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Monday, 28 November 2011

Leonora Christina

For the Brimstone Butterfly writing a post often becomes something of a personal voyage of discovery. Thus, it was that a simple description of King William III’s apartments at Hampton Court Palace led me to the extraordinary story of Leonora-Christina, the daughter of Christian IV of Denmark. The latter’s portrait hangs in the Eating Room, Christian IV being the brother of William’s maternal great grandmother. 
Christian IV of Denmark
Having divorced his second wife, Kristen Munk for her alleged adultery, Christian IV married off their 15 year old daughter Leonora in 1637 to Count Corfits Ulfeldt, one of his leading ministers of state. As the child of a morganatic marriage Leonora had no claim to the throne. But as Christian IV’s favourite she had been treated as the de facto first lady of Denmark following her mother’s banishment to her country estates and her own marriage. It was a situation that fuelled the overweening ambition of her husband. As the Danish monarchy of the period was an elective one, Ulfeldt all but ruled Denmark on his own between the death of Leonora‘s father and the election of Leonora’s half brother, Frederick to the throne. This represented the zenith of the couple’s power and prestige making their subsequent fall from grace the more spectacular by comparison. Leonora almost immediately found herself at odds with the new queen, Sophie-Amalie and was reluctant to relinquish her former precedence within the Danish court. The two women indulged in petty rivalries culminating in Leonora, accidentally or otherwise, breaking the crown Sophie Amalie was supposed to wear at her coronation. The resulting animosity between the two women was life long and had dire consequences for Leonora.

The first indication for the Count and Leonora that their fortunes were on the wane was when they charged with plotting to kill the new king. The accusations came from no less a person that Ulfeldt’s own mistress, Dina Vinhofvers, who claimed to have overheard the couple conspiring together. Dina later retracted her confession but it was too late to safe her from execution. It is perhaps to King Fredrick’s credit that he did not seek to take advantage of what later transpired to be a conspiracy against the Ulfeldts, although later he might well have wished he had not been quite so even handed.

Following the execution of his mistress, the count decided to leave Denmark with his wife and family before further attempts were made to discredit them. The family eventually ended up at the Swedish royal court. Sweden and Denmark had long been mortal enemies but that did not stop Ulfeldt from betraying the Danish cause by taking an active role in the Swedish invasion of his native land, even to extent of partially funding it. The Swedes rewarded him with titles but this did not seem to be enough for the Machiavellian Ulfeldt.  Later, he was accused by the Swedes of betraying them in turn and imprisoned. The count managed to evade captivity yet again and took the curious decision to flee to Denmark. Not surprisingly his earlier treachery had not been forgotten and he was promptly imprisoned. Leonora chose to join him, having already shared his privations when they had been fugitives on the run and had even dressed as a man for weeks on end, the better to elude capture. A year later in 1661 the couple were released from jail in return for paying a punitive fine that saw them lose virtually all their property. This was deemed an insufficient punishment by the Count’s enemies who wanted him returned to prison. Still meddling in political intrigues the count tried to persuade the Holy Roman Emperor to invade Denmark. Far from being convinced as to the merits of such a plan, the Emperor told the Danish king of Ulfeldt’s latest act of treachery.

