I worked as a tour guide at a renaissance castle in Kalmar in Sweden throughout four summer vacations from 1989 to 1992 in order to finance my music studies in Vienna. I practically grew up around the castle and had always toyed with the idea of writing a tale that conveyed my love for the location.
The following story is on one hand an attempt to describe the lives of two very different women, but also a description of how one woman could be integrated into a royal court by touching a royal nerve.
The nuptial celebrations of 1552 really took place and Katarina Stenbock really did marry Gustav Vasa.
As we see in the following story, partying isn't what it used to be. Wedding ceremonies of that royal yesteryear were a wee bit more bacchanal than what we are used to in our day.
After all, we don't consume 20 courses and 30 beers a day.
Gustav Eriksson Vasa had been a king now for 30 years. He was not cultural like his sons Erik and Johan. However, his political skills were legendary and he was a skilled orator. He was also quite choleric.
As the son of a mayor and the ancestor of famous Swedish royals like Sten Sture, he had all the reason to be haughty. His political methods were his father's and his arrogance was his ancestor's. He had threatened many people and then spread the news of his own glory.
Having saved Sweden from foreign occupation, Vasa had provided the rescue that it required after the Nordic alliance faltered. Before Vasa's ascension to the throne, Denmark's King Christian had occupied Sweden and was responsible for a horrid bloodbath in Stockholm 1520. Every possible heir to the throne was killed. Gustav was the only heir left and became a threat to the Danish occupation. He escaped Sweden and spent the remainder of the year on the run chased by Danes. Gustav Vasa returned to Kalmar on the east coast from Lübeck in 1521, hoping to get help from the locals in taking back Sweden.
Vasa became chancellor. Two years later, he was king and six years later he copied the tradition of other kings and had the bible translated into Swedish. A dynasty had been founded, a country reborn and Gustav Vasa ruled the nation with an iron fist.
Vasa was ruthless. Lübeck had helped him become king and now they wanted to be paid back in gold and valuable treasures. Vasa took the old catholic riches from the churches, including the church bells, melted them and turned them into imbursement. Those villages who didn't cooperate were punished severely.
Vasa's dynasty influenced Sweden until late in the 17th century. 1654 Christina abdicated and left the throne over to her cousin von Pfalz. Somehow, the dynasty kept on ruling Sweden under a new name until way into the 18th century before a new dynasty took over again. Vasa was the modern-day Bill Gates: a self made man. He was a Hunt, a Rockefeller, a Vanderbilt: a man that founded an empire.
Gustav Vasa also had nine living children, among them three future kings, one princess named Cecilia, an infamous party-girl, who ended up in Germany and one son named Magnus that was retarded. His last wife Margareta died of childbirth in 1551 and so Vasa, the political genius that he was, remarried a young Swedish girl who was thirty nine years younger.
Gustav Vasa was old and had many ailments when he married for the third time, but he could still eat and drink well. The tables were filled with thousands of delicious dishes at a party that celebrated a very peculiar union. Portraits of Vasa graced the castles of his land and everywhere he went Vasa was the center of attention. In Vadstena Palace, he celebrated a matrimonial feast that lasted for three days. To celebrate the wedding again, he had another very long party in Kalmar Castle during the winter of 1552 - 53 that lasted for three months.
This party is the setting of our story.
Kalmar was a harbor town on the east coast and the southern most city leading to where the Danish border lay at the time after the occupation. The city that today is a pleasant tourist magnet was called the key to the kingdom back then and was one of the so-called Vasa-Castles that he and his family visited on a frequent basis.
The entourage would come to a castle and collect the natural tax that the farmers had left at the citadel. Salted meat and bread would be eaten and then the king and his wife would move on to the next palace and collect more tax. It was a bacchanal tour of levy.
The festivity at the bastion that year was of a different kind. It was not a pure wedding gorge, but a royal celebration to celebrate the definite relationship.
