Catholic ambitions

Christina Queen of Sweden: the restless life of a European eccentric

Veronica Buckley <em>Fourth E

Of all our images of Christina, queen of Sweden - as hermaphrodite, lesbian, Swedish hero, patron of the arts - the one that has lodged most firmly in our imagination is that of Greta Garbo gazing out to sea from the prow of a ship in Rouben Mamoulian's 1933 film Queen Christina. Veronica Buckley, however, has little time for Garbo's portrayal of Christina as a beautiful, romantic freethinker. She has produced a far less sympathetic account of an intelligent, impulsive but deeply insecure cultural dabbler and political troublemaker who was acutely aware that she never fulfilled her potential.

Christina's ascension to the throne came at a time when, thanks to the martial prowess of her father, Gustavus II Adolphus, Sweden was establishing itself as the champion of Protestant Europe. Gustavus's death in battle in 1632 brought to the throne his only daughter, aged just five. Although the transition to female rule was fairly straightforward, Christina showed few signs of being an orthodox monarch. Dark, short and with one raised shoulder thanks to a fall as an infant, she compensated for her unprepossessing appearance with a quick wit and boundless energy. She appreciated the economic benefits of peace with Catholic Europe and was instrumental in negotiating the 1648 treaty that ended the Thirty Years War. Unfortunately, she also used the negotiations as a cover to sack Prague and seize the art collection of Emperor Rudolf II.

The plunder marked the beginning of Christina's passion for the arts. Artists, scientists and philosophers flocked to Stockholm to benefit from her patronage although, as Buckley argues, many discovered that the queen's interest in learning was a facade.

The greatest casualty of Christina's creative dabbling was the philosopher Rene Descartes. In effect kidnapped by her troops, he was taken in the winter of 1649 to Stockholm where he provided the queen with philosophy lessons at 5am three times each week, in freezing-cold rooms. He quickly succumbed to influ-enza, and was extravagantly (if belatedly) mourned by the fickle queen.

As Christina's appetite for culture waned, her interest turned to politics and religion. Nominating her cousin Karl Gustav as her heir, she decided to abdicate and convert to Catholicism. She headed for Rome via the Low Countries, provoking public astonishment and political intrigue wherever she went. Pope Alexander VII regarded her conversion as a propaganda coup for the Church, and sought to use her as a pawn in his diplomatic machinations.

Christina quickly swapped her men's breeches for low-cut dresses after she met and fell for Cardinal Decio Azzolino (although, according to Buckley, the relationship was never consummated). Missing the financial security of the crown, in 1656 she became entangled in an anti-Spanish French plot to put her on the Neapolitan throne. This led her to Paris and Fontainebleau, where she was initially hailed as a grand, if eccentric, figure. But once again Christina squandered her political capital by callously and pointlessly ordering the execution of the Marchese Monaldeschi of Naples, her equerry, as punishment for forging letters about her private life. She returned to Rome in disgrace, shunned by the Pope and dismissed as "a queen without a realm, a Christian without faith, and a woman without shame". From the late 1650s until her death in 1689, the drama went out of her story as she concentrated on her relationship with Azzolino, on artistic patronage and on the cultivation of her garden.

Buckley's hefty biography flatters to deceive. Drawing extensively on a handful of secondary sources, it emphasises how Christina's abilities were overwhelmed "by an anxious self-assertion which blinded her to the obvious and led her repeatedly to the extreme". Unfortunately, Buckley too often resorts to anachronistic, novelistic speculation in place of genuine historical detail: pamphlets are described as "irresistibly juicy" but are not quoted; learned women are "bluestockings"; rumours are repeatedly "widely believed" yet never examined; and Christina's self-justifying autobiography is quoted as fact. Buckley's reliance on outdated and unreliable historical sources, as well as the hazy account of the queen's last 30 years, make this a readable but far from definitive biography.

Jerry Brotton is writing a history of the art collection of Charles I

This article first appeared in the 19 April 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Get out now