Wearing the Pants

The adventuress in history came by her role in many ways. 

Some fell into it by happenstance, such as the American Old West’s Calamity Jane and Big Nose Kate. 

Others strived to remake themselves in a more exotic or derring-do lifestyle.  Two great examples of self-made adventuresses were Lola Montez (Marie Eliza Gilbert, an ambitious Irish woman reborn as a Spanish exotic dancer) and Mata Hari (Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, a Dutch divorcée recast as a Javanese exotic dancer and later falsely accused of espionage, executed during World War I).Christina entering Rome (detail)Credit: public domain

None of these women meant to cause harm through their exploits (mostly amorous) though some inadvertently did.  Lola Montez, for example, was the spark for a political powder keg in mid-18th Century Bavaria.  She caused a revolution: her public histrionics and influence on King Ludwig I as his mistress were intolerable to the agitated masses.  She fled the country just ahead of a lynch mob.

Somewhere between the inadvertent adventuress and she who carefully cultivates her new image lies another woman.  Her adventures were born not only of the happenstance of her noble birth, but by her own obstinacy and inquisitiveness. 

And biology might have played a key role in her life as well: Christina, Sweden’s queen in the mid 17th Century, may very well have been a hermaphrodite, a person having both male and female sexual characteristics.

The human organism usually comprises two sexes, a female and a male.  During the earliest stages of development in utero all humans are physically female – they possess female external genitalia.  It is only after a time that the labia form into a scrotum and the infantile clitoris becomes a penis that a girl becomes a boy. 
Staute of hermaphrodite (Indus Valley)Credit: antiquitySimilarly, testes are formed from rudimentary ovaries, and the process of making a male from a female fetus is completed. For females, the process is nothing more than a maturation of the physical sex characteristics that are already present – the labia become more defined, the clitoris settles into its proper place, and ovaries develop into hormone secretors and the means by which ova are produced for reproduction.

Occasionally things go “wrong” – the developing fetus may wind up with mixed genitalia, or with ovaries and a penis, or with a vagina and securely undescended testes.  Such a person born with one or more characteristics of both sexes is called a “hermaphrodite” (from the Greek name “Hermaphroditos”, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite).

True hermaphrodism means the person has both X and Y chromosomes.  This is not the same genetically as the XY-chromosome combination of genetic males, but means the person carries both male and female genetic material manifesting itself by having testicular and ovarian tissue.  Such people also have external genitalia that are ambiguous enough to warrant closer inspection to cast him or her into a “proper” gender identity.  The causes of this are purely by chance genetic mutation or by an irregularly dividing ovum.

Hermaphrodism may be induced.  Eunuchs of the Ottomans developed breasts and extra reserves of body fat on their hips and thighs.  The castrati (boys castrated usually before puberty to preserve their ringing soprano singing voices) developed the secondary “softness” of pubescent females.  The most famous castrato, Farinelli (1705-1782) used the feminine physical traits resulting from his voluntary castration at age 14 or 15 to secure great female operatic roles.  He was celebrated and idolized during his lifetime, and he died a very wealthy man.

Over time, the “mystery” of hermaphrodism was slowly unraveled by science.  However, the true hermaphrodite (a person having fully functioning male and female genitalia) is indeed a rarity.  Most hermaphrodites fall into the lesser categories of having masculine or feminine traits that seem contrary to the person’s outward physical makeup. 

Hermaphrodism has no connection to homosexuality – such a person may be attracted sexually to men, women, or both, and the term cannot be applied to her/him.  They
are unique and should be treated as such.  Contrary to popular or prurient belief a true hermaphrodite cannot fertilize herself/himself – such people are sterile as a rule. 

It is found in all of Nature: in plants, lower animals, single-celled organisms, as well as in humans.  The ancients were aware of such people and generally treated them with a sense of awe – they were considered by the Greeks to be yet a third sex.  Many of them were revered for their alleged powers of prognostication and prophecy.  Their rarity and the mystical nature of their “condition” assured them a place in society that others with deformities or handicaps might not have enjoyed.

Classic statuary of hermaphroditic figures

The current, politically-correct term for the condition is “intersex”, and this covers a wide range of variations along the female-to-male physical continuum.  Some intersex people may function as what they appear – strictly male or strictly female, but possess some minor characteristics of the other sex (men with broad hips and softer lines in the body, for example). They are nothing more than anomalies of biology, not to be shunned or mistreated anymore than a person with blond hair or dark skin should be persecuted.

A Prince/Princess Is Born
The Swedish line of royalty held some surprises for its subjects.  On December 8, 1626, the current king of Sweden, Gustav II (Adolf) and his wife Maria Eleonora were presented with their third, but only living, child.  Before the birth of this baby, the royal couple had already experienced parenthood, albeit briefly.  An unnamed girl had been born in 1620, but died.  Another daughter (named Christina) had appeared in 1623, but died the next year. 

Royal astrologers had predicted this new noble would be a boy – the baby was born with a caul over its pelvis and its gender was not immediately recognized.  The newborn was first declared a male (because it was hairy and screamed with a strong, hoarse voice).  But, upon cleaning it off and further inspection, it was believed to be female instead.

Maria Eleanora, the newborn’s mother, rejected the infant early because she was “ugly” and a girl.  As was common, the baby was passed off to a wet-nurse for tending. This woman carelessly dropped the infant to the floor; a broken shoulder bone left one shoulder higher for the rest of the baby’s life. The king, however, felt otherwise, and did not hesitate to embrace his living daughter  – if this was to be his only spawn he would love her and would raise her “as a prince”.  His reasoning was simple: desperate for a male heir, he rationalized, “I hope that this girl will be worth a son to me.” 