1500 guests visited the palace over a course of three months, drinking over 228 000 liters of beer and eating a half thousand barrels of fish, 500 cows and 400 pigs, probably thousands of geese and ducks and eel. 28 courses eaten a day per person and 14 pints of imported beer drunk a day per person. The Kalmar beer was apparently too bad to drink. German beer was imported in masses. There was music being played and fire being juggled and love being made. Aulos, rebec, psalterium and lute filled the halls with musical delight.
This banquet was one of the most excessive in the history of the palace. When the royal stomachs were full poisonous herbs were gently devoured and the food vomited out. Pigs ate the vomit and were slaughtered again. Royal recycling, renaissance style.
A few chosen commoners were allowed to watch while the royals ate. They could count on being attacked with food and be able to enjoy a munch if they were lucky to catch what was coming their way.
At this merrymaking, a young Kalmar girl named Helena Olofsdotter had been hired by the chef cook to rally round with the cooking and the serving. The girl had lived in Kalmar since her birth and had always known someone who had worked in the royal castle at one time or another.
Accordingly, she knew many people who could help her get work at the palace. Her father was sick and so she was the only one able to take care of him and her sister after the mother had fallen ill and died. Work was a necessity. She needed the money.
She knew the palace well. Its' four storage towers and one watchtower were imposing and Vasa had done a spectacular job in rebuilding the old 12th century fortress into a renaissance citadel. There was a moat around the palace and a wall that protected the inner building. The tunnel leading into the courtyard was curved so that no cannon or bullet could reach the inhabitants. It was the optimal renaissance stronghold. Pompous and practical.
There was a church aligned with grand halls, bedrooms and high stairs, a music chamber with colored ceilings and woodcarvings of famous events and toilets with secret passageways for the monarch.
The kitchen was big and it was said that four entire ox could roast there at once. This was obviously an exaggeration, but a great deal of food was transported from the kitchen and up the stairs into the banquet hall.
Helena worked hard all day cooking the food along with twenty other individuals. The kitchen was constantly hot and always noisy, except for the few times between meals when the aristocrats were making love or talking politics. Other servants brought the food to the king and his over one hundred guests. These blue-blooded gents and ladies ate all the time it seemed and when they didn't eat they sang and when they didn't sing they discussed politics and when they didn't natter they made worship.
She felt sorry for the king's young wife.
Sixteen years old and married to an old geezer of sixty.
Political affairs were peculiar.
Helena was supposed to find it glorious working here. It was marvelous to be so close to the king, but she worked too hard for it to be great and it was too much of a strain spending her whole day just running, sweating and freezing at the same time. The kitchen was so bloody hot and the winter outside was so frigging cold and these royals up there were so darn comfortable that sitting in their hot rooms surrounded by thick walls, wearing hot furs, made her want to barf. Helena was here working her buns off, touched under her skirts by men who didn't even know her name, paid handsomely in money and food, but feeling awful.
The road to glory always meanders off the beaten path and, prithee, if pain is not very close to pleasure even when a helping hand is close at hand.
That is what this story is about.
Helena had arrived in the early morning. She had been walking through high snow in the thickest shoes imaginable and three layers of clothing. The first meals of the day had been prepared: pork, bread, dumplings, pheasant's eggs with ginger pâté and swan. The rest of the morning was actually just devoted to trying to fry the meat over the open fire and cooking soup and slaughtering the pigs.
One moment of peace had her sitting alone in a corner of the kitchen and trying to digest some old meat and rye bread. Everybody seemed to be busy doing something, but Helena was eating her bread and just trying to gather some energy before the rest of the work commenced.
It must've been dire providence, because as she was almost alone in the back room four guards came up to her and started giving her remarks about her swelling bosom.
She had seen them outside the castle and they seemed to be recruited soldiers from the common public devoid of education, renowned for being rude.
She soothingly told them to go away. The oldest one was a man the other referred to as Magnus. This was a name that Helena recalled being the same one Vasa had given his retarded son. She preferred him to this man. This Magnus gave her a slap on the bottom as she stood up, remarking that she should be happy to have a male hand slap her once in a while.
