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A Lesbian "Virgin" Queen?

Tue 15 Mar 2005 In: Books

Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) was a figure of controversy and same-sex passions, as well as a capable intelligent ruler, and art conoisseur. She was the only child of Gustav Adolphus, one of her country's greatest military leaders. She admired Queen Elizabeth I as a model of strong, assertive and unmarried female leadership, and like her father, could handle horses and weapons well. At eighteen, Christina became queen in her own right, after a long and capable regency. Shortly afterward, she fell in love with Ebba Sparre, a lady-in-waiting. Unlike Christina, she was reticent, shy and domestic, but she did love her queen. Christina was candid about her relationship, and let it be known that Ebba shared her bed. It seems that despite her aversion to marriage and butch demeanour, she was a popular ruler. When Ebba married, her spouse proved to be less devoted than her monarch and she was soon widowed, returning to the side of her queen. As ruler, Christina had a mixed record. She wasn't the epitome of crown fiscal responsibility, but she did excel at foreign policy. Oddly for the daughter of one of Sweden's greatest soldier-monarchs, she brought the devastating sectarian Thirty Years War to a peaceful conclusion, and secured important territorial gains for Sweden as a result. Before that, she engineered a lightning strike on Prague, intended to secure the cultural and scientific riches of the late Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf. As that episode indicated, Christina was an art conoisseur and interested in the sciences. She revelled in her newfound Titians, Veroneses, Tintorettos, Polidoros and Correggios. She built up a considerable royal library, promoted the study of foreign languages, and lured many contemporary scientists and philosophers to her court. Unfortunately, French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes survived only a year in Stockholm's frosty environment, as he wasn't as hardy as his royal patron, dying in 1650. In that same year, Christina was crowned, but promptly decided that her country needed a stable royal dynasty, although it took time to arrange the succession of her cousin, Karl Gustav. After arranging the transition, she abdicated and fled southward toward Rome. She had converted to Catholicism and professed heterosexual celibacy, as she disdained the idea of dependent femininity within Swedish Lutheranism, the state church. Over the next forty years of her life, Christina's head was turned by many a bluestocking. En route to Rome, she fell for Leonara Ulfield, a Danishwoman who enjoyed wearing male clothing, which tantalised her. Christina followed suit (literally) and cast aside the impediment of unwieldy female clothing for practical, utilitarian and traditionally male clothing. Despite her Roman sojourn, Christina confessed to Ebba that she felt lonely, although she did flirt when she had the opportunity. When she underwent a grand tour of France and the Holy Roman Empire, she met the Marquise Elisabeth de Castellane, a great beauty but doomed figure. Alas for Elisabeth, she was to become the victim of a brutal husband and died tragically young. As in Stockholm, Christina proved an ample patroness of the arts while resident in Rome. She funded theatres, subsidised operas and lured male castrati for her own surrogate court entertainment. She would have subsidised Bernini's sculpture, had it not been for the financial limits imposed by her generous Swedish stipend income. Unfortunately, Pope Clement X proved to be a Counter-Reformation puritan and closed down the Roman theatres and operatic community, as well as forbidding female musicians. Undeterred, Christina embarked on a career as an essayist, and celebrated her friendship with Bernini through commissioning a biography about his life when he passed away. In 1688, she fell for Angellica Quadrelli, a gifted musician who proved adept at harpischord, lute and oboe. As with her earlier loves, Christina enjoyed the devotion of this younger woman, as well as her intellect, talent and sweet temperament, but her end was near. In 1689, she succumbed to stomach cancer and died, and received a lavish funeral from her Catholic hierarchy contacts. I wish I could wholeheartedly recommend Veronica Buckley's otherwise excellent biography, but she should have consulted Emma Donoghue's history of seventeenth to early nineteenth century lesbian communities and figures of prominence. At one point, she asks whether Christina might not have been intersexed, but dismisses that, due to a postmortem medical investigation of Christina's body. However, she seems oblivious to contemporary images of seventeenth and eighteenth century lesbians, which depicted them as either intersexed, or possessing enlarged clitorises. Buckley seems averse to identifying Christina as a lesbian, despite ample evidence to the contrary within her detailed account of her subject's life. Was Christina a figure of unfulfilled promise? She escaped motherhood and celebrated independent womanhood, political ambition and cultural achievement. She led a robust, adventurous and fulfilled life, although she held conservative standards of female 'propriety' and domesticity in contempt. She might have been a gilded European elite figure, but there is much in her life that merits further examination and celebration. Recommended Reading: Veronica Buckley: Christina Queen of Sweden: The Restless Life of A European Eccentric: London: Fourth Estate: 2004. Emma Donoghue: Passion Between Women: British Lesbian Culture: 1688- 1820: London: Scarlet Press: 1991. Craig Young - 15th March 2005    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Tuesday, 15th March 2005 - 12:00pm

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