The baby was named Kristina Augusta Wasa (her name was later Anglicized to “Christina”).

Thus, from the earliest days of her life, Christina’s gender identity was muddled.  Her father, wanting a boy, treated her as one.  Her mother (finding the girl unattractive and also disappointed that she was not a boy) led Christina to behave in a tomboyish way, hoping to please her mother.

Just One of the Boys
True to his word, King Gustav II saw to it that Christina received all the attentions a young prince should have. 

The Thirty Years’ War (a sporadic series of engagements started in 1618 between the Catholic Hapsburgs’ Holy Roman Empire and the Protestant countries of Sweden and the Netherlands, and later involving France against the Hapsburgs) was in a period of active battle.  King Gustav’s extended absences because of Sweden’s place in the conflict led him to declare Christina his successor in 1630.  He appointed a group of tutors to see to the 4-year-old’s education.  Finally, he selected a loyal chancellor of his, Axel Oxenstierna, to act as regent, overseeing Sweden’s rule until Christina was of sufficient age to take the throne on her own.

She did not have long to wait.  Her embattled father, taking the lead in battle as many of his noble contemporaries did then, was fatally wounded and died on November 6, 1632.  Christina’s unbalanced mother lost her grip on reality completely, and she retreated into a dark world of endless grieving.  Bizarrely, she had her husband’s body shipped home in a traditional casket with his disinterred heart in a separate box.  She refused to have him buried, claiming he would only be interred when she could join him.  She insisted on leaving his coffin open, lying in state in their castle.  She went to see the putrefying corpse every day, patting it, talking to it, and never seeming to notice the stench.  Christina’s regent, distraught and embarrassed by Maria Eleanora’s behavior, finally posted a guard at the door to the death room to keep her from entering it.  Maria Eleanora was completely unfit to care for her daughter; the simple truth was it mattered little to her. She was exiled (for three years) and a favored aunt was installed as a foster mother.  Christina was officially queen when she was six, assuming the throne on March 13, 1633.  Rapidly, the nickname “The Girl King” took hold.

The state religion of Sweden was Lutheranism.  Christina was subjected from her earliest years to Lutheran training and indoctrination that she came to question and – finally – to despise.  It was during these earliest days of her reign that she developed into an almost inhuman machine: she threw herself into twelve-hour days of study and sports, six days a week.

Her regent, Axel Oxenstierna, returned in 1635 after a five-year absence.  He had been away tending to his regent’s duties, but upon return he took Christina’s education into his own hands.  She received daily lessons in statesmanship, and she developed heroic interests in Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. By the age of nine, she began questioning Lutheran dogma and expressed a first interest in converting to Catholicism (illegal in the country).

For the next couple of years the child queen was plagued with various ailments.  Her mother returned, but was a negative influence.  Christina’s attendees during these trying years were hand-selected by her demented mother: dwarves and hunchbacks of varying degrees of deformity waited on her.  Christina’s unstable mother – suspected of plotting the death of her daughter – was kept at bay more often.  

When she was 13, Queen Christina was allowed to attend council meetings, adroitly absorbing matters of state.  She effectively began governing Sweden at this age, a testament to her maturity and intellectual growth in such a short time from her father’s death.  Her two favorite tutors and the aunt who had acted as a foster mother (her father’s half-sister, Catherine of Sweden) all died that year (1640), though.  Christina’s own mother suddenly vacated Sweden and moved to Denmark, leaving the girl queen effectively orphaned.

Young Lust
Christina was a savant, and by the age of 15 she spoke five languages and was in the early stages of investigating the worlds of philosophy and mathematics.  The girl queen, not wanting to waste any valuable time, started sleeping only three or four hours a night.  She rose no later than 4 AM to start her studies.  She took up a renowned theologian to answer her questions about religion.  Her studies were interrupted only by her need for vigorous exercise – hard riding and bear-hunting were her favorite sports. Queen Christina (age 15)Credit: public domain

However, the intellectual pursuits in her life did not always reign supreme; the sensual also had a place.  Christina was a very mannish looking woman (especially in her later years) but as a teen she was girlish enough to attract suitors.  For almost a year (1643-1644) she developed an intense infatuation with a man named Charles Gustav (Karl Charles Gustavus, a cousin of hers).  Such was her strong and publicly avowed feelings toward him that the court expected the two would marry.  Christina and Charles exchanged many love letters, all of which declared undying affection.  She procured him a desirable political appointment in Germany (as a benefactor) and the two were separated for about two years. 

Queen Christina (age 16)Credit: public domainThough acting Queen of Sweden from about the age of 13, Christina was officially relieved of her regent in December 1644 when she reached the age of eighteen.  She continued to lead others to believe in her fealty to her amour, Charles Gustav, but in her deepest heart she did not want to marry anyone.  She valued chastity and purity.  She also expressed abhorrence of sexual intercourse with a man as a physical submission she could not tolerate.  She found only repugnance at the thought of pregnancy and childbirth.

She was already considering abdicating the throne as a tiresome experience. Furthermore, she vexed her former regent, Axel Oxenstierna, having developed a pro-France attitude (as a combatant in the Thirty Years’ War) and a commitment to peace on the European continent.  She initiated the end of the Thirty Years’ War against the wishes of her advisors. This led to the Peace of Westphalia (in 1648), proving her political acumen.  Her political leanings were not appreciated at court, however.

