“Had I but two heads, I would gladly put one at his disposal.”

Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan

The story goes that when Henry VIII of England went a-searching for a new wife, he was told of a beautiful widow, the daughter of a Danish king and a relation of the Holy Roman Emperors. He asked for her hand. Christina, who had been widowed while virtually still a child in 1534, was at sixteen years old in no rush to be re-married and told the English ambassador that if only she had two heads at her disposal, Henry could have the other.

As history attests they were not married. The portrait above, painted by Hans Holbein. had been sent to the English court and to this day hangs in National Portrait Gallery in London, as yet another reminder of the links between the Danish and the English thrones.

Christina, or Christine as we Danes know her, is a fascinating example of the Renaissance princess.

Christina was born in 1521 to Elizabeth of Austria (sometimes called Isabella in English sources) and Christian II of Denmark and Norway. Elizabeth, Christina’s mother,  was born an Archduchess of Austria and an Infanta of Castile and Aragonia, the daughter of Philip I and Joanna of Castile. When she was fourteen Elizabeth travelled to the still Medieval North, to marry Christian, 20 years her elder, and the lover of a common girl, Dyveke Sigbritsdaughter. With Christian Elizabeth had 3 children, Hans, Dorothea and Christina.

Christian II of Denmark

 

In the 1510s and 20s Denmark was very much still a Medieval realm with a strong nobility and a culture of chivalry. Christian II was disliked by his noblemen and the nobility actively fought against his reforms. When Dyveke, Christian’s mistress suddenly died of what some suspected was poison either supplied by Elizabeth’s Dutch family or the Danish nobility trying to break the king. After Dyveke’s death, Elizabeth had three children in about as many years.

Meanwhile, Christian lost power and favour both with his noblemen and with his wife’s powerful family. Among other things he was responsible for the Bloodbath in Stockholm, where he executed noblemen and clergy after having promised them general amnesty.

Finally, on the 13th of April 1523  the king, the queen and their children fled to the Netherlands.  Elizabeth was promised that she could peacefully return, without the king, mind, by the new king, Christian’s German uncle Frederick I.  Elizabeth beautifully declared that “ubi rex meus, ibi regna mea” or “where my king is, there is my kingdom.” In 1524 Elizabeth died, 24 years old. Her 3 children was sent to their aunt, Queen Mary of Hungary, Governess of the Netherlands to be raised. Christian II failed in every attempt to regain his throne and lived out his life under house arrest in Sønderborg Castle.

Elizabeth of Austria

On the 4th of May, Christina was married to the much older Italian duke Frans 2. Sforza of Milan. Christina was only 14 years old when she was widowed in 1435.  With no children to keep her in Milan, and probably without much support from Sforza’s relatives to govern Milan, Christina returned to live with her aunt. By all accounts Christina was quite the favourite of her aunt.

In 1532, Christina’s older brother died leaving Dorothea, Christina’s older sister, the heir to the Danish throne. The Habsburgian family married Dorothea to Frederick II, Elector of Palatine, in the belief that he would suceed in claiming the throne. He tried, but did not suceed and he and Dorothea died without heirs.

Dorothea, Electress of Palatine by Michael Coxcie

 

Dorothea’s marriage left Christina alone in the Netherlands. While widows generally held more freedom than the average married woman in Renaissance times, Christina had been so young at the time of her husband’s death and having returned to her powerful relatives meant that she could not remain unmarried forever. Finally, in 1541, she married Francis I of Lorraine. In a twist of fate, Francis had previously been engaged to Anne of Cleves who married Henry VIII when Christina declined to.

The couple had 3 children, Charles, Renata and Dorothea who, when Christina’s sister Dorothea had no children, became the next claimants to the Danish throne. Francis valued Christina’s political advice greatly. It is probably no coincidence that a girl growing up at a female regent’s court should learn a thing or two about politics.

Sadly, Francis died only 4 years after Christina married him with Dorothea, their youngest child, still an infant. This time Christina stayed in Lorraine as regent until her son Charles would be old enough to reign on his own.

When France invaded Lorraine in 1552, Christina either didn’t have an army or the time to assemble one, and she was forced to pack up her things and her children and flee back to Mary’s court. Here she stayed through to her aunt’s death in 1558, and having worked to be appointed the next regent and governor, she was so angry with the appointment of Margaret of Parma, that mobilised an army and returned to take back Lorraine.

Mary, Queen of Hungary, Regent of the Netherlands

Margaret, Duchess consort of Florence, Duchess consort of Parma, Governor of Habsburg Netherlands

 

Until her son, Charles came of age, Christina served as his regent, and when he did come of age, she continued as his advisor and acted as regent when he was absent. It was also at this time she began styling herself the rightful Queen of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. In the 1550s and 60s she began working towards actually gaining the throne, nevermind that her sister was not yet dead, she would have it for her son.

At this time, her father’s uncle Frederick I had been replaced by first his son, and then his grandson, Frederick II of Denmark and Norway. These three kings were the first Oldenburg kings of Denmark, the dynasty that would continue to reign Denmark until the late 19th century. In theory, Christina did have a claim to the Danish throne, especially as Frederick II resisted marriage for much, much longer than normal at the time. Should he die without heirs, her son would be a contestor for the throne, even if her branch of the family had been beaten back by the new rulers time and time again. And if that wouldn’t work, she had a daughter perfectly suitable for the post of Queen.

Both Christina’s plans to put her son on the throne, and do away with Frederick II, and her plans to marry Renata to him came to nothing. Frederick II would have nothing to do with marriage, and did in fact manage to put it off until he was 38 in 1574, when he married Sophie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, but what changed his mind and how that came about will be the subject of another post.

The news of Frederick’s marriage to a, in all likelihood, fertile and strong young queen who would hardly fail to provide him with an heir, was said to send Christina into a day-long rage. In 1578 she left her son to his duchy, and went to Tortona in Italy, which had been given to her by her first husband. Here she styled herself Madame of Tortona and lived out the rest of her days.

Christina of Denmark, Milan and Lorraine died in 1580, at the age of 59. In a peculiar twist of fate the current Danish, Swedish and Norwegian royalty are descended from her daughter, Renata and her husband William V of Bavaria, so in  a way Christina’s wish to see her family back on the Scandinavian thrones has been fulfilled.

 

Christina of Denmark, 1533.

Renata of Lorraine with her husband William of Bavaria

Charles III the Great of Lorraine

 

 

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