Yas, Queens (and Kings)! History’s Most Scandalous Queer Royals: Queen Christina

The gender-bending Swedish sovereign may have abdicated the throne, but she went on to become the baddest bitch of the 17th century.

“Yas, Queens (and Kings)! History’s Most Scandalous Queer Royals” is a weeklong series in celebration of LGBTQ History Month chronicling both queer erasure and monarchal shenanigans of the past.

The word “unconventional” gets thrown around a lot when folks discuss Queen Christina, who ruled Sweden from 1632 to 1654. Refusing to marry, she wasn’t crowned queen until 1650 when she named her cousin as her heir. Then she abdicated the throne four years later after converting to Catholicism. That, however, was just the beginning, as she would scandalize Europe for the next 30 years.

From the jump, Christina rejected gender norms. The midwives at her birth mistook her for a boy, citing her extreme hairiness and “strong, coarse voice.” Christina’s mother, Queen Maria—a fragile, mentally unstable woman—wanted nothing to do with the “dark and ugly” baby with her “great nose and black eyes,” dismissing her as a monster, even though she and the king had previously buried two daughters. King Gustavus, however, embraced his freshly outed daughter, proclaiming, “She’ll be a clever one. She’s fooled all of us!”

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A young Queen Christina.

Because she was the sole heir to the throne of Sweden, King Gustavus insisted that Christina be educated as a prince would be—a rarity, considering what little value has been placed on the education of women since… forever. And so, the young tomboy’s burgeoning masculinity was encouraged, or at least not discouraged. She began dressing in men’s clothing, a habit that stuck with her for most of her life. That’s right, Queen Christina was serving you androgyny, henny, before androgyny was even a thing.

Gustavus died in the Thirty Years War in 1632, effectively making the 6-year-old Christina queen, but she didn’t come into power until her 18th birthday, in 1644. Around this time, Christina met Ebba Sparre, the woman most often connected with the elusive ruler, who much preferred the company of books and learned men. Sparre was different, it seems. The daughter of a prominent political family, she was sent to serve as the queen’s handmaiden.

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Queen Christina’s belle comtesse, Ebba Sparre.

Soon, Christina was referring to Sparre as “Belle,” short for la belle comtesee (beautiful countess), and, tellingly, “bed-fellow,” bragging extensively about her companion’s beauty and brains. Though Sparre was the queen’s favorite, Christina was not swayed by her influence like the other monarchs we’ve discussed. She was far too headstrong for that shit.

Case in point: Christina’s coronation was postponed because of the war, and then because of her aversion to getting hitched. Fond of championing her own masculinity, she wrote in her autobiography of her “insurmountable distaste for marriage” and “for all the things that females talked about and did.” Finally, in 1649, she formally declared her intention not to marry and instead named her cousin Charles as her heir. Swedish nobility were all like, Really, sis?, but everyone else decided to go along with it. As if they had much of a choice.

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The coronation of Queen Christina.

Even as a child, Christina was intrigued by Catholicism and especially by Queen Elizabeth I, who never married for fear of being robbed of her power and agency. So in 1652, she converted to Roman Catholicism, a move that shocked the largely Lutheran country. While this would eventually lead her to abdicate the throne, Christina was also burnt out from ruling and her relentless pursuit of knowledge, which left her with only four hours of sleep a night. In 1654, she gave up her queendom and left Sweden to pursue a life of bohemian pleasures and some good, old-fashioned fuckery.

She went to Rome, upon the invitation of Pope Alexander VII, who was eager to parade around this high-profile Catholic convert. She was a big, fat hit, holding court around town for months, but then she drew the ire of the pope when she took to wearing low-cut dresses as part of some odd courtship with a cardinal that, naturally, didn’t and couldn’t go anywhere. Missing that royal purse, Christina began scheming to become Queen of Naples, as the Italian town was currently without a monarch.

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Christina on horseback, c. 1653.

Christina sought the support of the French in her queenly aspirations, but they were scandalized by her masculine dress and attitude. Meanwhile, one of her most trusted servants was snitching back to the Vatican, and she responded by having him executed in 1657. For the next few years, Christina would be persona non grata in Roma. Nevertheless, she persisted.

In 1660, she tried to reclaim the Swedish throne when her cousin Charles died, but her religion precluded that from being a thing, and she renounced the throne yet again, and went back to Rome, where animosity toward her had simmered down a bit. As an older woman with money, Christina fully embraced her eccentricity, balking at the city’s and the new pope’s conservatism. She promoted free thinking and defended the much-put-upon Jews, and when she founded Rome’s first public theater, she allowed women to perform there—something they were forbidden from doing anywhere else in the city.

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Christina as an older gentlelady.

An iconoclast until the end, Christina was given a lavish funeral when she passed in 1689, even though she’d requested a simple affair. She is one of only three women to be buried in the exclusive papal crypt in the Vatican. A monument to Queen Christina and her contributions to Rome’s cultural life stands in St. Peter’s Basilica, but her influence and “unconventional” legacy loom large to this day. Christina has been the inspiration for countless books, plays, operas, and films, perhaps the most famous being Queen Christina, the 1933 movie starring fellow queer iconoclast Greta Garbo.

Garbo reportedly wanted her film to focus on Christina’s lesbian relationship with Ebba Sparre, but this was Hollywood during the time of the Hays Code, which dictated what could and could not be depicted on screen. While the kiss between Christina and Ebba managed to get past the censors, Christina’s passions and inspirations were flattened; in the film, she abdicated the throne for a man, not for her deeply held convictions. No wonder Garbo left the biz.

Meanwhile, a not-insignificant tidbit: For centuries, rumor had it that Queen Christina was intersex—this was no doubt encouraged by her butch Queen realness. In 1965, her remains were exhumed in hopes of finding any evidence of this; the results proved inconclusive. Still, while her skeleton appeared to have a “typically female” structure, there was pretty much nothing else about Queen Christina that was “typically female.”

Sources
Queen Christina of Sweden, Lesbian Troublemaker
Christina, Queen of Sweden
The Unconventional Reign of Sweden’s Queer Queen Christina

Main image: Greta Garbo as Queen Christina.

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is an LA-based writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat