Not every princess has a fairy tale life. Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg was one of the wealthiest, most eligible, and most beautiful women in Europe when she married King Gustav Adolphus of Sweden—but it was far from happily ever after. From her violent mental deterioration to her private heartbreaks, Maria Eleonora became known forever after as the mad queen mother.
Maria Eleonora was born in 1599 to John Sigismund, the Prince electorate of Brandenburg. Her mother was no slouch either: Anna was the Duchess of Prussia, and baby Maria grew up in the lap of luxury alongside her seven (!) other siblings.
Maria Eleonora’s own daughter Christina of Sweden had a very troubled relationship with her unbalanced mother—and, as we’ll see, for very good reason. As Christina once said of the queen, she had “all the virtues and vices'” of her gender.
Maria Eleonora was the It Girl of the 17th century, and monarchs fell over themselves to marry her. She was a famously beautiful girl and, ironically, many spoke of her admirable mental faculties. Some of her most powerful suitors included William of Orange and the future King Charles I of England. Not bad for a teenager.
The Princess always had extravagant tastes. She was excessively fond of entertainments of all kinds, plus she had a notorious sweet tooth she just couldn’t seem to get rid of.
After hearing of Maria Eleonora’s great beauty and intelligence, the 22-year-old Swedish King Gustav Adolphus started seriously trying to woo the 17-year-old girl. The marriage competition was so stiff that Gustav considered it a point of pride to bag the beauty. He actually swore to accept no other wife. But there was an eerie catch: Adoluphus said all of this before he even met her.
Takeaway: true love is a competition.
For all Gustav Adolphus’ fierce “devotion,” he was hiding a dark secret. He was really in love with someone else. For years before he started trying to win Maria Eleonora’s hand, he had been begging his mother for permission to marry his one true love, the noblewoman Ebba Brahe. Mommy said “heck no,” so he was forced to look elsewhere.
Maria Eleonora was never much of a scholar. Though she was a German princess and a Swedish queen, she never even learned how to properly write German or Swedish. Instead, she spoke and most often wrote in French, which was the court language of her day.
There was another problem with Gustav’s prospects: Maria Eleonora’s mother despised him. Though the princess’s father didn’t mind the young man, he had suffered a stroke and was too infirm to put his foot down about anything.
Around 1617, King Gustav was so certain that he was going to marry Maria Eleonora, he even re-decorated rooms in his castle to suit a more feminine taste. But just as he started planning to travel to Berlin and actually meet his bride to be, his mother received a letter from Mama Anna that changed everything.
In the missive, the Duchess told Gustav’s mother to prevent her son from marrying the young girl by any means necessary. Anna’s biggest reason for disliking the young King was Sweden’s bitter relationship with her allies in Poland, and she told the Queen that the marriage would probably result in “the destruction of the country".
Maria Eleonora went wild for all the latest fads of her era, and she was particularly obsessed with buffoons and jesters—as well as the unfortunate 17th-century craze for keeping dwarfs as court curios. She kept so many of them around that her more sober daughter Christina was often annoyed by the ruckus they created.
We always want what we can't have. After being told he couldn't have Maria Eleonora, young King Gustav decided to make a grand gesture. He travelled to Berlin anyway. While he was there, Duchess Anna stuck to her guns and refused to even so much as a grant him a personal meeting with Maria Eleonora; instead, he had to watch her from afar in public venues.
Throughout all the political machinations going on around her, Maria Eleonora somehow actually took a genuine liking to King Gustav Adolphus. Multiple witnesses say that even in public, she couldn’t hide her attachment to the young man.
Maria Eleonora was quite the hottie. In her heyday, people described her as “The Most Beautiful Queen in Europe".
In 1620, for one reason or another, the Duchess Anna did a complete 180 on the determined suitor. Suddenly she couldn’t sing Gustav Adolphus’s praises high enough. After years of courting, she finally gave the marriage the go ahead.
