Leonora Christina – hero or villain?

You’d have to be blind to miss the recent influx of female-led Danish dramas that are filling our homes of late. Obviously there’s The Killing (Forbrydelsen), The Bridge (Broen) and a current favourite in my homeland at the moment, Borgen.

The social status of women in Danish society has been on the rise for the past 40 years and shows no signs of slowing down. With Helle Thorning-Schmidt as the country’s first female head of state, it seems that Denmark continues to stand out in the landscape of equality, and this subtle combination of powerful women – both in fact and fiction – is turning heads across the globe.

But there is another Danish woman whose story I have become preoccupied with recently. Her name is Leonora Christina, and she died 315 years ago.

Leonora was the daughter of one of Denmark’s most beloved kings, Christian IV. Though not directly inline to inherit the throne, she believed that she was destined to follow in her father’s footsteps instead of her half-brother, Prince Frederik. After the king’s death, and despite using a range of underhand tactics, Leonora was unsuccessful in her attempts to be named Queen and instead fled to Sweden with her husband, Corfitz Ulfeldt – along with a boat-load of cash that they’d ‘borrowed’ from the state.

With their newly acquired funds, Leonora and Corfitz attempted to buy new, powerful friends, and persuade them to start a fresh war against Denmark. Luckily for them the Swedish king, Karl Gustaf X, liked their idea, and off they all went to war. Remarkably, their army of one thousand soldiers marched from Germany to Sjælland over the frozen waters that linked the country’s islands. Each evening, when temperatures were at their lowest and the army’s movements concealed, they carefully made their way over the creaking and cracking ice – aware that at any moment they could be swallowed up by the deep, dark waters below. Despite her fear, Leonora describes this moment in her life as one of the happiest. She couldn’t wait to see the look on her brother’s face when they arrived.

King Frederik III was forced to surrender at Roskilde, and Leonora and Corfitz once more found themselves living like royalty. But it wasn’t to last. When Karl Gustaf decided to march on Copenhagen, the pair feared that all would be lost and decided to lead the Danish people against him. In one fell swoop, the power-hungry couple now had two powerful enemies at their heals – and a death sentence over Corfitz’s head.

They spent the next few years on the run and found themselves eluding their pursuers in a manner of different disguises. One of Leonora’s disguises was so efficient (she often dressed as a man) that she had to fight off the amorous affections of a barmaid. Like a modern day ‘Catch me if you can,’ Corfitz and Leonora bounced around Europe, liaising with many undesirables and many of Denmark’s enemies.

Running low on cash, Leonora made one last effort to save herself and her beloved husband, by making a trip to England to visit her cousin, King Charles II. Charles owed Leonora lots of money and when she arrived in London he was good enough to entertain his guest and to dine with her. But as she boarded the ship to come home he had her arrested and by the time she arrived at Copenhagen harbour, a large crowd had gathered to watch the king’s daughter’s not-so-noble return. She was given a choice: grass up her husband and confess to being a traitor to Denmark, or spend the rest of her life in a tiny prison cell made of stone, with no windows, plenty of fleas and rats, and the constant smell of bodily fluids. She chose the latter.

Over the next 22 years, Leonora was held prisoner in the country’s infamous Blue Tower, without charge or trial. She was treated harshly at the hands of her captors and often became the object of a zoo-like procedure, whereby folk would come and look at her behind bars. The king’s daughter; in rags, and with dirty hair, skin and nails. Over time, her thirst for revenge receded, along with her wish for death, and she succeeded in secretly writing notes on her life, thoughts and adventures. When her brother and his queen eventually died, Leonora was set free and went to live out her days in a monastery. She finished her memoirs – considered to be the first literature written in Danish – and died 12 years later.

In 1869 Jammers Minde was officially published for the first time and is now considered to be a classic of 17th century literature.

There is so much more of Leonora’s story to tell but not enough time to tell it here. I hope at least that I’ve managed to whet your appetite a little with this brief blurb.



5 thoughts on “Leonora Christina – hero or villain?

  1. When the manuscript turned up in 1867 after beeing lost for almost 200 years it was a literary sensation..Well written and lucid it is well worth a read..It is available in english,the english title beeing “Memoirs of my Wretchedness”..

  2. actually there are a number of different tanslations into english utilising different titles…so take your pick..

  3. Hi Martin. I was actually wanting to get hold of an English copy. Any ideas where I might find one?

  4. Thanks for the story! I have to read “Leonora Christina” in Danish for my module test. Is not easy for me to read it but now that I know the story, I can understand more. So, tak for din hjelp.

  5. Hi Oana. I too have been reading the story for the language module. It took me at least three attempts to read it, but each time it gets clearer. Good luck with it all. I hope you pass with flying colours.

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