Kristina: King of Sweden

The painting “Christina of Sweden” by Jacob Ferdinand Voet. It features a portrait of Christina, a white woman with brown hair pulled back with gold pieces. She wears a green and blue dress with gold details, gold earrings, and red lipstick. She smiles just slightly and stares at the viewer with dark eyes. Her cheeks and nose are flushed pink.

The painting “Christina of Sweden” by Jacob Ferdinand Voet. It features a portrait of Christina, a white woman with brown hair pulled back with gold pieces. She wears a green and blue dress with gold details, gold earrings, and red lipstick. She smiles just slightly and stares at the viewer with dark eyes. Her cheeks and nose are flushed pink.

The use of she/her/hers in this article is based on existing information and not an attempt misgender, discredit, or erase any identity she may have chosen for herself.

“I was born, have lived, and will die free.”

– Christina King of Sweden

We've so far looked at simple stories, in that their identities are clear. This is not the case with Kristina of Sweden. There is far more interpretation at play, as there are many labels Kristina may have fallen under. Without her to clarify, we do our best with the information at hand. What we know for certain is that she was not heterosexual, cisgender, and dyadic.

We are not the first to struggle with defining Kristina's gender; it has mystified people since she was born in December of 1626 in Stockholm, Sweden. The nurses initially announced the birth of a son. They took a full day to correct themselves for fear of the king's reaction. King Gustavus Adolphus had been trying for a male heir for some time and was known for his nasty temper. He took the news rather well, surprising most of the country, and decided to make Kristina his heir and treat her as he would a prince.

There are many theories as to how she was identified at birth; some suppose she was just a very hairy baby, while others believe she may have been intersex. An examination of her bones was not conclusive in proving this idea, but it remains a real possibility in the long line of theories about her identity.

Regardless, Kristina did not fall easily into the role of man or woman, breaking gender roles in both directions from a young age and continuing that tradition until the day she died.

In being raised as a prince, she was given the best education and trained in the art of war. According to her father's wishes, she was crowned King of Sweden, but she was a king like none had seen before. People demanded she act more like her father; she was to be decisive and brutal. They expected her to continue The Thirty Years' War against the Catholics. When she denied them war and called for peace, a goal she achieved in a relatively short time, she was encouraged to be more like her mother; sit back and let her advisers and eventually her husband control matters of state. Kristina rejected that expectation firmly.

Though her time as ruler saw many advisers, it's clear that this was because she valued knowledge and new perspectives rather than dependance. She prioritized knowledge and the arts above all else, bringing people from all over Europe to teach and later learn with her. She befriended some of the most educated people of the time and worked to learn just as much as them. She succeeded, amassing Sweden's library during her time as king. She moved the country from a time of war and conflict to one of peace and education. She established the first countrywide school ordinance and started the first newspaper, Ordinari Post Tijdender ("Regular Mail Times"), which continues today as the longest-running newspaper in the world.

Not be swayed to the particularly feminine either, she was known to dress is traditional men's clothing and refused to marry and produce an heir. She was reportedly so vocally disgusted by pregnancy that her ladies-in-waiting would hide their pregnancies to avoid being fired.

To avoid the fate her people wished upon her—namely marrying her cousin—she instead adopted him and named him the prince. Despite the good she brought the country and her skill at doing so, she abdicated the throne to her adopted son after only ten years as king.

Aside from her disgust toward marriage and pregnancy, there may have been further reasons for her avoidance of men. This is where it gets complicated. It is well known that Kristina slept with Ebba Sparre, one of her handmaidens. She introduced Sparre as "my bedfellow" and took little effort to hide it. After their relationship ended, so did Kristina's interest in pursuing any relationships.

It could be she was heartbroken, or she may have been somewhere on the asexual spectrum. It's possible she was demisexual, requiring a strong emotional connection with someone to be attracted to them, and Sparre was one of the few with whom she felt that connection.

Her interest in the Catholic views of celibacy and fascination of the life of the virgin Queen Elizabeth the First may indicate this. When she announced her decision to abdicate the throne, she said to her councillors "I do not intend to give you reasons, [I am] simply not suited to marriage." This seems to indicate more than just a lack of suitable partners. Whatever the reason, she notes in her memoirs that Ebba Sparre was the one love of her life. Even after their relationship ended and Kristina left Sweden, she attempted to reunite with her dear Ebba, only to be blocked by the Sparre family.

That said, it's entirely possible that she was an allosexual person and attracted to women and simply kept her relationships quiet as she got older. It wouldn't be surprising, given the number of nude paintings of women she had adorned throughout her home. It is clear, whatever level of attraction she may have felt, none was for men. She died unmarried and, as relationships with women weren't counted, widely considered to be a virgin.

As for gender, she never settled into an identity, using both king and queen regularly. It's likely that if she had access to modern labels, she might identify as non-binary. Considering that she wore traditionally masculine clothing, openly despised femininity, and at several points worked to pass as a man, it's just as likely she would have identified as a transgender man. Without her input, there is no way to be certain.

We are of the belief that she was a transgender demisexual person, and we welcome alternate theories. An important part of discussing Kristina's life, and indeed many historical queer figures, is to recognize that discussing her identity is not inherently harmful. For one, she is dead. We are not outing her, endangering her, or enforcing a label when she has chosen another for herself. Additionally, it is not harmful to her legacy to suggest that she was transgender, on the asexual spectrum, or attracted to women, because those are not harmful things. Ascribing modern labels to historical events and peoples is a large part of studying history.

We look at our past through a modern lens so we can better understand and learn from it. As this article is not written in Swedish, we've already removed ourselves from the language Kristina may have used for herself. This argument against using modern language when examining historical events seems to come up most often when queerness is introduced. We use "volcano" when discussing Pompeii, but the citizens of Pompeii had no such word for the thing that killed them.

In the end, it is better to tell a story with questions and no real answers than to never tell the story at all. Kristina was a remarkable person, whatever language she would have identified with today, and she deserves to have her story told in whole.

She loved and slept with a woman. She dressed in men's clothes and lived the childhood of a young man. She chose bits and pieces from whichever identities suited her best and never settled for one. She did not feel shame for there is nothing shameful about it. She never hid who she was, and there is no reason for us to do any less than accept her for who: a great and beloved King of Sweden.

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]

Bawer, B. (2004, November 7). ‘Christina, Queen of Sweden’: A Royal Mess. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/07/books/review/christina-queen-of-sweden-a-royal-mess.html

Boothe, K. (2015, December 7). The unconventional reign of Sweden’s queer Queen Christina. Women in the World. Retrieved from https://womenintheworld.com/2015/12/03/the-unconventional-reign-of-swedens-queer-queen-christina/

Buckley, Veronica (2004). Christina; Queen of Sweden. London: Harper Perennial.

Cavendish, R. (2004). Abdication of Queen Christina of Sweden. History Today, volume 54 (issue 6). Retrieved from http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/abdication-queen-christina-sweden

Woods, K. (2003). Christina of Sweden. Kings College. Retrieved from http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/christina.html