December 18, 1626– Christina, Queen Of Sweden
“It is a far greater happiness to obey no one than to rule the whole world.”
In 1626, a Swedish Queen was born and I am not talking about that guy in the kitchen section of Ikea. Her name was Christina and from the moment of her birth, she confounded sexual and gender stereotypes.
Christina’s father, the king, had hoped for a male royal heir, and he raised her as a boy. She was tutored in politics, language and science and was trained to become an expert at using a musket and was a world-class equestrian.
When she was only six years old Christina succeeded her father, King Gustav II Adolph, after he bit the big one at the Battle Of Lützen. In 1644, on her 18th birthday, she was declared an adult and she began to rule Sweden. By this time she was as educated as any male heir would have been and was fluent in eight languages besides Swedish, including English, German, French, Italian and Arabic.
As an adult, she still had no interest in fashion and adopted mannish styles of clothing. She wore men’s shoes for the sake of convenience and never combed her hair. It was written about her: “She walked like a man, sat and rode like a man, and could eat and swear like the roughest soldiers”. She ignored traditional feminine interests and wrote in her memoir:
“I feel an insurmountable distaste for marriage. I feel nothing for all the things that females talked about and did.“
Christina continued to pursue her love of culture, literature and learning while spending most of her time with her BFF, Ebba Sparre, whom she referred to as “Belle” while loudly praising her beauty and extraordinary mind. Christina even introduced Ebba to others as her “bed-fellow”.
In 1649, Queen Christina announced that she had no intention of ever marrying, and in summer 1654, after 20 years on the throne, she abdicated in favor of her cousin Charles Gustav and immediately left Sweden on horseback wearing a man’s clothing.
Christina travelled to Germany and then to Holland before settling in Italy, converted to Catholicism during her trip, and arriving in Rome through the Porta del Popolo in a carriage designed by the great artist/archirect Gian Lorenzo Bernini who went on to become her lifelong pal. During her journey, she kept on writing letters to Sparre telling her that she would always love her.
Except for one very short return visit to Sweden in 1660 upon the death of King Charles X, Christina never returned to her country of birth.
Christina’s dykeishnss did not end with the way she dressed. She had affairs with many women during her lifetime. Besides her beloved Sparre, there was lovely pro golfer Gabrielle de Rochechouart de Mortemart; Rachel, the niece of Diego Teixeira Sampayo, a wealthy Portuguese Jew; and popular singer Angelina Giorgino.
Her life story is pretty darn interesting and too full of stories about her on again/off again relationship with Pope Alexander VII who described Christina as: “A queen without a realm, a Christian without faith, and a woman without shame“(along with four other Popes), for me to go into depth. Interestingly, she became a leader of the Baroque Theatre and Musical scenes, even building her own theatre in Rome, which featured presentations with female singers and actors, defying The Church, where such things were forbidden.
Here is where it gets interesting for me; Queen Christina was portrayed by Greta Garbo in the aptly titled film Queen Christina (1933). It is one of the first films with a main character who is trans, or non-heterosexual, or non-gender-binary, or whatever we call it nowadays. For its time it is a fascinating study of a lesbian onscreen, and of what films were able to get away with before the Hays Code.
The film, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, with a screenplay by the aptly named H. M. Harwood, takes care to hint subtly at Christina’s real-life queerness. The historical evidence mounted so high that in 1965 an archaeological undertaking was commissioned to explore the possibility of Queen Christina being intersex. The results were inconclusive. It is particularly interesting that this part of Christina’s life is included, while less controversial details of her life are fabricated or exaggerated for the film.
The most famous scene in Queen Christina is when Garbo’s Queen kisses a duchess firmly on the lips in a good-morning greeting. You can tell by Garbo’s gorgeous face and her strong acting technique, exactly what this relationship is all about.
And, there is this exchange, between the Chancellor and the Queen:
Chancellor: “But your majesty! You cannot die an old maid!”
Queen Christina: “I have no intention to, Chancellor. I shall die a bachelor!”
In the days before the implementation of the Hays Production Code in 1934, filmmakers had more freedom and artistic control over their work, and many plots, scenes, and situations that seem like they would have been controversial for the era were often depicted before the Code. After the Hays Code went into effect, there were almost no outward expressions of homosexuality, because the Hays Code stipulated that “sex perversion (homosexuality) or any inference to it is strictly forbidden”. The first known girl-on-girl onscreen kiss occurred in 1930 in Marlene Dietrich‘s Morocco.
In Queen Christina, Garbo’s compelling portrayal of the Queen is striking in its physicality, with a cat-like stride, slumped shoulders and decidedly masculine voice. This was not the Garbo that her fans were used to. Interestingly, it seems to be an outward expression of Garbo’s own gayness, which was just barely a secret in Hollywood. She had affairs with many women over the years, including Mercedes de Acosta, whose correspondence with Garbo was released in 2000.
Queen Christina is a unique film with a unique place in Hollywood history. It is not just as an early expression of gayness on film, but also as a veiled hint at the sexuality of Hollywood’s biggest star. It is considered one of the best of the 1930s and probably Garbo’s best performance. But it only takes Queen Christina’s story up to the point just after her abdication.
In The Abdication (1974), with Liv Ullmann, Christina arrives in the Vatican and falls in love with her champion, Cardinal Azzelino. In this one they leave out the gay stuff.
The Girl King (2016) directed by Mika Kaurismäki and written by Michel Marc Bouchard, strikes the right balance with a lot of focus on the hot romance and chemistry between Christina and Ebba. There is even a firelit love scene.
Queen Christina is the subject of five different operas, including Jacopo Foroni‘s Cristina, Regina di Svezia (1849).
The real Queen Christina abdicated life on Earth in spring of 1689. She left her massive library and exquisite art collection to the Vatican, because they needed more books and artwork. She was buried in a crypt somewhere beneath St. Peter’s Basilica and has a prominent monument on display there in her honor. Queen Christina is one of only three women to be so honored in St. Peter’s.