Immortalised by Greta Garbo in the 1933 biopic, Queen Christina of Sweden, who intrigued sexologists as a female-to-male cross-dresser, has come down through history as a quirky footnote. But this new account of "the restless life of a European eccentric" puts Christina's many accomplishments during her short reign into a broader context. She may have worn a man's wig and flat shoes and carried a sword, but she was also one of Europe's most powerful leaders.
Veronica Buckley refuses to be drawn on the mystery of Christina's sex. Her father Gustav Adolf desperately wanted a son, and the midwives at her birth in 1626 had, at first, mistaken Christina for a boy. His German wife, too fearful of his disappointment to tell him, handed him the naked infant. According to legend, he announced, "Let us thank God. This girl will be worth as much to me as a boy."
Buckley suggests that "Christina's sex, like her sexuality, was to remain ambiguous to others and ambivalent to herself throughout her tempestuous life." To make matters worse, Maria Eleonora ignored her unfeminine daughter, leaving her with an inept nurse who dropped her and caused a permanent slope to her shoulders. She was further abandoned when her father departed for war against Denmark. He died in battle when Christina was seven and she was immediately compelled to replace him as queen.
Intriguingly, Buckley suggests that Christina was aware from an early age of her limits. "She took her model of all women from her mother and declared that, of all human defects, to be a woman was the worst." Nevertheless, she proved to be highly skilled at manipulating her royal advisers and managed to avoid marrying her cousin Friedrich Wilhelm, to whom her father had betrothed her at age five.
Christina blazed trails during her reign. She expanded Sweden's cultural horizons by inviting a host of scientists, scholars and intellectuals to her court, even luring the French philosopher René Descartes to the "Pallas of the North". Although Christina was renowned in Sweden and elsewhere for her quick mind, many of the visiting scholars disliked the limits of living up north and Christina's vision of an "academy" never became a reality.
Strong-willed and highly intelligent, she indulged her lavish tastes. When she was officially crowned in 1650, after ruling for five years, she drove in an open carriage followed by her mother, who led a train of six camels complete with howdahs, a team of reindeer from Lapland and a dozen extravagantly saddled mules. Four years later, she attempted to abdicate, pleading ill-health and her desire never to marry. "I could not bear to be used by a man the way a peasant uses his fields," she wrote. She arranged for her suitor, Karl Gustav - Charles X of Sweden - to take over the throne.
Like a character from a fairy tale, the young Queen ran off incognito to "the sunlit southern world" of southern Europe, "glistening with marble, effervescent with talk". Once abroad, she shed further evidence of femininity, trading her women's clothes for a soldier's costume; she showed her bare legs beneath short trousers, wore flat men's shoes, often a feathered hat, and carried a sword. During this time, she also privately converted to Catholicism. The culmination of her trip was an audience with the Pope in Rome where she scandalously fell in love with a cardinal, Decio Azzolino.
The woman who had played with tin soldiers as a child also gained a reputation as a military commander. In 1656, she plotted to overthrow the Spanish throne in Naples. Christina became involved in the murder of a fellow conspirator and the affair ended in disaster. Although the Pope denounced Christina as a "barbarian brought up barbarously and living barbarously", she spent her latter years in Rome and was buried with full ceremony, within St Peter's Basilica.
Buckley manages to capture Christina's quixotic spirit and expertly wades through the complex political machinations of both the Swedish court and the Vatican. But her writing chugs rather than flows and, somewhat disappointingly, shies away from offering much analysis of Christina's ambiguous identity. The reader is left to wonder exactly why the Swedish queen endures as an icon of female power, centuries after her death.
Julie Wheelwright's books include 'Amazons and Military Maids' (Rivers Oram/Pandora)