Maria Eleonore of Brandenburg (1599-1655) was born into the Hohenzollern family on November 11, 1599.
Her father was Elector Johann Sigismund of Brandenburg (1572-1619), and her mother was Anna (1576-1625), heiress of Prussia. Maria Eleonore's maternal grandfather was the last mad Duke of Prussia and her maternal grandmother was a sister of the last mad Duke of Cleves. Maria Eleonore's brother, George Wilhelm (1595-1640), suffered from melancholy and repeatedly lost his consciousness. As Elector,
Maria Eleonore's father, Johann Sigismund of Brandenburg, was an indolent glutton and drunk. Due to his corpulence he was often short of breath, and his action radius was further reduced by gout. Still, his reign was a fairly happy one. In 1614, he issued an Edict of Tolerance to uphold religious freedom. He converted from Lutheranism to Calvinism, but allowed his wife and children to remain Lutherans. Near the end of his life, he suffered several strokes that left him increasingly debilitated.
Maria Eleonore's mother, Anna of Prussia, was as dominant and energetic, as her husband was indolent. When the Hohenzollern couple had a row, plate was often broken. The Elector Johann Georg I of Saxony (1585-1656), who had married Anna's sister, once wrote to Johann Sigismund that, if his wife would vex him
In 1616, 22-year-old King Gustav II Adolph of Sweden (1594-1632)1 started looking around for a Protestant bride. He received reports with the most flattering descriptions of the physical and mental qualities of 17-year-old Maria Eleonore. Elector Johann Sigismund was well inclined towards the Swedish King, but he had become very infirm. His determined Prussian wife showed a strong dislike for this Swedish suitor, because Prussia was a Polish fief and the Polish King still resented that he had lost Sweden to Gustav Adolph's father.
Maria Eleonore had additional suitors in young William of Orange, Wladislaw Wasa of Poland, Adolph Friedrich of Mecklenburg and even the Prince of Wales2. Maria Eleonore's brother, George Wilhelm, was flattered by the offer of the British Crown Prince and proposed their younger sister Katharina (1602-1644) as a more suitable wife for the Swedish King. Maria Eleonore, however, seems to have had a preference for handsome Gustav Adolph (to the right). For him, it was a matter of honour to acquire the hand of Maria Eleonore and none other. He had the rooms of his castle in Stockholm redecorated and started making preparations to leave for Berlin to press his suite in person, when a letter arrived from Maria Eleonore's mother to his mother. The Electress demanded in no uncertain terms that the Queen Dowager should prevent her son's journey, as "being prejudicial to Brandenburg's interests in view of the state of war existing between Sweden and Poland". Her husband, she wrote, was "so enfeebled in will by illness that he could be persuaded to agree to anything, even if it tended to the destruction of the country". It was a rebuff that verged on an insult.
Maria Eleonore's father (to the left) died on December 23, 1619, and with him the prospect of a Swedish marriage seemed gone. In the spring of 1620, however, stubborn Gustav Adolph arrived in Berlin. The Electress Dowager maintained an attitude of reserve and even refused to grant the Swedish King a personal meeting with Maria Eleonore. All those who were present, however, noticed the Princess's unconcealed interest in the young King. Afterwards, Gustav Adolph
The new Elector, George Wilhelm, who resided in Prussia, was appalled when he heard of his mother's independent action. He wrote to Gustav Adolph that for the present, until Sweden and Poland had settled their differences, he refused his consent. It was the Electress Dowager, however, who, in accordance with Hohenzollern Family custom, had the final word in bestowing her daughter's hand in marriage. She send Maria Eleonore to Brunswick territory4, out of George Wilhelm's reach, and subsequently concluded the marriage negotiations herself.
Anna of Prussia provided herself with a selection of objects of value from the exchequer, before she joined Maria Eleonore in Brunswick. A detachment of the Swedish fleet took the women over to Kalmar, where Gustav Adolph was impatiently awaiting them. The wedding took place in Stockholm on November 25, 1620. Three days later 21-year-old Maria Eleonore was crowned Queen
Gustav Adolph shared Maria Eleonore's interest in architecture and her love of music. She was pretty and her manner was lively, giving an impression of girlish gaiety. She had immediately fallen in love with her husband, and often lamented that she never had her hero for herself. Foreign ambassadors found her gracious and beautiful and she had good taste, although her character showed some extravagant traits. Maria Eleonore (to the right) had a definite liking for entertainment, and soon she succumbed to the then fashionable craze for buffoons and dwarfs.
Within six months of their marriage, Gustav Adolph left to command the siege of Riga, leaving Maria Eleonore in the early stages of her first pregnancy. She lived exclusively in the company of her German ladies-in-waiting and had difficulty in adapting herself to the Swedish people, countryside and climate6. She disliked the bad roads, sombre forests and wooded houses, roofed with turf. She also pined for her husband. A year after their wedding, she had a miscarriage and became seriously ill. She was tempestuous, excessive, neurotic and jealous. She was often given to language of unthinking violence, and she did not spare her husband, even if there were strangers present. Her emotional life lacked balance, and everything Maria Eleonore undertook on her own initiative needed careful watching. Soon Gustav Adolph's intimi knew that his married life was a source of grief and anxiety.
In the autumn of 1623, Maria Eleonore gave birth to a daughter, but the baby died the next year. Maria Eleonore passed a sad winter, while her beloved husband was too often preoccupied and too often away. In February and April her younger brother and mother died. Maria Eleonore, pregnant again, was deeply affected, and for some weeks lay sorrowing and ill, mourning her beloved.
Gustav Adolph's younger brother had been killed in battle in Poland, so the only surviving male Wasa heirs were the hated King of Poland and his sons. With Gustav Adolph risking his life in battles, an heir to the throne was anxiously awaited. In May 1625, Maria Eleonore insisted on accompanying her husband on the royal yacht to review the fleet. There seemed to be no danger, as the warships were moored off just opposite the castle, but a sudden storm nearly capsized the yacht. The Queen was hurried back to the castle, but when she got there she was heard to exclaim: "Jesus, I cannot feel my child!" Shortly afterwards the longed-for heir was born dead.
Maria Eleonore's behaviour now became increasingly eccentric. She indulged in sweet foods, and spend lavish gifts on her favorites that the treasure could not affort. She spoke French, the court language of the age, but never bothered to learn to write Swedish correctly, and even became incapable of speaking her native German correctly. She confused syllables and made up strang concoctions of words. This unusual difficulty with language suggests a possible neurologial problem. During one of her confinements, she may have suffered some kind of stroke7. Whatever the reason, her muddled speech no doubt added to Maria Eleonore's growing sense of desperation.
With the renewal of the war with Poland, again Gustav Adolph had to leave his wife. It is likely that she gave way to hysterical grief, as she did in 1627. The King let the Queen join him in Livonia after the Poles had been defeated in January 1626. By April, Maria Eleonore found she was again pregnant. No risks
It is likely that the experienced midwives were confronted with some kind of genital malformation. Although the baby had been born before midnight, the midwives waited until the morning to make their final - altered - decision that it was a girl. It was left to Gustav Adolph's half-sister, Katharina (1584-1638), to inform him about the mistake. She "carried the baby in her arms to the King in a condition for him to see and to know and realise for himself what she dared not tell him". Gustav Adolph remarked: "She is going to be clever, for she has taken us all in" 8. His disappointment didn't last long and he decided that she would be called Christina after his mother. He gave orders for the birth to be announced with all the solemnity usually accorded to the arrival of a male heir. This seems to indicate that Gustav Adolph, at the age of 33, had little hope of having other children. Maria Eleonore's state of health seems to be the most likely explanation for this9. Her later portraits and actions, however, do not indicate that she was physically fragile.
Shortly after the birth, Maria Eleonore was in no condition to be told the truth about the baby's gender, and the King and court waited several days before breaking the news to her. She screamed: "Instead of a son, I am given a daughter, dark and ugly, with a great nose and black eyes. Take her from me, I will not have such a monster!" She may have suffered from a post-natal depression, because in her madness the Queen even tried to hurt her own child. In her early childhood Christina
In the year after Christina's birth, Maria Eleonore is described as being in a state of hysteria owing to her husband's absence. In 1632, Gustav Adolph described his wife as being "a very sick woman". There was some excuse for her; she had lost three babies and still felt herself an isolated foreigner in a hostile land, even more so after 1627 when her brother joined Sweden's enemies. Meanwhile, her husband's life was constantly in danger, when he was on campaign. In 1627, Gustav Adolph had been both ill and wounded. Two years later, he had a hairbreadth escape at Stuhm. Maria Eleonore wrote: "When I know that my most beloved lord is coming, then all my sickness and panic fall away".
Gustav Adolph was devoted to his daughter and tried to rear Christina as a boy. At the age of two, she clapped her hands and laughed with joy when the great cannons of Kalmar Castle boomed out the royal salute. Afterwards, Gustav Adolph often took his little daughter with him to military reviews. Maria Eleonore showed little affection for her daughter and was not allowed any influence in Christina's upbringing. The Princess was placed in the care of Gustav Adolph's half-sister, Katharina, and the Chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna.
In 1630 Gustav Adolph believed that Habsburg designs for Baltic supremacy threatened Sweden's very existence and also its religious freedom. Before he left to join the Thirty Years War, he discussed a possible regency with members of the government and admitted to them that his wife was "a miserable woman". Even so, Gustav Adolph could not bring himself to nominate a regency council in which her name did not appear. To Axel Oxenstierna, he confessed: "If anything happens to me, my family will merit your pity [..], the mother lacking in common sense, the daughter a minor - hopeless, if they rule, and dangerous, if others come to rule over them."
