By Amy Saunders
For the third of our #PrideMonth posts, we have a special guest post from historian Amy Saunders on the iconic Christina of Sweden!
Christina of Sweden (1628-1689) inherited the throne at six years old after the death of her father Gustavas Adolphus King of Sweden. Christina’s biological sex was called into question at her birth when it was initially announced that Queen Eleanora had given birth to a son and heir. Soon after the queen’s attendants decided they had made a mistake and the king’s sister had to inform Gustavas that the baby was female. Although a woman could inherit the throne in Sweden it had only happened once before 1628 and a son would have been preferred. Prior to giving birth to Christina, Eleanora had several difficult and unsuccessful pregnancies, this, combined with Gustavas being away fighting in the 30 Years War, meant that they had no more children.
Later, Christina’s cross dressing, her self-declared disinterest in marriage, her relationship with Ebba Sparre and her traditionally-gendered-masculine interests, such as fencing and hunting, all fed into a seventeenth-century image that we would today term as queer. As Gabby discussed in the last Pride month #teamqueens blog, the terminology that we use today to describe gender and sexuality such as homosexual, heterosexual, transgender, and queer did not exist in the early modern period. Christina would not have self-identified as lesbian or bisexual or as gender fluid, as these terms had not been coined in the 1600s. Despite the lack of terminology, Christina’s gender and sexuality was frequently commented upon by her contemporaries and these aspects of her life have been seized upon by modern writers of historical fiction.
Christina’s abdication and conversion to Catholicism made her a celebrity in her own age. She was so well-known that her masculine interests and outward appearance led to a Vatican-run propaganda machine that aimed to align her with Catholic virginal saints in the hope that this would mitigate her gender ambiguities.
Christina’s dramatic narrative has inspired numerous biographies, fictional plays, films, and short stories. This post introduces three films that reimagine Christina’s story for three different audiences from the 1930s to modern day. These films reflect the times in which they were created and this post hopes to encourage you to explore some of these fascinating films for yourself. Warning: spoilers ahead!
Queen Christina, starring Greta Garbo, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1933.
This 1933 film starts with Christina, dressed in men’s clothing, kissing Ebba Sparre. While this could have been an early celebration of same-sex love, Christina is quickly re-aligned to heteronormative ideals.
At the start of the production, Christina is depicted as having traditionally masculine interests and enjoying male humour. She uses her crossdressing to facilitate activities not available to her as a seventeenth-century woman and to play practical jokes on strangers. In this moment of fast-paced tenderness with Ebba, a modern audience might assume that Christina’s sexual and romantic interests are in women. However, it is quickly reinforced that despite her clothing and outward displays of affection towards Ebba, Christina is sexually attached to men, sleeping with a Spanish Ambassador.
This Ambassador, Antonio, ultimately becomes Christina’s love interest and they break societal expectations by having a sexual relationship outside of marriage. There’s a very Shakespearean Twelfth Night moment when Christina and Antonio meet, where he believes her to be a young man and is clearly confused at his obvious attraction to the stranger. As with Orsino and Viola, Antonio sees this as humorous and as a wonderful surprise when Christina’s sex is revealed.
To Christina, Antonio represents freedom and a different world that will offer her new opportunities that she does not find in Sweden and as queen. Although Antonio tells her many things about Spain that make her want to leave Sweden and attract her to a Mediterranean lifestyle, it is ultimately a man that shows her what life can be and therefore a man that is the catalyst in this narrative.
For 1933, this film challenges gender expectations and highlights female sexuality. The queen’s sexual encounters with men outside of marriage are widely spoken of but not used to discredit or depose her, whilst her potential interest in women is not discussed openly despite being very present prior to her relationship with Antonio.
The Abdication, staring Liv Ullmann, Warner Bros., 1974
Whereas Queen Christina charts the events immediately prior to Christina’s abdication in 1654, The Abdication focuses on her initial arrival in Rome and her acceptance into the Catholic faith. Christina’s historical decision to abdicate was motivated by several factors, which for reasons of space will not be discussed here. Her choice to throw herself on the mercy of the Catholic church was, however, not only motivated by religious desire but also by the lifestyle that she believed she could have as one of the Catholic elites in Rome.
