Thursday, October 27, 2016

So We'll Go No More A-courting - Of an Insane Swede and Elizabeth I

by Anna Belfrage

Back in 16th century Europe, every bachelor prince around had his eyes set on the (initially) young redheaded queen of England. Not necessarily because they were totally blinded by her beauty or admired her wit, but because she was a female ruler of an island quite a few of the prospective grooms would love to get their hands on. They assumed that once wed and bedded, Elizabeth would graciously retire to birth babies while turning over the government of her kingdom to her husband. Elizabeth, as we know, had other plans. Her decision not to marry reflects she was fully aware of how constraining her role as wife would be, and Elizabeth had no intention of being constrained. At all.

All those wanna-be suitors were blissfully unaware of Elizabeth’s disinclination to marry. So, I assume, were Elizabeth’s counsellors, who spent a lot of time presenting various marital options to the queen. Soon enough, the brighter of them cottoned on to the fact that their virgin queen had every intention of remaining both an official virgin and a ruling queen – but she was willing to dangle herself as bait before the prospective grooms if it served England’s interests.

Erik of Vasa
One of Elizabeth’s suitors was Swedish. As per the prevalent opinion, he was a dashing young man, beautiful enough to turn heads on the street. Erik Vasa, Prince of Sweden, not only had legs to die for, but he was well-educated and the heir to the Swedish throne – in itself a new-fangled concept, seeing as up to Erik’s father taking the throne, Swedish kings had always been elected. Erik also suffered from moments of borderline insanity – not something that would have been shared with a future bride.

Erik and Elizabeth had a lot in common; both born in 1533, both of them redheads and members of relatively young royal dynasties, both of them bright and vivacious… the list is quite long. They also had very forceful fathers, but by the time Erik proposed to Elizabeth, hers was long dead while Erik’s father, Gustav Vasa, was very much alive, and not at all in favour of an alliance with England.

Gustav Vasa is an enigmatic character whom people love to hate and hate to love. Brave and principled, ruthless and avaricious, he shares a number of traits with Henry Tudor, foremost among them the fact that he won his crown by conquest, not by undisputed blood-right. After having escaped with his life from the horrors of the Stockholm bloodbath, Gustav Vasa was essentially the only remaining Swedish noble capable of challenging the Danish king (who had annexed Sweden in a most brutal fashion), and challenge him he did, until that propitious day in June of 1523 when Gustav rode into Stockholm to the loud acclaim of the people, there to claim his throne.

Gustav Vasa
People who win their crowns tend to be a tad more defensive of them and their royal prerogatives – some sort of general insecurity, I’d guess. Gustav Vasa set about setting his house in order with fervour, and just like Henry Tudor, he made sure to marginalise those families that could potentially be a threat to his throne. One such family was the Sture family, and it became a constant bogeyman to the Vasa dynasty until our dear Erik, years later, took matters in his own hands and murdered them. (This was during one of his insane period, they say. Huh. I think the man was permanently ridding himself of the competition)

Elizabeth had similar bogeymen – or bogeywomen – and used a similar solution, although she never lowered herself to sullying her own hands with blood. Besides, Elizabeth’s father had done a good job of reducing the number of prospective candidates to the English throne, her sister Mary had done her bit, and so when Elizabeth came to the throne she wasn’t exactly beset by wanna-be kings. One somewhat dangerous relative remained: the handsome and well-educated (if quite dislikeable) Lord Darnley, but Elizabeth pulled the teeth of that particular lion by ensuring Darnley married her Scottish cousin instead. We all know just how unhappy the Darnley – Mary Queen of Scots union was, but at least it produced an heir to the Scottish – and eventually also English – throne.

Elizabeth around 1563
Back to our Erik and his aspirations to add the crown of England to that of Sweden: In difference to Elizabeth, Erik had grown up with numerous siblings in a loud and boisterous family. One of Gustav Vasa’s more attractive qualities was the respect with which he treated his wives (all three of them) and daughters. In fact, the man had a soft spot for strong women in general, so one could have assumed he’d be as taken as Erik with the notion of making Elizabeth his daughter-in-law. Not so. England he dismissed as unimportant, and instead Gustav Vasa wanted his son to contract a good dynastic marriage with, for example, a Danish princess.

Erik in his wooing portrait
Erik sniffed. Dear Papa was an old dodger, and far too concerned with brokering a peace with Denmark. He, Erik, had other plans. He was going to be a modern king, ushering in a new time, an age of learning, of opening Sweden to the influences from the continent. So despite Gustav’s grumblings, Erik proceeded with his long-distance wooing, starting by commissioning a grand painting of himself. This representation, in Erik’s humble opinion, would cause Elizabeth heart palpitations and have her skipping with glee at the thought of tying the knot with such a handsome man. Besides, dear Lizzie had but recently come into her queenship and would be delighted at having a man of such intellectual prowess as Erik by her side. Well…

Erik’s brother, Johan, was sent off to London, there to woo the queen on Elizabeth’s behalf. The portrait was displayed. Elizabeth ooed and aaed, thanked Johan for the beautiful gifts (there was more than the portrait – Erik had a flair for grand gestures) and looked at him from under fluttering lashes when she suggested that brother Erik come in person next time. No matter how handsome the portrait, she ardently desired to lay eyes on her Swedish suitor – as soon as possible.

Mission accomplished, Johan must have thought, high-fiving his companions as he hastened down to their waiting ship. Meanwhile, Elizabeth cast one last look at Erik’s painted features and suggested he be placed in storage somewhere – it would not do to have one suitor hanging on the wall when the next presented himself.

Johan was back in Sweden in April of 1560. Erik was not one to procrastinate. Upon hearing Elizabeth wanted to look him full in the face, be dazzled by his presence, he immediately began planning a trip to England, wanting nothing but to crush his lips to those of his potential blushing bride. A date in August was set, and preparations were going according to plan when Gustav Vasa took a turn for the worse. The old king had been ailing for some years by now, and with his death imminent, Erik, as his heir, could not leave.

Erik's Coronation Mantle
In September of 1560, Gustav Vasa died. Suddenly, Erik had much more on his plate than the pursuit of an English bride. As the new king, he had a country to rule, starting with curbing the power of his half-brothers and preparing for the first ever coronation in Swedish history. So Elizabeth would have to wait – and it wasn’t as if Erik lacked for female company. The young, vivacious king was welcomed with open arms by most women he as much as looked at. He did that a lot – look, I mean.

I dare say Elizabeth was not overly distressed upon hearing her Swedish suitor would not be coming. After all, she too had other, far more pressing, concerns. But she kept the portrait, and it took 350 years or so for it to make its way back to Sweden. I guess that now and then she just had to feast her eyes on Erik Vasa and his oh, so gorgeous legs.

Erik would go on to marry a commoner, imprison his brothers, murder the Sture family, go totally insane, be deposed and locked up by brother Johan, spending years behind walls before he was finally poisoned – as per the legend with an arsenic-laced pea soup. Not, all in all, a happy life. But once, he was young and charming, the whole world an oyster before him. Once, he had hoped to crown that oyster with an English pearl and set off for a Happily Ever After. Fate, as they say, had other plans.

(all pictures in the public domain)

Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exist, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing. 

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. And yes, Hugh Despenser plays a central role.The first book, In The Shadow of the Storm was published in 2015, the second, Days of Sun and Glory, was published in July 2016.

When Anna is not stuck in the 14th century, she's probably visiting in the 17th century, specifically with Alex and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him.

More about Anna on her website or on her blog!

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