Princess Cecilia Vasa is the best-known and most famous of Gustav Vasa and Margareta Leijonhufvud’s five daughters.
Cecilia Vasa, like her sisters, had a caring childhood, which was intended to prepare her for her future as the wife of a foreign prince. It was hoped that all the princesses’ marriages would serve as useful political alliances which would strengthen the regal legitimacy of the Vasa dynasty. Gustav Vasa also gave his daughters an ambassadorial role; they should make their marriages work to Sweden’s advantage. Cecilia was just a young teenager when the Vasa court initiated the first marriage negotiations during the mid-1550s.
Negotiations were also ongoing for a marriage between Cecilia Vasa and a German count palatine when the so-called Vadstenabullret (the Vadstena rumble) occurred in December 1559. Cecilia’s older sister Katarina had married Edzard of East Frisia in the autumn of that year and was en route to her Germany territory. After a lot of persuasion, Cecilia had been allowed to accompany the party on their travels through Sweden. The retinue included Duke Erik and Edzard’s younger brother Johan. In mid-December the entire company stayed at Vadstena castle, where Johan of East Frisia was caught red-handed “with his trousers round his ankles” in Cecilia’s bedroom. This led to a gruelling family feud between an aging Gustav Vasa, who was furious with the two East Frisian counts, and his children. Katarina was in trouble for not having kept her sister in check, Cecilia was to be punished for not having behaved in a manner befitting a royal, and Erik was to be scolded for not having dealt with the entire situation in a discreet way and instead having allowed his sister to be the subject of a “disreputable rumour”. The feud was resolved by Johan of East Frisia being made to swear an oath that nothing untoward had taken place and by arranging for the German count palatine to marry Cecilia’s younger sister Anna instead.
Marriage negotiations for Cecilia continued during Erik XIV’s rule and were closely connected both to the king’s foreign policy and his own marriage plans. Out of the candidates available to her Cecilia appears to have been most interested in marrying an English count. This would have given her the option of moving to England and meeting Queen Elizabeth I, who had become a significant role model for her and with whom she was in correspondence. Erik XIV’s hopes were that if Cecilia were in Queen Elizabeth’s vicinity, she could persuade her to except his proposal. In the end, Cecilia never got her English count and Erik never got his English queen. Despite all the planning, Cecilia ended up marrying the younger brother of the ruling margrave of Baden-Baden, Christopher of Baden-Rodermachern, in 1564. As he had only inherited a small part of his county he, like many other German princes in similar situations, had sought and undertaken military service as a colonel in Erik XIV’s army a few years earlier.
At this time Cecilia’s brother Duke Johan and his wife Katarina Jagellonica were imprisoned at Gripsholm castle as Johan had married the Polish princess not only Erik’s will but also in opposition to the king’s political plans. Cecilia was on Johan’s side in the sibling feud. When she and her husband left Sweden in the autumn of 1564 she approached several powers on the continent seeking support in getting her brother and his wife released. Erik ordered his governor in Reval to keep an eye on Cecilia knowing “that she favours Johan over us”. At the same time Erik needed Cecilia’s help. As a result of being dragged into the Nordic Seven Year War Sweden had become locked in the Baltic Sea. Cecilia’s task was partly to re-initiate Erik’s marriage negotiations with Queen Elizabeth I and partly to obtain English pirates that could be hired for use in the ongoing war.
In the autumn of 1565 Cecilia arrived in England where she was well-received by the English queen. They got on well together and the princess made a good impression at the English court. She was lauded both for her “appearance and elegance and for her grace and ease in speaking English”. Once she was established in England Cecilia undertook various negotiations, including some on her own behalf. She continued to work for Johan’s release and involved the English queen in the matter. Cecilia also negotiated with the Spanish ambassador to the English court as her and her husband’s county was vulnerable to movements by the Spanish empire. This interaction with the Spaniards gave rise to great suspicion at the English court. Further, she and her husband were heavily in debt when they arrived in England. Their extravagant lifestyle and continually increasing debts finally made their situation untenable. In the spring of 1566 the couple chose to return to Baden-Rodermachern but on their departure all their belongings were confiscated by their English lenders.
