Sunday, July 31, 2011


Here is an interesting book about a relatively little-known historical figure, Christina Queen of Sweden in the 17th century.

Christina was the daughter of a great Swedish King, Gustav Adolph the Great. She was intellectually gifted, spoke languages, conversed with great men of her day, and early on gained a reputation across Europe as a kind of enlightened ruler.

Her invitations to visit the Swedish Court were gladly accepted by Europe’s famous figures, but the results often proved not so happy as might have been expected. One of the century’s greatest intellects, Rene Descartes, made the trip, reluctantly at first but giving in finally to her blandishments, and died at her court. She kept the rooms cold and expected the great man to meet with her at dawn to discuss philosophy.

That event certainly was an early indicator of her rather bizarre personality. And so too, her behaviour after Descartes’ death: she was full of superficial grief and vowed to build an impressive monument, but it was all forgotten shortly, a pattern of behaviour she repeated many times.

Christina proved an inept ruler, indeed she abdicated because she had no interest in the genuine work of ruling. She proved a person of less than shining ethics, a generally confused person, likely suffering from mental illness.

Christiana decided to become a Catholic, and her abdication of the throne of stoutly Protestant Sweden is closely associated with that fact. After carefully arranging matters like the succession and the revenues she would receive for the rest of her life, Christina travelled to Rome to meet and be welcomed by the Pope, who, naturally in view of the times - the Thirty Years’ War from 1618 to 1648 - viewed her conversion as a victory for Catholicism.

The Pope and every other great person she met contributed to her extravagant and expensive lifestyle – Christina was never ashamed to take large handouts from the great and powerful, and indeed she actively solicited them.

Almost everyone who had close dealings with her came to regret it. Her appearance at times was outlandish and bizarre, her behaviour was quite offensive at times, and there seemed no consistency to her except the need to be deemed royal, treated as royals should be treated, and to do in most things pretty much as she pleased.

Her exploits included having a servant who displeased her killed on the spot, quite a scandalous episode in its day. After all her talk about Catholicism and taking the Pope’s hospitality, at times Christina talked as though she were no longer interested in being Catholic. After abdicating the throne of Sweden, she played many intrigues in Rome and in France to try landing herself another crown. When she thought she was being cheated by Sweden on her lifetime payments, she travelled all the way back in an effort to get what she felt entitled to.

Christina’s example perhaps best tells us how good it is that we are beyond the times of powerful rule by inheritance. The good of her people played virtually no role in her thinking, and her conviction that royal blood meant a lifetime of privileged treatment even when you weren’t assuming any of the responsibilities associated with the privileges is one that is utterly alien to us.

The writer does a sound and competent job on an interesting subject, but the writing is not elegant, and one definitely gets the feeling that the author avoids saying things directly, things which should be said. For example, Christina’s sexual life is left rather ambiguous. There are clear signs that she was homosexual, including a pronounced mannish appearance, but I think the author needed to examine this more carefully if she was going to deal with it at all.

So too her relationship with Cardinal Decio Azzolino, called the great love of her life, is left to me unsatisfactorily explained. One definitely questions whether Christina was capable of loving anyone.