Karin Bengtsdotter was Abbess at Vadstena Convent during the Reformation.
Karin Bengtsdotter was born around 1520 into the noble Gylta family. Her parents were nobleman Bengt Pedersson (Gylta), who died in 1520, and Brita Bengtsdotter (Lillie), who died in 1560. Their family seat was Påtorp Estate in the province of Västergötland. The family had previous connections with Vadstena Convent. Several of Karin Bengtsdotter’s relatives had become nuns and monks there, among them her paternal grandfather Peder Bengtsson, who died in the convent in 1527, and her paternal aunt Ingegerd Pedersdotter, who was a nun in the Convent from 1507 until her death in 1569.
Karin Bengtsdotter was well-educated and is said to have been able to write Latin as well as she did Swedish. The earliest letter from her is dated 1547 when she responded to one of her brothers who had sent gifts to the nuns at Vadstena.
Karin Bengtsdotter was elected Abbess in 1553, taking over the post after Margareta Nilsdotter. With the exception of a brief break in 1564—1565, she held the post right up until her death in 1593. She was the Abbess at Vadstena during a very turbulent time for the Convent, and also for a total of 42 years, which means that she is the person to have held that post for the longest time in the history of the Convent.
The Convent had been affected in several ways by the reformatory changes when Karin Bengtsdotter was elected as Abbess. Material property had been confiscated and the Convent’s economic provision lay in the hands of the governing powers. The Convent became at that point dependent upon the economic support of the Crown for its survival, after having lived off the rents from a number of estates until the Reformation. In addition, the monks’ section of the Convent had been closed down in about 1550.
Since the 1540s, the regime was that the governing powers gave orders to the royal bailiffs to provide the nuns annually with all the necessities they required. This system did not always work well. Karin Bengtsdotter often had reason to write to the King to draw his attention to the fact that the bailiffs refused to deliver the supplies needed. Besides, according to Karin Bengtsdotter it was not unusual for the bailiffs to reduce the quantities of materials in the deliveries. By the mid-1550s, the situation was untenable. Karin Bengtsdotter then demanded to receive a sealed envelope from the King, in which the rights held by the Convent should be clearly set out. The Abbess’s pressure induced the King to send out an open letter to the bailiffs in which the Convent’s rights were clearly stipulated. However, the problems with the bailiffs’ lack of interest in the Convent’s foodstuffs delivery nevertheless continued during the coming decades.
The Convent’s situation was hardly improved by its being ravaged by the Danes in 1567 during the seven-year Nordic war. The year after, Karin Bengtsdotter was exhorted by King Erik XIV to take responsibility for an espionage operation aimed at the nearby Danish field camp. If the Abbess and her Convent were willing to assist the King, they would not go unrewarded but were promised an increased allowance from the Crown. It is not known whether or not Karin Bengtsdotter ever put the King’s plans into practice.
When Johan III took over government power in 1568, Karin Bengtsdotter had good reason to hope for the renewal of current conditions. Included in Johan III’s Catholic restoration politics for the church was a new investment in the remaining convents in the kingdom, among which Vadstena occupied a special position. Both the King and his Catholic Queen, Katarina Jagellonica, nourished their good relationship to the Abbess. Later narrative sources, especially Johannes Messenius’ chronicles, relate that Johan III is often said to have carried on conversations with Karin Bengtsdotter. When she had difficulty in walking on account of her age, “he offered her his arm and led her round the Convent gardens”. On one occasion, the King is said to have asked the aged Abbess if the younger sisters in the Convent were ever beset by earthly love. Karin Bengtsdotter is then said to have replied that such things could certainly occur, but that in such cases one had to drive away those desires with prayer and fasting. After that she is supposed to have pointed at a bird and explained that one could of course not refuse the bird the right to fly over the Convent, but it was possible to stop it from building its nest in the Convent garden.
In 1580, the Convent was visited by the Jesuit Antonio Possevino, a sign that it had been reformed in accordance with the guidelines of the Council of Trent (1545—1563). Up until that time, the Convent had functioned within the framework of the Lutheran church, at least partially. Karin Bengtsdotter had herself to take the oath of the Council of Trent, Professio fidei Tridentina, that included the promise to be loyal to the hierarchy and interpretation of beliefs of the Catholic Church.
