My blog today is a mixture of art and history. It is about a late nineteenth century Danish painter Kristian Zahrtmann and his fascination with Leonora Christina, the daughter of King Christian IV of Denmark and Kirsten Munk. Zahrtmann was a painter, who produced landscapes, street scenes as well as many fine portraits but he was especially known for his history painting and especially paintings which featured legendary, and often tragic, females in Danish history.
Peder Henrik Kristian Zahrtmann was born in March 1843 in Rønne, a Baltic Sea town on the west coast of the Danish island of Bornholm. His mother was Laura Pouline Jesperson and his father, Carl Vilhelm Zahrtmann, was a doctor on the island. He was the eldest of nine children, having two sisters and six brothers. On completion of his normal schooling, at the age of seventeen, he left the Rønne Realskole and enrolled at the Sorø Academy on the Danish island of Zealand and it was here that he began to study painting under the tutorship of the Danish landscape painter and drawing master, Hans Hader. He graduated from the Academy in 1862 and a year later received his doctorate.
Following his graduation he went to live in Copenhagen and for the six months of the winter of 1863 he enrolled at the Technical Institute in Copenhagen where he studied drawing and design under the Danish artist, Christian Hetsch and architect Ferdinand Vilhelm Jensen. At the same time, he received private instruction from the genre painter Wenzel Ulrich. A year later he enrolled on a four-year course at the Royal Danish Academy of Art in Copenhagen. He graduated from the Academy in 1868 when he was twenty-five years of age and it was in this year that he first exhibited some of his first work at the Charlottenborg, the palace in which was situated the Danish Academy of Fine Arts.
It was around this time that Zahrtmann became great friends with aspiring Danish painters Otto Haslund and Pietro Krøhn with whom he shared a studio. It was this friendship that in some way was the starting point of this blog about Zahrtmann and the 17th century Danish princess Leonora Christina for it was they who gave Zahrtmann, for his birthday, a copy of Jammers Minde, which literally translated means A Memory of Lament. It was a posthumous autobiography written by Leonora during her twenty-two year solitary incarceration in the Blue Tower in Copenhagen Castle and which was not published until 170 years later, in 1869. So who was Leonora Christina and why was the daughter of the king imprisoned for over two decades of her life?
To find the answer to this we need to go back to King Christian IV of Denmark-Norway who succeeded his late father, Frederik II, at the age of eleven and ascended to the throne eight years later. He married his first wife Anne Catherine in 1597, when he was twenty years of age, and the couple went on to have seven children, four of whom died in infancy. Anne Catherine died in 1612 and three years later, in December 1615, Christian IV remarried. His second wife was Kirsten Munk, the daughter of a wealthy court official, who had been living with her family at the royal palace in Copenhagen . Although she was of the nobility, she held no title and so when she married the widowed king, Christian, it was a marriage between people of different social classes and the marriage was termed a morganatic marriage (similar to the present day marriage between Prince William and the “commoner” Kate Middleton). This difference in class between husband and wife could well have been the reason why the wedding ceremony was a private affair and not a full-scale church wedding. Kirsten Munk bore the king twelve children, ten of whom survived infancy, two sons and eight daughters. Leonora Christina was the couple’s fifth child, born in July 1621.
Leonora Christina, like four of her sisters, did not marry princes from one of the many European monarchies but instead her father allowed them to marry powerful and wealthy Danish noblemen in an attempt to assure their allegiance to the monarchy. Leonora’s husband, whom she married in 1636 when she was just fifteen years old, was the thirty-eight year old Corfitz Ulfeldt, the son of the Danish chancellor. They had actually been engaged since she was nine years old! Corfitz Ulfeldt held great powers at the royal court but became more and more ambitious and grasping and it was these traits along with some bad political decisions which had him and the king fall out. Christian IV died in February 1648 and it was two months before the king’s second son, Leonora’s half brother, Frederick, from his first marriage, was elected the new King of Denmark and Norway. He became King Frederick III. During that two month transition period Corfitz Ulfeldt, as Steward of the Realm, the country’s de-facto prime minister, virtually ruled Denmark.