On November 25, 1620, King Gustav Adolphus and Maria Eleonora were married at the Royal Castle in Stockholm with much pomp and circumstance. As per the custom of the time, after the ceremony they retired to a plush, red-and-gold embroidered bed to publicly eat bon-bons, listen to speeches, and guzzle wine. No, really.
According to historical sources, just a year after Maria Eleonora’s coronation, everything changed. She suffered a miscarriage, and suddenly her jovial demeanor turned jealous, tempestuous, and even at times manic.
Maria Eleonora always hated Sweden. She found the Nordic country too rustic for her luxurious tastes, and often degraded its muddy roads, dark forests, and humble houses.
Throughout her marriage, Maria Eleonora’s husband Gustav had to fight in a series of wars with neighboring countries, and was often away from his wife for long stretches of time. Maria Eleonora was reportedly beside herself every time he left; she adored and even worshipped him, but her “hero” was rarely home. But sadly, this was the least of her problems...
Though his beautiful wife initially charmed King Gustav, he kept a heartbreaking secret. He just did not share her undying devotion. More often, he only felt pity for her, and once described her as “a very sick” and “miserable” woman. Whoa there, Gustav, don’t hold back your true feelings or anything.
The German Queen of Sweden wasn’t always a social butterfly. During her time at court, she often confined herself to the company of her fellow German ladies-in-waiting, especially when the king was away.
People always doted on Maria Eleonora, and even as an adult, she was spoiled, thoughtless, and not a very responsible mother. When her 13-year-old daughter Christina was a (very) young queen, the responsible girl would often have to talk her flighty mother out of hair-brained schemes.
Maria Eleonora’s baby stresses weren’t just neurotic. It was also imperative that Sweden have a male heir, since their Polish enemies were primed with boy heirs who could easily snatch away the throne if King Gustav went to the grave childless. It didn’t much help either that Gustav kept going to battle and putting himself in mortal danger.
King Gustav didn’t trust his pretty queen. When it became clear that he would have to spend most of his reign fighting in dangerous wars, he said something utterly cruel about his wife and young daughter, “If anything happens to me, my family will merit your pity [..], the mother lacking in common sense, the daughter a minor—hopeless, if they rule, and dangerous, if others come to rule over them".
In April 1626, Maria Eleonora was pregnant for the fourth time, and everyone had a good feeling about this one. She was treated like a china doll, all while royal astrologers predicted that the babe would be a longed-for boy.
The birth of Maria’s only surviving child did not go as she planned. When the baby was born, everyone could tell that something was not quite right. It came out covered in dark, downy fleece from its head to its arms. Only its face, arms, and lower legs were bare of the fur. According to the reports, the baby’s nose was also very large—all characteristics that led people to assume it was a boy. It wasn’t. Maria Eleonora had given birth to a very hairy baby girl.
Despite having the opportunity to do so after her husband’s passing, Queen Maria Eleonora never became regent of Sweden. By then, all the advisors were desperate to keep the unhinged queen away from the throne.
When King Gustav Adolphus was informed that his heir was actually a little girl, he was disappointed, but still in good spirits. Upon hearing the news, he reportedly quipped good-naturedly, "She is going to be clever, for she has taken us all in". He even named the girl “Christina” after his own beloved mother.
Maria Eleonora was strict even with herself: throughout her life, she performed frequent fasting.
Queen Maria Eleonora may have suffered from a severe form of postpartum depression after her daughter Christina’s birth.
Maria Eleonora was so crestfallen at her “monstrous” daughter, she may have gone to horrible lengths to punish her. Disturbingly, Princess Christina was alarmingly “accident-prone” as a baby. One time, she somehow tumbled down a full flight of stairs. In another instance, a beam fell into her cradle, and she was even once dropped on a stone floor, which permanently deformed her shoulder.
In the end, Maria Eleonora’s beloved king met a dark fate. While fighting in the Battle of Lutzen in 1632, Gustav got shot in the back and then the head, dying on the battlefield. When his loyal soldiers found his body, it was face down in the mud, and Gustav’s enemies had stripped the king of everything but the literal shirt off his back.
King Gustav and Maria Eleonora weren’t exactly the best co-parents, and they dealt with their disappointment in their daughter’s gender in different ways. Gustav wanted to raise Christina as a boy, and encouraged the little girl to become interested in cannons, warfare, and the like. Meanwhile, after all those “accidents,” Maria Eleonora was barred from almost any role in the young princess’s life; instead, her aunt raised her.
Maria Eleonora’s mourning only got worse. Wracked with grief, the queen mother had to make sure everyone else was miserable too—especially her hated daughter Christina. For a full year, Maria Eleonora tormented her with a brutal punishment. She forced Christina into blacked-out, darkened rooms to mourn her father in solitude for unforgivably long periods of time.
In 1636, Maria Eleonora was so out of her mind, the government separated her from Christina and “placed” (by which I mean, politely imprisoned) her in Gripsholm castle, hoping she couldn’t do anyone any harm there.
Near the end of her life, Maria Eleonora became an aspiring runaway. She hated Sweden so much that she made several unhinged attempts to ferry herself to Denmark and its king, Christian IV, for a change of scenery. First, she tried to send a letter to the king, but after that didn’t work, she resorted to even more desperate measures.
In the 1630s, as a whole grown woman of nearly 40 years old, Maria Eleonora finally succeeded in escaping her oh-so-hard-knock circumstances. She and her lady-in-waiting snuck out of a window like guilty teenagers, hopped in a boat and then a carriage, and quickly boarded a ship to Denmark and “freedom".
In order to “thank” Denmark for accepting her runaway mom, a barely teenaged Queen Christina had to pay the Danish king alimony for the dowager’s passage.
In 1654, Queen Christina shocked the world with one unpredictable gesture—and especially her mother—when she decided to abdicate the throne of Sweden in favor of her cousin Charles Gustav. Hey, who could blame her? It was hard enough work taking care of her flighty mother, much less an entire country.
Hilariously (though probably not for her daughter Christina), after all the runaway drama the mercurial Maria Eleonora eventually got sick of life in Denmark and came back to Sweden.
Maria Eleonora took Christina’s abdication about as well as she took her husband’s demise, which is to say: horribly. She was dismayed and heartbroken at the news, and you can bet she shed more than a few tears over the loss of her title as Queen Dowager—even though Christina promised she would still provide for her mother.
A little over a year after Christina’s abdication, Maria Eleonora passed on at the age of 55. According to those closest to her, she left this world still in mourning for both her late husband and her lost monarchy.
Everyone mourns in their own way, but Maria Eleonora’s way of mourning King Gustav was hella freaky. Not only did she force the young Christina into darkened rooms, but she also reportedly hung King Gustav’s heart in a golden casket on the ceiling above Christina’s bed. She made the girl sleep directly underneath her father’s “blessed” remains.
Take note: That’s not one way to raise a well-adjusted child.
Sadly, Maria’s first miscarriage was far from her last tragedy. In 1623, she managed to carry a baby girl to term, but it was stillborn. Then in 1625, she was pregnant again—only to lose the baby in a brutal manner. She decided to accompany her husband to see a royal yacht, but the waters suddenly turned dangerously choppy.
Her attendants ferried her quickly back to the safety of the castle, but it was too late. She apparently cried out “Jesus, I cannot feel my child!” and lost the baby, a hoped-for son, shortly after.
If King Gustav was slightly disappointed in the gender of his child, Queen Maria Eleonora was torn to pieces. The palace staff even kept the truth from her for several days—but when she found out, it was worse than anyone could have imagined. She reportedly screamed, "Instead of a son, I am given a daughter, dark and ugly, with a great nose and black eyes. Take her from me, I will not have such a monster!"
The queen did not respond well to her husband’s passing. She reportedly wept almost continuously for actual years after hearing the news. She also reportedly refused to allow his body to be buried, and would regularly visit it. After 18 months, the Swedish Chancellor stepped in and had him buried.
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