Even by the eccentric standards of European royalty, Queen Christina of Sweden (reigning from 1633-1654) stands out as unique. Like Elizabeth I, a Queen who never married, Christina provided Sweden with a successor by abdicating her crown, famously professing an “insurmountable distaste” for the idea of matrimony, the marital act, and “all the things that females did and talked about.” A masculine woman who favored male dress and seemed to challenge gender expectations her life long, numerous “labels” have been attached to Christina in explaining her mystique, including (in her own time) “Hermaphrodite,” and (in our own) “Lesbian.” Perhaps it is not an accident that one of the screen’s most inscrutably beautiful actresses, Greta Garbo (also a somewhat androgynous woman whose name invariably turns up- along with Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead- whenever the subject of “Sapphic Hollywood” arises), delivered one of her most memorable performances in 1933′s Queen Christina: like Dietrich’s Morocco, an interesting early talkie in which the lead actress kisses another woman on the mouth. (Best moment: when Christina’s minister protests that “Her Majesty must not die a spinster,” and Garbo responds with her signature accent, “But I shall not! I shall die a bachelor!”) The final shot, of the Queen taking leave of Sweden forever, is arguably Garbo’s most iconic; the director supposedly asked her to keep her mind a complete blank, to try not to hold a single thought in her head- he wanted that beautiful and secretive face to be an empty canvas onto which the audience could paint their own impressions of Christina’s feelings.
The unconventional Swedish Queen becomes pertinent when considering her actions during the 300-years Burning Times in Europe. Despite starting a good two centuries prior, in the earliest 1400s, the Burnings reached their hysterical peak during the early-to-mid-1600s. (As this period marks the last vestige of the Middle Ages, before the onset of modernity, it suggests that at least a factor in the Witch-Hysterias was a reaction to dramatic social change.) Witch-Hunting arrived kind of late in the Scandinavian countries, but once it hit, it hit hard and with a vengeance- so much so that, according to Rossell Hope Robbins’ invaluable Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (for my money, the single best and most comprehensive source of information regarding the medieval European Witch phenomenon), by 1649, Christina was becoming alarmed at what she perceived to be abuses and injustices. Writing to one of her ministers, she noted that persecutions had a tendency to increase the number of accused Witches; it was her feeling that women who confessed to the Devil’s Pact that had by then become synonymous with “Witchcraft” did so out of delusion or “female internal disorders.” She ordered an immediate stop to all Witch-Trials in Sweden, with all prisoners freed, except for those clearly guilty of committing murder. As Robbins points out (“Sweden, Witchcraft in”), Christina’s order “is notable as the first legislation curbing” European Witch-Hunting, with Christina the first monarch to use the royal prerogative on behalf of accused Witches. Her courage and conscience stand out when compared against some of her fellow royals, notably Charles XI, King of Sweden during the horrific Mora Witch Panic of 1669. Making a “poor showing in comparison with his predecessor,” Charles allowed the hysteria of Mora to grow and spread to Uppsala, Helsinki, and Stockholm, before he followed Christina’s example, banning further persecutions. As “positive leadership at this late date was not difficult,” Robbins concludes that Charles “has to take responsibility for this major outbreak,” reinforcing a perception noted throughout the Trial-Times: when those in charge acted conscientiously, Witch-accusations were held in check, growing out-of-control only when leaders abandoned their duties, permitting or instigating outrages of justice.