Corfitz Ulfeldt’s avarice and naked ambition during his rise to power irritated the new king and a perceived plot against the new monarch by Ulfeldt caused the latter, out of fear for his life, to flee the country with his wife Leonora and their family. Ulfeldt then forged a close alliance with Charles X of Sweden, Denmark’s old enemy, and offered his financial support with money which was thought to have been embezzled from the Danish state. This money was to help Charles facilitate the war against Denmark which began in July 1657. At the end of the conflict in 1658, Sweden had won its most celebrated victory, and for the vanquished, Denmark/Norway, they had suffered a humiliating and costly defeats of all time, having to cede territory to Sweden under the Treaty of Brömseboro. Ulfeldt even took part in these treaty negotiations, during which he took great pleasure in denigrating his former homeland. This, however, was to be his ultimate undoing. Ulfeldt, now feted by the Swedish monarch, once again became too ambitious and fell out with Charles X, who ordered his arrest and was condemned to death. In 1660, Ulfeldt decided that the lesser of two evils was to escape from Sweden with his wife Leonora Christina and return to his homeland, Denmark, and try and make his peace with Frederick III. Frederick was not amused and had the couple imprisoned for a year. Their release came after Ulfeldt paid a hefty fine which saw him and his wife almost reduced to a poverty-stricken existence. Their imprisonment had been both degrading and cruel and once released Ulfeldt plotted his revenge on Frederick. His act of treason against the Danish monarch was discovered and he was condemned to death in absentia. He escaped the jaws of death but died in a Rhine boating accident during one of his flights from impending arrest.
So what happened to Leonora Christina? After her and her husband’s release from prison Ulfeldt persuaded Leonora to go to England, seek an audience with Charles II and see if she could recover money he had lent the English monarch. Charles was unwilling to help and had Leonora arrested at Dover on her way back to the Continent. She was eventually hand over to Frederick and the Danish state, which as they still could not find Ulfeldt, instead decided to punish his wife and had her locked away in solitary confinement in the infamous Blue Tower at Copenhagen’s Castle. The conditions in the prison were both degrading and vile. So why was she so severely punished for the wrongdoings of her husband? Throughout her incarceration she blamed her downfall and her imprisonment, not on her half brother, the monarch Frederik, but on his wife Sophie-Amalie and the queen’s desire for revenge. Why this animosity between Leonora and Sophie-Amelie?
Leonora had been her father’s favourite daughter and when her mother, Kirsten Munk, was banished from Copenhagen by her husband for infidelity, Leonora took on the role and power as the First Lady of Denmark. When her father died and Frederick came to the throne things changed. When you are at the pinnacle there is only one direction one can go – down! Frederick married Sophie-Amalie of Brunswick-Lüneburg, who became Queen of Denmark and Norway. She and Leonora, who had seen her power usurped by another woman, became bitter enemies and she probably played a leading part in having Leonore incarcerated.
Leonora Christina’s sworn enemy, Sophie-Amalie died in February 1685 and one of Leonora’s daughters went to the king, Christian V, the son of the late Frederick III and Sophie-Amalie, and begged for the release of her mother. The king agreed and in May 1685 and she went to live at a monastery run by the nuns of the St. Birgitte-order. It was here that Leonora completed her autobiography, Jammers Minde, which she had started to write during her long imprisonment. Leonora Christina died in March 1698 and was buried in the crypt of the monastery which is now the church at Maribo on the Danish island of Lolland. It is believed that some time later her sons had her body removed from the church and laid to rest in a secret location where her husband had been interred. Leonora’s last years in imprisonment improved due to the attitude of the new king Christian V and his wife, the queen-consort, Charlotte-Amelie despite his mother, Sophie-Amelie’s everlasting vindictive nature. In her autobiography Leonora wrote about her indebtedness to the king and queen improved situation:
“…My most gracious hereditary King was gracious enough several times in former years to intercede for me with his royal mother, through the high ministers of the State. Her answer at that time was very hard; she would entitle them “traitors”’ and, “as good as I was, and would point them to the door. All the favours which the King s majesty showed me — the outer apartment, the large window, the money to dispose of for annoyed the Queen Dowager extremely; and she made the Kings majesty feel her displeasure in the most painful manner…”.
Zahrtman was fascinated by the book and completed a number of paintings of the way he envisaged Leonora during her captivity and like Leonora, Zahrtmann blamed Sophie-Amalie for Leonora’s downfall and the artist depicted the deathbed scene of Leonora’s nemesis. The state of the dying queen mother and the pain-wracked expression on her face presumably comforted Zahrtmann !
For anybody who would like to read the translation of Leonora’s autobiography I believe there is a Guttenburg e-book available: