Queen Christina of Sweden – Defying gender roles in the 17th Century

We often think of the breakdown of gender stereotypes as being a modern concept, something very 21st century as the world becomes, little by little, more accepting of differences to gender. There’s still a long way to go before the prejudices are truly a thing of the past but is the breakdown of these prejudices really a modern thing?

When studying a small girl’s waistcote and looking at just how much it resembled the restrictive nature of the adult equivalent, member of the regiment Beth Parker decided to look into the life of the little girl who this waistcote belonged to and found a very interesting character indeed.

The waistcote belonged to two-year-old Princess Christina, only child of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, who lived her life defying the gender stereotypes of the time, showing that maybe the breakdown of these prejudices isn’t such a modern thing. Beth found out a lot about Christina’s unconventional life and wrote the following:

‘In 1626, midwives confirmed the birth of a male heir to Sweden and the news was rushed to King Gustav Adolphus. There had been a mistake, however, the baby was female and to inform the King, his sister wordlessly brought the naked princess to his arms. The King laughed and said “She’ll be a clever one, she has fooled us all!”

Christina would go on to become queen in 1632 after the sudden and unprecedented death of Gustavus Adolphus at the Battle of Lützen. Confirming her father’s prediction, Christina became known as one of the most educated women of the 1600s by surrounding herself with only the most eminent forgeign scholars, musicians and philosophers and acting as a great patron of the arts.

As a woman holding significant office in a patriarchal society, Christina was expected to marry, to produce heirs to the throne of Sweden. However, citing Elizabeth I of England as her great inspiration, she rejected the overlordship of a husband and consistently refused to marry. A lack of heirs ensued (legitimate or ilegitimate) as she verbally abhorred heterosexual sex for the physical submission of women.

She was a crack shot and as tough as old leather boots, swore like a trooper, enjoyed vulgar humour and revelled in traditionally masculine sports such as hunting and fencing. In fact, Christina despised all things feminine and subverted expected gender roles for early modern women.

According to early modern feminine ideals, Christina was no true beauty. She had a large nose, a deep voice and lopsided shoulders as the result of a badly healed collarbone but most interestingly, she insisted on wearing male apparel.

Keeping the confusion of her gender upon her entry to the world in mind, it comes as no surprise that her gender and sexuality became the source of extensive international comment and speculation. Sweden was a deeply Lutheran country during the Thirty Years War, a faith which Christina had dismissed as overly simplistic. In truth, Christina had been planning to convert to Catholicism, a decision which resulted in her complete abdication from the Swedish throne in 1652. She then moved to Rome where Christina would spend her days collecting paintings and acting as a munificent patron of music and the arts, supporting Scarlatti and Corelli (composers) and Giovanni Bernini (sculptor and architect). She also founded the ‘Academia dell’Arcadia’ for literature and philosophy and wrote her autobiography before dying in her Roman palace in 1689, aged 62.

Queen Christina was brought to my attention when, as I was researching gored ladies’ waistcotes of the period, this stunning 1628 example came up. What is particularly striking about this garment is that it is a miniature replication of a resonably restrictive adult fashion for a two-year-old Christina. A woman who would throw off and deny the restrictions of society and it’s prescriptions for her sex to decide her own destiny. Within the seams of this very waistcote sat an extraordinary child of great potential, one who would fool us all.’

So maybe the concept of breaking down gender roles and stereotypes isn’t such a modern thought after all. There are lots of other examples of it right the way through history but Christina’s life shows that it was happening in the 17th Century, a time where religion was at the forefront of society and gender norms were deeply rooted into society.

Thanks to Beth Parker for taking the time to write this brilliant insight into the life of someone who was proud to have stood out from the crowd.

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