At that time, a renovation of the Convent also took place. It included new artistic decoration of the Convent building to which belonged decorative paintings above the doors of two cells. Over the first is a so-called six-petalled rose painted inside a square. At the top of the square are the initials K and B and in the lower right-hand corner are the letters B and A, which together have been interpreted as “Karin Bengtsdotter Abbatissa”, indicating that this was the entrance to the Abbess’s own cell.
In 1575, Vadstena Convent received permission from the King to accept new members, which led to the number of nuns towards the end of the 1570s increasing from eight to eighteen. As the number of nuns grew, so the annual government allowance was increased. Karin Bengtsdotter was however careful to defend the Convent’s economic interests even under these more favourable conditions for the Convent. When in 1578 the Convent regained some of its old estates but at the same time had to suffer the curtailment of the grain allowance from a few jurisdictional districts, Karin Bengtsdotter wrote to Nils Hansson Brask, who was the mayor of Stockholm and also a Catholic. She reported that she and her sisters were glad about the renewal of the old economic contributions, but harboured anxiety and sorrow over the reduction in the annual grain allowance previously enjoyed by the Convent. After she had argued that a further ten royal estates should be included in the allowance, the King assented to her demand. Karin Bengtsdotter also succeeded in acquiring certain other privileges for the Convent, among them pastures for livestock and fishing rights, which led to complaints from citizens and administrators in Vadstena.
Despite the new investments that had been made in the Convent under the reign of Johan III, Karin Bengtsdotter expressed at the same time her anxiety over church developments in Sweden, in a letter to Pope Gregory XIII from 15 March 1580. She related that thirty years had passed since all the monks and almost all the priests had been sent away from the Convent. They had been plagued by both Danish enemies and harassment by their own local people since then. The Convent had suffered the theft of possessions, been set on fire and also been defamed by “heretical” priests. She was of course grateful over Antonio Possevino’s opportunity to visit the Convent, and she established that the relics of Saint Birgitta and her daughter Katarina were still in safe-keeping there “in some divine way”. However, she was oppressed by the fact that there were only two Catholic priests remaining in the Convent, both of whom were elderly.
These two Catholic priests were the old and frail Hans Magni, previously the vicar of Häradshammar, and Hans Pauli, previously a monk in the Convent. According to Possevino, the nuns preferred the frail Hans Magni. The reason that they did not want the Bridgettine monk Hans Pauli as their counsellor was explained by Karin Bengtsdotter herself in a letter to Nils Hansson Brask in 1578. In it, she stated that Hans Pauli had spread out untruthful rumours at Court about the Convent, asserting that she herself and the sisters were an ungodly and damned congregation and that all the sisters who so wished were allowed to leave and enter the Convent as they wanted. According to Karin Bengtsdotter, these rumours were completely unfounded, but on the other hand, Hans Pauli had been very difficult. Since he refused to share a cottage with Hans Magni, they had had to build a separate cottage for him. Another reason for Karin Bengtsdotter’s irritation over Hans Pauli may possibly be found in Vadstena town’s annals in which it is told that Hans Pauli had held drunken parties with some young schoolboys.
Karin Bengtsdotter battled until her death for the Convent’s right to annual provisioning by the Crown. One illustration of the Convent’s harsh social and economic situation is provided by a letter during her final year of life, in May 1592, in which Karin Bengtsdotter thanked the royal secretary Nils Jönsson for the wine and herring that he had sent to the Convent, and begged him to convey to Duke Karl that the Convent desired a further four barrels of herring and a pair of oxen. The Convent had, according to Karin Bengtsdotter, suffered great need during the winter. As thanks, the Abbess sent pear jam and cherries in a tin bottle as well as a pair of thick mittens.
Karin Bengtsdotter probably died at the beginning of 1593. In June the same year, we know that leadership of the Convent had been taken over by Karin (Katarina) Olofsdotter who was ordained as the last ever Abbess of Vadstena Convent in early modern times. The Convent was closed down by the governing powers in December 1595.