Helena turned to him and gave him a very nasty look, put on her overcoats and hats and gloves and walked out into the snow just as the chef cook and the house maid came running in. They told her to stay, but Helena said she had to go fetch salt in the storage room. Her supervisor told her that they already had enough salt there. The supervisor was knocked down by the Magnus and his friends, who had made it a point to show this bitch what she was about. They knocked her down, dragged her into the corner and started tearing her clothes off.
The four men were beating the poor woman up and dragging her through the snow, trying to get a grip of her breasts. The one man named Magnus was lowering his pants as things started to happen. He took her bottom into his eager hands and started preparing himself for the act as his friends were straddling Helena and holding her back, all this in order to keep her from running away.
Maybe bad luck for the boys, but a wagonload of German beer arrived from the harbor at that very moment. The ship had broken through fleets of ice in order to deliver the mead and now it was here. Knut Erlandsson had been delivering beer and meat to the castle for ten years. He saw the men raping the poor woman and jumped off his wagon to save her. That was when Knut saw the king, whom he knew personally, stick his head out the window and scream foul words at the criminals.
Obviously, the king had felt like trying to walk off his constant arthritic, inflammatory pain, rotten teeth and ear damage. He had a bad knee and often was found trying to wander it off unless his two medics, the blacksmith and the butcher, were able to do something about it. He was sixty, overworked and ready to plunge.
Gustav Vasa was the son of strong womanizer, but he hated people who abused a woman under his rule and this time the guards were going to be punished, no matter how old he was.
"Vad fanders tror ni att ni missgriper den arma qvinnan för? Fogar ni över hin håle's hjälp eller Guds trofasthet eller är eder manlighet enbart en föga myt? Tala med Herren Gud eller kom upp hit för ett par rapp ris."
"What the hell do you think you are doing misusing that poor woman? Do you have the devil in your soul or God's faith or is your manhood just a small myth? Speak to the Lord God or come up here beaten with whips."
Ten guards came down to escort the sorry entourage to the royal chambers. Helena was given superior treatment. The four men were brought up to the sovereign and the coachman Knut Erlandsson was brought up along with Helena.
Helena, beaten to tears, got to watch as the four men were whipped and beaten in the back room. The men were thrown in the twenty feet deep prison dungeon and given nothing but stale bread and a pint of old and moldy local beer which was deemed so bad that not even the locals drank it.
Along with the coachman, Helena was brought to a separate room and interviewed about the incident. She must've caught the king on a good day, because he told her that he wanted to compensate her for her pain and reward her with a position at the court. Henceforth, she would be living in the castle and would be a lady-in-waiting to the queen. After all, Christmas was around the corner and the goose was getting fat. The queen needed female company. Rape was a serious matter and women whose honor were damaged by soldiers of the crown were given full reprise and entrance into the court as compensation.
Knut was sent on his way with a large reward and a new wagon.
Helena was sent to the queen's official dresser and given a gown.
The king was no artistic man, but he loved the good life and fancy clothes and parrots and art as much as any king. In fact, he was vain enough to order painters to insert other legs than his own on royal paintings. The king was a hefty man who did not want to present himself as anything else but slender. Even in his very frail state, he was vain and wanted beautiful people around him. Helena was beautiful. Yes, Gustav I Vasa was vain. Not only did Vasa want to compensate Helena, he also liked her looks.
It was then not strange that an ensemble of musicians sat close to Helena's table playing estampies and saltarellos on rebec, psalterium, kettle drum and aulos. There was very large fire in every corner and countless servants who kept filling her silver cup if it was even remotely empty.
Helena was quite shy. That was her problem. She kept thinking that she was being teased by the court in some game of mischief. One moment she had been in the kitchen abused by dumbbells and now she was a lady-in-waiting. The other girls were all of blue blooded origin or career socialites. They asked her about how she had been able to stand such a hard life as that of the kitchen and Helena answered that she hadn't. Helena felt stupid.
After three cups of 12 % Lübeck mead Helena was very cheerful. She was already eating her fourth helping of chicken and a lute player was sauntering around her table playing her "Rida, rida ranka" which was a popular children's song.