During her earliest days of reign Christina had assumed male garb as her preferred attire.  Admittedly, it was more practical than standard women’s wear of the day, but it also fed into her preference to be thought of as strong.  Her physical features were not the soft curves of a woman, but more the sharp, angular lines of the masculine.  Her androgyny – partly genetic, partly contrived – was looked upon as amusing to some, disturbing to others, and heretical to still others.  As the Queen of her country, however, as with most royalty throughout history, behavioral quirks were generally overlooked.Countess Ebba Sparre (Christina's crush)Credit: Bourdon; public domain

Questions of Christina’s sexual leanings became apparent with the arrival of a newcomer.  Ebba Sparre, nicknamed “Belle”, was a beautiful aristocratic young woman who made her presence known in Christina’s world.  Belle, a Countess by birth, lost her parents, and in 1644 she applied to Christina’s court and became a lady-in-waiting.  Christina was infatuated with this girl – Belle was the same age as the mannish teen queen and seemed to share common interests with the besotted Christina.  It is her love relationship with Belle that most point up as a clear indicator of Christina’s ambiguous sexual leanings.  Known to have “courted” a man just a year earlier, Belle suddenly became the queen’s favored companion, consort, and object of desire.

She was the queen’s closest confidante.  In the days when it was common, Belle and Christina shared a bed often.  This, of course, infers no sexual relationship – many in the Old World did the same for convenience and comfort.  [Abraham Lincoln, in his earliest days of practicing law, routinely shared a bed with a man, even past the time when he could afford to move out on his own.  Speculation has led many sensationalists to propose Lincoln was really in a homosexual relationship – it is more likely the thrifty Lincoln was probably watching his pocket book more than his libido under the circumstances.]Queen Chrtistina (early 20s)Credit: Sébastien Bourdon 1616-1671, public domain

Christina’s read on the beautiful Belle was lofty: Belle was “modest, virtuous, witty, of great beauty, and excellent behavior”.  A sample of Christina’s affection for Belle was expressed in one of many letters to her: in reference to her own love for Belle, Christina wrote, “. . . but I am condemned to the fate of loving you always, esteeming you always, and never seeing you”.  Her letters to Belle, declaring her love for the woman, can’t necessarily be construed as truly lesbian in nature – the terms of endearment she applied when speaking of Belle were also terms used by many men when writing to each other as well.  Most modern historians agree that this level of Romantic language is more in keeping with the Renaissance sense of platonic “love” and not of the more carnal love the statement might imply.

Belle married Jacob de la Gardie (who died in 1652).  This short-lived marriage found Belle still living more often than not with Christina.  [The somewhat fickle Belle abandoned Christina completely when Christina finally abdicated.  They continued to exchange letters many considered passionate, but their physical friendship was never rekindled.  Belle died relatively young in 1662 (in her late 30s).]

During Christina’s early interest in Belle she also developed a passion for another man in 1645.  She professed her love for a bohemian Magnus de la Gardie (a silver-tongued and insincere charmer and “lady’s man”). Christina’s first amour, Charles Gustav (her cousin), returned from his appointment in Germany to find the feisty queen treating him rather coolly in the face of her new infatuation with Magnus de la Gardie.  The queen and her cousin, however, remained on amicable terms, and for the rest of his life he occasionally pressed Christina to marry him.

Magnus was the son Sweden’s Grand Marshall.  Her patronage meant he climbed the social and diplomatic ladders quickly.  He was loose with his money, though, and Christina often paid off his debts.  Her love for Magnus (spanning several years) was unrequited – he never expressed any sincere interest in her and he ultimately married one of her few female friends, a woman named Maria Eurphryosyne.  Graciously, she sent them both off for a year in France at Court expense.  Though the three were close friends initially, Christina later rejected Magnus because of his callous exploitation of her good will and his habit of lying to her over inconsequential matters.

He Thinks, Therefore He Is
René Descartes, arguably one of the 17th Century’s greatest philosophers and mathematicians, was not cut out for Sweden and its harsh climate.Réne Descartes (1596-1650)Credit: public domain

Born in France in early 1596, he was a sickly and frail child who spent much of his youth in bed recovering from various ailments and studying the classics.  When he was eight, the pale and fragile boy was packed off for a Jesuit education.  Finding Descartes unable to rouse himself at the normal hours in the morning, an indulgent Jesuit rector felt the best thing for the sickly boy was a break from regimen.  He allowed Descartes to stay in bed every day for as late as he liked, coming down for meals or lessons only when he was ready.

Despite this lazy upbringing, Descartes grew into an industrious young man, working out his philosophy.  It was upon leaving school at 17 that Descartes formed the kernel of his famous “Cogito ergo sum” logic (“I think, therefore I am”); this he attributed to his meditative mornings spent in bed.  He passed the next couple of years as a wastrel, however, drinking, gambling, and whoring.  He then enlisted in the army, first in Holland, then in Bohemia.

In 1619, Descartes developed analytic geometry, inspired, he said, by three dreams: one of ill-winds blowing him about; the second of his standing and observing a terrible storm; and the third in which he stood reciting a classic poem opening with “Which way of life shall I follow?”  [It is only too likely these dreams were alcohol-induced, the effects of which Descartes was sleeping off when these “revelations” came to him.]

His fame spread as he published many more mathematical and philosophical works, and by 1641, he was living in Holland as the private tutor to the exiled Princess Elisabeth.  This young woman had mastered six languages and absorbed much in literature.  She turned her hand to mathematics and science; after obtaining a copy of Descartes’ brilliant mathematical book (first published in 1637) she sent for him to become her beacon.  Descartes worked with her but never respected her abilities.  When she left Holland, though, she maintained a correspondence with him that continued until his death.  His replies were always respectful and indulgent. 

