Two Ladies of Vadstena

Today was a day of culture. I'm in Vadstena in southern Sweden. I would have toured the monastery which is here anyway but there is a very strong wind which is making it very difficult to cycle so I decided to spend the full day here, see both the monastery and the castle and leave tomorrow instead. I discovered the fascinating stories of two women of Vadstena. Neither was born or lived here but both had lives which were greatly impacted by their association with this town.

St. Birgitta was a noblewoman born in 1303. She married at 14, had eight children, went on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela with her husband and was widowed by 40. Normal procedure in medieval times would have been for her family to marry her off to a new husband but she decided to become a nun instead. It probably helped that the family was so rich and powerful that they didn’t need her to make an economic or political alliance. Of the eight children – two daughters got married but only one had children, the other two daughters became nuns. Two sons died while young, one son became a knight and a politician. The other son was the ‘son of tears’. He was a scoundrel and a playboy!!! (There’s one in every family …)

The picture below shows St. Birgitta on the left and her daughter, St. Katarina on the right.

Birgitta received over 600 revelations and visions throughout her life, starting when she was 10 years old. Luckily for her, she not only remembered them in great detail but was able to get them all written down. Some aspects of medieval religious painting can be traced back to these visions – Jesus as a baby with light emanating from his head, Mary with blond hair, Mary and Joseph kneeling in adoration before baby Jesus.

The picture below is of a page of a book of her revelations. The monastery museum has this amazing piece of equipment which shows the pages of a book in such clear detail. You can turn the pages just by touching the screen on the side and it even looks as though the pages are turning yet there is no book in sight - it's all just imagery.

As a result of her revelations, Birgitta had three main objectives during her time as a nun – to build a new monastery at Vadstena, to convince the Pope to return to Rome from Avignon and to put a stop to the Hundred Year’s War by negotiating a peace between England and France. To this purpose, she went to Rome in 1350 and never went back to Sweden. While in Rome, she kept herself busy doing good works, looking after the sick, poor and destitute and generally making herself very loved. She went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1373 when she was 70 years old! and died soon after her return to Rome.

The Birgittine monastery at Vadstena was built in her absence and Birgitta’s body was taken there in a wooden coffin six months after she died. The coffin is on display in a chapel at the museum.

The next three pictures are of the dormitory in the monastery. The nuns slept in tiny little cells off a lovely wide and well lit passageway. Each cell was just big enough for a bed and a few personal possessions.

Birgitta then became one of the six patron saints of Sweden. The monastery became a major pilgrimage centre, currently drawing up to 25,000 pilgrims per year. 

Contrast that story of devotion to a higher good to the following story of Cecilia, second daughter of Gustav Wasa, King of Sweden. This story was alluded to in the castle at Vadstena but no further explanation was given so I asked the lass at the desk to explain. She gave me the juicy details, the factual background came from Wikipedia.

Princess Cecilia was born in Stockholm in 1540. Her mother died when she was 11 years old so she and her siblings were cared for by a collection of aunts. By the time she was 18, she was quite a beauty and needed a husband. Her older sister was also on the marriage market. Sweden needed the girls to play their part in helping the country in its political ambitions. 

The picture of Cecilia, below, came from Wikipedia.

A treaty and a marriage alliance with Ostfriesland was suggested. Ostfriesland was a rival to the Hanseatic League based in Lübeck. King Gustav was quite keen to break the Hanseatic League’s domination of trade in the Baltic area so he was interested in having the Ostfriesians as partners in trade and they had a couple of princes available.

Picture below: King Gustav.

Prince Edzard of Ostfriesland came to visit Stockholm to choose a wife. He chose Cecilia’s older sister, Catherine. Edzard and Catherine were married a year later.

On their way home to Ostfriesland after the wedding, Catherine and Edzard stopped at the castle in Vadstena for a while to visit Catherine’s brother, Magnus who lived there at the time. They were accompanied by Cecilia, her oldest brother, Erik and also Edzard’s brother, John.

Pictures below: the castle at Vadstena. 

A man was seen climbing into the window of Cecilia’s bedchamber at night, not just once but at least three nights in a row. The guards informed Erik who set a trap. John of Ostfriesland was caught in Cecilia’s room with no pants on! Erik was furious but not nearly as furious as King Gustav! Between them, Cecilia, John and Erik had destroyed all Cecilia’s value as a bargaining chip – a big loss indeed!

King Gustav threw John into prison, he sent Catherine and Edzard into house arrest because they hadn’t chaperoned Cecilia properly. Erik and Cecilia were recalled to Stockholm. Erik got into huge trouble for making the affair public. He should have kept it all quiet and they could have somehow swept Cecilia’s loss of virginity under the carpet.

Cecilia was dragged across the room by her hair by the King. He must have been really mad! Her suitor, George John I, Count Palatine of Veldenz decided he didn’t want her anymore. He married her younger sister, Anna, instead. Cecilia was left on the shelf, soiled goods.

Six months later, John was released from prison and sent packing. Catherine and Edzard were released from house arrest. King Gustav died soon after. Erik became King and when he discovered Cecilia and a sister having a party in their rooms a few years later it must have stirred up bad memories because he banned them from going out in the early mornings or late at night, banned them from receiving visitors at night or from receiving letters. Cecilia must have stressed him out no end.

Eventually, a husband was found for Cecilia. Christopher II, Margrave of Baden-Rodemachern was a young man with a title but not much money. He can’t have been too worried about Cecilia’s reputation because they married only three months after they were engaged, when Cecilia was 24 years old, way past marriage age. Cecilia had six sons with Christopher but her dowry was never paid out so they were always short of money.

The rest of Cecilia’s life was equally colourful. She was a friend of Queen Elizabeth I of Great Britain until they wore out their welcome there by living in grand style and refusing to pay their debts. She was given a fleet of ships by her brother, King John III as part payment of her dowry. He also gave her permission to attack British and Dutch ships trading with Russia - to be a pirate. That wasn’t enough, her men attacked friendly Danish ships too and even the odd Swedish vessel. Cecilia travelled the courts of Europe, engaged in diplomacy on behalf of the Swedish crown, met, loved and lived in sin with a Spanish ambassador and bore him a daughter which caused a great scandal – yet again!

Cecilia died in Brussels at the ripe old age of 86, having outlived all of her bossy brothers and having had far more fun than her respectable and well-behaved sisters.