Liv Ullmann’s Christina is tormented by her past with flashbacks to her difficult childhood trying to appeal to the physiological interests of the 1970s. However, just like Garbo’s Christina, Ullmann’s queen finds comfort in a man, and it is a man who acts as the catalyst for the development of her personality and shows her the way to a better life. Nora Sayra, who reviewed the film the week it opened, complained that Christina “is presented here as a love‐starved waif who needs only a great passion to wash out all her early traumas.” I’m inclined to agree with Sayra. At the end of the film Christina and Cardinal Azzolino’s love, which is already forbidden by their positions of ex-queen and Cardinal, is further denied through Azzolino’s elevation to Pope. Here Christina’s sexual and romantic desires have been denied her, but her life has been forever changed by the interventions of a man.
Christina, the Girl King, starring Malin Buska, Marianna Films, Triptych Media, Starhaus Filmproduktion, & co., 2015.
Finally, the most recent reimagining of Christina’s life, like its predecessors, is influenced by the men around her, but MalinBuska’s Christina distinctly attempts to pursue her own path, demonstrating her own agency and will throughout. The film follows Christina from her childhood to her abdication and suggests that from an early age her councillors encouraged her to act like a prince. In the film, Christina struggles with her gender identity, finding that her upbringing and personality conflict with the new expectations placed upon her as an adult female ruler.
Christina is surrounded by male suitors, whose depth of love is hard to gauge. Her cousin Karl’s love could be genuine, or he could be an archetype of toxic masculinity who is threatened by her free will. Johan Oxenstierna may be interested in Christina as a person, but her position as queen is also important to him and that his desire to marry her may be based more on her ability to make him a king than her own personality. Finally, there is the overdressed Count Magnus de la Gardie.
Chirstina seeks answers to religious, moral, and philosophical questions in an attempt to understand her own position as queen, her sexuality and desires. Her love for Ebba, which starts as an instant physical attraction, soon evolves, and they begin a passionate physical and romantic relationship. Christina’s love for Ebba is used against her and Ebba is manipulated by the powerful and religious men around her into seeing their relationship as wrong and sinful. Here, Ebba is forced into a heterosexual marriage and into following societal expectations placed on women. Christina views this as betrayal and a weakness, but the viewer feels nothing but sympathy for the threatened and fearful Ebba.
Christina ultimately ends up alone, riding off into the sunset. Whilst all the films end in a similar scene, there’s a sense in Christina, The Girl King, that her exit is as a free and independent woman and as a person more in control of her own destiny than she has ever been before.
Apart from featuring Christina as a central figure, these films all demonstrate that ideas around gender and sexuality can be challenged, reinforced, and celebrated through historical fiction. These films allow Christina to be reconstructed as a human being the audience can understand and connect to, despite the almost 400 years that separate the viewer from the subject. They enter the world of seventeenth-century Europe, allowing the viewer to exclaim with interest as famous people or paintings appear on screen, and to see the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism as it played out in the lives of real people. These films are a fascinating and thought-provoking introduction to the life of Christina of Sweden and are excellent Pride Month watches, in addition to the suggested readings, watching’s and listening’s below.
Amy Saunders, Alex Churchill, and Charlotte White, Christina of Sweden, History Hack podcast: https://historyhack.podbean.com/e/history-hack-christina-of-sweden/, (2021).
Amy Saunders and Nicola Tallis, Christina of Sweden, History Gems podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/queen-christina-of-sweden-with-amy-saunders/id1541852649?i=1000521419502, (2021).
Jo Strong and Amy Saunders, Queens on Screen, History Indoors: (2021), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G1k5h8KF-q4&list=PLWWcq_1DDryRyBvkcbzaWi3J_9i_PZHZ4&index=12&t=3s.
Margaret A. Kuntz, “Questions of Identity: Alexander VII, Carlo Rainaldi, and the Temporary Facade at Palazzo Farnese for Queen Christina of Sweden” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 58 (2013), 143-179.
Sarah Waters, “‘A Girton Girl on a Throne’: Queen Christina and Versions of Lesbianism, 1906–1933” Feminist Review, vol 46. (1994), 41-60.
Veronica Buckley, Christina, Queen of Sweden: The Restless Life of a European Eccentric, (Harper Perennial: London, 2005).