He segued into a love song.
Helena laughed at jokes that she didn't understand, and soon enough, she had forgotten that the rapists now were rotting in the dungeons and cursing her name.
The next day, her father Olof and her sister Stina-Britta had already been notified that Helena was now living at the castle. She had a special room with a large bed and when she awoke she felt like a queen. She gazed at a tapestry that told the story of Samson and Delilah. There was mahogany furniture in the room and a ceiling with decorated squares in green and yellow. Silver tablets graced the rooms and chairs with red velvet aligned the walls. The green lead windows were thick and the carpets were blue. There was the fur skin of a bear at the side of her bed. The light from the winter sky outside shone brightly into the room and gave her the feeling of being in dreamland.
If it had not been for the hangover.
She did not know how many cups of mead she had drunk. She had stopped counting at seven. She remembered dancing with the aulos player, who spoke some strange language to her that she did not understand. Had it been Finnish, Russian, German?
The big door on the corner of the room opened and a woman came in. It was the dresser that she had met yesterday.
"God morgon, Damen! Har hon sovit gott?"
"Good morning, my lady! Did she sleep well?"
At first, Helena wondered who the hell this woman was speaking about until she realized that these people always spoke to fine ladies in third person. She nodded and responded:
"Som ett litet barn, frun!"
"Like a little child, miss!"
The lady dresser continued:
"Well, before the recommencing of the festivities today the queen requests your presence. Your father and sister have arrived and they will be asked to join you. The king wants to compensate you for the damage to your nobility."
"He already has, miss! He already has!"
"Nonetheless, he will not give up, until the damage is repaired."
The dresser took her time to dress Helena and spoke to her about the changes occurring in her life. Helena was overwhelmed by all this attention and asked the lady-in-waiting if the king always was this generous. She answered that it was rare to find him this happy, but as he was getting older and sicker he was also respecting women more. His guards had obviously hurt Helena and not defending her would be damaging to the crown. A rape victimized servant with crooks among the staff at a royal party would be somewhat bad for the throne. He had to punish the guilty and if he punished them, then he certainly had to reward the victim.
The church had opposed the marriage. Katarina had been the niece of Vasa's last wife and so, according to the old testament, that would've been incest and a forbidden sin. Vasa claimed that the Jews followed the old testament, where it was permitted, and got away with the marriage.
The lady-in-waiting told Helena that the young queen was a very graceful and beautiful girl, but after all only a girl. Her family had been keeping diplomatic relations with the royals now for decades and so the marriage had been a political necessity. Katarina had already been engaged to another man, a young man from a castle called the three roses and she had already spoken in her sleep about loving The Rose. All in all, the king was very cordial and very loving and Katarina enjoyed the life in the court very much. Most of all she enjoyed speaking to young girls her own age. Helena was twenty-two and the lady-in-waiting was quite sure that the queen would want to find out if Helena was someone the queen could relate to. If so, her presence in the court was as secure as marble and sandstone would be in a palace.
Dressed to the nines, the next lady-in-waiting named Britta af Bråkenhiälm told Helena that she was first to speak to the queen and then would see her family.
Helena was lead down a long passage way into a small chamber with very exquisite brown furniture. She saw paintings of palaces and trees and flowers and queens and velvet chairs. She saw gold chandeliers and silk tapestries and table cloths of cotton and cups of silver and ebony tables and many other things she had only imagined touching during her earlier life.
A door to another room opened and a blond lady in a pearl and ruby bonnet opened the door. Helena curtsied just as she been taught to curtsy and then entered the room. The young queen sat on a throne that must've been painted mahogany studded with pearls and decorated with gold. She was small and dainty and wore a small hat that was tilted to the side on an exquisite hairdo. Her collar was white and high and her green and red dress was larger and longer than she seemed to be. A cross hung from her neck and the chair that was positioned next to the throne was twenty centimeters lower or so.