This great thinking man of leisure, at 50 years old, was living quietly as a recluse in 1646.  Unfortunately for him, his peaceful life of scholarly work would end once he had caught the attention of Sweden’s strange queen.

Royal Pain
Christina had done much for education, literacy, and general elevation of the arts early in her reign.  In 1645 she had helped start the first Swedish newspaper.  She gathered a group of scholars and libertine thinkers to hold forth in her court. She became enamored of visual arts and her interest in Italy and art led to her receiving over 600 masterpieces, the bulk from the Italian Renaissance.  These works, however, had been plundered from Prague, spoils of the Thirty Years’ War.  She began to think of Stockholm as something to be modeled into a learning center, an Athens of the North.  Her explorations in different philosophies and world religions led her to a genuine interest in Catholicism in 1646.  Illegal in Sweden at the time she had to investigate the Catholic Church’s teachings and doctrines in secret.  
France’s new ambassador to Sweden was an enlightened man named Pierre-Hector Chanut.  The inquisitive Christina learned of the brilliant philosopher René Descartes from her correspondence with Chanut.  Through Chanut she was able to correspond with, and question, the reclusive Descartes in Holland.

Unlike the fragile Descartes, Christina had the constitution and the stamina of a bull.  Up to this time in her life she thought nothing of spending ten hours in the saddle without a break.  She ate sparingly.  She lived almost maniacally stoically as well – to her Court’s dismay, the cold of Sweden did not seem to bother her at all, and she often held forth, mid-winter, in a bitterly freezing room in which she forbade a fire.  On one occasion a shivering adviser begged her to go ahead and simply throw open the windows and “let the merry snow in”.  She was impervious to the chattering teeth around her while she spent hours poring over her studies in an unheated library; by this time was sleeping but five hours a night.

Descartes in his cozy hermit’s village was due for a rude awakening when Christina commanded him to come to Stockholm and teach her mathematics and philosophy privately.  The reluctant Descartes managed to keep putting her off until the spring of 1649 when she finally sent an admiral with a ship to bring him to her.  Even then, he managed to demur until October of that year, not wanting to leave his quiet life of contemplation and study.Réne Descartes tutoring Christina (detail from oil)Credit: public domain

For the unfortunate Descartes, Christina was a demanding task master.  She had boarded him in the home of the French ambassador, Chanut (a fellow countryman).  Christina felt that 5 AM was the best time of day for her to receive her lessons from the philosopher; Descartes, horrified at the idea, could not dissuade her from this schedule.  Regardless, he rose at a dark and early hour, entered the carriage always awaiting him, and rode across the windswept, bitterly cold Stockholm square to the palace.  There, Christina was already impatiently set up in her icy library – her lessons began promptly at 5 AM, and the miserable Descartes suffered from the cold, her obstinacy, and the loss of his precious time in bed.  [A classic painting rather fancifully – and erroneously – details such a lesson with Descartes standing comfortably over a seated and elegantly coiffed Christina (dressed in finery) in a very courtly, and obviously contrived scene.]

By the time she shanghaied Descartes, Christina complained of bad eyesight and a chronic pain in her neck.  She also suffered with high blood pressure.  A French physician recommended the ascetic Christina lay off her studies and get more rest.  He also ordered she take warm baths and eat complete, healthy meals.  Presumably, she ignored that advice and continued her rigors despite her ailments. 

The winter of Descartes’ discontent was reported by the oldest locals as the coldest in memory.  The exhausted and freezing Descartes tried to catch up on his sleep in the afternoons when finished with Christina’s lessons.  She, however, had more in store for him – she wanted to develop a Royal Swedish Academy of Science, and Descartes was her choice to bring that dream to life. 

By this time (though enjoying the privileges of proximity to royalty), Descartes was frustrated at his lack of privacy, lack of sleep, and lack of Christina’s progress in many things.  He thought she was obtuse, and even once commented to the Princess Elisabeth in a letter that she could not understand certain Greek syntax rules he himself had sussed out as a boy on his own.  Finally, to add insult to the snobbish Descartes’ already bruised ego, Christina suggested that he produce a ballet for her Court!  This time, Descartes stood firm – he would not make a fool of himself jumping around on a stage at his age for anyone’s entertainment.

Descartes’ host, Chanut, came down with an inflammatory lung ailment (likely pneumonia) in January 1650, just three months after Descartes’ arrival.  The desperate Descartes, seeking a respite from Christina’s mercenary schedule, volunteered to nurse the man back to health.  Chanut recovered; Descartes, however, came down with the same lung complaint.  The alarmed Christina sent physicians to care for him, but Descartes ordered them all away.  He grew worse, but finally consented to let one of her doctors bleed him.  This naturally did him no good, and Descartes died of his illness on February 11, 1650, at age 53 (about 7 weeks shy of his 54th birthday). 

He had been under Christina’s patronage for all of about four months before his death. Christina was devastated but never conceded she might have been partially responsible for the frail Descartes’ demise.  He was buried with honors in Stockholm; seventeen years after her abdication, Descartes’ bones were repatriated to France where they were interred in a place of dignity.

Abandoning the Ship
Though she sat upon a silver throne (especially crafted for her, and installed in the palace in 1650) Christina’s dissatisfaction with rule, her interest in becoming Catholic, her failed “love” affairs (the most recent with the faithless Magnus de la Gardie), and political dissatisfaction with the current state of taxation and governance in Sweden finally led her to firmly commit to abdicating the throne. 

