All the signs pointed to a son, and a son was what was needed. Gustav II Adolf and Maria Eleonora of Brandonburg had already had two daughters, a stillborn girl in 1620 and then the first princess Christina, who was born in 1623 and died the next year. Sweden needed a son. The queen went into labor and the child was born on December 8, 1626 in the midst of a rare astrological conjunction. The child was born “hairy” and screamed with a “with a strong, hoarse voice”. They were convinced it was a boy, but they were wrong. There was deep embarrassment when the midwives had to correct their mistake. The king roared with laughter and said, “She’ll be clever, she has made fools of us all!” They named the little girl Christina and her father adored her. Her mother by all accounts still was disappointed she was was not a son.
King Gustav made sure his daughter was educated for rule, just as he would have done for a son. Christina spent equal time studying as playing sports and hunting. She said later, she had “an ineradicable prejudice against everything that women like to talk about or do. In women’s words and occupations I showed myself to be quite incapable, and I saw no possibility of improvement in this respect”. Tragically, King Gustav was killed at the battle of Lützen when Christina was six. At this point, her mother took a belated interest in the heir to the throne. King Gustav had ruled his half-sister Princess Catherine was to take care of Christina, but her mother banned her sister-in-law from the castle. She also refused to have King Gustav buried and kept the coffin in her room checking the body for signs of decomposing. It was definitely not a healthy place for a young girl. The chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, had to step in and remove Christina from her mother’s care.
Axel Oxenstierna ruled the country while she was under aged, but Christina was referred to as the Girl King at court and had a lively mind. She engaged members of court on any subject that took her fancy. She also loved ballet, opera, theater and riding horses, which necessitated wearing more masculine styles of clothing. At age 9, she read a biography of Elizabeth I of England and it made quite an impression on her. However, she did have a secret engagement with her cousin Charles, but that went by the wayside as she got older. Her studies became more important to her than romance. Eventually, she learned to speak eight languages besides Swedish- German, Dutch, Danish, French, Italian, Arabic and Hebrew. She would study for ten hours a day only sleeping for two and neglecting her dress and hygiene.
Through the French ambassador, Pierre Chanut, she began a correspondence with Rene Descartes. Impressed with the great thinker, she invited him to start a scientific academy in Sweden. Despite sending a ship for the philosopher and his 2,000 books, it became clear the two did not like one another. Ten days later, Descartes was dead of pneumonia, though some had theorized it was from arsenic poisoning. However, Christina was depressed by his death and felt that her “barbaric” country had killed him.
In 1644, Christina was declared and adult and was crowned taking the oath of a king not a queen, as per the wishes of her father. Conflicts with Oxenstierna manifested themselves almost immediately. The main difference was in the Thirty Years war, Oxenstierna wanted the conflict to continue and Christina wanted peace at all costs. Oxenstierna sent his son as Peace Congress of Osnabrück and Münster to represent Sweden, and Christina sent her own representative. Over Oxenstierna’s objections, she became the primer mover behind the Peace of Westphalia.
On 26 February 1649, Christina declared she would never marry and named her cousin Charles, with whom she had a secret engagement earlier, as her heir. Not long after, Christina suffered some kind of a health crisis. Her hectic days of study were not good for her health and she suffered from high blood pressure, pains in her neck, and poor eyesight. Some believe she had a nervous breakdown. Her French physician, Pierre Bourdelot, prescribed rest, warm baths and good meals. He begged her to stop studying and even had all the books removed from her rooms. This gave her time to think, and what she came up with was her duties as queen were too stifling. Christina had long been interested in the teachings of the Catholic church, but in Sweden it was illegal to be a Catholic and punishable by death. Her father was one of the Protestant heroes of the the 30 Years War. But that was what she wanted, so Christina gave it all up.
On June 5, 1654, Christina formally abdicated the Swedish throne leaving it to her cousin Charles X Gustavus. She escaped Sweden and stopped at the Danish border have her hair cut short, strap on a sword and change into the men’s clothing that would henceforth be her attire of choice. She was traveling incognito under the name Count Dohna and headed to Rome. In the Spanish Netherlands, she was greeted by an emissary of the Pope and was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church as Maria Christina Alexandra. She went on to Rome and was feted by Pope Alexander as the darling of the counter-reformation. People turned out in droves to see her and attend her parties and salons at her residence at Palazzo Farnese. Young men were among her admirers giving gossips the opportunity to wag their tongues. One of her favorites was Cardinal Decio Azzolino, and they were so close even the Pope asked that they curtail their visits to one another. Her letters to Azzolino state she would never want to offend or cause him to give offence to God, but “does not prevent me 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”.
Despite having abdicated her throne, Christina never quite lost her taste for ruling. She attempted to take back the throne of Sweden twice as well as take the throne of Naples and Poland. None of these attempts bore fruit, and the intrigues affected her popularity. Despite wanting to rule, Christina was interested in the lives of others not so noble. She was roundly criticized for chatting with shopkeepers and street urchins, and even stayed in the home of a Jew, a huge scandal at the time. She returned to Rome and her dear Azzolino, and kept abreast of new theories and findings until her death on April 19, 1689. Christina was buried in the crypt beneath St Peter‘s Basilica, one of only three women to receive that honor.
Sources available on request