In 1663 Leonora’s husband tried to persuade her to set sail for England and raise money for their beleagued family. In her memoirs she claims she “raised obstacles, and showed him plainly that she should obtain nothing; that she should only be at great expense. She had examples before her which showed her that the King of England would never pay her husband.” Ulfeldt remained adamant He was convinced that her kinsman, King Charles II, would honour the loan her husband had given him when Charles had been in exile on the Continent. King Charles was legendary for his affairs with women. Unfortunately his gallantry did not extend to his Danish cousin once removed. Having expressly invited her to Court, Charles secretly arranged for the Governor at Dover to imprison her at Dover Castle when she tried to return to her husband. It was claimed that she did not have permission to leave England. In reality Charles believed Leonora’s captivity would force her husband out of hiding in a bid to rescue her. Charles had hoped to ensnare both Leonora and her husband. In so doing he would appease the Danish authorities with whom he had signed a treaty, arranged ironically by Ulfeldt, and Charles would also have seen his debt to the Count cancelled if the couple were state prisoners. When Ulfeldt failed to rise to the bait, Charles callously handed over his cousin to her enemies. Back in Denmark the Danish State, being unable to wreck their vengeance on her husband, punished Leonora in his stead and imprisoned her without trial within the notorious Blue Tower at Copenhagen’s Castle. Leonora endured years locked up in a grim rat infested and flea ridden prison cell. She later described her terrible plight in her memoirs. Although her pitiful conditions were somewhat alleviated after a number of years she was 63 before she was finally released, having spent 21 years of life confined within the cramped and squalid Blue Tower. After she had set sail on her ill-fated journey to England Leonora had never seen her husband again. The man whose treachery had caused so much heartache for Leonora and her children, whom she had followed without question into ruin and imprisonment, had died whilst still on the run a year after King Charles II had handed his wife over to the Danes.
A 19th century painting of Leonora in the Blue Tower by Kristian Zahrtmann.
Leonora’s memoirs chronicling her tribulations were published posthumously in the 19th century to great critical acclaim and she became something of a legend in her native Denmark. Kristian Zahrtmann was one of a number of Danish artists who were subsequently inspired by Leonoara's poignant story. In Zahrtmann's case he produced a series of painting based on key events in Leonora's life. An English translation of Leonora’s memoirs by F. E. Bunnètt was first published in London 1872.  Coincidentally, within days of my starting this post, an e-book of Bunnett’s translation was released on Project Gutenberg on 24th November 2011.
Queen Sophie-Amalie
In her memoirs Leonora makes it clear that she believed her old enemy Queen Sophie-Amalie was the main reason why she had endured such terrible conditions for so long. After her husband and Leonora’s half brother, King Frederick, had died Sophie Amalie continued her vendetta despite her own son and his new queen being disposed to treat Leonora more favourably, Leonora wrote:
“My most gracious hereditary King was gracious enough several times in former years to intercede for me with his royal mother, through the high ministers of the State. Her answer at that time was very hard; she would entitle them “traitors”' and, “as good as I was, and would point them to the door. All the favours which the King s majesty showed me — the outer apartment, the large window, the money to dispose of for annoyed the Queen Dowager extremely; and she made the Kings majesty feel her displeasure in the most painful manner”.

When Sophie-Amalie discovered that Leonora had a clavicordium (a musical instrument consisting of 38 keys and 7 strings of equal length) she went straight to the king to order its removal. When the prison governor went to take if from off of Leonora she protested that she had bought it with money the king had given her and therefore if he wanted to confiscate it he needed to reimburse her first. After some hesitation the governor put the instrument down and left. Leonora claimed that the prison governor later admitted that the king had laughed when he was told what had happened and agreed that he had indeed given Leonora permission to spend the money as she had wished. It took the death of the Queen Dowager before Leonora would finally be freed

On May 18th 1685 Leonora was released. She wrote in her memoirs that the prison governor, whom she had not seen for 2 years, came to say goodbye. Accompanied by her niece Leonora left the Blue Tower for the last time. It seemed many Danes came to witness the release of a prisoner whose plight had become legendary. Leonora wrote: 
“Her Majesty the Queen thought to see me as I came out, and was standing on her balcony, but it was rather dark; moreover I had a black veil over my face. The palace-square, as far as the bridge and further, was full of people, so that we could scarcely press through to the coach. The time of my imprisonment was twenty-one years nine months, and eleven days”.

Leonora was given a pension from the new king to enable her to live out of the rest of her life with a small establishment at Maribo, a former island monastery of the Bridgettine Order. This was the same monastic order in whose suppressed abbey at Syon Katherine Howard had been imprisoned a century earlier in England.
Queen Christina of Sweden painted by Sébastien_Bourdon
A film was made about Leonora Christina’s life in 1933. It was overshadowed by Greta Garbo’s own Hollywood film, released in the same year, in which Garbo played the eponymous Swedish Queen Christina In her memoirs Leonora, writing in the third person, relates how Queen Christina, already well acquainted with Ulfeldt, had sought the fugitive couple out:
“In the spring they again made a voyage to Stockholm, at the desire of Queen Chr.... This good Queen, who liked intrigue, tried to excite jealousy and to make people jealous, but she did not succeed. They were in Sweden until after the abdication of the Queen, and the wedding and coronation of King Charles and Queen Hedevig, which was in the year 1654.“
The transvestite Queen Christina must have been intrigued by the Danish Leonora’s own adventures across Europe whilst dressed as a man.

In the 1990s the American born Danish composer, Andy Pape, based his chamber opera “Leonora Christina” on her life. Perhaps the strangest memorial to Leonora, the wife of a Dane who had betrayed his country so emphatically to the Swedes, is a modern ferryboat named after her. Launched earlier this year in 2011, the Leonora Christina carries passengers and cars between those former enemy nations, Sweden and Denmark. The opera, the ferry and the release of the e-book all suggest that there is a resurgence of interest in the Danish Leonora Christina, whose personal history rivals that of more celebrated Tudor queens such as Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey for sheer drama and personal tragedy.

2 comments:

  1. That's a hell of a story! I never knew a word of it before your post. Thank you for your research and writing.

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  2. Hello Petrea,I am surprised it is not better known outside of Denmark. I only came across it by accident and I like to think I am pretty well read where Charles II is concerned. Leonora was just another example of how cynical and ruthless he had become after his years in exile.

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