Christina's Silver ThroneCredit: Southerly Clubs of SwedenIt was an idea she had since first ascending as an autonomous queen when she was 18.  As recently as 1651, she had asked the Council for permission to abdicate, citing her need to rest, and also stating Sweden deserved a stronger leader.  Her petition was denied, but Christina was allowed one concession: she would stay on the throne if no more pressure was put upon her to marry (the country wanted an heir, and Christina had been much put upon to marry and have children: she was averse to both).  Her interest not in governing, she developed a flighty streak and instead spent most of her time in the palace ballroom on Sundays with the foreign literati and bohemians she had taken up.   She was also a frequenter of the theater, shunning her duties in favor of entertainment.

In 1652 her attentions about abdication were averted briefly.  A Spanish general and envoy to Sweden named Don Antonio Pimentel de Pradol arrived in Stockholm.  Christina’s initial interest in him was to help her perhaps engineer an abdication and a flight to Spain where she could easily convert to Catholicism.  She, however, also became infatuated with him, and fawned over him while he remained at court.Queen Christina (1653)Credit: Sébastien Bourdon

Renewing her objections to ruling, in February 1654 she advised the Council of her plan to abdicate once and for all.  Her former regent, Axel Oxenstierna, told her she would regret that decision, but she forced her case. 

She had conditions, though, and these were raised in meetings in May 1654.  One of these demands was for a substantial stipend (200,000 rikstalers a year).  This was denied, but she received promises of considerable lands instead.  Any outstanding debts she had were assumed by Sweden’s treasury.

Christina’s popularity had waned over the past few years.  She was exceedingly fond of toadying lick-spittles, and in a ten-year period she had created 17 counts, 46 barons, and 428 lesser nobles, raising the number of noble families from 300 to roughly 600 in the process.  These were rewards for mostly sycophantic services rendered to her (though a few men so honored were Swedish veterans who had fought heroically in the Thirty Years’ War).  To “equip” these new peers with proper material possessions and lands she sold or mortgaged Crown property (in excess of 1.2 million rikstalers), a colossal waste of State capital.   

Christina abdicated on June 5, 1654.  She named her cousin (and sometime “amour”) Charles Gustavus to succeed her.  After the ceremonial “stripping” of her regal rags, Christina was left wearing a simple white taffeta gown.  Risking her ire, Charles Gustavus (crowned later that day as Charles X) proposed marriage to her yet one more time; Christina merely laughed and prepared to leave Sweden.

Her destination was anywhere she could openly embrace Catholicism. She had already packed up and shipped out many valuable books, artworks, and tapestries from her castle.  This plundering left Sweden’s treasury nearly bankrupted.  When she left in the summer of 1654, she wore men’s clothing.  [This was done for the same reason as Jeanne d’Arc initially took up traveling in men’s gear – women’s clothing offered little protection from rape, a commonality if not a certainty for females venturing on the open roads of Europe.]  The former queen assumed an alias – “Count Dohna” – as she and her entourage rode through Denmark (relations between Denmark and Sweden were sufficiently strained she could easily have been killed had she been recognized). 

She settled in Antwerp in The Netherlands and attached herself to a Jewish merchant in whose mansion she lodged.  Dignitaries and other important figures visited at all hours.  Christina’s time was spent in leisure – she rode in the afternoons, attended parties every evening, and a seemingly endless stream of concerts and plays called out to her.  She ran through her ready cash quickly and started selling off the treasures she’d swiped form Sweden.  Her financial situation did not improve as she refused to give up her extravagances, and finally an archduke invited her to stay at his palace.  There, on Christmas Eve, 1654, Christina officially converted to Catholicism in the archduke’s private chapel.

Sweden had grudgingly granted Christina a stipend upon her abdication (not the largesse she had requested, but significant nonetheless).  Fearful of losing her “alimony” (as it was termed) she made no public announcement of her conversion – she was certain if the Swedish government got wind of it she would be cut off financially from the country’s coffers.  Still broke (of her own doing) Christina secured a large loan, leaving many pilfered books and statues behind as collateral. 

Anxious to ingratiate herself to the Pope (and also probably having long worn out her welcome in The Netherlands) in September 1655, she hit the road for Italy.  With her was a complement of 255 people, 247 horses, and all of the equipment necessary to stock such a party on a long journey

Arriving in Innsbruck, Austria, on November 3, Christina met a messenger of Pope Alexander VII’s, sent ahead to await her.  Her conversion was officially announced then and she wrote to her cousin King Charles X about it.  A special opera was mounted to celebrate her embracing Catholicism.  The Archduke of Austria, providing hospitality for Christina and her entourage during their roughly five-day stay, nearly bankrupted Austria (already in financial trouble).  

Leaving Innsbruck on November 8, the party headed toward Italy picking up some brothers (Santinelli) who specialized in poetry and dancing.  This crew arrived in The Vatican on December 20 – per special arrangement, Christina rode the last short distance in a specially designed sedan chair.  She was given an entire wing inside the Vatican for her quarters.  Three days later she rode into the streets of Rome to the same pomp she had been met with at the Vatican, and on Christmas Day she received communion in St. Peter’s; Pope Alexander performed the rite himself.  Christina took on the additional names Alexandra Maria in honor of the pope and of her hero, Alexander the Great.

Christina’s conversion from the “heretical” Protestantism of Lutheranism was the most notable of that age, and it was a victory for the Catholic Church in Rome.  That such a royal personage “saw the light of reason” meant much to The Vatican.  She was not a strict convert, however, and she was granted some concessions in behavior (such as being allowed to wear men’s clothing as desired without being branded a heretic).  For many months after her arrival, she was the only topic of conversation.  She was entertained lavishly by the local nobility with fireworks displays, operas, and other frivolities.  Once she was greeted by a crowd of over 6,000 people as she watched a large procession set up for her.