The couple then spent a few years living in their county. Cecilia made early attempts at convincing her brother, now king Johan III, to allow her to return to Sweden with her family. They remained in deep debt, their property was in pawn and Spanish troops were harrying nearby. In the late summer of 1571 Cecilia returned to Sweden with her family. She still had some of her 100,000 daler dowry left to use. On arrival in Sweden she received Skenäs royal estate in Östergötland and Arboga town with its royal estate in fief, where she more or less became Johan III’s governor. She engaged herself in a comprehensive business enterprise of trade and mining. She also gained the right to licence privateers in the Baltic Sea, primarily in order to disrupt English trade with Russia, with whom Sweden was at war at this point. Cecilia’s entrepreneurism, which also included the illegal export of grain, weapons and oak, gave rise to conflicts with not only her brother but also the Danish king. Despite this, in the same period, she was also given extended powers in her fiefs which implies that Johan III had no qualms about her competency as governor. The issue was rather that Cecilia’s behaviour questioned Johan III’s authority as king.
Johan III sought to find a position for his sister as governor somewhere within the Spanish dominion as women had previously been appointed to that position. When Cecilia became a widow in 1575 her properties were taken over by her dead husband’s German relatives. In order to safeguard her family’s interests on the continent Cecilia negotiated with representatives of the Catholic powers in Europe, including the papal envoy Possevino. It seems likely that Cecilia converted to the Catholic faith around the time of Possevino’s visit to Sweden in the winter of 1577. When the Spanish envoy de Eraso arrived at the Swedish court in the following summer in order to negotiate an alliance between the states Cecilia immediately made contact with him. She kept him informed of political developments in Sweden and offered to send weapons to the Spanish king. Cecilia’s contacts with de Eraso did not improve her relations with the Protestant German Duke Karl. Her negotiations with the envoy even caused Johan III to distrust her. Finally the king forbade his sister and de Eraso from contacting each other, but Cecilia was able to work around this in July 1579.
Shortly thereafter she left Sweden, accompanied by her sons, in an attempt to regain her family’s lands and properties. The inheritance dispute with Christopher’s relatives was drawn out. She had to approach many different policy makers across Europe. Johan III also sent letters in support of Cecilia’s quest to regain her family’s properties. Although several judgements and letters of protection were produced in her favour the decisions were never put into practise.
Cecilia initially had some income from her Swedish fiefs but these were withdrawn in the mid-1580s, possibly in reaction to her views on Johan’s marriage to the aristocratic Gunilla Bielke. At the end of the 1580s Cecilia’s family’s situation eased somewhat as her eldest son Edvard Fortunatus inherited the entire county of Baden-Baden from a childless cousin. They also got some help from Cecilia’s nephew Sigismund in Poland, with whom Cecilia retained contact. But her eldest son also lived beyond his means and broke the inheritance agreement that had been made with his younger brothers. Cecilia was also dragged into the squabble, which eventually gave rise to an inheritance feud between Cecilia and her sons.
By the mid-1590s Baden-Baden was being occupied by a Protestant branch of the family. Cecilia once again, and at an advanced age, had to travel from country to country in order to continue her fight for her own and her family’s rights. In 1613 she raised the question of her family’s occupied county and the release of her son Philip (who had been imprisoned after trying to forcibly regain the family’s land) at the parliament in Regensburg but it was to no avail. Five years later, aged 78, Cecilia was dramatically forced to flee in order to present the archbishop of Trier with her complaints regarding how her family property had been handled.
Cecilia outlived all her sons, but still had the company of her two grandsons and her daughter Charitas. Charitas, who had been born in 1579 or 1580, had been placed in a nunnery against Cecilia’s will and for many years the two had been prevented from making contact. However, toward the end of her life Cecilia re-initiated contact with Charitas. She also lived to see her eldest grandson regain the family lands at the start of the Thirty Years’ War.
Princess Cecilia died in Brussels in 1627, aged 87. She is buried in the church in Rodermachern.