Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna was a member of the upper nobility who exerted significant political power during her lifetime. To posterity she is largely remembered as the defender of Stockholm around the time that King Christian II of the Kalmar Union attempted to conquer the city in 1520.
Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna was probably born in 1494. Her mother was Sigrid Eskilsdotter (Banér) and her father was Nils Eriksson Gyllenstierna. Her place of birth is unknown but both Lindholmen in Orkesta parish and Venngarn have been proposed as likely locations. Both farms were owned by the family which later became known by the name Banér. Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna had two brothers, Erik and Eskil Nilsson. Through her parents she was a member of the Swedish ruling elite.
When Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna was a young woman she – like other young women of the nobility – served as a pawn in the political games of her era. Her choice of husband, the number of children she would have, and the role she played within the establishment were all of great importance. In the early 1500s she became engaged to a knight called Nils Gädda. Upon his death in 1508 she then became engaged to his nephew Sten Svantesson, who later became known as Sten Sture den yngre (the younger).
Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna and Sten Svantesson were practically the same age. Her future husband had been prepared to enter politics from a young age. He had been involved in diplomatic travels, had participated in negotiations, and had accompanied his father, regent Svante Nilsson, in the field. In 1511, when Sten Svantesson was 18 years old, he became governor of Västergötland. That same year he and Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna got married. Svante Nilsson died at the turn of the year 1512–1513 and Sten Svantesson put his plans to succeed his father in motion. He changed his name to Sten Sture den yngre and initiated a harsh political campaign in order to achieve his goal. In July that year he was elected regent. Given that the regent ruled the kingdom when the king was absent this placed Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna in the very heart of the centre of power. As far as can be judged this was a position which suited her.
Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna produced five children in the period of 1512–1518, three daughters and two sons. The daughters died while still young but the two sons survived into adulthood. By 1520 Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna was pregnant again even though her husband was frequently absent from their home at Stockholm castle. King Christian II then began his third attack on Sweden in his attempt to conquer the kingdom. The king and Sten Sture met in battle in January 1520 near Bogesund (now known as Ulricehamn) where Sten Sture was hit by a cannon ball and suffered serious injuries. He died en route back to Stockholm and Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna had to bury her husband. She gave birth to a son, whose name is unknown, who also died and was buried beside his father. As King Christian II approached Stockholm Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna took on responsibility for the city’s defence and ordered that it be held in the face of attack.
Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna considered her options. Although she had the support of the city inhabitants she needed help. She would not be able to hold out against King Christian for ever. Large sections of Sweden had already fallen to him. She did her best to arouse rebellion in the countryside and sent Peder Jakobsson (Sunnanväder), an experienced counsellor and chancellor, to Danzig in search of allies. Her eldest son Nils – the heir apparent – was also sent on this journey in the hopes that he could be placed in safety there. King Christian II arrived in Stockholm in May 1520 and Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna successfully held out until September. She capitulated on 5 September against a guarantee of amnesty and the retention of certain properties, including Tavastehus county. Two days later she opened the city gates to Christian II.
The king’s entry into the city, his coronation, and the ensuing trial which resulted in the so-called ‘Stockholm bloodbath’ are all well-known events in Swedish history. Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna quickly learned that the Danish king’s promises were worth nothing. His coronation took place on 4 November and the solemnities were followed by interrogations and judgements on the congregated Swedish nobility. Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna lead the appeal to the king herself but it was in vain. All who had opposed the archbishop Gustav Trolle and Christian II were declared traitors and she was considered to be an inciter to rebellion and thus condemned to death. Both of her brothers were killed and she too would certainly have been executed if she had been a man. The bodies of her husband and newborn son were dug up and burnt whilst she was imprisoned. Initially she was held in Stockholm, later in Copenhagen, and finally in Kalundborg. She was taken to these places along with her daughters, her mother Sigrid, and her half-sister Cecilia and her daughter Emerantia. Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna’s 5-year old daughter Magdalena, Cecilia, and Emerantia all died during their imprisonment. Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna was released in 1523 whilst her mother Sigrid was freed in 1524.
A stubborn rumour arose at this time that the Danish naval officer Sören Norby and the now 30-year old Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna intended to marry. They would both benefit from such a union: Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna would have support in securing power for herself in Sweden, and for her son Nils in the long run. Sören would gain a far wider power-base than the one he already had and would eventually become regent of Sweden. The newly-established Swedish king Gustav I Vasa was determined that no such marriage would take place given that it would seriously threaten his own position. Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna returned to Sweden in January 1524 and was initially housed at Kalmar castle. There she met her son Nils before travelling onto Linköping. Gustav I Vasa made sure to keep Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna close to him and thus scuppered any potential marriage plans. She had the last word on the subject: she and the king were both at Vadstena at Christmastime in 1525 when she sent a letter to a relative in Denmark. In this letter she denied that she had accepted any marriage proposal from Sören Norby and asked her relative to inform Sören of her position.
One year later, whilst celebrating Christmas in Uppsala in 1525, Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna became engaged to Johan Turesson (Tre rosor), a cousin of King Gustav I Vasa. The engagement occurred at the king’s behest and should be seen as part of his plan to put an end to Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna’s political ambitions. Johan was loyal to the king and the wedding took place in 1527. The couple had a single child, a son called Gustav Turesson, in 1531.
It is very probable that Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna hoped that her eldest son Nils would embark on his own political career and potentially become king of Sweden. Subsequent researchers imply that Nils Sture is identical to a man called Daljunkern, a rebel who incited the people of Dalarna against King Gustav I Vasa in 1527. This so-called ‘Daljunker’ (the name is a retrospective construction) claimed that he was Nils himself. He suffered an unhappy fate and was executed in Rostock in 1528 following the receipt of a letter from Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna in which she denied that he was her son and wrote that the imposter should suffer his punishment. The letter was, however, written at Gustav I Vasa’s insistence.
As the Swedish king had hoped, Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna’s second marriage placed great limits on her political ambitions. Her power-base was reduced when her son Nils disappeared from the scene, whilst her son Svante displayed no inclination towards power politics and her infant son Gustav was no Sture and posed no threat to the king. Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna’s second husband was appointed chieftain of Nyköpingshus and it is reasonable to assume that she spent the majority of her time there following her withdrawal from the political scene. She and her family also spent time at Hörningsholm in Södermanland. Here she for a long time was responsible for Gustav I Vasa’s own children when he became a widower.
Kristina Nilsdotter Gyllenstierna died on 5 January 1559 at Hörningsholm. Although her cause of death is unknown, she was 65 years old which was a remarkable age to achieve during the 1500s. She was buried in Trosa church. The crypt was completely destroyed by fire in 1773.
A contemporary image of Kristina and Sten Sture den yngre survives on an altar piece in Västerås cathedral, in which they are portrayed kneeling in prayer. This altar piece was produced in Antwerp and dates from 1516 and was donated to the church by the couple. At Stockholm castle you can see Theodor Lundberg’s statue of Kristina, in which she is portrayed as the defender of the city.