A loaned palazzo became her home.  There in January 1656 Christina started an academy she named “Accademia del’Arcadia”.  Classes in music, theater, literature, and languages were offered.  Probably the most illustrious of all the famous figures who visited Christina’s salon was the sculptor and painter, Gian Lorenzo Bernini.  She and he became lifelong friends. 

The dominions promised by Sweden had not arrived to help the fiscally strapped Christina.  She lived by taking out loans and accepting donations from friends.  Works of art belonging to the palazzo were sold off by the “poet/dancer” brothers Santinelli, and the servants took down the wooden doors and burned them for heat. 

Now 29, Christina socialized freely with men her own age – this caused much gossip.   A particularly close male friend was Cardinal Decio Azzolino.  The time the two spent in close quarters caused the pope to ask Azzolino to shorten his visits to her palazzo to help quell the growing rumors that the mannish queen and the Catholic cardinal – a symbol of piety – were lovers.  [There is no evidence to support that the two ever had anything more than a platonic lifelong friendship.  However, Christina wrote very tenderly to him once that she was not prevented “from loving you until death, and since piety relieves you from being my lover, then I relieve you from being my servant, for I shall live and die as your slave.”]Men's hat fad as worn by Leonora Christina, Countess UlfeldtCredit: public

Broke and tired of the excesses spread out in Rome on her behalf Christina decided to leave for the relative peace of France.  King Louis XIV received her respectfully, but the ladies of the court were put off by her manly garb and behavior.  She also spoke too freely of things such as politics and religion to suit the more reserved in the royal household.  It was in Paris that she introduced the ludicrous style of wearing a man’s hat tipped with feathers – many of Paris’ higher society women adopted the affectation in the name of fashion.

A French politician of Italian birth (during this time Italy was not unified but an aggregate of city-states often warring with each other) put forth the idea of making Christina the queen of Naples (under Spanish rule then). The Neapolitans did not want a local Italian ruling them, and neither did Spain.   In the summer of 1656 Christina went to Paris to discuss the matter.  By late September that plan was solidified – King Louis XIV would recommend her to the position to Spain’s king.  Knowing of France’s support (now the most powerful military presence in Europe after the end of The Thirty Years’ War) the reluctant Spanish king agreed to consider the proposition.

Christina left France and stood by awaiting the outcome of the talks between Spain and France.  She then thought of taking Naples by force with France’s aid.  If she were Queen of Naples she would no longer be financially bound to Sweden.  Also, she could assist diplomatically in negotiating peace between Spain and France (her visions of a peaceful Europe still dwelled in her heart).  She returned to France in the summer of 1657 to ostensibly visit Avignon (France’s papal city).  However, she also intended to alert King Louis XIV of her plan to assume the throne of Naples. 

In the summer of 1657 she returned to France.  In October, apartments were assigned to her at Fontainebleau.  While in residence a member of Christina’s household, Marquis of Monaldesco, betrayed her plans to the  Spanish Viceroy of Naples (with Spain and France enemies, this was treason to the pro-French Christina).  She had suspected him of undermining her plans for two months and had secretly seized his correspondence.  She finally summoned Monaldesco into her presence.  She indulged him in a cruel cat-and-mouse interrogation before leveling a charge of treachery to the clueless marquis.  As “proof” of his betrayal she waved a sheaf of letters, purportedly from him to the Spanish Viceroy. 

What happened next is perhaps one of the strangest and longest summary executions in history.  An enraged Christina pronounced a death sentence upon him.  The Santinelli brothers (Ludovico and Francesco, on stand-by)  stabbed the marquis in a room next to where Christina sat.  The marquis, however, was wearing a coat of mail – the two would-be executioners had to chase him around the secured room for hours before one of them finally delivered a fatal wound to the hapless Monaldesco.   

Rumors immediately made the rounds that Monaldesco had been her lover, and in a fit of pique she had ordered him killed.  This added to her rumored reputation as a “Black Widow”: according to some, she had many lovers but murdered them when tired of them.  [This rumor persisted despite Christina’s known propensity toward chastity, her aversion to the idea of sexual intercourse with a man, and the fact she had never been verifiably sexually connected to anyone up to then.] 

She was chastised by Rome for this, but the unrepentant Christina claimed she had exercised her royal rights to dispense justice in such a way.  The Pope required her to vacate her Vatican digs when she returned to Rome in May 1658.  Pope Alexander VII wanted no further visits from Christina – he considered her a “barbarian” now.  Only her friend, Cardinal Decio Azzolino, stood by her during this bleak time. 

Much intrigue had whirled around Christina since she left Stockholm in 1654. Christina (age 35)Credit: public domain

She had begun plotting to take over Poland as its queen (a venture that failed before it even started).  In another attempt to regain some semblance of power she lobbied and schemed to make Azzolino (still rumored to be her lover as well as her adviser) the Pope.

In July 1659 she retreated to a new palazzo away from the center of Church politics.  The palazzo’s walls were enriched by her extensive collection of Renaissance paintings.  She also hung portraits of her associates and friends Cardinal Azzolino, Bernini, her girlish love Ebba Sparre, the ill-fated Descartes and ambassador Chanut, and the French doctor Bourdelot who had tried to prescribe a healthier lifestyle years before. 

Azzolino worked very hard to reconcile Christina with the pope.  Alexander VII finally relented, and he granted “the barbarian” a pension.

King Charles X of Sweden (Christina’s cousin and replacement on the throne) had been a heavy drinker.  He died at the age of 38 in February 1660 – Christina did not learn of his death until April, however.  She immediately set out for Sweden. 

