Blogging from A-Z April 2018 Challenge

U is for Leonora, Countess Ulfeldt

Leonora Christina, Countess Ulfeldt, born “Countess Leonora Christina Christiansdatter” (8 July 1621 – 16 March 1698), was the daughter of King Christian IV of Denmark and Kirstine Munk. Leonora Christina’s autobiography, Jammersminde (Memory of Woe, published 1869) shows a psychological and social realism unusual in the writings of 17th century noblewomen. Now regarded as a classic of Danish literature, it explores her prison years in detailed and vivid prose, recounting her crises, confrontations, humiliations, self-discipline, growing religious faith and serenity, together with descriptions of hardships she endured or overcame. The work still commands popular interest, scholarly respect, and has virtually become the stuff of legend as retold and enlivened in Danish literature and art.

Leonora Christina’s marriage to Corfits Ulfeldt, prime minister of Denmark until the death of Christian IV in 1648, led to the accusation of her being involved in her husband’s treason. First exiled, then confined to the Blue Tower from 1663 to 1685, Leonora Christina lived only 12 years after her release.

Countess Ulfeldt also wrote an account of her happy youth, Den Franscke Selvbiografi (The French Autobiography), completed in 1673 and smuggled out of the Blue Tower. It was intended to be included in Otto Sperling the Younger’s De Foeminis Doctis (On Learned Women) which was never published. In a compilation of biographical sketches of female regents, Heltinders Pryd (The Ornaments of Heroines, 1684), Leonora describes the combative, faithful and virtuous, and steadfast heroines whose struggles left role models for the future. Due to this work, some later literary and political critics see Leonora as a proto-feminist. Kristian Zahrtmann (1843-1917) has memorialized her story in a series of 18 monumental paintings, the first of which was shown in 1871. These paintings were later included as illustrations in an 1890 edition of Jammersminde, and released as individual prints in 1907.

Only recently have scholars focused on less positive aspects of the Countess’s personality: arrogance, stubbornness, blind devotion to an unworthy husband, and a disingenuous cleverness revealing itself as a tendency toward self-absorption and self-absolution that somehow never casts her in a negative light. For all these flaws, real or imagined, the saga of the prisoner of the Blue Tower — the fall of a mighty woman and her rise from despair to an even greater intellectual and spiritual might, as told against the backdrop of Europe during the Reformation — remains deeply compelling.

Through her son Count Leo Ulfeldt (1651-1716), an Austrian soldier, her descendants not only include some of the most influential German and Slavic noble families of Europe, but also: King Simeon II of the Bulgarians (born 1937), King Michael of Romania (born 1921), Prince Hans Adam II of Liechtenstein (born 1945), Emperor Karl I of Austria-Hungary (1887-1922), King Peter II of Yugoslavia (1923-1970), King Manuel II of Portugal (1889-1932), King Frederick Augustus III of Saxony (1865-1932), Marie Christine, Princess Michael of Kent, (born 1945), Christoph, Cardinal von Schönborn (born 1945), Maximilian, Duke of Hohenberg (1902-1962), Johannes, Prince of Thurn and Taxis (1926-1990), and the Earls of Clanwilliam.

Also notable among her descendants is Isabelle, comtesse de Paris (1911-2003), whose life, aside from imprisonment, resembled Leonora Christina’s in several respects: Daughter of a morganatic union, she lived in exile with and remained staunchly faithful to a faithless husband, signed away valuable property for his sake, wrote biographies of historically significant women, and penned a memoir (Tout m’est Bonheur, 1978) that celebrated life’s blessings in the face of life’s travails.

 

Ulfeldt, Leonora Christina, 1621–1698. Memoirs of Leonora Christina, daughter of Christian IV of Denmark written during her imprisonment in the Blue Tower at Copenhagen, 1663-1685. Translated by F. E. Burnett. Dutton, 1929.

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