Elisabet of Braunschweig-Lüneburg was an unhappily married noblewoman who refused to accompany her husband when he was exiled and fought for her own and her daughter’s rights.
Elisabet was born in the duchy of Braunschweig in the German Holy Roman Empire. She was the eldest child of Duke Otto II of Braunschweig-Lüneburg and his wife Margareta of Schwartzburg-Leutenburg. On 24 June 1582 Elisabet married the Swedish Count Erik Brahe. This union had apparently been negotiated during the count’s many travels to the Continent and the wedding took place at the bride’s father’s castle of Harburg. Although it was a good match in social and financial terms, with regard to personal relations between the couple it was a disaster. Erik Brahe openly entertained lovers. The couple had one child together, a daughter named Beata Margareta Brahe, born barely nine months after the wedding. Erik’s conversion to Catholicism in 1591 only further muddied the waters for his Protestant wife. Several letters dating from the 1590s have survived in which Elisabet complains to her family in Germany about her husband’s behaviour.
Towards the end of the 1590s a minor civil war broke out in Sweden between the Catholic king, Sigismund, and his paternal uncle, Duke Karl (later King Karl IX). Erik Brahe found himself in Sigismund’s camp at the decisive battle of Stångebro in the autumn of 1598. Despite successfully obtaining the duke’s pardon in the following spring Erik Brahe never again felt safe in Sweden. In the autumn of 1600 he quietly slipped out of the kingdom never to return. A few months later Duke Karl declared Erik Brahe to be a traitor who had forfeited his life and all his properties lying within the Swedish kingdom.
Elisabet of Braunschweig-Lüneburg had no intentions of accompanying her husband into exile. She and her then teenaged daughter remained at Visingsborg, the centre of Erik Brahe’s county. Duke Karl was apparently unconcerned about her personal situation when he issued a letter in December 1605 which transferred Visingsborg county into the hands of Erik Brahe’s younger brother, Magnus. This set the scene for a conflict surrounding who was entitled to the county.
Elisabet’s position as the wife of an exiled count was ambiguous. An official divorce would have been a disgrace and so there was no question of that. She herself felt that as long as Erik Brahe remained alive she was still married to him and thus retained all the rights pertaining to her status as his wife. This included the right to live at and manage her husband’s property in his absence – which was something she had often previously had to do during their marriage. However, the implied understanding here was that the husband was expected to return at some point, in direct contrast to the exiled Erik Brahe’s position.
Magnus Brahe, with the support of Duke Karl’s letter, felt that Elisabet should instead be viewed as a widow. A widow should live off of her “morning gift” – a traditional wedding present from her husband – namely the property which her husband had given his bride on their wedding day for her use should he die before her. In Elisabet’s case this property was the Lindholm estate and its associated land in Uppland. Everything was further complicated by the fact that Visingsborg was in fact a county – a type of landownership created during the 1560s which was subject to different kinds of inheritance rules from other properties. It was actually the couple’s daughter, Beata, who was Erik’s universal heir, but according to the specific privileges the county was to be inherited whole by the eldest male heir and thus was inaccessible to any female heirs. According to the principles of tradition Elisabet should have been entitled to keep the property but, according to the rules of primogeniture which applied to the county and the letter from Duke Karl, Magnus Brahe was entitled to take over the same property.
Elisabet stood her ground. Magnus Brahe’s younger brother, Abraham Brahe, Magnus’ wife Brita Leijonhufvud, and Brita’s sister Elisabet Leijonhufvud were all pressed into service to persuade Elisabet to move of her own free will, but she refused to give in and leave her home. There were no legal institutions which members of the aristocracy could turn to when disputes such as these arose and Magnus Brahe was not keen to turn to violence. Her noble ancestry meant that she could not simply be done away with “like any old spinster”.
Finally the Brahe brothers enlisted the help of Dowager Queen Katarina. In an attempt to convince her to help them Magnus Brahe told the dowager queen that Elisabet was neglecting the county. He claimed that she had ruined the gardens, wasted the interest on her oversized “unnecessary retinue” and had then ridden around the county and imposed herself on her peasants – this behaviour reflected poorly on all her relations by marriage, including the dowager queen. Given Elisabet’s continental background it is indeed possible that she maintained a larger court than other Swedish nobles and it is known that she had brought German servants with her to Sweden, but further to that there is little evidence of the accusations thrown at her.
There is no record of her response to these persuasive tactics but nevertheless, sometime during the spring of 1602 she gave in and she and her daughter moved to the Lindholm estate. This property was in a poor state when she moved in and she was forced to seek assistance in the form of seed from Abraham Brahe during the first years. Abraham further helped her to regain items which Erik Brahe had pawned. Her situation improved somewhat in the autumn of 1603 when Duke Karl returned to her some lands close to Lindholm which had formerly been held by Erik. Although she does not seem to have suffered any direct form of hardship she did not enjoy the same financial benefits which Visingsborg county had given her.
After her move to Lindholm Elisabet of Braunschweig-Lüneburg continued to fight the Brahe family regarding other lands to which she felt that both she and her daughter were entitled and in the summer of 1605 one of her brothers arrived in Stockholm in a bid to help her resolve the issues. Elisabet nevertheless carried on socialising with the Brahe family, at least on formal occasions such as the baptism of Abraham’s sons in the winter of 1606.
Following her daughter’s marriage in the autumn of 1607 to her father’s cousin, Gustaf Eriksson Stenbock, traces of Elisabet’s activities become increasingly sparse. Apparently she made intermittent visits to her siblings in Germany. There is also some surviving correspondence with Erik Brahe, but when he expressed a hope in the summer of 1613 that they might reunite she refused him point blank. Less than a year later Erik was dead and Elisabet was finally a bonafide widow.
Elisabet of Braunschweig-Lüneburg died in her childhood home in Harburg in 1618. Beata had her mother’s body transported to Sweden where, in 1619, she was buried in Länghem parish church, close to where her daughter and son-in-law lived at Torpa in Västergötland.