Even those who haven’t read Le Morte d’Arthur or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight probably have some idea of the doings of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. There are few women in these stories, and their roles often leave one wanting a strong, armoured, kickass female, in the vein of Xena or Brienne of Tarth. The only character of that sort who stands out from my childhood reading is Elizabeth, from Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess, who calls her prince a “bum” and dances off into the sunset on her own. You go, girl.
I’d like to propose a complex hero that young people seeking out strong female characters can look up to: Christina, 17th-century Sweden’s own little prince (see our story about a Stratford play based on her life). Christina’s early life, queer in all senses of the word, has the makings of a fantastical children’s story. She was born in Stockholm in early December of 1626 to a warrior-king, Gustav Adolf, and a beautiful but emotionally fragile German princess turned Swedish queen, Maria Eleonora. Preceded by stillborns, an illegitimate brother and a dead sister, whose name she would inherit, Christina was born under stars aligned identically to when her father was born: Leo ascendant, an important sign to astrologically minded people.
A boy had been predicted, one inclined to greatness, so when the healthy newborn gave an “extraordinary, imperious roar,” a boy was pronounced to two relieved parents. Why the mistake was made remains a mystery, though it could be because of ambiguous genitalia, hinting that Christina may have been intersex. When they realized their mistake, the midwives dithered — no one wanted to relay the news to the king. The child’s aunt revealed the mistake to Gustav Adolf by laying the naked baby on his bed the next morning. One story, perpetuated by Christina, has it that the king was not at all disappointed and declared that “this girl will be worth as much to me as a boy” and that “she will be clever, for she has deceived us all.” In actuality, the birth of a girl threw the future of his dynasty into question. Maria Eleonora, taxed by the birth, was not told for months.
Gustav Adolf died fighting for the Protestant-Lutheran alliances against the Catholic Spanish Habsburg forces when Christina was only six, but he left instructions for his daughter to be separated from her unstable mother and to get the “education of a prince.” She proved herself a clever student and developed an inquisitive, if proud and impulsive, mind, perhaps not necessarily the best for ruling. She assumed the throne late in 1644, described at the time as less than five feet tall, beautiful-eyed and uneven of shoulder from an injury in infancy. She spurned all things feminine and was said to walk and sit like a man and eat and swear like a soldier; she often wore a sword on her side, highly unusual for a woman.
Christina once said that she “could not bear to be used by a man the way a peasant uses his fields,” which doesn’t leave much to interpretation about her sexual proclivities, and there were rumours about her lesbianism. The queen had many infatuations throughout her life, both men and women, though one of the more significant in these early years was one of her ladies-in-waiting, Ebba Sparre, whom Christina called Belle. She was the opposite of Christina — feminine, unadventurous, no interest in culture, shy — whereas Christina loved to shock people. One story goes that a French nobleman, a favourite of Christina’s, excused himself from an appointment complaining of illness. Christina and Belle found him in his room with some smutty literature, which Christina recognized and seized on, getting Belle to read a passage aloud, to the lady’s embarrassment and Christina’s delight.
Christina’s later years were equally colourful. Maybe this queen is a bit too bawdy to be the subject of a story like The Paper Bag Princess, but a kickass woman who confounded gender conventions from birth is the kind of story I want to read to my kids.