her husband and felt as if an entire swarm of butterflies had taken up residence in her belly. Or maybe it was all the product of her strict upbringing: a daughter of the house of Hapsburg was always, always loyal!

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