During the next two years Gustav Adolph marched across a devastated Germany, conquering Pomerania and Mecklenburg. Early November he went to Erfurt to say goodbye to Maria Eleonore, who had been in Germany since the previous winter. In the battle of Lützen 39-year-old Gustav II Adolph was shot in the back. He fell and was dragged for some distance by his horse. He managed to free himself from the stirrup, but while lying on the ground "The Lion of the North" was killed by another shot through his head. By nightfall both armies were exhausted, but Bernard of Saxe-Weimar (1604-1639) and the Swedes had captured all the Imperial artillery
The King's body was embalmed and taken to Wolgast. Passage across to Sweden was impossible, because the Baltic Sea was frozen6. Seeing his lifeless form, Maria Eleonore (to the right) gave way to enormous grief. She clung, often literally, to her husband's remains, and her attendants began to fear for her reason. She wrote: "Since We, God pity Us, were so rarely granted the pleasure of enjoying the living presence of His Majesty, Our adored, dearest master and spouse, of blessed memory, it should at least be granted to Us to stay near his royal corpse and so draw comfort in Our miserable existence". Gustav Adolph's heart had already been taken out to be seperately preserved; Maria Eleonore kept it with her constantly. At night, it hung above her bed, while she continued weeping for months.
It wasn't until August 1633 that the King's body finally returned to Sweden. In Nyköping 7-year-old Queen Christina came in solemn procession to the ship to receive her mother. Later she wrote: "I embraced the Queen my mother, she drowned me with her tears and practically smothered me in her arms." Maria Eleonore had her husband's coffin placed in her own bedroom. It remained unsealed, and it seems that it was regularly opened. For more than a year, Maria Eleonore condemned her active, spirited little daughter to an appalling mourning seclusion in rooms draped with black and lit by candles day and night, from which every ray of light was excluded. She made her daughter sleep with her in a bed over which her father's heart was hung in a golden casket. Sermons and pious orations continued endlessly. Things were made worse by Maria Eleonore's continual weeping
In the summer of 1634, after many delays and constant opposition by Maria Eleonore, the great King's body was finally interred in the Riddarholm Church in Stockholm. Within a day of the interment, Maria Eleonora pleaded for the coffin to be opened again. Maria Eleonore had plunged into a prolonged crisis of hysteria and reveled in her grief. She found it more difficult than ever to conceal her dislike of Swedish "rocks and mountains, the freezing air, and all the rest of it". During the rest of her life she pathetically preserved the memory of her hero husband. She used to weep for hours and even days on an end. When the regency council tried to separate Christina from her mother, Maria Eleonore wept and protested so bitterly that nothing was done. Queen Christina later wrote about her mother: "She carried out her role of mourning to perfection". The long and dreary ceremonies and all the sad people were "far worse for me than the King's death itself," she added.
Finally, in the summer of 1636, Maria Eleonore officially lost her parental right to her daughter, because at times she was completely out of her mind. She was taken to Gripsholm castle, a fortress perched on an island in a lake. Nearing 40, she remained pretty with a "truly royal figure". In 1639 a letter written by her and intended for Sweden's archenemy, the King of Denmark, was intercepted. After a summons, Maria Eleonore appeared at her daughter's court in a flood of tears in the summer of 1640. Queen Christina (to the right), 13 years old, reasoned with her mother and dissuaded her from taking up residence at Nyköping near Denmark. Afterwards, Maria Eleonore returned to Gripsholm. To undertake one of her periodic fasts, she retired to the seclusion of her own apartment, accompanied by only one of her ladies. At night the two ladies let themselves down from a window and were rowed in a boat to the other side of the nearby lake, where a carriage was waiting for them. They drove to Nyköping, where they boarded a Danish ship.
In Denmark Maria Eleonore became the guest of King Christian IV. The Elector George Wilhelm refused to receive his sister in Brandenburg, so Maria Eleonore had to wait until his death in December that year before her nephew gave her permission to visit Brandenburg. Still, the new Elector insisted that Sweden should provide for his aunt's upkeep. She received a small pension of 30,000 écus a year. After a while Maria Eleonore, surprisingly, started to long for Sweden. In 1648 she returned. Queen Christina went to meet her mother's ship. It was delayed by a storm and the young Queen slept in the open for two nights and contracted a fever, which kept her in bed for some days. In October 1650 Maria Eleonore proudly attended her daughter's postponed coronation ceremony.
Early 1654 Christina shocked everyone with her decision to convert to the Catholic faith and abdicate in favour of her cousin, Charles Gustav (1622-1660)10. Maria Eleonore (to the right) couldn't understand her daughter's action and had grave doubts about its possible effect upon her own finances. She was miserable about the whole situation, when the cousins visited her in her residence at Nyköping in April. Christina and Charles Gustav promised the Queen Dowager that she would be provided for. Thus, Maria Eleonore witnessed her daughters' abdication, and passed her last months in bleak half-mourning, lamenting her daughter's decision. She died the following year. At that time, ex-Queen Christina was touring across Europe, wearing a man's suit.
Copyright © 2002, 2008 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.