There was a fire burning in the fireplace and a man poking into it with a stick. The chandelier had five wax candles burning in it and there were four tapestries in here, one for each wall, and they seemed to have biblical motives. There were women on all of them and Helena guessed they had something to do with Mary Magdalene.
There were large carpets in this perfectly square room fully decorated by exquisite wooden carvings of castles in different kinds of wood. A desk graced the corner with paper and feathers and candles. There was a man playing the aulos by the window.
As the queen stood up and clapped her hands twice all the people in the room, including the musician, left the room walking backwards. They closed the door behind them and now there was a silence in the room that spoke volumes. Helena was now alone with the queen.
Helena bowed and curtsied, saying:
"Your royal majesty!"
Katarina walked up to Helena and stretched forth her hand. Helena looked up, a bit nervous, and looked into the queen's eyes. For the first time Helena saw what this was: a nervous girl. No queen. She was a girl frightened out her wits having to play a part she had no idea how to play. Helena was sure that she had been taught every possible aspect of being a queen, but putting that to practice was another thing entirely. The queen gestured toward the throne and the chair and walked over. Helena followed her and sat down.
The first words were cordial. It was a simple 'how do you do?' and a nice 'fine'. The girls spoke about their lives and where they came from and it was obvious that their backgrounds could not have been different. The queen was from a blue blooded family and was used to etiquette and royalty. Helena was a simple country girl.
But it was obvious that the two women really had a lot in common. They were both young women, they loved music, they loved dancing, they loved food and they loved animals. They had the same taste in wine and they liked talking about the weather and clothing.
After an hour of conversation the two girls were laughing and chatting away about everything. The queen stated that if Helena liked, she could continue as a lady-in-waiting for as long as she liked.
Helena said that this would be very nice, but did that mean traveling to other cities? Yes, said the queen. Helena responded that she would be more than happy to do so and even happier if her father Olof and her sister Karin could travel with her. The queen said that this could be arranged if they were willing to give up their life here.
The queen again clapped twice with her hands and again three people came rushing in ready to carry out her orders.
"Bring in Miss Helena's family," she urged.
The three servants bowed and walked out backward, returning a minute later with Helena's father and sister. There was very warm welcoming, where the three family members spoke with the queen about their possible try-out following along the roads of the court.
The queen also said that, if they did not have any immediate ties to the town, they could move to the capital and receive a small house of their own. Helena's father was skeptical. He asked if there was something strange going on, since all these things were happening because of one attack. Helena agreed. She felt used and abused because of the rape, but all that had been compensated by the fact that the king and queen had done everything they could in order to make her a member of the court.
The queen explained that it all was retribution. They would have to give them a new aristocratic name to integrate them into the court. Only two things could trigger such a change: saving a royal person or being the part of an assault made by the royal staff.
Gustav was old and he wanted no scandal. After the farmer Nils Dacke had almost made the entire country plummet a few years ago he had sworn to eliminate all possible scandal. He was going to do everything to integrate the family in order to show the land that he condemned the soldiers' deed.
Besides, Gustav was aged and the queen needed companions.
Helena, Olof and Karin got the name af Blanca, meaning the ones of pure spirit. It was obvious now that they were aristocrats and new family name was born that resembled von Horn, von Knorr, Bråkenhjälm, Swinskiöld and other families who were given names relating to certain events that had affected their lives.
So, the family received habitation in the castles they visited and were tutored in etiquette and the social graces. The soldiers remained in their prison for years to come.
The beer deliverer in his wagon was also integrated into the court as gratification for his aid in the grabbing of the criminals and now delivered beer to the executive court. He received the name af Färdevagn, of the traveling wagon. He was exceptionally pleased.
Helena saw that the queen was discontented with her life with Gustav and quickly became her confidant. Gustav was very polite to her, but she could never fail to remember her old fiancee.
After the king's death, the queen dowager and royal widow continued to use Helena as a lady-in-waiting and died in her arms in Strömsholms castle 61 years later.
The most amazing careers are born out of sheer chance meetings, where a simple maiden is saved by a helping hand.