The king had a five-year-old son, the future Charles XI.  That summer in Sweden Christina put forth that in the event something should happen to the boy she would take the throne again.  Her being Catholic, however, precluded her ever sitting on the Swedish throne again, and she was even forbidden from holding Catholic Mass while she was in Stockholm.  She withdrew to a small village outside Stockholm, but then finally decided to abandon her idea of ever reigning over Sweden again.  She renounced the Swedish throne once again and departed for Hamburg. 

Christina (age 41)Credit: public domainShe spent a year in Germany, then went back to Rome, arriving there in the summer of 1662.  She lived quietly and contentedly for a few years, but then she and Pope Alexander VII had another falling out.  She decided to head for Sweden once again in 1667.  This time, the Swedish government made the conditions for her taking up residence there so onerous that she stopped in Hamburg, never completing that trip. 

While in Hamburg she learned of Pope Alexander VII’s death.  Upon the election of the new pope, Clement IX (who had been a friend and frequent guest of Christina’s in the past) she threw a party – including a fountain that gushed wine – in Protestant Hamburg celebrating her friend’s rise to power.  The local Lutherans arrived to stop the festivities with torches and stone-throwing; Christina escaped bodily harm by slipping away through a hidden door in her borrowed manse.  The damages to the house were covered by others.

Christina went back to Rome, arriving there on November 22, 1668.  Her return was met with the same party atmosphere as when she had first ridden through the streets after her conversion to Catholicism.  Her good friend Pope Clement IX visited with her many times.  He had a stroke; she was one of the few people he allowed into his death chamber. 

Christina had established Rome’s first public theater in 1671.  Both she and the dead pope Clement IX had been keen on the stage.  The new pope, Clement X, however, believed the theater and acting were evils that could do no good for public morals, and when he took office he worried over Christina’s operation.  He did not live long, though, and it was his successor, Pope Innocent XI, who thwarted Christina’s artistic vision. 

He forbade women to either sing or act publicly.  He prohibited the wearing of décolleté dresses (just coming into vogue, the plunging necklines and strapless dresses were scandalous, showing so much woman flesh).  Finally, he smugly turned Christina’s theater house into a grain storage.  She, unruffled, thought his edicts exceedingly stupid; in direct defiance of his papal orders, she had women come and perform in her palace instead of in public.

She spent much of her time on literary pursuits.  She started an autobiography and wrote essays about her heroes, held forth on music and art, and she became a much sought patron for musicians. 

She also involved herself with human rights issues.  Despite her Catholicism, Christina was livid when her former ally King Louis XIV of France abolished the civil rights of the French Protestants known as Huguenots.  She dashed off a letter of protest to the French Ambassador in February 1686; Louis XIV did not share her sentiments when he learned of its contents. 

In Rome, there was a custom of chasing Jews through the streets during carnivals.  She appealed to Pope Clement X to put a stop to this practice.  He did, but to make sure the public got the message, Christina issued her own proclamation that all Roman Jews were under her protection, and she signed the public notice “La Regina” (“the Queen”).  Her tolerance of others’ religious beliefs carried with her for the rest of her life.

After a visit to Campania, the 62-year-old Christina took ill in February 1689.  Ironically, she developed the same “inflammation of the lungs” that her former teacher, Descartes, succumbed to in 1650.  She seemed to recover, but in the middle of April she had erysipelas (an acute inflammatory skin disease accompanied by high fever caused by a streptococcus).  She developed pneumonia as well.  In a rather strange deathbed request, Christina sent the pope a message asking him if he could forgive her for her “insults”.  He was gracious enough to do so.  Her close confidante Cardinal Azzolino stood watch over her until she died on April 19, 1689.

Dead Parade
Though Christina had planned a simple burial, it was not to be.  She was embalmed.  She was dressed in white brocade.  A silver mask was placed on her face and a crown on her head.  She was given a scepter, and her corpse was placed in three nesting coffins of cypress, lead, and the outermost of oak.  Her body was publicly displayed by papal order for four days. 

She was buried in St. Peter’s Basilica, and she is one of only three women granted that privilege.  Her intestines (removed during the embalming process) were sealed in an urn, and the urn given an honored place for viewing.  For six years, until 2011 when his body was removed to a different space, Pope John Paul II lay next to Queen Christina of Sweden.

Christina's Vatican sarcophagusCredit: Southerly Clubs of Sweden

S/He Revisited
Christina’s sexuality – and indeed her very gender – has been the source of speculation not only during her lifetime but also in the centuries since her death.  Was she a lesbian?  Was she a man in drag?  Was she actually of the ancient Greeks’ “third sex”, a hermaphrodite?

This puzzle can only be partially solved.  The circumstances of her birth led her father to finally be the one to make the final call (after an examination) that this newest arrival in the Wasa family was a girl.  However, this cannot be used conclusively as proof of Christina’s “femaleness” – as clearly observed in clinical studies (and documented in photographs), hermaphroditic persons can be easily confused with one gender or the other, especially when so very young that the more pronounced indicators have yet to develop fully.   

Christina preferred masculine dress.  She frequently appeared slovenly.  One of her favorite outfits was a plain grey dress over men’s trousers.  She never clarified why she chose her manly attire – was it because she perceived herself as “male”?  Or, like Jeanne d’Arc, was it more a matter of functionality and protection? 

Her physical features leaned heavily toward the harsher lines of a man’s.  She was hyperactive: nervous, restless, constantly fidgeting.  Her voice was deep and loud.  She also refused to respect social or religious propriety.  She preferred men’s company to women’s.  She sat, walked, rode, hunted, argued, and moved in ways all described as masculine.  She made enigmatic comments about her body, sometimes referring to her “strange constitution” throughout her life.  Her manly physicality was noted by many contemporaries who commented upon it. 

Apropos of nothing, but certainly considered suspect then, were Christina’s very vocal and very negative attitudes toward heterosexual sex, marriage, pregnancy, and child birth.  She also found her “sisters” an annoyance – she had few female friends, and she thought “female” conversation was silly and trifling (although she enjoyed the conversation of other educated women). 

Her acquisitive and inquisitive nature was considered masculine for her day.  Her demands on Descartes (particularly the tenacity with which she pursued the doomed philosopher) and the fact she treated him much as a favored pet at court were considered unfeminine.  He was a prize she had fought for and won.  That level of competitive spirit in a woman may have been rare in the Renaissance, but it was certainly not unique. 

One scholar likened Christina’s manners to that of a Swedish lumberjack.  While in France attending a ballet with King Louis XIV’s queen, that lady later wrote of Christina’s boorish and appalling public behavior during the performance:

“[Christina] surprised me very much – applauding the parts which pleased her, taking God to witness, throwing herself back in her chair, crossing her legs, resting them on the arms of her chair, and assuming other postures, such as I had never seen taken but by Travelin and Jodelet, two famous buffoons . . . She was in all respects a most extraordinary creature.” 

Christina’s “love” affairs can be dismissed as almost all exclusively platonic.  It is more likely, particularly in her younger years, she was only playing at being in love with Charles Gustav, for example, because she knew it was expected of her.  Her tossing over Charles Gustav as an object for her affections and replacing him in her heart with Magnus de la Gardie (the cavalier “bad boy”) can be mostly attributed to a 19-year-old girl’s fickleness and flightiness.

Her “girl crush” on Ebba Sparre is not so unusual, either, and should not be construed as a clear sign of lesbianism (closer, in fact, to the idea of Sapphic love one woman may have for another). 

There has been set forth the suggestion that she may have submitted sexually to the Spanish general, Don Antonio Pimentel de Pradol, when he came to Court in 1652.  This, too, has no basis in documented fact.  Her relationship with her close confidante Cardinal Azzolino was almost certainly cerebral – in letters to her his comments are significantly less impassioned than hers, and people close to them, while reveling in the titillation of the “forbidden” scenario of a priest bedding a queen, really had no untoward behaviors to ascribe to either the Cardinal or her. 

It seems that in all likelihood she died a virgin, certainly a personal choice as she had ample opportunity to relieve herself of that condition.  [A “condition” shared by the great Sir Isaac Newton as well – he was a virgin his entire life, a fact of which he was very proud.] 

Sensationalists, of course, prefer the bizarre to the simple or the obvious.  When putting together a profile of Christina – examining her unfeminine physicality, her manly behavior, etc. – some posited she may have been a hermaphrodite, carrying sexual characteristics of both genders, and that this anomaly accounted for everything. 

Actually, hermaphrodism would explain neatly every questionable aspect of her physical makeup and her behaviors.  But so would a medical condition in which her ovaries did not produce enough female hormones to give her the extra shots of estrogen and other feminizing chemicals needed to override the testosterone that women also produce in lesser quantities.  Or, another simple solution to the Christina “problem”: her personality was simply that of a very masculine-acting woman.

Although no answer was gleaned a primitive attempt was made in 1965 to determine if Christina was a hermaphrodite.  She was disinterred.  No soft tissues remained after three hundred years, so a mere visual inspection of genitalia was impossible.  An anthropological examination of her bones was undertaken, but the results were inconclusive.  As well they would have been: the single clearest indicator forensically in a skeleton to determine sex is the pelvis.  In women the pelvic saddle is broader and (within a defined statistical parameter) can easily be confirmed.  However, in a “mannish” woman like Christina, a woman with narrower hips who had never experienced pregnancy or childbirth, her pelvis would probably differ little statistically from that of a slightly built male.  This exam neither proved nor disproved anything. 

Kristina Augusta Alexandra Maria Wasa (1626-1689)Credit: public domainThe only remaining solution is indeed a long shot. To lay the question to rest requires the slightest chance that viable, uncontaminated DNA for sequencing exists in her remains.  Only then can a genetic profile be made available, and Christina’s “true” biological identity be established.

Sweden’s “Girl King” may have been a mystery in some ways, but she was most definitely an enlightened woman for her times, heroic in her thirst for learning, with an anachronistic (and totally modern) interest in human rights (for Jews, for Protestants, for everyone).  She raised interest in the arts and culture in her country, turning Stockholm from a backwater gulag into a burgeoning center of learning.  She patronized enough artists and musicians in Europe in her lifetime that operas and other musical works were dedicated to her by grateful composers. 

Her character has been re-imagined in films (most notably in the highly fictionalized 1933 Greta Garbo vehicle, Queen Christina) and books right up to the present day, though most tend to treat her as either a straight-up lesbian or a prank-playing cross-dresser, or as a rough hewn tomboy. 

Christina may have been all of those things, or none of those things, but she is beyond any doubt one of history’s most enduring characters, and certainly one of the most fascinating ever produced by Sweden. 


Author’s Note: One final item can be added to the confusion that was Christina.  Royalty’s every activity was noted, recorded, dissected, and pondered.  Nothing went unremarked when it came to a monarch’s personage. And nothing was considered too private, either.  [Bowel movements, for example, were public affairs in the court of King Louis XIV.  On enema days he would hold court for hours while his courtiers stood around in the odoriferous atmosphere of the king’s “cleansing”.] 

At the very least, then, thanks to this breach of royal privacy it can be determined that Christina was in possession of a uterus and a rudimentary vaginal opening: it was recorded that she menstruated regularly.

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